From reading all about this magical place in magazines, travel guide books, to watching documentary on National Geographic, and then finally standing right on top of the mountain, looking back down at this Inca city built some 500 years ago, I couldn’t help but let out a big sigh of exhilaration (but then it could be just me being short of breath because of the high altitude). Words cannot describe the feeling, the experience and my gratitude, and I bet American historian Hiram Bingham III felt the same way when he first discovered this ancient ruin back in 1911. As cliché as it may sound, photos really do not do this place justice. If you really want to experience the grandeur of this place, you simply have to be there.
And this place is – Machu Picchu.
But first, how do we get there? What preparations do we need to do to climatise ourselves for the high altitude? And above all, what do we see and do at Machu Picchu? This post will be the ultimate guide that has everything you need to know about Machu Picchu.
First thing first, before starting your journey to Machu Picchu, you need to let your body acclimatised to the high altitude. You simply do not know whether you will suffer from high altitude sickness or not until you are actually there. Each person reacts to high altitude sickness differently, light-headed and feeling short of breath are the most common symptoms, but then there are some serious cases including headache, nausea, vomit and diarrhoea.
So I would suggest you to stay in Cusco for at least two days and let your body adjust to the high altitude before making your way to Machu Picchu. When I first arrived in Cusco, I instantly felt it. The air was a lot thinner and I had to stop to catch my breath every 5-10 steps especially walking uphill. Do you know Cusco is actually higher than Machu Picchu? Cusco sits at 3,399 metres above sea level whereas Machu Picchu is almost one thousand metres short at 2,430 metres. So if your body can cope in Cusco, then you will have no trouble at Machu Picchu.
No doubt the best way to travel to Machu Picchu is to follow Hiram Bingham’s footsteps by hiking to the ruins on the legendary Inca Trail. However, it does require a certain level of fitness and trainings to accomplish the challenge of strenuous hiking for four days. For most visitors, the easiest and quickest way to get there is by train. The Peru Railoffers a variety of train services at different rates that run daily from Cusco to Machu Picchu and the journey lasts just over three hours.
We caught the early morning Vistadome train service from Cusco. The train itself was spacious and comfortable with leather seats in two by two seating arrangement sharing a communal table. The large panoramic windows offering incomparable scene views throughout the whole journey. A light refreshment was also included during our journey.
There is a lot of amazing sceneries to take in as the train slowly cruising along countryside. So make sure you have your camera ready to capture the natural beauty of Peru’s landscape.
Eventually the train will arrive at the last stop which is Machupicchu station (also known as Aguas Calientes), the closest access point to the historical site Machu Picchu which is still 6 kilometres away. The Machupicchu Pueblo (village) itself is not that big, there are limited accommodations available for those who want to stay closer to the site and also who suffers from high altitude sickness at Cusco because this village is a lot lower at only 2,040 metres above sea level.
From here, there are regular buses that take visitors up to the historical site. Our bus took about 30 minutes zigzagging up the mountain to the front entrance of Machu Picchu citadel. You will get a spectacular view over the mountain ranges and the Urubamba River on the way up.
Due to the increasing number of visitors to Machu Picchu which can be up to 75,000 people each year, the management team is trying their best to preserve the historical site by limiting the number of visitors each day. So it is best to book your ticket in advance once you have a date confirmed. The daily pass allows multiple entries during your visit.
One thing worth mentioning is that there are no kiosks selling food or drinks once you are inside. So best to bring your own food and water if you decided to stay inside, have yourself a little picnic and marvel at the ruins. But the more popular option is to have buffet lunch at Tinkuy Buffet Restaurant which is part of Belmond Sanctuary Lodge right next to the entrance of the site. You can join the queue to purchase a ticket at the counter for the buffet lunch, or you can pre-book the Vistadome train and buffet lunch package.
So, I had my ticket stamped, my bag checked and I walked through the boom gate. At last, the most anticipated moment of this journey was finally here!
Behold, the Machu Picchu!
Machu Picchu was built around 1450 at the height of the Inca Empire. The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. The whole complex is actually quite vast with approximately 200 buildings are arranged and adapted to the natural form of the mountains, including palaces, plazas, temples, homes, agriculture sectors and also site for astronomy. Its dramatic location creates a false impression that the city is actually floating in the sky.
There are many theories why this city was built and then abandoned just over 100 years later, but none of the theories were concrete. While indigenous peoples knew of the site, Peru’s Spanish conquerors never did. In 1911, American historian Hiram Bingham stumbled upon this site with the help of a local farmer during his Peruvian Expedition with one of its objectives to search for the lost city of Vitcos, the last capital of the Incas.
The busiest time at Machu Picchu is between 10am to 2pm, there will be thousands of visitors wandering around the ruins like tiny ants. So for the photography enthusiasts, forget about trying to capture your award-winning shots, just enjoy the site and maybe a few selfies at best.
