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ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MACHU PICCHU…

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MACHU PICCHU…

Machu Picchu is a mythical place: an ancient Inca citadel felt into the unknown during colonization and rediscovered by Hiram Bighram in 1911. It is a unique place, representative of Inca Engineering: its structures respect perfectly the mountain shape (a feature found in all Inca sites). The complex is surrounded by lush vegetation, and with a stunning view of the Vilcanota River 600m lower.

This magical place has become the most visited site in Peru. Since Machu Picchu is the core asset of Peruvian tourism, you’ll spend most of your travel budget here. For the same reason, it is very useful to know the alternatives available.

  1. How to get there?

Machu Picchu is located about 100km away from Cusco (as the crow flies), yet its access is not easy (Welcome to the Andes). The train is the only transport accessing directly to Aguas Calientes.

So here are the only 2 alternatives if you want to use transportation:

  • The “classic”:

You have to get to Ollantaytambo and take the train. The city is located 2h away from Cusco and you can get there by taxi (80 soles) or by public transport (8 soles, departure from the Pavitos/Grau street in Cusco). Once in Ollantaytambo, you still have 1h30 of a fully comfortable train with beautiful landscapes. The downside: This service is ridiculously pricey! Perurail and Incarail share the monopoly. Expect to pay at least 60$  per way, i.e. 120$ the return trip.

It is recommended you purchase your ticket in advance (either online or at Incarail/Perurail ticket office/Ollantaytambo train station).

  • The cheapest:

If you do not want to pay such a sum for a short train ride (understandable), get ready for an adventure. Here is the way to follow: book your seats in one of the many vans leaving Cusco in the early morning to get to Hidroelectrica (you can get your tickets at any travel agencies in Cusco, 35/40 soles). It’s an exhausting journey (a 7h trip through mountain roads – you’ll reach a 4400m pass before going down to 1100 m and leave paved road on the last part. Once you arrive at “Hidroelectrica” station, you still have about 2,5 hours walking (11km) along the railway track to reach Aguascalientes. You can also take the train from there, but $29 for 11km in 45 minutes, this sounds like a scam. If you have time ahead of you (unlikely), stop at the Mandor’s garden. A beautiful place with tropical plants (located at  km114 of the track)

You’ll have to come back from Aguas Calientes the same way. I suggest you take your luggage with you to Machu Picchu, as this will save you 5km on the way back. The bifurcation to the site is between Aguas Calientes and Hidroelectrica (2,5km away from town).

You should save around 100$ proceeding that way.

However be careful during the rainy season (from November to March), landslides are frequent and roads can be blocked. Always check the situation beforehand.

 

On the other side, many people want to reach at Machu Picchu after hiking in the beautiful Andean region.

So here are the best-known trekking options:

  • The prestigious classic: Inca Trail

This is a mythical 4-day walk that starts from the km82 on the railway between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Along the way, you visit many Inca sites (amongst which Wiñay Wayna). This is the only trek that allows you to reach the site directly by foot: indeed, on the 4th day at dawn, you enter the sanctuary through its upper part, “Inti Punku” (Sun Gate). And if you are lucky you will enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life over the sleeping citadel.

This is one of the most prestigious hikes in the world and has only 500 available seats per day (including guides and porters). It is therefore mandatory to book it at least 6 months in advance during the high season (April to October). In addition, only certified guides are allowed. So there is no other choice than going through an agency, which makes it a quite costly trek (min. $500).

The superb view from Inti Punku
  • The alternative mountain trek: Salkantay

This is a 5-day trek offering a wide variety of landscapes. It starts in Mollepata, 3:30 away from Cusco. On the first day, you can hike up to a superb lagoon at the foot of Humantay mountain. Then you reach the highest point of the trek (4700m), located 2 steps away from Salkantay (the 2nd highest mountain in Cusco area, 6.264 m). You then start descending almost  3000m till the coffee plantations of Lucmabamba, in the midst of tropical plants. You can also indulge yourself in the thermal waters of Cocalmayo. The 4th day is less interesting, passing through Hidroelectrica then Aguas Calientes along the railway. Almost all trekkers choose to do it through an agency, prices start from $175. Check what is included or not, the material etc. Because lower prices mean lower quality (and lower team salary and less care for the environment).

Salkantay trek has become very popular so be ready to share the road with hundreds of other trekkers!

