Machu Picchu is one of those experiences you would find on almost every traveller’s hit-list, young and old.
And with good reason. Machu Picchu is one of those global icons representing both a man made wonder, but also set in immensely beautiful natural surroundings and containing amazing depths of history to titillate the mind.
When to go
July and August is the peak tourist season and also the not-so-wet season. It is never totally dry in the Andean foothills and you’ll probably get showers and mist clinging to the peaks at some stage of your visit.
November to April is the rainy season, with January and February the wettest months, so the shoulders of these – November and April – are ideal if you want to avoid the heaviest crowds and heaviest rains.
I went in January and it was fine – we got some drizzly rain and it wasn’t warm, but I enjoyed it. And the sun came out for us on the most important day!
The Classic Inca Trail is closed in February for restoration work.
How to get there
There are so many choices, which is perfect as you can tailor this experience to suit anybody.
For a quick trip, you can get the train through the valley of the Urubamba River (the “Sacred Valley”) to Aguas Calientes. There are budget deals on the basic Expedition train (perurail.com), or posh seats, pisco sours and live music on the Hiram Bingham luxury train, owned by the Orient-Express group.
At Aguas Calientes you can find hotels, restaurants, and frequent buses to the site. The journey, up an impressive series of hairpin bends, takes 20 to 25 minutes.
You are able to roam Machu Picchu itself without a guide. So, in theory, you can book all of this yourself. But, the Peruvian government has been known to close down their online booking website due to scam concerns, which may leave you high and dry without a ticket to enter. So I’d recommend going through a local tour operator who can organise everything for you.
There is an array of trails to choose from; from a tough week-long trek on the Choquequirao or Salkantay trail, or 3-5 day treks such as the Lares trail, or the well-known Classic Inca Trail.
It can be confusing, but they are all “Inca Trails”. You can book something online through a tour company before you go (a must if you want to do the Classic trail) or take your pick from local tour operators when you arrive – most people stay in Cusco before starting the trek, which is a great place to hang out with other like-minded people, get acclimatised to the altitude (important!) and enjoy seeing some of the local sights.
What was it like?
Looking back on my photos for this posts I realised how much I LOVED Machu Picchu. It’s been a few years, the memory had faded, but thank goodness for photos hey.
I didn’t do the Classic Inca Trail because it was booked out on the dates I wanted to go – only 500 people per day are allowed. Instead I did a 5-day Community Trail organised by UK company Dragoman. I am happy with my choice. I got to see the same hills, remote villages, lakes and waterfalls, just without the crowds of other hikers.
Most days we would walk for hours and see no one except for the odd llama looming weirdly out of the mist.
The trails we walked were used only by local villagers, and we camped as guests of the local communities of the area.
We even had the chance to help out at a local school trying (unsuccessfully) to teach English, and a proportion of my payment for the trek went to local sustainability projects.
We also got to see the ruins of Pisac and Sacsayhuamán (just say “sexy woman”).
We got to spend a final night in relative comfort in Ollantaytambo (pronounced oh-YAN-tee-tambo) before getting up at the crack of dawn for the bus up the final leg to Machu Picchu.
Although we did not enter the site through the Sun Gate as on the Classic Inca Trail, there was plenty of time to hike to the Sun Gate and Huayna Picchu, the mountain which towers above Machu Picchu.
I certainly think my hike was as challenging and reached higher altitude (4800m at the Pumahuacasa Pass) than the Classic Trail – so you still get bragging rights!
Also – bonus – we got to stop off at the Lares hot springs which was very very welcome after a couple of days of trekking. I actually found the camping a pleasant break from the budget travelling. At least I had a break from cooking, cleaning and making and breaking camp each day.
I had already spent a few weeks at 3000-5000m crossing Bolivia and southern Peru, so I didn’t give this too much thought at the time, but it’s important you allow yourself to get used to the higher altitude before you start your trek. Machu Picchu itself is actually not that high – 2,430m – so if you are not doing the hike you shouldn’t have too much trouble.
A lot of people hang out in Cusco to acclimatise before starting their hike. As I mentioned earlier, Cusco is a great place, so I’d definitely recommend this! They say a minimum of 2 days there (at 3,400m) is needed as all trails to Machu Picchu go up over 4500m.
Mild altitude sickness symptoms include: fatigue, headaches, nausea and lost appetite, dizziness, disturbed sleep and shortness of breath. Mild altitude sickness symptoms typically present between 12-24 hours after arriving at altitude and are common for visitors to Cusco. Remaining for 24-48 hours at the altitude at which mild altitude sickness occurs usually resolves symptoms. Once symptoms have passed at the altitude they started, you can assume you have acclimatised to that altitude.
If you suffer altitude sickness once on your hike, you’re going to need to rest. The trail I went on had first aid and oxygen tanks, and you could hitch a ride on a mule down to a lower altitude at pretty much any time. Fortunately, this wasn’t needed for us, but it was good to know it was there.
They also recommend chewing coca leaves. Yep, as in the source of cocaine (so, not at all cocaine). When chewed, coca can act as a mild stimulant and has apparently been shown to repress hunger, fatigue, thirst and pain. Traditionally, Andean cultures use the coca leaf for a number of medicinal, nutritional and religious purposes.
One traditional use is in the prevention of altitude sickness. Locals either chew the leaves or drink coca tea, and encourage tourists to do the same as a preventative measure.
It wont give you a high. It doesn’t feel or taste pleasant. On the contrary, it’s like having a wad of dried leaves in your cheek, and the catalyst is like gnawing on a chunk of rock, both of which I would happily live the rest of my life without.
Far more pleasant are the coca energy bars you can buy in Cusco (mm sugary goodness) and delicious hot coca tea our guides delivered outside our tent each morning on the trek, along with a bowl of warm water to wash with.
As always, if you have any concerns about altitude sickness, your best bet is to talk to your doctor before you go on the trip.
Complete your experience
“Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time”
by Mark Adams. A fun adventure travel story that mixes in a lot of history with the laughs.
“Max is Missing” a cheesy mystery akin to the Goonies and the young Indiana Jones, filmed entirely around Cusco. Young Max is dragged to Peru on a family vacation and receives an ancient Incan artifact from a man on the street. Once the word is out, two bad guys start chasing him down. Max teams up with a local kid to outwit the bad guys, all the while whizzing through Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman, and Cusco. It’s a fun watch.