What Visiting Machu Picchu Is Really Like

Machu Picchu Peru

There are just some places around the world so iconic, so recognizable that they don’t need an introduction, and certainly Machu Picchu in Peru falls into that category. This Inca city high in the mountains is a place of wanderlust for most of us. Those fog-covered mountains and the promise of exploration, real exploration, and discovery – the likes of which most of us thought had long since vanished from the world. At least that’s the promise, one that drives millions to visit. I know that’s why I was there, not only to tick off an item on my 40 Before 40 List, but to also fulfill a long held dream. To ascend to the top of the Andes and to explore the once forgotten town of Machu Picchu for myself. But does all that anticipation actually live up to the hype? Here’s my answer to that important question.

Getting There

I traveled to Peru, and ultimately Machu Picchu with – the adventure tour company who generously sponsored the trip. The tour was a short one, just 7-days, and the main focus was Machu Picchu and the surrounding Incan sites. Like a good novel, the tour slowly built anticipation every day, teasing guests until the last full day of the tour, the Machu Picchu day. At least that was my experience, but then again I didn’t hike the famous Inca Trail. This 4-day trek through the mountains of Peru is strenuous, but apparently rewarding from everyone I’ve talked to. Starting just outside the mountain town of Ollantaytambo, it meanders through the Andes until that final moment when trekkers arrive to Machu Picchu itself. I, and thousands like me, opted not to hike and to instead visited in a much more low-impact way.

There aren’t many ways to actually reach Machu Picchu, and it is a process. If you don’t don a backpack and take to the 4-day hike, then your other option is the surprisingly well-managed Inca Rail Machu Picchu Train. This scenic rail leaves from the small town of Ollantaytambo, the launching pad for all explorations of the ancient Incan monuments. I wasn’t expecting a lot honestly, but whatever it was I expected was quickly surpassed once I got on board. Large windows, comfortable seating and even a snack service were all features of the easy 90-minute train ride to Machu Picchu Pueblo. As I said, I was traveling with , so all of the tickets for the trains and logistics were thankfully handled by them and expertly executed by our tour leader. I’m prone to stressing over and eventually losing tickets, so having the tour leader manage that for me was actually a welcome relief. Along the way massive mountain peaks, quiet farms and even a waterfall or two came into sight. Those stunning views, as I would later realize, were the perfect first introduction to the even more dramatic terrain that lay before us.

The Machu Picchu train doesn’t actually go to Machu Picchu, well not really. It goes to what may be one of the strangest villages in the world – Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Town. The town exists, and has always existed for one reason – to service the visitors to the remote area of the Andes home to Machu Picchu. Named after the local hot springs, the town is home to a seemingly endless array of restaurants, cafes, massage parlors, shops and a number of other ways for tourists to spend their money. Small hotels cater to the travelers and the train runs through the middle of town. It’s a strange place, one that I’ll eventually devote an entire post to, but if you’re visiting Machu Picchu then you too will get to experience this quirky little place.

If you’re not on the trek, then the next step in the process of visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site is by bus. Technically you could walk, but it would take forever and I don’t see the point. Every morning hundreds, if not thousands, line up starting at around 4:30AM to be the first in line for when the busses leave Aguas Calientes at 6am in order to reach Machu Picchu by dawn. The trip is a short one, just about 25 minutes, up the switchback mountain road that eventually leads to Machu Picchu. If it seems like there are a lot of steps involved with visiting the site, there are. But it’s part of the experience and ultimately part of the fun. We want to believe that Machu Picchu isn’t like other places around the world, and it isn’t. It takes real effort to visit but, as I learned, that effort is well rewarded.

Matt Peru

The Experience

Once again thanking my stars for having a good tour leader, she gave us all detailed instructions on entering the site, where to go and so on. We had a scheduled organized tour later in the morning, but the first moments of discovery would be solitary ones. So with passport in hand, you need one in order to enter the site, I was ready to finally see the peaks and ancient structures of this city in the clouds for myself. Of course, so were several hundred of my closest friends. It was a bit of a scramble at first, no one really understood which way to go, but we all eventually figured it out, walking up the steep paths and rocky promontories until reaching the zenith and those postcard picture views we’d all been promised.

