Machu Picchu has always been on my bucket list. I knew that even if I wasn’t hiking the whole Inca Trail that I would want to go sooner rather than later because you never know when you’re going to get a bad back or something and not be able to do anything at all. I posted on Facebook that I wanted to go and who wanted to go with me. I ended up with a crew of 10 maniacs and for the most part it went really super well. The whole trip was 10 days in August 2016. August is their busy season because that’s when everyone has time off and it’s the dry season. BUT: it’s also winter and colder there, though it’s equatorial and you’re in the jungle, so it’s not so bad. You’re also at a really high altitude.
I used my miles on American to get a first class ticket to LIM. It was a LONG day of flying and I’m really thankful I had the extra comfort. Peru is really far away, more so than I expected. I thought the value for the first class upgrade was better than Europe. Longer travel time and less miles needed.
We landed super late at LIM and we stayed at the Wyndham at the airport. It was super easy because we walked across a bridge and we were there. A lot of other people had the same idea and check-in was a zoo. We enjoyed our first pisco sours in the lobby, which got us excited for the trip.
The next day we flew to CUZ for some altitude acclimation in Cuzco. Something that most people may not realize is that Cuzco is actually higher than Machu Picchu! We stayed on Marriott points in the JW Marriott, and it was FABULOUS. I cannot say enough nice things about the place. It’s a converted 16th century monastery. It’s an elite resort experience, it’s not an actual Peruvian people experience. Definitely worth swinging by for a Pisco Sour – the best of our trip! Our non-Marriott friends that wanted to stay somewhere more affordable stayed at Hotel Ruinas and really liked it. Both have a great central location.
Cuzco was a really awesome town. Vibrant is the best word I can come up with for the people and cities of Peru that we saw. The architecture was so neat, the food was AMAZING, and there were little parades and celebrations popping up all over. We really liked it a lot. The best restaurant we went to was Pachapapa, which felt very authentically Peruvian, to an outsider at least! Someone in my party ordered the Alpaca there, and I had a bite and it was actually super flavorful. The shopping was really great too – lots of places to get alpaca wool, which is amazingly soft and you totally need some.
One of the coolest things we did in Cuzco was we went to the Choco Museo and took a workshop that showed us how to make chocolate “from bean to bar” – it was super fun and interactive and I loved it. I got some chocolate to take home with me, and it’s amazingly delish. I’m going to sneak into my stash and have one of my last pieces tonight.
Everyone I’ve talked to that has gone to Peru has had at least one person in their group come down with the Peruvian version of Montezuma’s Revenge. I’m the one in our group that got it and I wanted to die. I’ve heard of people hiking the trail having to stop every few minutes and deal with it. Use only bottled water. Go to your doctor beforehand and get something to help you with travelers diarrhea. You should also go to your doc and ask if a prescription for Diamox, which will help you with the altitude sickness, is right for you. The other thing that everyone recommends is chewing cocoa leaves or drinking cocoa tea. If you can get a drug test at work, you might want to consider not doing that.
One thing in Cuzco I didn’t get to do because I was sick that everyone else did and loved was a hike to Sacsaywaman. (Pronounced like “Sexy Woman!”).
Then we hopped on the train to Aguas Calientes, aka Macchu Picchu town. As of now there are two ways to get there – you hike or you train. We really enjoyed the train ride. It was gorgeous. You could see the change in the vegetation as we slowly got into the beginnings of the Amazon jungle near MP. There was a lot of rural poverty that we saw, and it gave me a lot of pause to think. I watched a guy with rudimentary farming tools working a field by hand. I spent some time thinking about his life and the stupid drama in my life that he has no idea about. I’m not a writer, so I can’t express it really well, but it gave me a bit of a life check. I still think about him often. The crew on the train was fabulous, they interacted with the passengers like they were cruise directors and gave history of the country and the Incans. On the way back they were dancing in the aisle. It was a really great experience.
Aguas Calientes is a really neat little town, but 100% driven by tourism. In the town center you’re not going to find anything authentic, but you can still find stuff that is good. We had some good jewelry shopping and some average to decent food. We stayed at Gringo Bill’s, which is right by the main square and super close to where the bus picks up. The town is super small and you can walk everywhere, I have a hard time thinking of somewhere that would have been a bad location. Given how this is literally remote as you can imagine, and you’re thankful that you’re not in a tent on the Inca trail, you need to manage your expectations of where you’re staying. If you have a roof over your head, a mattress, and hot running water, you’re golden. Our room didn’t have enough electrical outlets for phone charging AND the space heater. And we had a window that didn’t have glass in it – just chicken wire. So all the mosquitoes and cold and noise from people going to their room at night got into our room. Bring earplugs and lots of bug spray. Our friends brought a mosquito net because they were worried about Zika.
