How to, how much and so on..
Machu Picchu. The first image that crosses ones mind when the words Peru or Inca are pronounced. Is it really that impressive?
The simple answer is yes, it is very impressive. If you however look at it within the concept of its big partners from the 1st league of tourist attractions, such as Sagrada Família, Taj Mahal or Temples of Angkor, Machu Picchu has its limitations. Well, they all do but what or who doesn’t?
Some facts about Machu Picchu
In the Quechua language, machu means “old” or “old person”, while pikchu means either “portion of coca being chewed” or “pyramid, pointed multi-sided solid; cone”. The name of the site is often interpreted as “old mountain”.Wiki
Machu Picchu is a 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the jungle of Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru on a mountain ridge at about 2,430 metres above the sea level. Some archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), some say that it was a spiritual centre.
How to get there?
Upon arrival to Cusco, Peru, one has several options how to reach the iconic site of Machu Picchu. The most authentic experience appears to be taking one of the two multi day treks: Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek. The first one means following the historical trail built by Incas, while the latter is more about enjoying the beauty of the surrounding nature.
Other options are taking a train to Aguas Calientes, which is a little spa town nearby the site or getting a bus to the nearby hydroelectric station and walk the remaining distance to the same town of Aguas Calientes. This little town serves as a base to reach the site in the morning.
For Inca Trail, you are required to have a certified guide, while Salkantay Trek is also apparently doable solo and on cheap. We’re talking about multi day treks so it involves either carrying your own camping gear or paying a “sherpa” to do it for you, which is usually optional to be included in the tour price. The prices of the 4 day Inca Trail tours vary from $450 to $650.
Enjoying the train ride through a breathtaking scenery would cost you $320-400 for the whole package that includes “everything”, meaning the hotel, entry fee, guide and meals. The train itself cost “only” $140.
The bus tours range from $80 to about $120. It usually includes the bus journey, meals, a hostel bed at Aguas Calientes, park entry and guide’s attention for the first two hours on a site. The rather crazy bus ride takes about 7 hours and the walk from Hydroelectric station where you get dropped off to the town of Aguas Calientes takes 1,5-2 hours, following the train treks.
In case you wanted to avoid paying the agency, the bus journey would only cost you $24 and the basic entrance ticket is $44. Dorms in Aquas Calientes go from about $11. FYI, all tickets are sold with issued time of the site’s entry so make sure to be there on time. You then have 4 hours to spend on a site.
To get to the actual site in the morning, you can pick between taking a 20 minute bus ride from the town ($12 each way) or walking 1-1,5 hour hard core steep 1200m altitude changer. The buses back to Cusco leave the hydroelectric station at about 2:30pm, which leaves you with 3-4 hours on the site, depending on how fast you are able to get to the hydroelectric station from the site.
In conclusion, we now know that, unless you do it by yourself in a semi-legal way (of camping in wilderness), which would cut down your expenses down to meals, water and park entrance fee ($44), the current (2019) prices to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco vary from the approximate absolute minimum of $80 getting up to $650+.
In comparison, the temples of Angor will cost you $72 for a 3 day pass. Additional expenses normally are hiring either a push bike ($1/day) or a tuk tuk ($15/day), meals and accomodation, that is considerably cheaper in Cambodia and SEA in general. If I had to pick only one of these two sites, I’d personally pick Angor but that’s an entirely pointless statement because who would be ever forced to make such choice?
How to book a tour? Which company to pick?
I’ve personally opted for Marcelo’s, a company you’ll find on Plaza de Armas in Cusco. It was $90 for an all inclusive bus tour. They were OK – no one promise was broken – there was no bullshit involved, although given the high SCAM potential in Cusco, I’ve expected anything.
I believe that you won’t get lied to, but you need to ask the right questions. You basically need to ask about everything. If you for example ask if the towel will be provided and they’ll say yes, it will be provided. If you don’t ask – you’ll need to pay extra for the towel and so on…
When to visit Machu Picchu?