Many times guide books and travel magazines present famous sites in ways that aren’t realistic. Camera angles or conditions that are rare, leading to a certain level of disappointment amongst visitors. That’s not the case at Machu Picchu. Every postcard you’ve ever seen is accurate, it really is that beautiful and anyone can capture that famous photo. I was lucky that morning, there was no morning fog and the conditions were just about perfect. With a slight nip in the air, the sun shone down brilliantly on Machu Picchu itself, drawing out the fine lines and features I’d never before noticed when I gazed at the images in print.

So then what? After taking a few photos from the top overlooking the ancient town, everyone seemed a bit lost, wondering what to do next. Most hire a guide, one was already arranged for our Intrepid group, to lead them around the site itself, sharing the history and customs of the Incas. The tour lasts two-hours and follows a set path down and into the city itself, a treat that I didn’t know was even possible until that morning. It was a great way to learn about the real foundations of Machu Picchu, what it was really there for and to also learn about those oh-so-mysterious Incas, whose technological prowess seemed to know no bounds. The tour finished, I looked at my watch that read 10am and wondered what to do next.

Dénouement

The tour ends along the path that leads back out of Machu Picchu, but I didn’t want to leave, not yet at least. My ticket was good for all day and my train back to Ollantaytambo didn’t leave until 4pm, so I could have spent as much time at Machu Picchu as I wanted to. I didn’t feel like I could leave just yet, it was far too early, but I also didn’t know what else to do. I walked back up to the overlook, guided newcomers to the site on the best places to capture a llama photo and once again stared unto the architectural emblem of the Incas. Being there was a special moment, a culmination of decades of travel lust and yearning, but it all seemed to happen so fast. Mid-morning and I’d seen all the site had to offer, taken all the photos I wanted to shoot and was left feeling lost. It was a slightly sinking feeling, as if I was doing something wrong or wasting my time. Never one to be lazy, I tackled one of the short hikes found around Machu Picchu, which was nice, but even after having completed that I had only killed an hour. So I did the only thing that made sense – I left.

Maybe it’s the process of getting to Machu Picchu, but I felt as if a few hours wasn’t enough to see it all, except that of course it was. Most sites around the world as famous as this one don’t require a day’s worth of exploration, but I think maybe I wanted too much to believe myself an intrepid explorer of days gone by and that 3 hours surely wasn’t enough to witness all the marvels that this ancient site had to share. I was wrong, it was more than enough and with that in mind I boarded the bus back to Aguas Calientes, leaving Machu Picchu in the dust behind me.

Visiting Machu Picchu was a moment in time I’d dreamt of since I was a little kid; as I’m sure it is for millions of people around the world. For the most part, the experience lived up to the hype, from the look and feel of it to the process of visiting. It is one of those remarkable moments in our lives when everything seems to click, and that moment we worked so hard to attain comes to fruition. That’s actually fairly rare when we travel, so many times we over-hype important destinations and distort the experience. Not so at Machu Picchu, at least not for me. No, visiting this remarkable place high up in the mountains of Peru was just as special as that 10-year boy reading about it in the encyclopedia thought it would be and more.

Have you been to Machu Picchu or, if not, is it on your bucket list?

 

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By: Mike

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on , and

17 Responses

  1. Jim Beagle

    I visited Machu Picchu with my son while on a mission trip to Cusco in 2011. The experience of experiencing the citadel in person is well, well worth it. We also climbed Wayna Picchu that day as well, an incredible and scary experience in itself. But also well worth the climb, as sweeping, indescribable views await. If I was ever to go again, and I hope I do, I would walk the Inca Trail. This place, and the Sacred Valley around it, are to experience it to believe.

    Reply
  2. Jill

    The first time I read your blog, was your trip to Antarctica, which looked absolutely amazing. Now, with this entry on Machu Picchu, I feel like you’re living out my travel dreams! Looking forward to seeing where you go next!

    Reply
  3. Mike of Mapless Mike

    I haven’t been there yet, but it’s definitely on my bucket list! I really enjoyed reading about your trip to Machu Picchu. Thanks for providing some real insight on what a visit is actually like!

