Saturday, June 20, 2015

How to Plan an Awesome Tour of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley: Part 2 - Machu Picchu

Once you arrive by train in Machu Picchu Pueblo (or Aguas Calientes - both names are applicable to the little tourist town at the base of the mountain attraction), you've entered a transitional landscape. This is the lush forest in between the desert Andes of the Sacred Valley and the humid tropics of the Amazon. You will noticed the increased humidity (similar to the American northeast) and pregnant green vegetation, orchids and mossy trees not present in the higher, drier altitudes around Ollantaytambo. This is the leg of the trip you've been waiting for.

Plan to spend two days touring Machu Picchu - there is plenty to see, and if you like to hike, devote one of these days to a good strenuous hiking session, and the other to a more contemplative, photographic wondering of the ruins. You could do this in either order. We hiked first and then came back the second day to sit and watch the magical sunrise, and just soak in the scenery. We lucked out as the first morning was cloudy, the ruins shrouded in mysterious fog, while the second was sunny and spectacular. The weather at the top of the mountain changes constantly and two days of touring will give you plenty of opportunity to see everything you came for. I recommend you arrive in the evening before your first day, then leave on the first train to Cusco on the second (you will be rather beat after two
days walking the steep hills at Machu Picchu and happy to get to your Cusco hotel as early as possible so you can settle in and crash).

The first thing we were asked by our concierge, who met us at the train station when we arrived (most hotels provide this service), was "do you have your Machu Picchu entry tickets and your bus tickets." You certainly don't want to wake up the next morning without either of these. Bus tickets for the bus ride up the mountain are easy enough to get at the blue painted facade beside bus station in the heart of town the night you arrive in Aguas Calientes. But you need to buy entry tickets to Machu Picchu more in advance.

You can get them in the Cusco airport when you land, but I recommend you buy well before you leave home. Rather than using the official website, which can be glitchy even for Spanish speakers, I recommend you purchase through an agent such as Ticket Machu Picchu. You pay a little more but they use PayPal and process your tickets within 24 hours. There is a limit of 2500 tourists a day at the site. They don't usually sell out until perhaps the day before, but better safe than sorry. And if you

want to do one of the hikes at Machu Picchu - which I recommend - you need to buy these tickets at least three months early. The best hike is Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain overlooking the ruins often seen in the photos taken from the Machu Picchu gate. This hike takes you to the top of an ancient citadel (traveling stairs built by the Incas) overlooking the city, which shimmers like a lego toy in the distance. Only 400 people are allowed on the Huayna Picchu hike each day, 200 at 7am and another 200 at 11am. I took the 7am hike and what was magical about this was seeing the early fog burn off from way above. Couldn't have asked for a more spectacular way to first encounter the ruins.

View from Huaynu Picchu Hike
One note about this hike. There is a cave, near the very end of the hike, which you must crawl through and then emerge before you can get to the very top and end of the journey. If you suffer claustrophobia you may want to turn around before this (the views are nearly the same).

Also, be careful if you are susceptible to vertigo - you will definitely be subject to it on this hike, and might want to bring some pills if this is a problem for you.

Sacred Rock Hut
The path to Huayna Picchu hike isn't well marked and is actually labeled something else like "Mountain Hike." The entry to this hike is a hut at the far end of the complex (farthest from the park entry), past the main square and just beyond the Sacred Rock. Line up by 7am so you can get an early start.

Looking toward Machu Picchu Mountain
The other hike you can take is "Machu Picchu plus Mountain" which allows you to visit the mountain giving Machu Picchu its name, which hikers arriving on the Inca Trail will encounter on their way in to the site. This is on the other side of the complex, near the entry gate. We planned to do this hike on the second day, but we were plum tuckered out, as hiking up and down the ruins were enough. So we bought these tickets but didn't use them. I suggest that if you plan to do the Huayna Picchu hike, that is probably going to be enough, and all you need for the other day is an ordinary entrance ticket. Do the "plus Mountain" tickets if Huayna Picchu is sold out.

The third hiking option is to skip the bus ride and hike your way up the side of the mountain from the town below. This hike isn't as scenic as the other two but certainly a good workout, and you don't need to worry about special hiking tickets (you still need to buy the Machu Picchu entrance ticket).

