Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Getting to Machu Picchu is not that hard. But it sometimes seems like the Peruvian government goes out of its way to make it difficult.
The first thing you need to do is decide whether you are taking a guided Inca trail hike to Machu Picchu or the train with the rest of humanity. Either way, make this decision in advance especially if you decide to hike because there are a limited number of passes and I’m told they sell out quickly. You also need to decide if you want to purchase entrance to the Wayna Picchu (also called Huayna Picchu) hike. Wayna Picchu is the famous mountain in the backdrop of all the Machu Picchu pictures. They only allow 400 people up a day, 200 at 7 a.m. and 200 at 10 a.m. Entrance costs an additional $10.00.
We chose the coward’s route for a number of reasons: 1) We didn’t want to spend $600+ on a guided hike. 2) We didn’t want to sleep in tents. 3) We were nervous about climbing 4,000+ feet at an altitude of 12,000 feet. 4) We didn’t want to spend half our vacation on the Inca trail. There were a number of other sites we wanted to see in Peru and hiking the Inca trail is a sizable time commitment.
The government limits the number of Machu Picchu entrance tickets to 2,500 a day, so buy your tickets as soon as you know your schedule. Buying the entrance tickets is probably the hardest part of getting to Machu Picchu. The site is in Spanish, and it frequently refuses to accept credit cards. Note: You can set the site to English, but it will only proceed to payment in Spanish. Yes, the appropriate reaction is this:
We used this very helpful site to navigate the language barrier and other quirks. The site refused my credit card twice, but Lisa managed to get approval after she called her credit card company. It is important to note that the site will issue you a reservation slip before it issues tickets. The reservation slip is not the same as tickets, and will not gain you entrance to Machu Picchu. Make sure you receive and print out tickets, which will look like this:
If all else fails, you can use a travel agency to book your tickets.
Next up, we booked our train tickets from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. In the olden days, there was only one train company. Today, there are two (PeruRail and IncaRail) leaving from Cusco, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. And among these companies, the trains vary from basic to nicer, to downright luxurious (and expensive). We ended up choosing our train based on our schedule which is how we ended up in the slightly more expensive Vista Dome train through Peru Rail. The Vista Dome features ceiling windows with slightly better views and a hysterical fashion show on the way home.
A very important note that we did not see mentioned on the many blogs we poured over: Officially, the trains to Machu Picchu limit the amount of luggage you can take to 10 kilos (22 lbs or so). You can pay to store your luggage at the train station (which works if you are leaving and returning to the same station) or you can fork over a hefty sum to have your luggage transferred to your next hotel. That is what we did. As we boarded the train, however, we saw plenty of people with real luggage, so it is not at all clear how much they enforce this rule. Carry at your own risk.
The train is comfortable and the view is pretty. Almost all the seats feature two rows facing each other with a table in the middle so make friends. We met a lovely couple from Canada and ended up hiking with them the next day.
When you get to Aguas Calientes, you will have two options for actually getting up to the famous Machu Picchu. You can walk up – have fun with that – it takes about an hour and a half. Or you can pay $19 ($38 round trip) to take a bus up the windy road. We bought our bus tickets as soon as we arrived on our way to our hotel.
The buses start as early as 5:30 a.m. and go continuously throughout the day. There are also all sorts of rules about what you can bring into Machu Picchu – no food, no disposable water bottles, no walking sticks — but we saw people violating these rules left and right. My advice: Put any contraband in your backpack as you go through the entrance and you should be fine.