You need to buy your tickets to get into the actual site well in advance. Make sure you have your tickets to get into the site before you buy your plane or other transportation tickets. We walked by the ticket office when we were there in August and there was a sign saying they were sold out until October. The web page is super complicated when you buy tickets. Make sure you not only buy the tickets, but that you purchase them. Yep, that sounds confusing, because it is. Check your credit card for a few days later and if you don’t have a charge, go back and buy again. We had people mess this up, but luckily were able to still buy tickets later.
We did two days up at Machu Picchu. The weather can totally suck. We didn’t want to risk not getting That Famous Picture. We felt totally satisfied with having two days there. It was amazing, we were not bored. You could do one day if you want.
The bus: It’s hard to get on and it’s scary. You have to buy tickets at a little kiosk by the river, cash only. We got in line at 0500 and it was an hour and a half wait to get on the bus. We got in line later and it was horrible too. You drive up a one-way switchback dirt road up to the top of the mountain. It. Is. Terrifying. But also, this is where you get the scale for how amazingly grand Machu Picchu really is. You might hear that it’s shorter time-wise to hike up to the entrance of MP than to take the bus. Yeah, if you’re in Olympic athlete shape and are acclimated to the altitude. We saw people hiking up and it was crazy.
The first day we got there, we took the bus up and when you’re waiting in line to go through the gate, there are a bunch of sanctioned guides you can hire to walk you through the grounds and explain everything to you. We hired one and spent the morning walking around the main part of the grounds and taking photos. It was really nice to know what we were really looking at. There are no bathrooms, restaurants, vending machines, or anything once you are inside the gate. There are a limited number of in-and-outs allowed on your ticket per day. We went out and had lunch at the hotel right there at the top, which we got included with whatever train ticket we got. Nice big buffet, would totally recommend. Otherwise you can pick up sandwiches in Aguas Calientes. (Even while waiting in line for the bus!) Then in the afternoon we went back in and did the hike up to the Sun Gate, which was a good beginner hike with amazing views. The Sun Gate is where the Inca Trail comes over the mountain and you would get your first view of the ruins. So if you hike that you can say you hiked on the Inca trail without doing it for five days! Would definitely recommend this itinerary if you’re only doing it for one day.
The second day we got tickets to Huyana Picchu. If you look at the picture at the top of this post of Machu Picchu, Huyana Picchu is the tallest upside down U-shaped mountain in the background. It was INTENSE and super hard. There are two paths you can take, up and down the same path in the front, or you can go around the back (follow the signs for the cave) which was INCREDIBLE because we were doing the back side for about three hours and saw only one other person. Seriously, the hike was hard, but it was so worth it. If you go, you need to get on the stair master A LOT before you go. Here’s my Trip Advisor Review for more details if you want to know. Because the ticket getting was so difficult for Huyana, and because it’s a hard hike, not everyone in our group did this. Some did the Montana Machu Picchu hike, some just chilled in the ruins a second day. You can sit and be at peace and observe and be great.
We hiked Huyana the second day in the morning, and then our hotel let us use the shower in the lobby before we caught the train back (That was seriously the best shower of my life). We got back to Cuzco really late and stayed by the airport at a forgettable hotel and flew out the next morning to Lima.
A lot of people described Lima to me as being very San Diego-esque. We were staying in Miraflores, which is the “La Jolla” area near the sea. There are some cities you really connect with, and some you don’t, and Lima just wasn’t my town. We still ate some great food, and we saw some amazing sites. We went to the catacombs under a church and saw a bunch of bones. The erotic pottery museum was NOT TO BE MISSED. We got a guide to go through it, and she was so slow, gave us way too much obscure information. If you go and get a guide, make sure you request a fast clip. We had dinner at the restaurant at the pottery museum, it was delish. We also went to huaca pucllana, which is a neat archaeological site and had dinner there the other night.
Overall – I think everyone should try to go to Machu Picchu in their lifetime. There are very few fully-smack-you-in-the-face amazing views in this planet. There’s the Grand Canyon, the caldera at Santorini, Cliffs of Moher that I’ve seen. This place is on another level of magnitude that you can’t capture in any of the videos or photos you see. You understand why it’s a spiritual site and why the Incans and the ancient Greeks thought heaven was on top of a mountain.