At the risk of sounding like an awful person, I’ll admit that I wasn’t excited about visiting Machu Picchu. It wasn’t a bucket list item for me. I admired photos of the ruins, but I was more interested in other South American destinations like Salar de Uyuni, Patagonia, and even Rainbow Mountain.
So, why did I even bother going Machu Picchu? Frankly, I felt like I had to. If I was traveling all the way to Peru – and Cusco, specifically – how could I not go?
Thank goodness I went: Machu Picchu was astounding. Below is more information about how I planned my visit.
A couple of weeks before I arrived in Cusco, I started seriously thinking about tours and treks to Machu Picchu. There are about a million options (no exaggeration), but these were the main ones I considered:
- Day trip from Cusco. If you’re short on time and/or don’t want to hike, many companies offer full-day tours from Cusco. It’s a long day: tours leave Cusco at around 6:00 or 7:00 AM and return at around 9:00 or 10:00 PM. You’ll also be at Machu Picchu during peak hours, when you may have to spend a lot of time dodging other groups.
- Spend a night in Aguas Calientes and tour Machu Picchu the following day. Aguas Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu. It takes about 30 minutes to walk to the gates of Machu Picchu and then another hour to reach the entrance to the ruins. You can take a bus directly to the entrance if you don’t want to walk. Aguas Calientes is super-touristy, but it contains many accommodations, ranging from budget to luxury. This option allows you to get to the gates of Machu Picchu at 5:00 AM, when they open. You can enjoy the ruins in a quieter setting before the day trippers from Cusco arrive.
- Four-day, three-night classic Inca Trail trek. Since I wasn’t too jazzed about Machu Picchu in the first place, I had no burning desire to hike the Inca Trail. However, some travelers who put Machu Picchu on their bucket list have an Inca Trail-or-bust mentality. If the Inca Trail is important to you, book a tour at least a few months in advance, as the government limits the number of people who can be on the trail per day. The Inca Trail is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure. It’s cool to be able to walk on the same path that the Incas built 400 years ago. Was it necessary for me though? No.
- Five-day, four-night Salkantay trek. I almost chose this. The Salkantay trek arguably contains the most beautiful views, with snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes. Salkantay also involves the most extreme altitude and temperature changes out of the trekking options I considered: you start in chilly temperatures and end in the jungle. The first couple of days in the mountains are particularly challenging. Many companies offer Salkantay tours, but you can do the trek yourself if you want to save money. Unlike the classic Inca Trail, it’s possible to book a Salkantay tour with just a few days’ notice.
- Ultimately, I didn’t do Salkantay because I was intimidated. It’s a lame reason, but whatever, I’m a dork – I can accept the truth. I didn’t have cold weather gear or hiking boots, and I was worried I would have trouble lugging around camping equipment if I did the trek by myself. There were easy solutions to these issues (buy cheap gear in Cusco; join a tour that takes care of camping gear/accommodation), but I was looking for easy outs. I also planned to go to Patagonia later in my South America trip, so I figured I’d get my fill of mountains and lakes there.
- Four-day, three-night Inca jungle trek. This is what I ended up doing. The jungle trek includes adventure activities such as mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and zip lining. It doesn’t require reservations months in advance, and the hiking isn’t as intense as Salkantay. I was able to book my tour a couple of nights before the departure date. Since the jungle trek is more budget-friendly and can be booked last minute, it’s a popular option for backpackers.
I visited the offices of a few companies that offered the jungle trek and decided to go with Reserv Cusco. Marco at the Reserv Cusco office was the only person I met who described the itinerary in detail. He said all groups were capped at eight or nine people, and the tour included things (transport back to Cusco, entry fees to hot springs, water for two days) that other companies didn’t cover. Somehow, Reserv Cusco also kept its prices on par with many of its competitors (1,033 PEN or about $319).
On the first morning of the tour, I met my two lovely group mates (a young Dutch couple) and Jose Antonio, our all-star guide. Jose Antonio was a walking encyclopedia who knew everything about flora, fauna, and history. He never rushed us and made sure we were comfortable with all the activities in the tour.
Our first activity was biking for three hours from a town called Abra Malaga to Santa Maria. Jose Antonio led the way, and he kept a good pace where we went fast enough to have fun while still maintaining control of our bikes. The road was paved, and most of the ride was downhill, so it was much easier than my Death Road experience.
We went whitewater rafting later that day, which was an excellent way to cool off. The rapids weren’t intense, and everyone managed to stay in the raft. Even now, three months after the tour, I can hear our rafting guide’s paddling instructions in my head (“Adelante! One, two, one, two!”).
Our second day consisted of hiking from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa. The trail started with a couple of hours of a steady uphill, but the day was manageable. We had a view of the Urubamba River for a good portion of the hike.
