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
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
|Looking toward Machu Picchu Mountain
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)
|From our Window at Casa del Sol
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.
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
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.