Every traveler’s dream is someday to reach the top of the Inca World and marvel at its majestic proportions and ancient mysteries. It’s our Number One Peruvian destination too, and after Lake Titicaca it’s time to go to Machu Picchu. There are a few ways to get to the site once you arrive in Cuzco, and the journey to The Lost City of the Incas is in itself an extraordinary experience of epic proportions, especially if you choose the cheapest option, which does not include a train.
We arrive in Cuzco after another painful overnight bus ride from Puno, and are lucky to find an extremely clean and very cheap hostel room with two double beds and a private bathroom with hot water for $15.00 per night (for three people). If you are looking for a nice place owned by a humble welcoming family, and are willing to walk about 20-30 minutes to the historical downtown part of the city, where you will never find such a clean hostel at such price, then remember this one: Hostal Luve, not far from the bus terminal.
From the hostel, we walk on the main street, past a few money exchange bureaus where we buy Sols- the Peruvian currency, and past the large indoors crafts market, where, after an impressive bargaining episode with a few chubby ladies, we buy Peruvian hats and a poncho for Maya.
It’s raining and it’s very cold, grey clouds hanging over the city. It has been raining almost everywhere we go since La Paz and our biggest concern is that when we finally arrive in Machu Picchu we will have this miserable un-photogenic cold weather.
We spend a few hours roaming the narrow streets of Cuzco, the Archeological Capital of the Americas standing at 3400 m. This city does not compare to any other place we’ve ever visited on our journey so far. Cuzco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Crowned Emperor of historical capitals in the New World- unique and unrivaled.
Peru’s Tourism Capital and Cultural Heritage of the Nation, Cuzco stands on layers of cultures, with the old Inca Empire built on the structures of the Killke pre-Inca people who occupied the region from 900 to 1200, and the Spanish partially destroying and replacing indigenous temples with Catholic churches and palaces standing on the ruins of Inca temples.
Carefully planned and constructed according a definite plan in which two rivers were channeled around the city during the rule of Inca Pachacuti, the Kingdom of Cuzco became the capital of the vast Inca empire of Tawantisuyu from 13th to 16th century. After the Spanish conquest, the city became the colonial center of the colonizers.
How Cuzco was built, how its large stones were shaped and transported to the site by the Incas remains undetermined. In the historic neighborhood Barrio de San Blas housing local artisans and craft shops, we walk up and down steep narrow streets with old houses built by the Spanish over heavy Inca foundations. Everywhere we turn, there are Gothic and Baroque churches and cathedrals.
The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces and used the remaining walls as foundations for the construction of new churches, cathedrals and convents. St Dominic monastery stands on the ruins of the House of the Sun, the palace of Inca Roca was converted to the Archbishop’s residence and so on.
In one of the buildings surrounding the main square Plaza de Armas we walk in one of the many tourist agencies where we buy tickets for a mini-bus ride to Hidroelectrica and back. Now, those of you, who are planning a visit to Machu Picchu and want to save some $$$ pay attention!
Journey to Machu Picchu
The cheapest mini-bus two-ways ride cost $16.00 to $20.00 per person. The epic journey to the top of the Inca World begins with this mini-bus. It has about 12 seats and leaves in the morning from Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, at 08h00 a.m. Our driver is a small funny guy and his taste in music concerns us a lot, as the ride is about 6-8 hours with the radio blasting at max volume. Luckily- and strangely- this particular driver is not into the awful Latino-crap we are constantly bombarded with in other busses- he likes 80s and 90s music, oldies and evergreens. He also blasts some awesome techno while driving madly on a crazy mountain road with steep cliffs and dangerous curves. Maybe he is just trying to please the tourists (successfully), which in our particular bus are young backpackers from different countries- two annoying college girls from the USA, a very fit British guy and his charming Serbian girlfriend, a French couple and a German couple, and a few Chilean students, of course.
As soon as we leave the city, we are among glacier-covered mountains and deep canyons carved by the mighty Urubamba River flowing the wrong way. We pass through an area of eternal fog, as we descend from higher to lower altitudes, where the cold temperatures of the high plateau collide with the heat of the tropical lowlands, creating patches of thick permanent mist- not our driver’s favorite part of the road.
The scenic road is narrow, winding through mountains and passing directly over streams of water where our driver happily splashes the mini-bus at high speed, DJ Tiesto as a background. The road leads us down, from 3400m to 2400 m. The weather gets hot and the Andean cool mountain climate gives way to hot moist tropical weather.
We arrive in a small city- the last stop before hidroelectrica and the end of the paved road. There, we eat lunch, then the drive continues on a super narrow dirt road with space for one car only, with steep wall on one side and deep drop-off on the other- scary and dangerous. Everyone is freaking out! The Serbian girl wants to get off the bus and walk the rest of the road- she is next to the window and the drop-off of the cliff is just inches away.