This day was also notable because my Dutch group mates introduced me to chocolate Nature Valley bars. OMG, why haven’t I seen these in the US? So much better than the oats and honey bars I see everywhere. I meant to eat just one bar, but I had no willpower after realizing how good it was and immediately scarfed down a second.
After about six hours of hiking, we reached the hot springs at Santa Teresa, which were sheer bliss. I normally can’t sit in a hot tub or thermal bath for more than ten minutes without getting parched, but the springs at Santa Teresa were the perfect temperature. Jose Antonio let us hang out for as long as we wanted, and we took full advantage by staying for about 1.5 hours.
We started our third day with Vertikal Zip Line, where we got to slide on four lines of varying lengths. The staff members were great at helping us slide upside down and “Superman” style. The adrenaline rush got us pumped for hiking the rest of the day.
After zip lining, we walked along train tracks that started from a hydroelectric plant (“hidroelectrica”).
When we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, my group mates and I relaxed in some hammocks. Within a few minutes, four puppies rushed out and flocked around us. I got so giddy from their endless energy. Is there anything better than being attacked by puppies? (“No” is the only correct answer.)
I put one puppy in my hammock, which made the other three even more hyper.
After the high of surviving a puppy attack, the rest of the day was pretty low-key. We reached Aguas Calientes in the late afternoon. Although we constantly had to sidestep restaurant workers who waved menus toward us, the town had one redeeming factor: I was able to buy a peanut butter Nature Valley bar at a convenience store. I’m happy to report that it was just as delightful as the chocolate one.
Only local guides are allowed to give tours of Machu Picchu, so my Dutch friends and I had to say goodbye to Jose Antonio in Aguas Calientes. The Dutch couple and I met up at 4:15 AM on our fourth and final day to walk to Machu Picchu.
The gates opened a few minutes after 5:00 AM, and we began the hourlong hike up to the ruins. It rained during the entire climb, so I doubled up with a rain jacket and poncho. Humidity + physical exertion + two layers of plastic = sweat + sweat + sweat. I took comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only one sweating through my tshirt.
Honestly, the climb to Machu Picchu would be the one thing I’d change about my experience. I should have taken the bus from Aguas Calientes instead. The bus cost $12 one way, so it’s not exactly cheap. However, the hike isn’t scenic, so you don’t miss out on anything by taking the bus. You can arrive at Machu Picchu more refreshed than the suckers who decided to tackle a sweaty climb before sunrise.
When we arrived at the entrance to the ruins, we banded up with a fabulous and entertaining local guide named Rebekah. Once our group was assembled, Rebekah led us to this:
I was spellbound. I might have had doubts about Machu Picchu, but seeing the ruins in person made me a believer. I understand the hype now: it’s truly majestic.
The rain stopped as we toured the ruins, but clouds still clung to the surrounding mountains. We also got a glimpse of the trail that we’d walked on the previous day.
After Rebekah finished our two-hour tour, we were welcome to walk through the ruins one more time at our own pace. I ate a peanut butter Nature Valley bar (nom) while taking in the ruins.
At around 11:00 AM, day trippers started filing in. Machu Picchu wasn’t quite as magical when squeezing through crowds, so I called it a day. Although I was sad to leave, I was so grateful to have been able to visit.
As incredible as Machu Picchu was, there was yet another highlight. Reserv Cusco booked me a seat on an Inca Rail train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo as part of the transport back to Cusco. This train was beautiful, with picture windows and skylights.
After staying in basic accommodations during the trek, it was a treat to travel in style. I normally pass out in moving vehicles, but the scenery was so gorgeous that I actually stayed awake. As an unexpected bonus, drinks and snacks were served. I was a happy camper.
A couple of final tips if you’re thinking about visiting Machu Picchu:
- Bring insect repellent. I repeat: bring insect repellent. The mosquitoes and sand flies in the jungle are mutants and will test the patience of even the most diehard PETA member. They attack any bare patches of skin and leave painfully itchy bites that last for days. I wore leggings throughout the trek, but the bugs still got my ankles. A few even bit through my leggings. Still, I managed to stay relatively unharmed with leggings and bug spray. Other travelers weren’t so lucky. When you walk around Cusco, you can easily identify travelers who did a Machu Picchu trek without insect repellent because their legs are covered with chicken pox-like spots.
- Spend a couple of days in Cusco before starting a trek. Cusco is about 3,400 meters above sea level, so travelers have to be careful with altitude sickness. Most of the Inca jungle trek is at a lower altitude than Cusco, but some sections of the Inca Trail and Salkantay are at higher elevations. To reduce the risk of getting sick on a hike, the general rule of thumb is to acclimatize in Cusco for a couple of days. Cusco has plenty of sights and activities, so it’s easy to keep yourself busy. I didn’t suffer from serious symptoms (alcoholic beverages just packed an extra hard wallop – only one pisco sour for me, gracias), but a few people at my hostel battled headaches and were even bedridden for a day or two.