Scratch one off the bucket list! I’ve always been entranced by those majestic photos of Machu Picchu, so I decided to plan a trip and take my own. Read on to learn about the adventure as well as some tips from a first-hand experience.
Tetanus and Hepatitis B aren’t usually the first things you think of when planning a trip to Machu Picchu, but after weeks of a nagging mother, I caved in and visited our local travel clinic. The nurse confirmed what my internet research had uncovered, informing me avoid drinking the tap water. She provided medication for both altitude sickness and an antibiotic in case of stomach problems. Diamox, the altitude sickness meds, are an absolute must. Without them, the trip would have been far less enjoyable!
Day 1 – Boston to Lima
My tallness loves the space JetBlue provides as well as the on-board entertainment and included WiFi. Much to my surprise, JetBlue has a flight from Boston to Lima with a stop in Ft. Lauderdale. Unfortunately, the WiFi only lasts while you are in US airspace and in-flight movie on the second leg of the trip was only in available Spanish. I tried to enjoy it, but I can’t take Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) seriously when he sounds like Antonio Banderas. The flight left Boston at 1 pm EST and arrived in Lima at 11pm local time.
In Lima, we stayed at the Wyndham across the street from the airport. They are connected by a sky bridge, which is allows you to avoid the sea of taxi drivers. After a long day of travel, it was nice to quickly get somewhere to rest up. While this was a convenient hotel, it was both the most expensive and the least comfortable of the trip. The atmosphere was odd with mall-like jewelry kiosk next to the check-in, but a decent restaurant. I would not say it bad, it just wasn’t great.
Day 2 – Cusco
The flight from Lima to Cusco is just over an hour long, with almost hourly departures on regional jets. In that short amount of time, you’re going from sea level to about 11,000 feet! The small airport is surrounded by mountains, so the flights only arrive and depart with clear weather conditions. In the baggage claim area, you are surrounded by tourist companies offering various tour packages. We went ahead and chose an afternoon city tour visiting five archaeological locations. A shuttle would pick us up from our hotel, so we quickly grabbed a taxi to drop off our bags.
Iglesia De Santo Domingo
We learn about European colonization in grade school, but I forgot how brutal some of it was. The Spanish destroyed Incan temples and used the rubble to build churches where they once stood. Iglesia De Santo Domingo is one such place. The Spanish decided it wasn’t feasible to waste all the explosives on completely level it, so you end up with this mix of the Incan’s perfectly carved stones and Spanish mortar work.
This location was an Incan fortress. The scale at which these stones were carved and placed is completely mind blowing. If you notice in the photo, the people in the foreground are shorter than the stones themselves.
This is also the location we realized that altitude sickness is real! The approximately thirty steps up to the top where the photo was taken was incredibly difficult. We didn’t make it to the top without taking a break and my girlfriend noted that my lips had gone purple!
Much of the Peruvian archaeological areas have been rebuilt, and not necessarily with he same skill that was required originally. Even so, it is hard not to admire the craftsmanship and how tightly locked they remain after hundreds of years.
Q’enqo, Tambomachay, and Puka Pukara
The tour had an additional three archaeological stops including an underground sacrificial chamber, a smaller fort, and what likely was an Incan spa. The water at Tambomachay still runs to this day!
The lodging in Cusco was located at Tambo del Arriero Hotel Boutique. It was very reasonably priced (92 USD) and was located close to the historic center. It had enjoyable atmosphere, comfortable room, and friendly staff.
Day 3 – Pisac and the Aranwa
From Cusco, we traveled to Pisac, which was about a 45 minute taxi ride. Pisac is known for its market and boy did we load up on things to take home, such as that awesome hat. There are some ruins on the mountain to see, but we skipped this in the interest of time.
I thought I was being smart when I only brought my debit card and two credit cards. Having just done some serious shopping, we barely had enough cash to get us to our next destination, so I attempted to withdraw from the ATM. Declined! So I tried to do a cash withdrawal using my credit cards, which also didn’t work. I called my bank, USAA, who basically confirmed that they weren’t getting any requests for withdrawals. When asking what to do, I felt like I could hear her shrug. Seemed odd considering all of their members are military and are often deployed overseas. Fortunately, my girlfriend’s debit card from a regional New Hampshire bank worked. For the rest of our trip, I was unable to use my card at any ATM we came across, although I could use it at restaurants and such.
