We visited Machu Picchu on Christmas Day. It was such an easy, straightforward experience that I almost wish we had struggled a little more — if only to make the buildup to Machu Picchu a little more epic.
Our journey began with a comfortable hour and a half train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The ride through the Sacred Valley up into the Andes was like something out of an romanticized nature documentary. There are two train companies to choose from (PeruRail and Inca Rail), and we went with PeruRail, the older and more established company. Our ride on the Vistadome included a sandwich wrap and a beverage. We tried our first chicha morada, a fermented, slightly alcoholic drink made from purple maize.
I was glad our hotel sent someone to meet us at the chaotic station as soon as our train arrived. Our hotel opened up just last year and is rated “#1 Hotel in Aguas Calientes”. It’s easy to see why (e.g., the facilities are brand new, our luxurious room had a jacuzzi tub and a panoramic view of town, and the breakfast buffet was satisfying and served on the top floor with an even better view than our room), but it’s also easy to see why Aguas Calientes gets its unfavorable reputation — the hotel has three different names online, and most of the staff didn’t seem to know what they were doing.
Anyone who visits Machu Picchu must at least pass through Aguas Calientes. We had heard only horror stories of this odd town prior to our trip, so we were expecting the worst but found ourselves surprisingly delighted by it. Sure, some streets are obscenely touristy, but the town itself is tucked into such a naturally stunning setting that we found it easy to overlook all the English menus being thrust into our faces. Aguas Calientes lies deep in a gorge, just a few miles below Machu Picchu. It’s enclosed by lush forests, rushing rivers, and stone cliffs. All over town are large granite rocks that have gorgeous sculptures carved into them. Since we arrived the day before Christmas, children were popping fireworks on the street, making the place feel lively, if not also a bit dangerous.
We had surprisingly good food in Aguas Calientes. In fact, we went to one restaurant twice in our two days there because we couldn’t imagine having a better meal anywhere else. We tried alpaca (tastes like beef!) and Peruvian craft beer for our first meal at Mapacho, and then we returned to Mapacho the next day for a trio of appetizers (trout ceviche, yuca ball, and causa limena) and roasted guinea pig. Guinea pigs are our new favorite meat — fatty with a crispy skin! We had the same sweet waitress as the night before, and she gave me a hug on our way out.
When we woke up the next morning, it was the big day, the whole reason we were in Peru. I had read the same piece of advice over and over: Wake up at 3 am and stand in a long line for the morning buses to Machu Picchu. Regardless, we decided to wake up at a leisurely 5:30 am and enjoy the complimentary breakfast at our hotel before heading out to the bus station. Much to our relief, there was a line of buses waiting to take people up, and almost no people waiting. In fact, we had to sit on our bus for a few minutes so it could fill up. At last, our bus began winding its way up the mountain for 25 minutes, entering another world. The massive lush mountains partially obscured by the morning fog was straight out of Jurassic Park. We expected dinosaurs to pop out at any moment.
We spent the first hour milling around the watchkeeper’s hut, waiting for the fog to dissipate so we could anxiously take perfect photos. Once we felt that we had taken enough, we finally explored the site, climbing through ruins and hiking up terraces. We had no idea how vast Machu Picchu was. It includes more than 150 buildings, 600 terraces, and over 100 flights of stairs, most of which were carved from a single slab of stone. Many of the stones weigh more than 50 pounds, but no wheels were used to transport them up the mountain. Instead, it is believed that men either pushed the heavy rocks or chiseled the rocks from the side of the mountain itself. Its sacred Intihuatana stone accurately indicates the two equinoxes; twice a year, the sun sits directly over the stone, creating no shadow.
The Incas built Machu Picchu in the 15th century but abandoned it only eighty years later when the Spanish started colonizing other parts of their empire. It was never discovered by the Spanish and was thus saved from plunder and destruction. It remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls without the use of mortar, and still stands strong despite sitting on two fault lines. In Quechua, the name means “old mountain”.
A few hours later, we were satisfied enough to leave. One could spend an entire day at Machu Picchu, but it was starting to sprinkle and we were getting pretty hungry, so we decided to return to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch. A bus was waiting for us outside, and we rode it back, surrounded by other awestruck, exhausted tourists.
Tips for future travelers:
If you’re short on time like we were, take the train to Aguas Calientes. However, if you have more time, you might as well brave the five-day Inca Trail hike. We’re still young, and I expect we’ll be back in Peru at some point, so we’ll definitely hike it next time.
Most people have awful experiences in Aguas Calientes, and I think part of that has to do with their hotel. While our hotel had a couple of flaws, we thought it was an incredibly relaxing place that matched the dramatic setting of Aguas Calientes. At $140/night, it was the most expensive place we stayed during our time in Peru, but it was worth it.
Make sure you book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu months in advance. You’ll need to decide what hikes you want to do before you book. I’d recommend just doing the Inca Trail hike, but then forgoing all the hikes at the actual site. You’re there to enjoy!
Take the bus up to Machu Picchu. The 90-minute hike up the mountain follows the same road that the bus takes, and I pitied any hiker we passed on our way up. It’s no fun to walk alongside vehicles! Purchase your bus tickets in Aguas Calientes the night before, just in case there are long lines the day of. The bus ticket office is open until 9 pm every day.
Aim for a family-centric holiday. I think the main reason we dealt with no lines is that we decided to go on Christmas Day, when most people (Peruvians and tourists alike) would rather stay home with their families.
Eat at Mapacho and Full House. At Mapacho, walk up to the second floor for an even better view of the rapids.
It’s called Aguas Calientes for a reason. Bathe in the hot springs, or at least get a massage like we did. I recommend Nature Spa Healing Hands for a no-frills massage.
If you are prone to carsickness, don’t sit in the back of the bus on your way to or from Machu Picchu. It’s a winding, bumpy ride.
What to bring to Machu Picchu? Passports (yes, they check!), snacks, water, and a poncho.
We went in the early morning, and it was kind of romantic with the morning fog. However, for a better view, stay until the afternoon. It will get more crowded but the fog will clear up.
On our train ride to Aguas Calientes, we rode the Vistadome (the 2nd cheapest train), but on our way home, we rode the Expedition (the cheapest train) because I figured going home would be less exciting; plus, it was night time so there’s not much of a view anyway. The Expedition is a slightly older train and does not include a meal, but it still had huge windows and great service.