MaPi is located in the rain jungle at a relatively high altitude, although it’s nearly a kilometre lower than Cusco. The weather there however still vary a lot, depending on the particular season of your visit. While April to October are apparently the best months to visit, our guide informed us that in January there’s always a fog in the morning but it normally clears up at about 8-9am.
And he was right. It did clear up offering clear windows for us to experience the iconic views of the site. We were also told that in February and March there would be a rather high chance for us to see nothing.
The Angkor comparison’s conclusion
Overall, I must say that Machu Picchu is a special place and it’s 100% worth it to go there if you are in the region, there’s no doubt about that. However, in my humble opinion, the surrounding nature boosts the site’s attractiveness so much that without those dramatic steep hills, Machu Picchu would only reach the average levels of excitement – let’s say – it would be equal to any large-ish site of ruins in Europe.
On the other hand, the temples of Angkor, with its massive LA-sized area also receive help from the nature (don’t we all?), but its contribution to the overall level of excitement here is not as significant as it is in the case of Machu Picchu.
Have you ever wondered how do iconic places look from the other side?
To entertain you a bit after such factual text filled with numbers, here’s a reversed view of the site. I mean that I took a picture from ‘the inside’ of the iconic Machu Picchu photo of a place where the photographer would have to stand to take that classic shot.
Upon my visit, the weather cleared in about 90 minutes after we entered the park. By that time the site was a bit like Prague’s Charles Bridge at noon, meaning that on the main paths, there were at least 1-4 people per square meter, while more visitors were still entering the site. It’s natural that such iconic places are visited by large crowds because they are special but…
Unfortunately, Machu Picchu is yet another site that has been transformed from being unique and magical place into a money machine instead. The local authorities are often only interested to squeeze every penny out of the site and there’s nearly zero consideration about the visitors. There doesn’t have to be much of a consideration because there will be others, there will.
This might come across as some sort of subjective speculation but reading an article in the local paper how the government plans a new terminal at Cusco‘s International Airport to be able to welcome more visitors only confirms that. I honestly don’t know how they will squeeze more selfie-takers into the site.
FYI, the walking paths the visitors take at Machu Picchu are one way and the plan for the near future is that each group will need to stay with their guide for the entire duration of the tour, from the entrance to the exit. The guides will then be responsible to leave within a time window given to each group.
It would only make sense if it was to make every visitor happy, which will certainly not be the case because not everyone will get an equal conditions during their tour. For instance, if the new “management” rules were in place during my visit, we’d get a fog’s clearance half-way through the tour, which would prevent us from getting the iconic view.
Many people would only see the site from the bottom, the view will therefore be similar to my reversed picture above. Well, that’s unless they will bribe someone to get them the right ticket, which will be timed well for the particular time of the year and hour to be on the top of the site at the right time.
A paradise for the corrupted human mind, which is exactly opposite of the originally sacred purpose the site was built for. Well, that’s unless it was the emperor’s estate because in such case it was a money machine right from the beginning…
To be honest, overcrowding is not unique for Machu Picchu only. Turning the tourist attractions into classic claustrophobic nightmares became a global phenomenon, especially with airlines offering more and more affordable flights. Some cities, such as Florence are trying to come up with some solutions of limited day passes and other places, like Machu Picchu are only stepping on an acceleration pedal to squeeze more money out of them. Only time will show where this is all going but I’m afraid that getting the actual magic of the magical places will only get harder. Serenity will be priceless.
As you might have experienced it yourself already, many selfie-takers could be very inconsiderate. The problem is that the more people there is, the worse the vibe becomes. At Machu Picchu, I’ve even witnessed some extreme forms of being inconsiderate assholes, such as semi-dangerous overtaking on the steep narrow paths, which left some older and/or less mobile visitors rather vulnerable.
Thankfully, all the incidents I’ve experienced at Machu Picchu (there was quite a few in a space of 4 hours) were mostly harmful only by increasing the general irritation of the crowd. However, at points it felt like that some people were not far from starting fights over the perfect spots to take their selfies from. Whatever you do – don’t let the irritation to get you if you can because it spreads fast 😉
Next possible destinations
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