Another funny mishap here in Pisac was trying out the bus. We literally hopped on the bus clearly labelled “Cusco-Urubamba.” I ended up having to stand on the bus that was obviously designed for seated passengers only as I was hunched over. I was thinking “this is going to be an uncomfortable 45 minute ride.” When we crossed a bridge, I decided it was a good idea to confirm we were actually going to Urubamba in my broken Spanish and all of the passengers yelled at the driver to stop for us. I laugh thinking about our reaction if we had stepped off the bus in Cusco. We decided it was worth just getting a taxi after that. The 45 minute taxi ride was 60 Soles, which is about 20 USD where as the bus was going to be 10 Soles for the both of us.
Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel
After arriving in Urubamba and successfully getting some much needed dinero, I look up the address for our hotel. We drove passed it a couple miles back on the way here. Tired from walking all day, we spend little time looking for a proper taxi and hopped in mototaxi, which is basically a loosely enclosed 3-wheeled motorcycle. I think we hit top speed on the main road of 20mph. The windows were so low for me I could only see the road from my window.
After the longest 15 minutes, the driver pulls off the pavement onto a very unkept dirt road. We knew we were going to be mugged and left in the field. I pull up our location on Google maps to make sure we were on track. Ahead of us, we see a sign spray painted on a piece of plywood that says something like “Aranwa Hotel 700 meters ahead.” There’s some peace-of-mind that we’re going to the right place, but also some fear that our hotel is going to be a ditch covered by corrugated metal. My girlfriend says, “Greg, I’m not sure we’re going to stay wherever he’s taking us.”
I feel the mototaxi slow and with a quick turn and stop, he announces we have arrived. I unfold out onto the new-found pavement. We are standing in front of doors reminiscent of the Jurassic Park gate, but much fancier. We both literally sigh with relief and at the same time are taken aback by the unexpected grandeur. A man in a suit directs us to the front doors.
We walk in, and we see the most beautiful stained glass window in the lobby. We learn that the hotel has a spa, museum, several shops, a movie theater, and a fantastic restaurant. There were freaking llamas in the courtyard! Girlfriend, “Greg, you did good.” Greg, “Thanks,” not realizing I had booked something this fancy.
The Aranwa Sacred Valley was by far the best hotel we stayed at while in Peru and oddly, not the most expensive. We enjoyed this place so much, it gets its own section in this post!
Day 4 – Train to Aguas Calientes
There are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu, a long bus ride, or the train. Even with my extensive planning, I managed to forget to purchase the train tickets. Depending on your departure station, there are basically three options: cheap, expensive, and baller. The cheap ones were of course sold out, so I went for expensive. My forgetfulness ended up being an unforgettable experience!
We boarded the Perurail Sacred Valley train. The three cars that we had access to can hold 35 passengers and includes the dining car, the bar car, and the observation car. We were two of the eight passengers who boarded!
A four course meal, snacks, wine, need I say more? The friendly train staff were extremely attentive and knowledgeable about the area, bringing attention to many points-of-interest as we passed. Most notably, the one and only Smick (pictured below), was so friendly and very patient with our plethora of questions. The ride takes approximately three hours.
Casa Del Sol Machupicchu was my second favorite hotel. There wasn’t anything to dislike about this place. The greeter first takes your bags, hands you a refreshing welcome drink from the bar, and then takes us to our air conditioned room. While you take in the view, he ran over to to the bus station to get our tickets for the following morning.
The small town of Aguas Calientes where many start their Machu Picchu day. It is packed with hotels, restaurants, food, and entertainment.
Day 5 – Machu Picchu
The buses from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu run constantly from open to close of the archaeological site. They curb rushes by having entry and exit times on your ticket. I did see the folks at the entry turn people away for not arriving at their given time, however, it is near impossible to enforce making you leave on time.
We got onto the bus at 6 am in the dark and zigzagged up the mountain. Every turn was like the almighty was turning up the lights just a little bit more. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I was nervous that the bus might clip one of the many people who chose to walk up the mountain.
