The second stop of our great South American adventure of 2021.
I have long dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu in Peru. This trip was originally planned for May of 2020, but obviously that was cancelled. As a result, I planned this trip twice, and had to deal with numerous flight schedule changes, as well as Avianca’s decision to no longer fly to Peru. This made having flexible credit card points and miles all the more important to be able to take an excellent trip with most of the travel being more or less free.
My wife and I visited in October of 2021, so some of the particulars at Machu Picchu, as well as in Peru generally, could well have changed by the time you’re reading this or planning your own trip. In any event, we loved our three nights in Urubamba and four days around the Valley, and would love to visit again.
Upon arriving in Cusco from Lima, we found our driver and began our 90-minute drive to Urubamba. For those who may be concerned about altitude sickness, I’d recommend you order your trip like ours. Cusco sits at 11,152 feet, whereas Urubamba sits at 9,420 feet, and Machu Picchu is at 7,972. Applying the mountaineer’s slogan of “climb high, sleep low,” heading to the Valley upon arriving in Cusco should help you to acclimate and be much more comfortable for your time later on in Cusco.
Along the way to Urubamba, we stopped in Chinchero at Textiles Amaru Wasi to shop for a few items we knew we wanted. We loaded up and likely overpaid, but if you’re more comfortable bargaining than us, you may find better deals. Either way, we came away with several fine alpaca and baby alpaca sweaters and blankets that we will enjoy for years to come.
Our hotel in the Valley was the Tambo del Inka, which is a Luxury Collection property in the Marriott Bonvoy program. We used points for this category 6 property and were very happy with the resort. It sits right on the Urubamba River, has excellent views of the surrounding mountains, and in normal times has its own Peru Rail station to take you to and from Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, a few weeks before our trip we were informed that our trains were cancelled, requiring us to go to the main Ollantaytambo station a half-hour away. We had most of our meals in the main restaurant, including a course of cuy, but also ventured off property into town one evening for dinner. The town square is only a few blocks away and was perfectly safe for a walk after dark.
One transportation tip to offer: I arranged all of our vehicle transport through the hotel concierge, but arranged to pay the drivers in cash in Peruvian Soles. The prices were substantially less paying that way, versus having it added to the hotel bill. You can arrange day-long or half-day tours of nearby sites, as well as simple drop-offs and pickups at the train station, airport, etc. As mentioned below, this method allowed us to save a substantial amount of money by not paying for a guided tour of Maras and Moray, while having a private driver all to ourselves. Also, the ATM at the Tambo del Inka limits you to a very small withdrawal amount per transaction, so I’d recommend bringing cash with you from home, Lima, or the airport, otherwise you may find the ATM fees adding up over small transactions.
On day two, we toured the Maras salt mines, and Moray and Ollantaytambo ruins. All three are well worth the visit, but I particularly enjoyed Maras.
Located on a hill side above the Valley, Maras is home to about 4,500 small salt mines. Salt water from a small stream is diverted into the mines, which look like small, shallow pools, where the water evaporates leaving salt that is harvested by the 400 or so families who own the pools, and sold on site and throughout the country and world. Our driver dropped us at the entrance, where he waited in the small parking lot as we took our time viewing the pools. I forget the amount, but the entry fee was small.
From Maras, we headed to the Moray terraces. While no one is precisely sure what it is, the main theory is that the Inca built the site as an agricultural experiment. Measurements have shown that from the top terrace to the bottom, the temperature varies significantly for such a relatively small site. It is well preserved and amazing to behold. Like at Maras, our driver waited for us in the parking lot as we took our time walking through the site. The entry fee here is more substantial, but you can purchase a ticket that gives you entry to multiple local sites for the same day or spread over multiple days, depending on your schedule and interests. We bought a one-day ticket that covered the Moray and Ollantaytambo ruins.
Our last stop of day one was the hillside Incan fortress of Ollantaytambo. In Turn Right at Machu Picchu (a book which you should definitely read before going to MP), Mark Adams describes a scene in which the last Incan ruler paced on his horse back and forth along one of the terraces as the Inca gave the Spanish Conquistadors their worst defeat in their conquest of the Inca. It’s easy to see how the location was such a stronghold, positioned along the river and in a narrow valley between the mountains. As this was our third stop of the day, we didn’t spend as much time here as we could have, and of the three sites, this is likely the best one to hire a guide.
Day three: Machu Picchu! If you’re only just now beginning your planning for a visit to Machu Picchu, know that besides hiking there, the train is your only real option. As Machu Picchu is open on a timed-entry ticketing system, you’ll want to leave enough time to get off the train in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town), make the 5-minute walk to the bus ticket station, and get in line for the 20-minute or so bus ride up to the entrance. To be safe, we opted for the 11AM MP entrance time.
