I traveled to South America in 1988 with my first husband, Orlando. Besides visiting his native Colombia, we planned to make a trek to Peru and its treasure, Machu Picchu. The issue at the time was Peru’s internal terrorism and most of Orlando’s extended family recommended against a visit to Machu Picchu. Ironic that we spent an extensive amount of the month-long visit in the long-standing democracy (until recently) of Venezuela and ran into most of our issues with the police/army of Colombia. Perhaps we should have taken the bet on traveling to Peru, but we instead stuck to Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil.
Suffice it to say, Machu Picchu has been at the top of my bucket list for the last thirty years. A very dusty bucket list since I’ve had children, a career and am no longer married to a bilingual adventurer. So I learned Spanish myself. When I saw photos of the classic photo taken atop Machu Picchu by a college friend, Lisa, about two years ago on social media, I reached out to find out how she had accomplished such an extraordinary feat. In addition, I have a co-worker from a past job, Claudia, who is a native of Peru. Without these wealth of resources due mostly to social media, I would probably not have had the wherewithal to head south of the equator to finally check off the item at the top of my bucket list.
This is what you need to know traveling to Machu Picchu:
Remote. I have traveled internationally several times over the last few years. I have taken Uber rides to far flung Colombian villages, like Guatapé, some three hours outside of Medellín, Colombia. No need for a bus token or much Spanish. Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo are all very remote with mostly gravel and rutted roads in between. You will not be able to get an Uber or taxi ride to the train station at Ollantaytambo or Agua Caliente. I point this out because, unless you are hiking the famed Inca Trail (I did not), you will need to have transportation set up in advance. I was on a tour with REI, so all of the transfers were set up well in advance. In addition, outside of tour buses and tuk tuks, you won’t see many other vehicles on the road. Be prepared.
Water. The water in Peru is not potable for US travelers. Every hotel and restaurant served bottled water. Most hotels instructed us to brush our teeth with bottled water. Basically, your stomach isn’t ready for whatever parasites and bacteria living in the water versus the water you drink every day in the United States. It’s not bad; it’s just different. I was amazed that every place we went to served drinks from a bottle without ice. Funny that when we arrived at a buffet restaurant right outside the park with self-serve drinks, most of the kids had put ice in their glass along with one of our tour group. When we pointed out the error, she came back without ice in her glass. It may just be the custom not to serve ice with drinks in Peru, but avoiding ice and tap water is important. I, for one, was guarding my digestive health to make sure I summited Machu Picchu successfully. Be prepared with plenty of bottled water.
Transportation. We took the train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Caliente (Pueblo de Machu Picchu) the morning of hiking Machu Picchu. I made the mistake of sitting opposite the direction the train was traveling. It’s a pleasant 90-minute ride but facing backwards may have led me to be a bit queasy later. What added to my queasiness was the insane, harrowing bus ride up to the actual archeological site. It’s about 30 minutes long and the full-size buses ride up switch backs and hairpin turns on a gravel road with no guard rails, inches from a precarious thousand-foot drop–as well as passing buses running down the mountain! It was a really bad movie scene waiting to happen! I don’t normally get car sick, although it may have been the anticipation of finally arriving at Machu Picchu. I do have one recommendation: keep your eyes shut. And the only other way in is hiking for several days on the Inca Trail. Don’t forget that you come back down on a bus on the same road you went up. If it sounds sobering, it is.
Altitude. I remember focusing on the fact that Machu Picchu is at about 8,000 feet in elevation. That, in hindsight, is not the issue. Cuzco, the closest major city with an airport, is at 11,500 feet. When we strode up a short flight of stairs upon arriving Cuzco, you feel it. You are out of breath. You start to get a headache. For some in our tour group of ten, you get sick. You feel dizzy and can’t stand up. Cuzco and its altitude is a bigger obstacle than Machu Picchu. Seems counterintuitive that the big city is at a higher altitude than what was once misnamed “the Lost City of the Incas” (it was never lost but the Spanish Conquistadors never found it). Apparently, altitude sickness is random. You may or may not get it. Just know that Machu Picchu is much lower than Cuzco. Acclimate in Cuzco and Machu Picchu will be a breeze.
“Steps.” I remember that by the end of my trip, I was sick of “steps.” There are “steps” everywhere in the various archeological sites we visited from Pisac, to the Saltpans of Mara, to the 250 “steps” up Ollantaytambo. I use quotation marks around the steps because they are not a set of steps that you would expect in any given public building with an even uniform height to the steps, singular material such as wood or metal, and, of course, a nice handy railing in case you want to grab on for balance at some point. Well, on the initial approach up to Machu Picchu there are “steps”. I’d guess there were about a hundred or so. There are many tourists in varying phases of fitness on those steps either going up or coming down. There are no railings, no escalators, no elevators (yes, I did sheepishly ask a few times during my tour of Peru). The steps are uneven, nonuniform, and disjointed. Poles might have been useful but having help from our guides and some fellow friends was invaluable.
Awe. There are few sights in this world that bring tears to my eyes. The Golden Gate bridge, Yosemite Valley and the New York Skyline come to mind. On that approach just a few short weeks ago, to see that view? I had tears in my eyes. That breathtaking view of an ancient village built in the 15th century, nestled into the shear edges of mountains. The engineering feat in the middle of an impossibly steep mountain range. The civilization that masterminded the moving and shaping of the landscape without beast or wheel. The sheer beauty of the extraordinary backdrop. It is breathtaking. It is magical. It is inspiring. It was completely worth the thirty-year wait. Machu Picchu is awe-inspiring.
I am so fortunate to have traveled with my REI cohort of ten to Machu Picchu. A fantastic group of tenacious and fun hikers with knowledgeable, helpful guides. It wasn’t easy or simple but worth the wait for that awe inspiring view.