    Reply
  4. Priya

    Love the Machu Picchu pictures you have captured, it is on my bucket list as well for a while now! Thanks for the Intrepid Trip tour suggestion!

    Reply
  5. Lee

    Beautiful place but just too busy for me. Touring it in a line of people does not feel right to me. I’d have had to go YEARS ago before it got organized. I live near Yosemite and have loved it for years but now its way too crowded and worse, full of so many rules that it’s not spiritual anymore. You can’t even walk out in the meadows. Going toward one of the falls is like waiting in line at Disneyland. Sad. I treasure my memories. I’m too late for Machu Picchu.

    Reply
  6. Caroline

    I agree with Lee. My first impression, sadly, was that the crowds reminded me of Times Square. After a three-hour visit, we had enough and opted to stay in bed the following morning while other members of our group spent a hurried few hours hiking up. While my husband and I were well rested for the train trip back, our fellow travelers looked dazed and out of it from their stressful adventure, boasting of their hike to the Sun Gate. For me? I’m happy to have had the extra sleep!

    Reply
  7. Said Glez

    Woww I´m impress of how well do you recompile all the little details from your trip, I have in mind going next November or beginnings of next years, for me as your comments that 3 hrs will be enough to enjoy the whole trip, and as you said ” have that postal picture with myself on it” Hope I cross this place from my list of places to visit. Was really nice to read your post. THANKS.

    Reply
  8. Knitpurple

    I will be at Machu Picchu in June. I keep finding stories about how the day is miserable because there are no bathrooms nearby and it smells like urine behind every other stone – anyone here experience this?

    Reply
    • Mike

      There are bathrooms…

      Reply
    • Kevin

      We had no issues with washrooms. Be ready to line up though.

      Pay attention to your departure time if it happens to be raining and everyone tries to leave en masse. It was a 1.25 hour lineup wait for the bus to get down from the site.

      Reply
  9. Sharon

    I am going in Nov as a guest of a friend, but I don’t care for hiking, terrified of snakes, and not sure if I should go. This has never been on my bucket list; however, I care for my friend and I don’t want to be the only one out of 11 people to crap out for being a baby. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • Kevin

      At the beginning of May 2017 my 4-person group hiked the last 13km of the Inca Trail (with our guide).
      The train drops you off, you hike a switchback trail for 500 vertical meters then you continue along the mountainside up and down terrain.
      Never saw a snake. Not even a mosquito. Just the occasional bird.

      Reply
  10. Kevin

    My wife and I visited at the beginning of May 2017.
    My entire Peru experience (not just Machu Picchu) was awe-inspiring to say the least.
    If you like old structures and the mystery surrounding them – this place has it in spades.

    I would highly recommend hiking a portion of the Inca Trail. We thought the 4-day trek would be too much (I am 45yrs old and looking back I would have been ok, but a member of our 4-party group was 60). We opted for the 1-day hike of the trail. The train stops short of the end of the line, you get off, hike across a bridge and begin your trek. The hike takes about 6 hours and the reward as you step through the sun gate and view Machu Picchu from a mile away is awesome.

    An even greater advantage of the hike is that you will get to visit Winaywayna on the way. What is that? Think of it as Machu Picchu light, but still unbelievable. The greatest advantage being that the only people you will find there are those that are hiking the Inca Trail. This equates to not very many people. We virtually had the run of the place. You won’t be disappointed

    Reply
    • Lydia

      Thanks Kevin! We will be doing just that in a couple of weeks! Can’t wait! Fingers crossed! Wish us luck!

      Reply
    • Maggie May

      Can you please tell me what tour company you used for the 1-day hike? I have no interest in camping/trekking several days in the mountains. Thank you.

      Reply
      • Mike

        I traveled with Intrepid for the duration of the trip.

  11. Denise

    Kevin, My husband and I will be traveling to Machu Picchu in September of next year and then tour the Galapagos Islands. Just wondering if you have any travel experience with the Galapagos? Also, I truly loved your Machu Picchu photographs. What type of camera/lens did you use?

    Reply

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