You’ve seen the photos, you’ve dreamt of visiting, but what is a morning spent wandering around Machu Picchu really like? Keep reading to find out!
Machu Picchu covered in clouds
After a short, uphill walk from the entrance gate, the stone city of Machu Picchu and its jagged, emerald mountain surroundings come into full view. Well, that’s assuming it’s not cloudy. We entered the Machu Picchu archaeological site just after 6 am and it’s fairly common for the weather to obstruct your first view of the city. Don’t worry though; if you’re at Machu Picchu that early you’ll have a great chance to explore the buildings, streets and terraces of this historic city in peace.
Walking around the city
It felt like we had this entire wonder of the world all to ourselves. After navigating small crowds at the city’s more popular areas, we headed downhill and were surrounded by nothing but grey stone buildings and morning mist. This has to be the best time to explore Machu Picchu. Of all the photos I’d seen of this place, very few of them were from ground level. While the buildings may not be as grand or intricate as some other historic ruins, there’s something magical about Machu Picchu. It’s hard to tell you too much about the actual city – there aren’t many signs around and most of the buildings look the same. It’s a fun place to explore, but the fact we had it almost all to ourselves played a big part in that. We walked around for about an hour until the sun burnt off some of the clouds, and then it was back up the hill for that iconic Machu Picchu photo.
That photo you’ve seen a hundred times
The stone city is towered over by a pyramid-like peak (Wayna Picchu) and surrounded by other equally impressive mountains. Machu Picchu from above is an amazing sight. Everyone gets a photo from the hill above the city, and even at just after 7 am it was busy. You might have to jostle with the crowds and wait until the mountain escapes the shade, but it’s worth it. We later realised that there are quite a lot of spots on the hill to take in all of Machu Picchu’s glory – we found a nice, quiet area where we could truly appreciate the scene in front of us. Another popular thing to do at Machu Picchu is to get a photo of a llama; they wander the area freely so it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Machu Picchu’s outer attractions
The Inca Bridge is a worthwhile detour from the main Machu Picchu site. It’s a 45 minute round trip along a sometimes narrow path, with the promise of a life-ending fall down a sheer cliff for those that don’t keep on track. It’s pretty safe though, but the same can’t be said for the actual Inca Bridge. Apparently someone fell off it and died a few years back and now it’s not possible to walk over it. When I saw it I found out why – it’s basically just some planks of wood across a massive drop off. The bridge itself isn’t anything special but it’s a nice walk and there’s also some shade there, something you won’t get a lot of at the main site if you visit later in the day.
Another good side trip is the walk up to the Sun Gate. It’s a tough walk but it gives you a different view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding area. If you’re short on time or energy, there are some small ruins about half way up to the Sun Gate where you’ll get a good view – you probably don’t need to go all the way up (the Sun Gate itself isn’t all that impressive).
Getting to Machu Picchu
Aguas Calientes (sometimes referred to as Machu Picchu Pueblo) is the closest town to the ruins and is only accessible by train or by foot. A popular way of getting to Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail. We had planned to do this but realised you have to book it about 6 months in advance! Instead we took the train from Ollantaytambo with Inca Rail. It’s a great way of getting to Aguas Calientes – it passes through the scenic Sacred Valley and we even got a drink and a snack. I love travelling by train, especially when the scenery is this good. It’s not all that cheap (around $100 return) but the alternative is to take a long bus ride (around 5 hours) followed by a taxi/collectivo ride (1.5 – 2 hours) and then walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes (2 – 3 hours). A trip to Machu Picchu is exhausting enough without all of that! If you’re taking the train, make sure you spend a night in Ollantaytambo – there are some really impressive Inca ruins there and it’s a nice small town (stayed tuned for a post about Ollantaytambo).
If you’ve been to Machu Picchu and travelled a different way (Inca Trail, Salkantay Trek etc), let me know about your experience in the comments below.
Further reading: Check out Two Scots Abroad’s post about the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu — it looks like a great alternative if you miss out on the Inca Trail.
This small, not so attractive town is somewhere you’ll have to pass through if you’re visiting Machu Picchu. It’s basically just a few streets full hostels, restaurants and shops and isn’t a bad place to spend the night. From Aguas Calientes you can either walk up the hill to Machu Picchu, which apparently takes around 1.5 hours, or you can take a bus ($12 one way). We took the bus up and walked down which worked out well – I wouldn’t have enjoyed walking up those steep steps in the dark!
Machu Picchu is the third wonder of the world that I’ve visited and probably my favourite so far (I’ve also been to Chichen Itza in Mexico and the Coliseum in Rome). It’s one of those places that everyone should see, and if you do choose to visit, make sure you also check out some of the other destinations that Peru has to offer. We’ve seen stunning mountain scenery in Huaraz, desert ruins in northern Peru, small islands packed with wildlife, a tiny oasis town surrounded by massive sand dunes and one of the deepest canyons in the world. Peru is such a great place to travel and there is so much more to it than just Machu Picchu.
Have you been to Machu Picchu? How many wonders of the world have you been to? Let me know!
I worked with Inca Rail on my journey to Machu Picchu – all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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