So where should you stay for your two days?

Machu Picchu Pueblo (also Aguas Calientes)
First, be aware that prices in Machu Picchu are going to be well over twice what you pay anyplace else. They can get it. So this will be the most expensive part of your journey. If you are willing to pay over $1000 a night and to book over a year in advance, you might find rooms at either Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, at the top of the mountain itself, or InkaTerra Machu Picchu Pueblo, in the town below, which have individual casitas and is reputed to be a fantastic experience.

From our Window at Casa del Sol
For those who are mere mortals, I recommend Sumaq Machu Picchu - which is a modern concrete hotel at the farthest part of Aguas Calientes, but has a very comfortable (and stylish) front lounge, one of the best restaurants in the town, and air conditioning. This place will run about $500 a night but seemed worth it. If you want a better deal - and perhaps a stay closer to the main action of Aguas Calientes - then for $250 a night El Mapi, also by InkaTerra chain, is a nice European-style hotel with a hip bar and modern, if somewhat ordinary, rooms. We stayed at the Casa del Sol, a boutique hotel without air conditioning but with pleasant rooms overlooking the river (you must ask in advance for one of these), also around $250 a night. It's definitely a smaller, older place, and a quieter hang out. The river view was nice and the service exceptional, but the shower was strangely small and elevated on a platform so you had to duck your head under the faucet, and the rooms a bit cramped. El Mapi seemed more our speed. However, I will say that it hardly mattered since everything about the experience is trivial next to the time you spend touring the park itself.

Some notes about getting prepared for your Machu Picchu park experience:

Go early morning. This is why you came to Aguas Calientes. The hordes of organized tourists start descending en mass around 10:00am, when busses begin arriving from Ollantaytambo. You want to be at the park gates by 6:30am, when they open, so you can enjoy some relative freedom from crowds, or the spectacular mountain sunrise. This means you should set your alarm for 4:00am and plan to line up for busses by around 4:45. Getting in line by 5:15am, as we did, still gets you to the park in plenty of time as well. Much later, however, and you'll be missing the first rays of sunrise.

The park will confiscate any food they see in open bags - but for some reason you can bring in anything you like in a backpack. One of the mysteries of Peru. If someone in your party carries water, munchies, and suncreen in a light weight back pack you will all be much happier. Don't forget your camera, bug spray, and a hat. As long as you keep your entrance ticket with you, you can also pick up a sandwich lunch, ice cream, and coke at a little cafe stand just outside the Belmond Lodge any time after mid-morning for a quick refreshment, then re-enter the park and continue sightseeing. There is also a restaurant in the Lodge, but it doesn't open until noon. There are stalls selling hats, t-shirts, staffs, wrapped sandwiches, cola, and water-bottle-holders in every
crany of Aguas Calientes. Buy a hat with a flap that covers your neck before you leave on the bus.

Finally, where to eat? The best restaurant in town is El Indio Feliz, a Peruvian place with some French items on the menu like onion soup. By "best" I mean the food is okay compared to the tourist standards everyplace else. This is not the place in Peru for culinary discovery (save that for Cusco). You will need reservations for dinner at El Indio Feliz. Reserve for your second night, since the first you are likely going to want to eat at your hotel and hit the sack early for the early morning rise.

Aguas Calientes at Night - Children's Parade
Don't overlook the subtle charms of Aguas Calientes itself. Spend some time wondering the streets, picking up tacky souvenirs, admiring the flowers, and stopping for a Pisco Sour at a streetside bar as you people watch. This is a tourist town, through and through, but an essential part of the Machu Picchu experience. Hiking the trails of Huayna Picchu or sitting at a bar off the main drag at Aguas Calientes, you can talk to executives from Silicon Valley, retirees from Australia, college grads from France, and newlyweds from Argentina. Enjoy the opportunity to meet others, like you, who have come to experience one of the top items on their bucket list.

After Machu Picchu, you'll be heading back to Cusco - finally adjusted to the altitude. Now you're ready to enjoy the cosmopolitan attractions of this tourist capital.

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