Destination: Peru: Cusco
It’s well worth spending a half day with a guide or historian (we are happy to recommend one) to tour the historic center of Cusco, so they can explain the background of the major sights such as the Cathedral on the main plaza and the other major churches, such as La Compania and Le Merced as well as San Blas.
You will arrive by train in Aguas Calientes, the outpost named for its hot springs, at the foot of the mountain upon which Machu Picchu sits. (see Getting Around). Whether you come on the fancy Hiram Bingham or on The Backpacker, you end up at the train station and pass through a vendor’s markets to meet the buses that take you up to Machu Picchu. If you are afraid of heights, don’t grab a window seat, as the hairpin turns on cliff-clinging roads will surely terrify you. The ride takes about thirty minutes, and there are some spectacular views of the gorge, the cloud forest and Machu Picchu.
Remember: Bags are restricted to an eleven-pound bag or backpack (except that I never saw any being weighed or measured). Anything larger must be checked for a fee of $5 a day. If you use a camera with a lens larger than 200mm, you may have to pay professional rates, which are reportedly as high as $300; tripods are also not allowed, but again these rules are not strictly enforced. Also, you are no longer allowed to bring plastic water bottles to Machu Picchu; metal canteens are allowed. (Except that I did see plenty of people carrying plastic water bottles.)
The best times to explore are dawn and dusk. The site opens at 6 a.m., and lines begin forming at 5 a.m. (Only 400 people a day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, “Young Mountain,” the peak facing the site, and it’s on a first-come basis.) Mornings can be quite cold, so pack gloves and dress in layers. The site stays open until 6 p.m., and most day-trippers leave by four, so later in the day, when the crowds have cleared out and headed back down the mountain, is also a more tranquil time to explore. One of the best spots to see the sunrise is from the terrace of the stone hut, and another is from the Sun Gate. It used to be that guests staying at the Sanctuary Lodge had access to the site before and after day-trippers, but that is no longer the case. The only people who can enter the site before the park gates open are those who make the trek along the Inca Trail and descend into the site from above, and after the hard days of hiking they have to do to complete that journey, they have earned the privilege.
For those who want to visit with an expert guide, historian or archaeologist who can recount the Inca story as well as the ruins’ rediscovery with insight and passion, contact us and we will recommend the right escort.
INDAGARE TIP: There are no facilities inside the Machu Picchu complex, so take advantage of the restaurant and restrooms at the entrance, and carry plenty of water. Admission tickets do allow multiple reentry, however, so you can return for a coffee or lunch break.
Advises Indagare member Carroll Pierce: “Don’t try to visit Machu Picchu in one day. There are too many opportunities for glitches, as evidenced by our outbound train delay. Many of the travelers in the station were day-trippers and we could sense their anxiety. A leisurely guided tour of Machu Picchu is what the site deserves.”
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