The impressive “Apu” Salkantay
  • The backpacker option: Inca Jungle Tour

This is not a trek itself, but a varied option with different activities. You start biking from Malaga pass (4400m) till Santa Maria’s surroundings. On the 2nd day you hike in the tropical forest between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. Then you go through Hidroelectrica and Aguascalientes before ending at Machu Picchu itself. You can add activities like rafting and zip line. Starting from $160, but remember to check what does the package include!

The beautiful area of Santa Teresa
  • The real alternative route; Long and exhausting, but beautiful: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu

An incredible 9-day trek to discover two amazing sites: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. It is a demanding trek with more than 7000m of altitude gain, including a steep descent from nearly 1500m up to Apurimac river… Before going back up all the way on the other side. This is the price to pay to enjoy the magnificent Choquequirao, isolated in a dense forest and still unspoiled by tourism. It is a huge sanctuary of which only 30% have been discovered. Bigger than Machu Picchu but without the crowds. And one of its main highlights: you’ll camp on the site itself!

The classic Choquequirao trek returns to Cachora the same way, but it is possible to extend it to Machu Picchu (5 additional days), a magnificent hike in a remote area… En route, you’ll be alone in some Inca sites (like Pinchaunuyoc) and will gaze at high mountains (as Salkantay, 6.264 m) before reaching Santa Teresa and Aguas Calientes. Be ready for a true adventure far from civilization (and other tourists). You should take advantage of it now since the Peruvian government is planning to build a cable car accessing the site (fortunately, between speech and action in Peru, you should still have plenty of years ahead 😉

Once in Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is a rather disturbing city … super packed, it is the example of the complete absence of urban planning in Peru.

You will find many accommodation and restaurants all over the place. I recommend double checking where you are going because there is the good, te bad and the worse in town. You can find cheap accommodation near the municipal stadium.

As regards food, avoid menus on the main street. I have never eaten well there. If you want to eat on the cheap, go to the market (8 soles menus). If you want to indulge yourself, head to “Indio Feliz”.

To reach Machu Picchu, you have 2 options: either you walk (around 1h to 1h30 of pure stairs climbing… nearly 600m of altitude gain!) or you use Consettur’s bus service (another monopoly as most services in the region). The first bus leaves at 5:45am (there is a queue as from 5am). The single trip costs $ 12 ($ 24 round trip). It is recommended you buy your tickets (at least to get to the site) the day before at the kiosk near the bus stop.

The sooner you get to Mapi, the more you will enjoy it (doors open at 6am, and at 8am it is already overpacked …)

When to go?

Whether you choose the easy way or the trek, it is obviously much more interesting to visit the ancient Inca ruins during the dry season (from May to October). Even though the fog can be very mystic…

You should know that the tropical region of Machu Picchu is very humid and that the site is usually foggy in the first hours of the morning. Normally, if your visit is in June, July or August, you should enjoy a sunny day (but don’t take it for sure: I went there three times (April, January… and July!) and every single time it was pouring!

In most cases you will still be able to enjoy Mapi even in on a rainy day (it always ends up clearing a little). But if you go for a trek, the season is much more important: I would not like spending the 9 days of Choquequirao/Machu Picchu under the rain. Note that the Inca trail is closed for maintenance every year in February.

The downside of the dry season: it is also the “high” season: high number of people and high prices. Well, that being said, there’s no longer low season in Machu Picchu

Cost and practical info

Machu Picchu’s access regulation has changed a lot in recent years and it can be a bit tricky to understand. The first time I went there (in 2009), it was still possible to climb to Huayna Picchu (a mountain located 300m above the main site, a former Inca observation site) without hassle. But then you needed a separate entrance ticked. At about the same time an alternative viewpoint (“Montaña Machu Picchu”) was designed. In 2017, a “shift” was introduced: since then, you can visit the site either in the morning (6h to 12h) or in the afternoon (12h to 18h). Supposedly, guides are mandatory.

With the new changes introduced on January 1st, 2019, here is where we stand:

Entry fee to Mapi alone is 152 soles (77 soles for students). It must be purchased from the Ministry of Culture (Casa Garcilaso/Calle Maruri in Cusco or Aguas Calientes) or online (only Visa cards are accepted. If you don’t have a Visa credit card, the other solution is to make the online reservation and pay the amount at any Banco de la Nacion counter within 4 hours). The entrance to the site + Huayna Pichu/Montaña Picchu costs 200 soles (125 soles for students). It is mandatory to book Huayna Picchu well in advance!

As for the timetable, the morning/afternoon shift is maintained but in addition, your ticket will indicate a minimum arrival time (6am, 7am, 8am, etc.).