When purchasing tickets for Machu Picchu, there are three options: Machu Picchu ruins only, Machu Picchu ruins and Machu Picchu mountain, and Machu Picchu ruins and Huayna Picchu mountain. According to the internet Machu Picchu hike is supposed to take longer but is significantly easier than Huayna Picchu. Having first consulted out-dated information, I didn’t realize you needed tickets at all. We purchased the tickets that included Huayna Picchu hike even though it was rated as moderate to challenging as the Machu Picchu mountain was sold out. There are people who do the multiple day treks to Machu Picchu and then do these peaks. All I can say is, good for them! Funny enough, you can smell some of the folks who did this.
At the entrance, there are guides speaking many languages. You can join a group or request a private tour. We however had the early mountain hike at 7 am, so we made our way over to Huayna Picchu which is on the opposite side of the ruins.
Once we made it through the entry, we followed the clearly marked path which lead small entry hut. The gate opened promptly at 7 am and we signed in as visitors 5 and 6. He informed us that we had 45 minutes to ascend and 45 minutes to return.
It starts off with some manageable ups and downs and then you reach Huyana Picchu… As we began go ascend, my girlfriend asked me multiple times “why we were doing this,” followed by, “I hate you right now.” It was painfully difficult for two individuals that have desk jobs. We stopped frequently watching our more in-shape fellow travelers pass us, some of whom were wrinkled and grey.
There are few pictures of the actual hike up, as we were too focused on “enjoying the experience” of getting our asses kicked. It winds back and forth with several wobbly stairs and missing cable hand rails. The trail was a mix of steep rocky paths and broken stairs. I’m glad we were one of the first people to head up, as it is the same way down. It would be worse needing to step aside near some of the questionable drops.
Once you make it to the first ruin at the top, your reward it waiting for you just around the corner… more stairs! Also, you are surrounded by picture perfect… well perfection.
At the summit, there is a line to take a picture sitting on a large jetted rock looking down at the ruins. Ours didn’t turn out well as our chosen photographer was too short to get the ruins and us.
A young woman in front of us asked us what happens if we don’t make it back down in time. I looked at my phone and laughed. Our 45 minutes window was missed by a whole hour. My response was such a dad joke. “Well, you have to keep doing it until you can do it in 45 minutes. Fortunately, there’s a quick way down.”
We did make it down quickly, only taking the 45 minutes. At the bottom, we heard one of the tour guides said he’d made it up in 25 minutes. Crazy!
Back at the main archaeological site, the path through the ruins is a large loop. Since we walked to the opposite side for the hike, we were half way through without any context of what we were looking at. There are “park” workers stationed throughout, so we asked one of them about a tour guide. He was able to radio to the front and have someone come meet us. This was great, as there is no re-entry and being with a guide gives you access have a “do over.”
The guide is a must to provide context for all the things you are viewing. Our personal guide was only 120 Soles, which is about 40 dollars for the 3 hours he was with us.
Machu Picchu is such a popular tourist location that they have implemented a lot of things to stop erosion due to visitors. They have this hard plastic grates on all the walking trails within the ruins, and the three main areas are rotated for time. We were able to see the temple of the condor, but unable to see the inside of the sun temple.
After an extremely tiring day, we collected our bags at our hotel, had a beer, and waited for our evening train to Cusco.
The evening train was the Vistadome, the least expensive option(woo hoo!). The experience was excruciating as we were tired and another train with mechanical problems caused us to be delayed an additional three hours. This train serves a snack, has assigned seating, and you cannot roam around. It is more like a bus. This ride has a entertaining fashion show where the staff model the latest alpaca trends.
Day 6 – Cusco
Museo y Catacumbas Del Convento San Francisco de Asis Del Cusco
The Museum of Saint Francis was filled with paintings, a library with really old books, and a small viewing area of the catacombs. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything here in English and you were only allowed to take photos of the courtyard. Most everything was in Spanish or the original Latin. There were some students who volunteered there that provided some context and did mention they were working on translations for the future.
I honestly was not excited about the chocolate museum, but it ended up being deliciously impressive! First off, it is free. That’s right, free! They provide a 10-15 minute sampling where they explain the different chocolates. Unless you hate chocolate, you’re not leaving here without a full bag wondering how you could possibly fit this in your suitcase.
There is a small cafe where you can order a quick snack and, if you plan ahead, they offer chocolate making classes.
Limo and Precolumbian Art Museum
I somehow made it out of this restaurant without a picture of the food. This meal ties for first place with our meal at the Aranwa hotel. Limo is located on the gorgeous Plaza de Armas. We ate early, so we were able to sit on the enclosed balcony and look out at the plaza. The waiter said that after 7, when they do reservations, there isn’t a free spot.
