Part 2 of our 2-day tour to the Machu Picchu mountain – Read part 1
After visiting the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, Henry takes us to the train station where we say goodbye to our fabulous driver. It is by the end of the first day on our 2-day tour to Machu Picchu, where we have toured the Sacred Valley.
We are deeply impressed how much Inca culture our tour operator has been able to squeeze into this 2-day tour – still leaving us with time at each location to walk around at our own pace to explore. We could never have covered all these important Inca sites in the Sacred Valley on our own in just one day.
Where to stay at Machu Picchu/Cusco? Andino Hotel at Machu Picchu Hot Spring, Panorama B&B at the town market, Cusco Hotel Boutique 800 m from Cusco main square, Tariq Hotel Boutique in the heart of Cusco.
We have tickets for the regular tourist Machu Picchu train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. Even if we have not chosen the most expensive tickets, for the Vista Dome or Hiram Bingham trains, our tickets for the Machu Picchu tour are definitely not cheap. Only Peruvians can benefit from another local train with reasonably priced tickets, but that train does not allow foreigners. There is a strict control with people’s identity, and Henry notifies us that we must show our passports when entering our train.
We take our hand luggage sized backpacks out of the van and walk through the station to the platform where the Machu Picchu train is announced. As advised by the tour operator, we have taken as little as possible with us for the Machu Picchu trip, leaving the rest of our luggage behind at our hotel in Cusco.
It is without doubt the strictest train boarding procedure we have ever tried. Our reservation number is checked on a list with our passport details which we submitted way back – half a year ago! If your name, reservation number and passport number are inconsistent, you will be denied admittance to the train (and hence to Machu Picchu). This is seemingly how they keep track of the number of people going to Machu Picchu! The train staff even keep your paper reservation, and you will need to memorise your seat number to find your reserved seat, once on the Machu Picchu train!
As there is no road between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes, there are only few alternative ways to get to Machu Picchu. Some people hike the Inca trail, which is by the way not either any budget solution. The only other alternative to the train from Ollantaytambo is to make a long detour by car of maybe 6 hours, according to our guide. You then arrive from the other side of the mountain at the station Hydro Electrica. From here you will have to walk for a couple of hours along the rails, which to the best of my knowledge is not completely legal. Nevertheless, due to the lower costs, it is a popular option for backpackers.
We are told that the Peruvian government easily could decide and undertake road constructions to Aguas Calientes. That would make it so much cheaper to get to the Inca citadel. However, it does not happen since this would remove the revenues from the valuable tourist train tickets. The Peruvian government is not at all interested in that, since it today is an indispensable contribution to the state economy.
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The Machu Picchu train snakes through the picturesque Urubamba Valley, gorges along the river and lush rainforest. On the way we pass one of these coal-fired trains uniquely dedicated to the Peruvian passengers. It is pretty packed. At 9 p.m., after a couple of hours on the train, gradually pulling slowlier through the mountains, we finally reach Aguas Calientes. The town is named after the hot springs where it is perfectly possible, still today, to get a well-deserved bath after a maybe exhausting trip or demanding hike to the Inca citadel.
Aguas Calientes is a somewhat funny place. Arising only due to the discovery of Machu Picchu and a need for a base at the foot of it, it is a village which is today nearly 100% dedicated to the Inca culture and tourism, tours and activities around the Machu Picchu mountain.
An indoor handicraft market, restaurants offering tourist menus, convenient hostels and hotels, as well as the thermal baths, make up the village altogether. We are surprised to see the streets bustling with people at this time of the evening – in such a small, isolated place! It apparently is crowded whenever you come since there are always tourists for Machu Picchu, although the dry season (May – October) probably is more popular than the rest of the year.
For once on our South America trip we haven’t had to plan, book and find our hotel on our own. Our guide for the 2-day tour to Machu Picchu, Henry, is in charge! He now conveniently shows us the way to our hotel and leaves us there for a few hours of merited rest. To our delight there is hot water in the shower, something we have not been too used to during our last weeks in Ecuador and Peru.
