You Don’t Want to Visit Machu Picchu
In elementary school, my class did a unit on the Seven New Wonders of the World. My imagination was captured by Machu Picchu — maybe it was the unmistakably foreign sound of the name, or the impression of ancientness my teacher imparted, or how the terraced slopes felt like an echo of the elusive Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Fifteen-odd years later I found myself in Peru, and these vague childhood memories made Machu Picchu feel like a real bucket-list item. And why wouldn’t it be? An ancient Inca palace nestled in the mountains over the Sacred Valley, a World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of the world. I read everything I could about its history in advance and looked forward to memorizing every known detail about the layout of the place on the site. It was going to be an expensive trip, but wasn’t it worth it to uncover one of the world’s greatest treasures?
No. And I’ll say it again: no. It wasn’t worth it. Here are some of the reasons why.
Cost and Itinerary
In order to get to Machu Picchu, you need to get an advance ticket for one particular day for one particular time slot (no just popping by). Like most people, I started from Cusco and took the train. I didn’t go at a very busy time of year, so it wasn’t a problem getting an entry ticket and a corresponding train ticket (good article covering the logistics of this here) but I’ve heard of people needing to wait for many weeks.
The prices for the entry ticket are high ($70 or $85 if you want to visit one of the nearby mountains) but the train tickets are higher: $140 is the lowest price you’re going to get. As far as I know, the train is the only way to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco unless you hike the Inca Trail, so at the bare minimum your visit costs $210 per person. Practically this is going to be quite a bit higher, as the lowest prices might not be available for your dates, you will need to rent a hotel in Aguas Calientes (the tourist-trap town at the base of Machu Picchu), and so on and so forth. Of course, many people spend more at Disneyland, so the price tag alone isn’t enough to mark this as a waste of time. That comes down to the experience.
The experience was a hair short of hellish. I took the picturesque train ride to Aguas Calientes, wandered through the dizzily touristy town, probably ate some bad Mediterranean food (word of advice: many Peruvian restaurants serve hummus and none of them should). I was very worried that I wouldn’t reach Machu Picchu by my time slot, so I woke up early the next day to make sure I found the right place, and was shocked to find that a huge line had already formed for the bus that runs from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (no, the bus isn’t free).
After long waits in a couple lines, I finally got into Machu Picchu and was excited to start exploring when I found that I was being herded swiftly along by waves of people: I barely had time to look at my map to see where I was walking. The crowds dispersed as I got further into the ruins, but when I tried to go back to see what I’d missed I was strictly reprimanded by guards to keep walking in the same direction, and they didn’t approve of stopping for more than a few seconds to take pictures or take a closer look at things. I’d hoped to get to know Machu Picchu, but what I got instead was a brisk hike down a very scenic and very crowded mountain path. I don’t remember how long I was there, but I think it was less than two hours. Maybe less than one.
Then I had to return to Aguas Calientes so I could ponder the marvels that had flashed before my eyes in my crappy, overpriced hotel room. I wanted to buy some water — at an elevation of 8,000 feet after the exercise of walking around Machu Picchu I was pretty dehydrated — but there weren’t private vendors selling water bottles (as I expected) but a single restaurant selling its wares at jacked-up prices, and the line looked like it would take about an hour. I decided my time would be better spent waiting in the line for the bus back, but by the time I’d reached the end of that line I was almost halfway down the mountain and waiting time was estimated at more than three hours.
I decided to walk back to Aguas Calientes. The road is built on a slope and there are stairs connecting the curves of road so that pedestrians can do just that. I regretted my decision pretty quickly. I was dehydrated, almost lightheaded, and my knees trembled on the very steep narrow downhill steps: I was afraid I was going to lose my balance and fall down the slope into the road. Wherever the footpath intersected with the road, there was a dangerous passage where the margins of the road were very narrow and the buses were turning on blind corners. I did reach Aguas Calientes in one piece (and there were vendors selling water at the bottom of the hill) but when I got back it didn’t feel like I’d done anything of note except risk my life.
Ethics and Safety
I’m not qualified to say what the effects of mass tourism to Machu Picchu on the Peruvian economy, culture, and the site itself are (this link lists pros and cons and this article provides an in-depth analysis). It’s safe to say that the tourism industry surrounding Machu Picchu is, to coin a term, problematic. The high foot traffic and some recent construction projects are causing erosion that could damage the structure, and possibly pose dangers as well.
And there are dangers, even if you’re smart enough to bring water along with you. The most commonly cited refer to altitude sickness, which isn’t a big problem at the site itself but are in Cusco, which stands at an elevation of 11,152 feet. Deadly accidents aren’t very uncommon at Machu Picchu itself (especially on Huayna Picchu, an associated mountain) and there have been a number of deaths on the Inca Trail. It’s not like you’re playing Russian Roulette, but there are risks.
What You Should Do Instead
If you want to spend $300+ to be able to say that you saw Machu Picchu — I get it. It’s a classic bucket list item, and even despite my disillusionment I can’t really say that I’m sorry I have that one crossed off. And I’m sure it is possible to have a nice, life-enriching experience at Machu Picchu.
But for the most part, you’ll probably just be crossing an item off a list and it will cost you a great deal of money and hassle.
But there are wonderful things to see in Peru that provide, in my opinion, a much more rewarding experience.
My favorite is Saqsaywaman overlooking Cusco. It’s everything I wanted Machu Picchu to be. I visited twice because I couldn’t get enough. It’s within walking distance of the city (be prepared to climb) or you can take a taxi to the entrance. You can buy a ticket as you come in; the price is around $20. But then you can spend as much time as you like freely exploring really a really magnificent huge complex of ruins in relative peace. There is something really special and peaceful about this place, which predates the Incas (it was built by the Killke people) and Inti Raymi and other Incan festivals are still celebrated here.
Another ruin near Cusco is the Temple of the Moon or Salumpunku, also walkable. As far as I remember there is no entrance fee; the ruins are simply, unofficially, there. They aren’t as monumental as those of Saqsaywaman, but they are worth a good hour’s exploring. There are a number of Incan ruins like these sprinkled around Cusco: seeing them all would be a challenge, but a rewarding one!
Also in the Sacred Valley are the ruins of an Inca fortress at Ollantaytambo. These are smaller, but still very impressive, and they make for a worthwhile weekend trip from Cusco.
Of course, Peru is a large country with an impressive history and there are many, many wonderful sites to see. Machu Picchu is one of them, but it’s unlikely it will be your favorite one. I’d encourage travelers to Peru to worry less about getting that obligatory Machu Picchu selfie and to explore other historical sites instead.