The view from the Huayna Picchu

THE SACRED VALLEY OF THE INCAS ON A SHOESTRING

THE SACRED VALLEY OF THE INCAS ON A SHOESTRING

Peru is a fascinating country. Of course, it is home to the Machu Picchu, elected as one of the new world wonders in 2007. But the country has much more to offer than the MP and it is sad that most tourists just rush straight to the ancient Inca citadel, without taking any time to explore the innumerable highlights of the country, whose three large geographical areas (coast, mountain and jungle) mean a great diversity of landscapes, cultures, music and gastronomy.

So writing about the main country’s highlights would be quite time consuming, but I wanted to dedicate my first article about Peru to this beautiful region where I decided to settle, clearly one of the most beautiful places in the world: the Sacred Valley of the Incas, linking the ancient site of Machu Picchu to the capital of the empire (Cusco). For this very reason, the area is full of archaeological sites, lost in the mystical Andes.

As said before, a great number of tourists just come to see the Machu Picchu and try to get there as fast as possible from Cusco, which is a non-sense to me: take your time and you’ll enjoy many wonders on the way. Isn’t the journey as important as the destination?

So here are a few tips to plan your trip to the Sacred Valley. Classics are included but also some less known (and cheaper) alternatives.

Note: all prices are mentioned in Peruvian soles. 1€ = 3.9 soles and $ 1 = 3.23 soles (April 2018)

How to get to the Sacred Valley?

Cusco is the unavoidable hub to access the Sacred Valley, no matter where you come from.

The golden rule for your arrival in Cusco: cab’s price … 4 soles for a ride inside the city. 5 soles from the airport (They can ask you up to 40 soles at the airport so be careful!). Just get outside the airport building, a short 200m walk. And be firm about the price, avoid mentioning that it is your first time in Peru).

Cusco is Peru’s most touristic city and I will write a separate article about it shortly.

To get to the Sacred Valley, tell your taxi driver to drop you off at “Pavitos” where there are many transport companies (6 soles to Urubamba and 8 soles to Ollantaytambo). For more comfort, you can also opt for a taxi (about 60 soles to Urubamba). The journey time is approx. 1h30 to Urubamba and 2h to Ollantaytambo.

What to do in the valley?

Since most people only have 1 or 2 days to spend in the Sacred Valley, almost every single tourism agency in Cusco will offer you the following options:

  • Sacred Valley tour: Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero archeological sites
  • Tour of Maras salt ponds and Moray

If you are on a tight schedule, go for it! Both are relatively inexpensive (around 30 soles for half a day tour. However, be informed that it includes neither the meal nor the entry tickets; basically it’s just transportation).

If you have a few days in front of you, it’s worth taking your time to explore the valley. You will enjoy its quietness, especially after the bustle of Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Some places of interest:

WITH ENTRY FEE:

  • Chinchero: a small town located on a highland between Cusco and the Sacred Valley at around 3.700m. The Inca terraces are impressive and offer an overview of the Sacred Valley and the surrounding Apus (sacred mountains of the Incas). You can also stop at many weaving workshops, a nice way to learn more about the manufacturing process. But beware the overrated prices. I personally suggest purchasing of any souvenir and Andean clothing in Cusco.

To get there: take a bus or mini-van from Cusco or Urubamba (6 soles by minivan, 3 soles by bus)

Weaving woman in Chinchero
  • Pisac: friendly Andean town located upstream of the Urubamba river, do not miss its local craft market on the main square (prices are to be bargained). The Inca site is located 4km above the town. The easiest way is to get there is by cab. Terraces are huge and impressive. I recommend you getting back to Pisac following the footpath from the last temple. On the way, you’ll see some old Inca tombs in the rock (the remains were mummified and placed in small cavities inside the mountain).

To get there: From Urubamba: bus to Calca (1.5 soles) and then Pisac (1 sol). From Cusco, bus to Pisac (4 soles) located in Puputi street. Taxi from Pisac to the ruins: 15 soles (one way)

The superb terraces of Pisac
  • Ollantaytambo: a beautiful place, coming straight from another era (this is actually the only village built on its former Inca structure). Feel free to wander around its narrow streets, full of small water channels flowing in all directions. The archaeological site is obviously worth a visit. It has many nice temples. Last train station towards Machu Picchu, this picturesque place deserves more than just a 45-minute visit while waiting for the train.

