Machu Picchu was recently ranked by TripAdvisor as the #1 landmark in the world. As it’s nearing the 6-year anniversary of my backpacking adventure through Peru, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect back on my experience at the great Incan ruins and give advice to anyone hoping to embark on a similar journey.
Even though it’s been years, I can still vividly picture the Andes surrounding me on all sides, their majestic frames resembling mossy rocks. July in Peru meant a South American winter, bringing with it crisp, bitter breezes and a piercing instigation for coats and alpaca-hair hats. If you’re planning a visit the same time I went, expect chillier temperatures and be sure to pack accordingly. If you’re like me, however, you’ll likely appreciate the sound of the cold breeze, accompanied by the distant thundering of the Urubamba River down below – a treacherous blue ribbon that winds sharply through the narrow green valley surrounding Machu Picchu.
At an altitude of over 6,600 feet sits the resort town of Aguas Calientes, nestled amidst the mountains. With its narrow cobblestone streets sloping towards a series of hot springs, the town is the only one in Peru that grants travelers access to Machu Picchu. The crashing of the Urubamba is its soundtrack, mixed with the hissing of trains on the Peru Rail Line – the only way to get into or out of town – and the hustle of tourists from all over the world as they explore the many shops and restaurants.
Aguas Calientes itself is a fascinating town, perhaps due to the charming, social nature of it. It undoubtedly caters to tourists, what with its plentitude of hotels and dining services, but the mountain scenery is unbeatable and practically everyone there is an adventurer out to explore – making it easy to make friends from around the globe. If you’re planning to check out the hot springs for which the town is named after, take note that it’ll cost you about 10 soles for something that’s slightly disappointing – rather than being natural hot springs, they come across more as heated kiddie pools, and aren’t exactly the cleanest.
As for the trek up to Machu Picchu, my best piece of advice is to pull yourself out of bed a bit earlier than normal (as in, 4:30 AM) and hike up to the ruins for sunrise, as opposed to the popular choice of taking the bus. It’s a trek that took me two hours, 2,500 feet and several thousand steep steps – just to get to the entrance of Machu Picchu, where I then had to wait in line behind dozens of people who had chosen to catch the 6 AM buses up instead. Yes, frustrating is an understatement, but in the end, it was entirely worth it.
Why? For one, the scenery. Throughout the journey, you get an opportunity to soak in a postcard of dramatic Andean peaks, surrounding you at all times and melting into picturesque valleys. The color is simply spectacular; unbelievable emeralds, complemented by rose-streaked periwinkles of daybreak above and the winding navy strip of the Urubamba below. It is quite possible you’ll never see anything quite like it again in your life.
Secondly, the sheer wonder of exploring the terrain on your own two feet versus through a grimy bus window is full of marvels and personal rewards in its own right. One of the most exciting parts of the hike is catching the first glimpse of a ruined building along a ridge you’ll soon discover is Huayna Picchu, the iconic mountain that looms over the ancient Incan empire. (You can arrange to hike Huayna Picchu, though make your reservations early – we weren’t able to tackle it, as a limited number of travelers are allowed on the trail at a certain time, and all spots for the day were full by the time we inquired about it.)
Once you’ve seen Huayna Picchu, you’ve nearly made it. You just have that line of people to get past and suddenly…you’re there, gazing across the incredible landmark considered one of the new wonders of the world. And just as quickly, the aches and pains and struggles that came with that two-hour hike through the dark gloom of impossibly early hours is so worth it.
I remember thinking I’d be content to sit atop Machu Picchu for the rest of my life just staring at it. The ruins are captivating – and they’re even better at sunrise. The sun slowly gazes over the jagged peaks of the Andes, spilling golden light onto the vast city and casting dramatic shadows across its stunning terrain. Though everything you’re standing on is impossible to discern from Aguas Calientes, once you’re on top of Machu Picchu – seemingly on top of the world – you can see for miles; every bend in the Urubamba, every nook, every cranny. And suddenly, you understand.
One of the best parts of exploring Machu Picchu is the entertainment: dozens of alpacas hanging out along the sloping mountainsides, chomping on grass and pushing through the crowds of tourists as if they own the place – which, in a way, they kind of do.
If an ascent of Huayna Picchu is not in the cards for you, I’d recommend doing what we did and hiking up to Inti Punku, or the Sun Gate – it’s a little ways outside of the ruins, and the spot where travelers on the Inca Trail (4-day, strenuous hike from Cusco to the ruins) get their first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Naturally, the view is breathtaking. Keep in mind that the road to the Sun Gate is not an easy one – there are several places where the trail is remarkably narrow, with no guardrail to protect you from a treacherous fall. In addition, it’ll take you about 30 minutes to complete each way – but after that 2-hour hike up to the ruins you just conquered? Eh, that’s nothing.
Once you’ve had your fill for the day, plenty of opportunities for relaxation are offered back in town – whether it’s lounging on a rocking chair sipping a pisco sour or two, or pampering yourself with a massage (after all, you’ve earned it!).
The simplest way to sum it up would be that, in my opinion, the world’s greatest landmark is certainly dubbed that for a reason. There’s something alluring about Machu Picchu – how it stands so majestically and grand atop the Peruvian landscape. A sense of mystery shrouds the place, intermingling with the cloud forests to create a mystical, enchanting environment. Perhaps that’s the reason millions of tourists continue to make the trek every year to discover it.
Few other places give you the chance to feel so on top of the world like Machu Picchu does – and hey, if you’ve lost some sleep and taken a few extra (albeit painful) steps to hike your way up? Reaching that little slice of paradise will simply make everything else feel that much more attainable.