Early next morning we take one of the buses going up the slightly scary, hairpin road to the top of the mountain. We agree that it was the right decision not to hike all the way up – as some do! When we catch a glimpse of the hikers we spot along the bends of the winding road, it really looks too demanding!
The elevation of Machu Picchu archaeological site is ‘only’ 2,430 metres (7,972 feet) which is far below the elevation of Cusco (3,400 metres or 11,200 feet). This means that you, contrary to what many visitors think, are not as exposed to altitude sickness at Machu Picchu as for example in Cusco.
Reaching Machu Picchu, we are now in the Amazon rainforest. Here the mountainous terrains of the Andes meet the (sub-)tropical jungle. As you go down from the high-altitude plains around Cusco to the tropical cloud forest surrounding Machu Picchu, the flora and fauna stunningly change. The mountain itself is often wrapped in a thick fog. In the lush forest species like puma, bobcat and even bear exist, as well as hundreds of butterflies, hummingbirds, other nimble birds and colourful orchids.
Machu Picchu was unknown to the outside world until 1911 when the American Hiram Bingham rediscovered the Incas’ lost cities. In 1983 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is today considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
One of the ancient entrances is the Sun Gate, Inti Punku. For Inka trail hikers the ultimate highlight is to arrive early in the morning to watch it at sunrise.
Our guide takes us through the well-preserved ruins and explains about the Inca culture and the significance of the various parts of the ancient Inca settlement. He discloses a lot of interesting details which enrich our picture of the old Inca culture and the Inca way of living.
The complex has had considerable astronomical importance, since several of the constructions and the sun fall in a straight line for summer and winter solstice, respectively. Henry takes us to the ruins of a specific window inside the citadel that the light from the Sun Gate strikes precisely at winter solstice. It is a world of wonders and a mythical universe of the Incas.
He shows us places where the condor has been used as a symbol and a messenger between the gods and the Incas. It is depicted on the rocks together with the snake and the puma. These three animals are subject to several distinct interpretations in the Inca culture. According to one of them they symbolise the underworld, our present world and heaven.
Speaking about animals, the true residents of Machu Picchu today are the photogenic llamas and alpacas appearing among the Inca ruins at moments when we least expect it!
Back in Aguas Calientes we find a quiet spot opposite our hotel in the upper part of the village where we spend some time watching the exotic and colourful birds in the trees overlooking the river and the rainforest.
Before catching the train from Machu Picchu Station and heading back towards Cusco we just have time for a few purchases on the local market together with Peruvian mothers carrying children on their backs in the typical striped, woven sling. Then we board our train for a 2-hour ride through the lush rainforest back to Ollantaytambo.
In Ollantaytambo a van conveniently picks us up to take us back to Cusco. We now appreciate that everything is just taken care of for us since we are pretty exhausted after two very long sightseeing days climbing ruins! But we all agree that the 2-day tour to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley has been absolutely worth the trip! It is not without reason that the archaeological site of Machu Picchu with its mystic and mythic Inca culture is one of the New Seven Wonders!
Read part 1 of our 2-day tour to the Machu Picchu mountain.
Located in Machu Picchu / Aguas Calientes, near Machu Picchu Hot Spring. The hotel offers a continental or buffet breakfast. WiFi.
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The hotel is located only 200 m from the town market. Offers a buffet breakfast, WiFi access as well as mountain and river views.
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Hotel located at the famous San Pedro Market, just a 10-minute walk from the main square. The hotel features a buffet breakfast as well as coca tea. Enjoy the 4000 m2 garden in front of the hotel.
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The hotels has both family rooms and features a terrace and a garden. Located about 800 m from Cusco main square. Choice between continental or a la carte breakfast. A hot tub is available at the hotel for the guests.
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Located in the heart of Cusco, just 300 m from the small San Blas Church. The hotel features a garden, a terrace and a bar. There is a restaurant at the property. Family rooms are available. Paid airport shuttle service available.
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