We did souvenir shopping and headed to the Precolumbian Art Museum, which is open later than the others we had considered visiting. If you like decorative pottery, carvings, and gold jewelry, this has a large collection. For a small up charge, you can get the handset to use while you walk through he museum.
This time in Cusco was the only time we stayed in a hotel for more than one night. The Esplendor Hotel (now called the Union Boutique Hotel), was clean and comfortable. The staff was helpful, even helping us order pizza due to the language barrier. This was the only hotel that didn’t offer complimentary bottled water, as the tap water is not safe to drink.
Day 7 – Back to Lima
The morning was a flight to Lima. Upon arriving, we took the Airport Express bus, which was only 8 dollars a ticket and makes frequent trips from the airport to the Miraflores district. The trip took about an hour. I didn’t realize how large Lima was and was even more surprised by how modern and westernized everything seemed to become as we got closer to our hotel. Feeling completely ignorant, I did a quick search to realize the population is over 10 million… which is slightly more than New York City.
From our hotel, we walked half a block to a mall built into the cliff, Larcomar. It had many restaurants stores and restaurants, but surprisingly included many familiar places, such as Chilis, Friday’s, Timberland, GAP, and Banana Republic. After grabbing dinner, we headed back to research the next day’s activities and to relax.
Our last night in Peru, we stayed at the Best Western Plus Urban Larco Hotel. It was squeaky clean with a very sleek and simplistic design. There are definitely much nicer hotels to stay at, but this was an extremely convenient location at a reasonable price.
Day 8 – Lima
Our last day we spent walking. First, we walked to an Incan market to purchase some last minute gifts for friends and family, not having realized we weren’t really in tourist land anymore. The we continued for another 30 minutes through he bustling city to the Huaca Pucllana ruins. The only way to view the ruins are to join a 45 minute guided tour. The pr-Incan clay buildings were still being excavated and they had recently found the ancient remains of a sacrificed mother and child the week before. They do all this with funds donations and the ticket sales as they do not receive and aid from he government. The guide also mentioned that the ruins extended much further, but had been demolished to make way for the ever-growing city.
We made our way back to the water and took a stroll through Lover’s Park. Even though Lima is usually cloud-covered, the colorful landscaping and mosaic decorative walls did not disappoint. We sat for awhile and enjoyed watching the parasailers strategically fly between the ocean, the cliff, and the tall city landscape.
The most “thrilling” portion of our journey was the trip from our hotel to the airport. As we flew down the highway across multiple lanes, even lanes that were meant for the other direction. Our driver said that in Lima there is only one rule – don’t hit anyone. I have never in my life seen a more skilled driver, nor have I ever prayed so hard. Seriously, a two lane road turned into five lanes going a single direction.
I feel so fortunate to have been able to make this trip. I can’t wait for our next adventure!
Planning the Trip
The trip was planned around a single event – visiting Machu Picchu. There are a few guardrails for you trip you should think about:
- Peru has a wet and a dry season, so you’ll likely want to visit when it is dry between May and October.
- Spend at least two days at high altitude before doing any strenuous activity to allow your body to acclimate, especially if you are visiting from sea-level.
- Phone Service – I have AT&T and it was relatively inexpensive to get a few gigs of data and cell service, however, all the hotels we stayed at had WiFi.
- A ticket is required for entry into Machu Picchu. I found it easiest to purchase Machu Picchu tickets directly from Peru’s Ministry of Culture site to avoid markup. They are limited!
- An additional fee to the Machu Picchu ticket is required if you are to hike either of the two peaks. I recommend picking the early times to avoid the heat.
- Sunday is free entry for locals.
- If you are planning on taking the bus up, get your tickets ahead of time in Aguas Calientes.
- Get your train tickets ahead of time from PeruRail.
I bought three different books at the bookstore to plan this trip. While it does not have as many pictures as the others, Frommer’s EasyGuide to Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu was my favorite. It gave sample itineraries and was easy to scan for information. Like with any printed text however, I would recommend validating important information such as operating hours online and such.
I’m all about release plans, sprint boards, and estimation… so my planning process definitely leverages skills I use at work! Sticky notes are the best because plans, like life, change.