Happily, we don’t collide with any other vehicle coming against us and we don’t drop in the canyon. We arrive at the hidroelectrica at around 4 p.m., two hour before sunset. We have at least two hours and a half to walk to Aguas Calientes- the village at the foot of Machu Picchu, so we better hurry up. We start run-waking marathon style together with a hundred other tourists from dozens of other mini-buses, along the railroad tracks. Backpacker’s exodus.
We reach the town of Aguas Calientes always walking on the railroad tracks, soaked from the inevitable rain, waving a middle finger at the half-empty super-expensive train for rich tourists that passes us with a whistle. We find the cheapest possible hotel (US$ 20 per night, room for 3 people), take shower, eat dinner (US$ 10 for 3 people, fixed menu at a restaurant) and sleep. Here, near the main square, we meet a blond hairless Inca dog and we buy our Machu Picchu admission tickets ( total US$90 for the three of us). No matter where you buy your admission tickets, the price is the same, as long as you don’t get an all-inclusive guided tour, which is totally not worth it.
The next morning we walk across the Urubamba River and hike for about two hours up a steep mountain instead of taking the six-dollar bus that brings tourists right to the entrance of the Lost City. The hike is steep, the views are priceless. Ivo and Maya use the trail, but for me going vertically up proves more difficult, than the dirt road for the buses. It’s longer, but easier on the heart.
Thousands and thousands of tourists from every corner of the world have invaded the green mountain, where the most famous Inca site is. It’s hard to see the ruins from so many tourists and so many staff strictly controlling the crowds. There is a mean uniformed guy monitoring every corner telling us which direction we are allowed or not allowed to walk, where we can step or not step, how to pose and how not to pose for a picture. All this commotion can really spoil the experience. Guided groups block paths and sites, older or overweight tourists slow down the human flow up and down stairs, domesticated photogenic llamas who are the place’s only permanent residents roam freely among the visitors, enjoying special privileges, allowed to graze in places, where no tourist have the right to set foot.
Most people leave the site around noon, as they have to travel back to Cuzco the same day. We have reserved our hotel room in Aguas Calientes for one more night. Thus, we are able to stay on Machu Picchu until 4 p.m., when most visitors are gone. Only then we are able to appreciate and enjoy this magnificent archeological site bathed in golden afternoon light, almost deserted.
Built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti around 1450, Machu Picchu features spectacular workmanship at a dramatic site. The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a stunning view down the Urubamba valley. Its architecture was adapted to its surroundings. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it were terraced, to provide more farmland to grow crops. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides and invasions. There are nearly 200 structures, of which the central most important ones were constructed using the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls called ashtar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. How the enormous stones were moved and placed up the steep mountains remains uncertain.
The primary archeological treasures of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana ritual stone, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows, all three dedicated to the Inca’s supreme deity- the Sun God.
Shortly after the Spanish invasion, the site was abandoned and almost completely forgotten, until 1911, when an American historian led by a local farmer, discovered the ruins and initiated their exploration, restoration and preservation.
Machu Picchu Interesting Facts
- Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both cultural and natural, described as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”.
- Since its discovery in 1911, growing numbers of tourists visit the site yearly, reaching 400,000 in 2000.
- Machu Picchu is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Latin America, and the most visited in Peru.
- In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants and a bridge to the site. Many people protested the plans, including Peruvians and foreign scientists, saying that more visitors would pose a physical burden on the ruins.
- A no-fly zone exists above the area.
- UNESCO is considering putting Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
- In January 2010, heavy rain caused flooding buried or washed away roads and railways to Machu Picchu, trapping more than 2,000 locals and more than 2,000 tourists, later airlifted out. Machu Picchu was temporarily closed, reopening on 1 April 2010.
- Nude tourism is a recent trend, to the dismay of Peruvian officials. In several incidents, tourists were detained for posing for nude pictures or streaking across the site. Peru’s Ministry of Culture denounced these acts for threatening Peru’s cultural heritage. Cusco’s Regional Director of Culture increased surveillance to end the practice.
We didn’t see any nude tourists on Machu Picchu, but w witnessed the increased surveillance and we still had the feeling of something very wrong happening there with so much influx of visitors. With the world population constantly increasing and tourism becoming faster and more affordable to people worldwide, this most popular Peruvian destination has become more crowded than Disney World during summer vacation. Hopefully the Peruvian government will come up with a better plan for preserving this fragile unique site for future generations, instead of trying to exploit it for profit.
We leave Machu Picchu with mixed feelings.
Machu Picchu Photos