To get there: by bus from Urubamba (1.5 soles) or Cusco (8 soles)

The Inca site of Ollantaytambo
  • Moray: incredible terraces where the Incas undertook agricultural experiments (based on the various microclimates according to the altitude, the sun exposure, etc.). The site is about 12km from the junction with the Cusco / Urubamba road

To get there: bus from Cusco or Urubamba to Maras’ junction on the main road (6 soles – 3 from Urubamba). There is a Taxi stand at the crossroads (40 soles including return journey and waiting time)

Experimental fields in Moray

Note: to enter the above-mentioned sites, you will need the Cusco tourist ticket: it can be obtained either at the tourist office (Av. Sol in Cuzco) or (an even easier way) at the entrance of the archaeological sites. This ticket will cost 130 soles and gives you access to 16 archaeological sites for a period of 10 days. If you only have one day, the daily entrance fee is 70 soles and gives you access to either the sites of Cusco or those of the Sacred Valley.

WITH ENTRY FEE (NO TOURIST TICKET):

    • Maras (entrance 10 soles): impressive salt ponds that have been cultivated since the Inca era. Therapeutic virtues of this salt of exceptional purity were proven. You can get a great sight of all the ponds on the way down from Maras. To get there, take a cab from Maras’ junction. On the way back, I recommend you walking after the last salt pond (a 30-minute walk downhill)). From there, just cross the bridge and reach the Ollantaytambo – Urubamba main road), where you can grab a “combi” to Ollantaytambo or Urubamba (1 sol).

    To get there: take a bus from Urubamba (or Cusco) and get off at the junction with Maras / Moray located 10 km away from Urubamba. From there, there’s a taxi stand where you can get private transportation to the site (15 soles one way – 25 soles return)

Maras salt ponds
  • Museo Inkari (entrance 30 soles): there are many museums dedicated to the pre-hispanic cultures of Peru, but most of them disappointed me. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of archaeological museums. Watching the remains of some pottery under the showcase with a small written description is nothing but exciting to me (you need a lot of imagination to get a glimpse of the way they lived). Inkari includes interactive tools so that you don’t only read about the culture but also feel it through amazing ambiance rooms. Inca culture is put in its context: although it is the most famous for being one of the largest empires in the world (and especially the last one before the arrival of the conquistadores), it is in fact only one of the many cultures of this diverse country. Actually, the peak era of the Incas lasted for barely two centuries and most of the elements of their daily way of life were integrated from previous cultures (as it always happens). In Inkari, you will travel back in time, following by chronological order Peru’s 8 main pre-hispanic cultures. Descriptions are detailed and allow you to deeply understand the essence and the evolution of these cultures. But you’ll reach the climax inside the ambiance rooms that will immerse you in the heart of these ancient civilizations, using a great light and sound performance. Rebuilding these environments involved a great amount of work. For this reason, Inkari is not the cheapest museum in Cusco, but if you just wanna see one, choose this one: I guarantee you won’t regret it!

To get there: take a bus to Calca from Urubamba or Pisac (1 ground), the museum is indicated by a giant statue (you can’t miss it!), located about 15km from Urubamba.

The ambiance room at Inkari
  • Machucolca: it was used as a food reservoir by the Incas and has many terraces located halfway between Cusco and Urubamba, at 3,800m above sea level. There’s a sign on the road and you will see some small stalls selling fake alpaca sweaters. In fact, the beautiful view is a common picture stop for tourists on their way to the valley. But nobody really takes the time to visit the archaeological site located a little higher. Go for it and give me your feedback. You will not only enjoy a delightful quietness in the peaceful alleys but will also get what I consider as the most beautiful view of the valley. Moreover, nobody is gonna charge you an entrance fee or try to sell you souvenirs. Don’t spread the word too fast, so that it remains as calm as it is.

To get there: the site is located 10km away from Chinchero heading toward the valley (Cusco – Urubamba road). 6 soles by minivan, 3 soles by bus.

The incredible view from Machu Colca
    • Pumahuanca: a nice walk that goes partially along the path of the trek that goes from Urubamba to the thermal springs of Lares (I’m planning to write an article about the best hikes of the Sacred Valley soon). It will take you up to ancient Inca ruins lost in the middle of nowhere. The site itself is not the most impressive, but the inner peace of the place and the lovely walk to get there makes it the perfect option to spend half a day.

    To get there: from Urubamba, ask the way to the fish farms (“pisigranja”) of Pumahuanca (or go by moto-taxi: 4 soles), and follow the path that goes between the mountains. The way up will take you around 2 hours (gradual ascent) and the way back around 1h15.