Because the train wasn’t running to our hotel, we had an early start to make the 30-minute drive to the station in Ollantaytambo. There are two or three train options for most days, depending on price, comfort, and view. There are of course, multiple departure times for each, as well. We opted for the middle option, the Vistadome, and booked the 7:45 train to ensure plenty of time to make our 11AM MP entrance. Because of COVID, Peru Rail required us to wear plastic visors over our face, in addition to masks, the entire time we were on the train. We brought some from home, but there were several people selling them outside of the station in case you forget. This got quite foggy over the two-hour ride. Fortunately, on the Vistadome, each train car gets to spend about 30 minutes in the nice rear car taking in the views and watching a band and dance performance, and you can step out on the back for some needed air.
Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes, we got our bearings, went and purchased our roundtrip bus tickets to MP (once you cross the bridge over the river, there will be a sign and line painted on the road directing you to the ticket office), and then sat down for a lite breakfast before heading up to MP.
The bus line seemed to be well organized with signs for each upcoming MP entrance time. You will also be solicited by numerous prospective tour guides milling about. It’s technically a requirement now to hire a guide to enter the site, but I’d recommend it anyway, as we found it well worth the price for the thorough explanations and ability to ask questions. The process of hiring our guide was simple enough. Most important to us was not being rushed through, and having the guide to ourselves. We were told the typical tour was 2-2.5 hours, but we negotiated for the expectation of 3-4 hours, and it cost about $50 USD total. The guide was willing to make a larger group to lower the price per person, but we passed on that option.
There are no bathrooms once you’re inside MP; So be sure to pay the 35 centavos to use the bathroom before you go in.
I will refrain from saying too much about the actual site, and from posting many pictures. But it’s a wonder of the world for a reason. It’s visually breathtaking, and everything about it is enough to bring back your childlike wonder. It exceeded all of my expectations and is well worth the relative hassle to get there. Indeed, the hassle probably makes the payoff better. Fortunately for us, we also went in October, which is shoulder season following the high time of year. That, combined with COVID still hugely prevalent, likely kept the crowd numbers down. There were only two spots where we felt in any way crowded, but the rest of the time we were able to slowly walk through the site as our guide explained, answering our questions, and giving us time for photos and just taking it all in.
As it turned out, 3.5 hours wound up being enough for us that day. We could have stayed longer, but we were a bit overwhelmed with information and stimulation. In the future, I could easily see staying in Aguas Calientes to make it easy to do back-to-back days, preferably with the same guide, to maximize your time and ability to see and process as much as possible. Also, if you plan on climbing either one of the mountains that bookend The Citadel, you’ll likely want to do that anyway.
It was an awesome day. After taking the bus back down, we paid and tipped our guide, and went to find the person who will give your passport the Machu Picchu stamp. (*I would recommend not having them stamp your current passport, as I’ve read stories of that giving people problems in certain places, so we brought our expired passports for just this purpose.). We still had some time to kill before catching our train back to Ollantaytambo, so we grabbed a snack in one of the many restaurants in town.
Day four: On this day, we hired a driver to take us to Cusco, where we stayed for the night before heading to Lake Titicaca. In all our travels, this was the worst driver we’ve ever had. All reasonable speeds were exceeded, every vehicle we came across was quickly passed, all speed bumps were ignored, and a bicyclist nearly met his demise. It was a poor start to the day.
After we checked into our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Cusco, we took several deep breaths in thanks for surviving the journey and then went to lunch at the 5-table La Huerta del Tata, which was the smallest restaurant I’ve ever been in. It was a two-person operation, with our mesero being about 12-years-old. Nevertheless, it was delicious, and the mesero was very professional.
The rest of the afternoon we wandered around the area near the Plaza de Armas, enjoying the sites until an afternoon monsoon set in. The remainder of the day was spent resting and recovering from the previous days of touring the countryside.
Getting there: There are multiple flights to Cusco from Lima every day, with several leaving very early in the morning. I assume many of those early flights are full of people planning to head straight to Machu Picchu. I wouldn’t recommend trying to do that in one day, though. There’s tons to see around the Valley, and not even four days was nearly enough to comfortably take it all in. Plus, if anything were to go wrong, you risk the chance of missing a train or your MP entry time. For such a remote and special place to go, why risk it? Slow down and enjoy the trip. Build in buffers to account for flight delays or cancellations, and nowadays, COVID problems.
The Sacred Valley is an incredible place. I can’t wait to go back.
Our first stop of this trip, Bogota, Colombia, can be read about here.