As mentioned this place is huge so it will take quite some time to explore the whole site. I presume most tourists will just explore Machu Picchu on their own with a guidebook. But I highly recommend you to hire a tour guide who will share their extensively knowledge about this significant site so you actually can learn about this place rather than just looking at some ruins that are totally meaningless to you.
The Huayna Picchu mountain perched right behind Machu Picchu is actually open to visitors with prior booking. It is restricted to only 400 visitors are allowed to climb the mountain each day. The climb is steep and exposed so it is not recommended for visitors in poor physical condition
The Incas were masters of construction which can be clearly seen here at Machu Picchu. Blocks of stone are cut to fit together without mortar so tightly that it is said not even a blade of grass fits in the cracks. They even have a sophisticated channeling systems provided irrigation for the fields and the whole city.
And then we spotted a Viscacha! This cute rodent is actually from the Chinchilla family, but a lot bigger and look similar to rabbit apart from the long, fluffy tail. It was well camouflaged against the rocks in the ruins so we were pretty lucky to have spotted one.
We also stumbled upon the local indigenous people who were so willingly to have their photos taken and expecting to get paid. According to their superstition, they believe that the cameras capture part of their souls and taken away from their bodies, hence they want to be compensated for their lost souls. In my opinion, it is fair to offer them some money when they are so willing to let visitors taking photos of them. So if you want to capture that National Geographic portrait, you better be ready to pay.
We spent about 3 hours at Machu Picchu before heading out to the restaurant for buffet lunch. It was perfect timing as it also started to rain at the site. The rain had stopped by the time we finished our lunch so we headed back to Machu Picchu and the whole site was significantly quieter as most of the tour groups were already left by then. And now was the best time to capture my best shots of Machu Picchu when there was no one around.
After the rain, the inquisitive llamas also came out to play and grazed on the grass at the site.
Machu Picchu shuts at 5.30pm, but even by 4.30pm, the site was pretty empty. Our tour guide said to us before we leave, “Don’t forget to put down you camera and take in the view yourself as well, it’ll be once of a lifetime experience for you as you probably will not come back here again.”
One last thing you need to do is to get your passport stamped with the special Machu Picchu stamp. You will see the stamp booth on the right hand side just before you exit the site.
It was time to hop on the bus back to Aguas Calientes village where we will catch the last train back to Cusco. This time instead of going back on the Vistadome train, we were treated like the royals by going back on the exclusive Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury train.
Random fact: Do you know Belmond used to be the company formerly known as Oriental Express? That’s right, the famous Oriental Express that used to run between Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul). So you can assure that the train ride on the Hiram Bingham is going to be top notch.
The train is named after Hiram Bingham who discovered Machu Picchu and made it famous of course. The carriages are distinguished by their blue and gold colours for its warm and cozy interiors that feature elegant upholstery and dark wood furniture. We were greeted with a welcome drink of Pisco Sour as we settling in. You can slump back and relax after a long day exploring Machu Picchu, or join fellow travellers at the bar for live music and more cocktails while sharing travelling stories.
A four-course gourmet dinner was also included in the package as part of the experience. The food was exceptional, as good as in a fine dining restaurant. All courses were prepared using local ingredients especially from around the Machu Picchu area. The dishes were simple but executed beautifully.
We started with amuse bouche of traditional Solterito Cusquefio, which is a simple salad of pickled vegetables, local fava beans, fresh Peruvian cheese, tomato and sweet potato puree infused with orange. The entree was leek and potato emulsion by using freeze dried potatoes harvested from land 3,000 metres above sea level, served with Kiwicha caviar on potato crisp.
Passengers had the options of vegetarian (quinoa) or beef for main course. I opted for the tenderloin beef, served with variation of potatoes from the community of “Huama” and a rich “Molle” sauce seasoned with Sacred Valley’s pink pepper. I was really impressed that the beef was perfectly cooked to medium rare.
We finished off with decadent dessert of 55% organic cacao from Quillabamba, a village near Machu Picchu, accompanied by a wedge of caramelised pineapple, tarragon infused strawberry coulis and Maras salt to elevate the sweetness of this beautiful dessert.
By the time we arrived back in Cusco, it was almost 9.30pm. My body didn’t feel tired and still all hyped up from an amazing day. I still couldn’t believe that I had just visited Machu Picchu, one of the greatest heritage sites in the world. It is definitely one my top 5 must-visit destinations.
Believe it or not, I already making plans to head back to Machu Picchu, hopefully next year. And this time, I might even do the 4-day Inca Trail! Will I survive or not? I guess there is only one way to find out. So, who’s with me?
How to get there – LAN Airlines now operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in a codeshare partnership with oneworld partner airline Qantas.
Where to stay in Machu Picchu – Belmond Sanctuary Lodge
- Make sure you have your vaccination for Hep A & B, Typhoid and Yellow Fever prior to departure.
- Get some US dollars and then exchange it to local currencies when you get to South America.
- Drink Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Camenere, Syrah from Chile; Malbec from Argentina
- Best to get bottled water rather than drink from tap
- To create your own holiday in South America, please visit South America Travel Centre.