The old houses of Pumahuanca
  • The “chulpas”: These are small constructions set up by the Incas on the mountain slopes, where food (mostly grain) was stocked all year round. They are scattered all over the valley, but there are two that are particularly worth the seeing:
    • In Ollantaytambo: the chupa is right in front of the archaeological site and offers an incredible sight over this latter. It is accessible until 4p.m. The steep climb will take you around 40 minutes. To get there from town: from the main square, take the alley on your right, go straight on during a few hundred meters, and then you will see a sign and some steps on your right.
    • In Urubamba: the chulpa is located in Pumahuanca area. You have to find Torrechayoc church that is located on the avenue named after it. Then you go straight on for about 1km and take the second path on your right. There is a sign “hotel-restaurant las chulpas” (you have to reach that restaurant). Once you get there, the path going up to the chulpas is on your right (around 30 minutes to the chulpas).
View of Ollantaytambo from the chulpa

 

 

Cross the bridge before arriving at Ollantaytambo and follow the path on your right, along the river. It is the starting point of an awesome hike that will lead you to an Inca sun gate (Intipunku). Be ready for a 3 to 4-hour harsh walk before you reach the top. On the way, you’ll enjoy the stunning views over the Snowy peaks and the Sacred Valley.

 

When you finally reach Inti Punku, take your time and enjoy the scenery: in front of this ancient Inca gate, you’ll have a glorious view of Apu Veronika (5.750m) and the flat valley located 1.200m below your feet. The perfect spot for a picnic before heading all the way down using the same path.

The beautiful Intipunku

Consider at least 5/6 hours of a strenuous walk for that hike, but it’s completely worth it. If you wanna split the hike in 2 days, there is a camping site around 1 hour away from the top.

Simply the perfect camping spot!

Where to stay?

Options are wide: you can stay either in one of the 3 main towns of the valley (Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo), or in one of the many hotels located on the main road. Budget hotels are mostly in towns. Here are a few of them:

  • Ollantaytambo:

Hostal el Chasqui: simple but comfortable rooms starting at 40 soles. Center location at the corner of the street that goes to the train station.

Chaska Wasi: quiet and well-located hostel, with a green area. Dorms cost 30 soles.

  • Urubamba

Hospedaje Calendula: nice family-run hotel located 10 minutes walking from the main square, with inner patio and comfortable rooms from 40 soles.

Flying Dog Hostel: Newly opened hostel (a classic of the backpacker scene in Cusco), outside the center with a large garden. Dorms starting at 30 soles.

  • Pisac

Hospedaje Inti: rustic, but well located 2 steps away from the center. Kitchen facilities available. Single rooms from 35 soles.

Casa Intihuana: Located a little outside the city, in the popular area of La Rinconada. Dorms starting at 20 soles.

Where to eat?

The Valley obviously has a great number of restaurants… with a very wide range of quality. Besides the popular restaurants offering simple and inexpensive menus, there are numerous tourist restaurants, aimed at foreign customers and of course much more expensive.

Here are some good places:

  • Tourist restaurants options (usually a buffet): Alhambra and Tunupa at the exit of Urubamba on the road to Ollantaytambo (set buffet at 70 soles). Other excellent addresses in Urubamba: “El Huacatay” and “Uru gastropub” (with a la carte and mid-range prices).
  • Popular restaurants in Urubamba: El Chorillano, with its delicious menu at 8 soles and the Cevicheria “El Nuevo Rey” (Yes, it is possible to find a decent ceviche in the valley!). Seafood platters starting from 15 soles. As far as Pisac and Ollantaytambo are concerned, many small restaurants offer 10 soles menus but to be honest, none really appealed to me so I will not include any of them here (if anybody has good references, they are most welcome!). As a general rule, avoid the main square surroundings where you will pay double for the same (average) quality.

Finally, there’s an emerging beer culture that has recently developed in the Valley. In case you are looking for an alternative to industrial Cusquena and Pilsen, there’s some nice crafted beer option available. The most famous is the Sacred Valley brewery that is located in Pachar, near Ollantaytambo. High-quality tasting and nice snacks available, with musical events organized each month to support local organizations.

In summary, the Sacred Valley is full of charming places, and it is difficult to issue an exhaustive list. Visiting all the region’s highlights will take a lot of time, so I recommend you to take it easy, even if that means planning another trip to the region (not a big deal at all!). We usually want to see it all (we believe that it’s the only way to get the most of it) but we end up losing the pleasure of traveling, which is a unique opportunity to disconnect from everyday stress and open ourselves to other realities. Feel free to get in touch with me if you plan a trip in the area, I will be happy to assist you 😉

Have a nice one!