Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. When Hielke and I got into a relationship, he had already been there and I think that’s the reason I didn’t go sooner. To be able to visit Machu Picchu has been one of the main reasons for choosing South America for our travels, so you can say the expectations were really high. The fact that you have to do quite a lot of organizing and spend a lot of money only adds to the high expectations. In this blog I will explain whether my expectations were met, the blog title gives a hint regarding the outcome already 😉
What we arranged for Machu Picchu
Apparently tickets for Machu Picchu sell out weeks in advance, so when we were in Colombia we had to make a rough planning and settle on a date to visit Machu Picchu: 25 November. But I can tell you now, tickets don’t sell out until very late when you visit in November. The high season for Machu Picchu is from June-August, because that is the dry season and that is when most Europeans come to visit. When we visited there were still 150 tickets left for our time slot until a day before. Since 2019 you have to chose a time slot and you are allowed to enter for 6 hours. This is currently not being checked when you exit, so you can basically stay as long as you want. You can buy the tickets via the official website, which worked fine when we ordered our tickets. The official ticket office in Cusco printed the tickets for us. Our tickets included entry to Machu Picchu mountain and cost € 60 per ticket.
Online you will read a lot of stories that you are obligated to hire a guide for your Machu Picchu visit, but we inquired at the official ticket office and were told it is not necessary. Apparently there are too little guides and this rule cannot be executed.
When you have your tickets, the next thing you have to arrange is transport to Aguas Calientes. We decided not to do a hiking tour such as the Inka trail and bought train tickets online with Inka Rail. You still need to go by the office of Inka Rail to validate your purchase. Peru Rail is another option, both train companies offer about the same services for the same price. The train starts in Ollantaytambo and takes about 1,5 hours. Inka Rail also arranged a shuttle service from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (2 hours) for us. Our train tickets cost about € 100 per person, which is extremely overpriced given the time that you travel. But you will notice that everything surrounding the Inkas is incredibly pricy in Peru. Because there is no road between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes the train companies can ask exorbitant prices for the train. I have to admit that the train was really comfortable and that we received a nice lunch and Pisco tasting and that the fun really starts in the train!
On arriving in Aguas Calientes we arranged bus tickets to Machu Picchu. It is perfectly fine to arrange your bus tickets the day before, no need for online bookings. The return tickets costs € 22 and the ride takes about 25 minutes each way. Years ago there were enormous waiting lines at the bus stop in the early morning, but because you have to chose a time slot now that is very much improved. We had to be at the bus stop at 5 AM for our 6 AM entry. At 5.30AM a lot of buses turned up and we were at the Machu Picchu entrance before 6 AM. You can also walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, but you would have to climb a lot of stairs. The people that took the stairs were incredibly sweaty when they arrived to Machu Picchu, so make sure to bring another shirt if you want to do this 😉
Our experience in Machu Picchu
Besides that you have to arrange a lot of things, our arrival to Machu Picchu was super smooth. Hielke had gotten sick the day before our visit to Machu Picchu but luckily was fit enough to join me in the early morning. Shortly after you enter you already have amazing viewpoints of the famous Inka village. After enjoying the various viewpoints of the village for an hour, we had to be at the entrance of Machu Picchu Mountain. Little did we know that the Machu Picchu Mountain was a steep climb of 700 meters which would take over 2 hours before you got to the highest point. Hielke still wasn’t feeling well and to me the hike seemed unnecessary, so we decided not to climb the mountain. My sister did the strenuous hike to Huayna Picchu (about 300 meters of climbing), which is located at the other side of Machu Picchu and was really enthusiastic about this hike. To me the hikes at Machu Picchu seemed overhyped and we were a bit bummed out that we paid extra money for a hike we weren’t going to do.
As the tickets were not sold out for the day that we visited, it wasn’t extremely crowded. When we just entered Machu Picchu we thought the number of people was a bit overwhelming, but everyone quickly spreads out over the terrain. The days that we were in Aguas Calientes it was very wet in the afternoon (from about 1PM) and extremely sunny in the morning. The light was incredibly hard when we arrived to Machu Picchu, so that was a bit disappointing. Apparently sunrise at Machu Picchu is a thing, but in November it is impossible to get at Machu Picchu during sunrise, because the sun has already risen at 6AM when the park opens. And at 6AM the light was incredibly hard. You can see me squinting in most of the pictures and I had to play with the contrast of the pictures to improve them. When we visited the light seemed to be the best from the side of Huayna Picchu, which can explain the popularity of this hike.
Shortly after we entered I almost got kicked out of Machu Picchu. Peru recently had some incidents such as Greenpeace occupying the Nazca lines and a graffiti incident on Machu Picchu and I think those are reasons for the increased scrutiny of the guards. I wanted to wear a skirt over my leggings to take a cool twirling picture, but I was told (screamed at) that I wasn’t allowed to change in Machu Picchu. This was not included in any sort of regulation, so I was very surprised by this. For example you are not allowed to make pictures with a selfie stick or bring an umbrella, but nowhere do the rules say that you cannot change clothes. I don’t see the problem in changing clothes (without nudity involved) and was super embarrassed because of the way the guard talked to me. I am all for protecting your country’s treasures, but this was out of line. This incident definitely wasn’t personal because we saw many people being approached by guards. It is very unclear what you can and can’t do at Machu Picchu and it seems like the guards at Machu Picchu don’t like tourists. In the end I was able to take my twirling picture, but this incident did ruin the experience a bit for me. Luckily the amazing alpacas and llamas that roam around Machu Picchu put a smile on my face again 🙂
We spent about four hours admiring the amazing architecture and location of Machu Picchu and then took the bus back to Aguas Calientes. I find it really hard to draw a conclusion to our visit to Machu Picchu. The costs are super high and the way you are treated is quite bad, yet the architecture, history and unique location in the mountains make Machu Picchu worthwhile. I did feel a little bit like a cash cow while preparing and visiting. I can now totally understand why Hielke didn’t think Machu Picchu was the ultimate bucket list destination, but was still happy that I finally got to visit this phenomenon. I hope the organization makes some further improvements regarding a visit to Machu Picchu, so it can keep competing with other beautiful sights in the world. Years ago I visited Angkor Wat which was a dream come true for me. I personally loved and preferred the freedom you received and the diversity of temples at Angkor Wat, but I don’t know if Cambodia can sustain that once tourism increases further. With the incredible popularity of Machu Picchu, I can understand the struggles that come with it.
The strange town that is Aguas Calientes
When you visit Machu Picchu you are very likely to spend the night in Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is a bit of a strange town, because everything revolves around tourists and Machu Picchu. The location of the town, next to a “roaring” river is quite pretty, but the accommodations are a bit dingy.
We booked a cheap hostel of € 19 per night, as we would only spend so little time in our room, and we didn’t like the vibe of the place (it was fine though for a few hours). There are a few upscale hotels, but the value of the accommodation is quite low compared to other parts of Peru. Food is also more expensive in Aguas Calientes. Our first night we had a lucky evening because the Green House restaurant was kind of nice, though not cheap. During our second day we had an awful and expensive lunch at a super touristy place. Never trust restaurants with pictures of the food 😉 One thing that was very strange about Aguas Calientes was that it actually has quite a lot of bars and clubs, while pretty much everyone staying in the town has to get up early for Machu Picchu. We didn’t see people going into the clubs, yet they were blasting music until 4PM. When you arrive in Aguas Calientes by train you most likely will enter the town while walking through the crafts market. This gives you the feeling of how touristy this town is right away, but we actually liked walking around through all the colorful stalls. Taking pictures at the market actually was a lot of fun.