Machu Picchu–Full of Surprises
When arriving at Machu Picchu, I found myself looking for the answer to the universe’s questions. I found the answer at the Sun Gate and learned the answer is not 42. Read further for the answer as I share how to take a good walk Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu Isn’t that Big
Prior to arriving at this UNESCO World Heritage site, I had seen hundreds of pictures of the beautiful Inca City’s architecture. Surprisingly, upon arriving, I realized Machu Picchu isn’t really that big. But it is treacherous. It’s a place the requires the proper shoes, proper jacket, bottles of water, and a good guide.
Getting to Machu Picchu
My hubs, daughter and I had arrived to Machu Picchu Town, also known as Aguas Caliente, the night before via Peru Rail. We had paid for Vistadome seats, which were well worth it, but definitely a luxury. Seated in comfy seats and treated to snacks of corn pie, toasted corn and bananas, we made friends with seat neighbors and enjoyed the view during the 3-hour train ride. The altitude, together with the jiggity ride of the train, wore on me relentlessly. I was all too happy to find a warm bed and quiet room upon our arrival to Aquas Caliente after a 4-block walk in the rain to our hotel.
Upon check in, the hotel owner suggested a guide for Machu Picchu. Realizing that the guide would improve our visit, we plunked down about $20 per person and later met the guide in the lobby that evening. He explained that we would take the bus up the mountain to the gate and meet him there the next morning. So on top of our guide fee, we paid $24 round-trip per person to ride the bus.
Tip one: swallow your opinion on price and take the bus.
At first I thought $24 was a rip-off for the bus ride. In truth, it should be about $10-15 considering the short distance it travels. But after seeing the switchbacks of the road and the straight-up-the-mountain trail, both of which we would have had to traverse in sloppy rain, I was grateful to pay the fare. My ego that eggs me on to always pick walking over riding had to literally take a back seat to common sense and safety.
Dressed in water proof shoes and good rain jackets we met our guide who had been quite busy the night before.
(Tip two: there are many ladies who will sell you rain ponchos and water at many places between the bus stop and the Machu Picchu Gate)
Our promised tour of 10-15 had swelled to over 30. Fortunately, after entering the site, our guide split us into two groups, one for English and one for Spanish. Sadly, our English guide also had Spanish speakers, so he had to continually translate his information, resulting in long periods of standing and listening.
Tip three: Be sure you pick a guide that only has travelers from one language so your tour is efficient.
Enjoying Machu Picchu
Our guide followed the guided and signed route through Machu Picchu, doing a fairly good job of describing the history and architecture of this ancient city. He pointed out the significance of the three steps and notches in walls which correlate to upper, middle, and lower earth, represented by the condor, puma, and serpent. Many of the things he said, though, I questioned as to whether they were historically accurate or more legendary. Thus, although I’m glad we had a guide, if you are particular about your information and its sources, take some time to hire a guide and do your research.
Tip four: Guides are readily available, even outside of the gate of Machu Picchu, but be sure to research your guide if you are a stickler for accurate information.
Despite the large group and the persistent rain, surprises appeared. We were at Machu Picchu for the summer solstice, so being at the Sun Temple was enlightening. Our guide described how the Sun Temple was engineered for the summer sun. Unfortunately, the fog and rain inhibited our ability to actually see how his description played out. In addition, as if Disney was there with its animatronics remote control, a herd of llamas arrived with babies to graze on the grass in the middle of the ruins.
Hiking to the Sun Gate
Our tour lasted about 90 minutes, and we were glad to move away from the group and to explore Machu Picchu on our own. Crowds started to arrive around 9 am (we got there at 6:30 am), which was our sign to start the upward climb to the Sun Gate. First, we exited the ruins to find the bathroom, and then we re-entered Machu Picchu and followed the poorly placed signs to the Sun Gate trail.
Beautifully crafted of Inca-placed and carved stone, we began the relentless walk. Although not necessarily steep, the altitude and the constant concern of slipping on the rock surfaces made for a tough hike. Please note that I’m from Denver and frequently hike in 9000 foot elevation. But for whatever reasons, I found this walk a challenge due to the rain and fog which blocked our view of distance. Just as we thought we were close, another steep incline of steps appeared.
About half way up, there’s a ruin to enjoy that is not signed. It’s followed by a really cool, giant boulder that appears to be a party spot on the way up the mountain. These inspiring sights egged us onward.
None the less, we treachered on for about 45 minutes, finally making it to the Sun Gate. Dreary, rainy and foggy, we sat on the steps to try and catch a view of Machu Picchu. Instead, we viewed a lonely bromeliad growing in Sun Gate ruins. It was here that we found the secret to the universe.
With no views to enjoy, we sat to rest and sparked up a conversation with a couple sitting next to us. I asked them where they were from, and they answered, “Paris.” Then suddenly, the drudgery of the walk disappeared, and I was so happy to have the chance to apologize and acknowledge grief to this Parisian couple regarding the December 2015 terror attacks in Paris. The four of us then discussed world peace and realized that if more people could get out and hike these amazing World Heritage sites and share their experiences with global citizens, perhaps we’d have world peace.
Thus, we found the secret to love and happiness–sharing powerful experiences with others.
Then like magic, the skies parted, the fog lifted, and for two short minutes, we got our perfect view of Machu Picchu. Snap, snap, snap.
Getting Back to Cusco
After our kum-by-ya moment with the Parisians, we walked our way back to the Machu Picchu gate, which took about 30 minutes. Fortunately, the buses run frequently, and we had only a 10-minute wait to reload and return back to Aguas Caliente. There, we did a bit of shopping and took the afternoon train back to Cusco. On the way home, we enjoyed another snack on the train, and then the staff did a modelling show to try and sell us souvenirs and alpaca wool clothing. From the Poroy station near Cusco, our taxi driver whom had driven us to the station the day before, picked us up and took us back to our hotel.
Tip five: When you arrive in Cusco, make friends with your taxi driver and pre-arrange his services for your airport and train transfers.
A Note about Hiking the Inca Trail
I’m a huge fan of walking, as you can tell by other posts in my blog. But after seeing glimpses of the trail on our train ride, actually seeing the end of the trail at Sun Gate, and watching hikers come into Machu Picchu exhausted, I am not inspired to do the trail, even though originally I was very sad we hadn’t made the time for it. Too hot. Not pretty. Not enough reward for the effort.
I hope you have a great time in Machu Picchu. Enjoy a good walk Machu Picchu and share your stories, questions and photos below. I’d love to hear from you.