Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, was one of the few places I knew for sure I wanted to visit before leaving the UK. This ancient Inca city, abandoned and lost in the Peruvian mountains for hundreds of years, has been celebrating the hundredth anniversarry of it´s scientific re-discovery in 1911. So it seemed like a good time to be paying it a visit…

At this stage in my trip money has become pretty tight, so I really wanted to see the city whilst spending as little money as possible. Having not booked in advance, the authentic Inca Trail was out (as it requires you to book 2-4 months in advance). I´d spoken to a few people who´d already seen Machu Picchu about alternative routes and my conclusion was that pretty much all the other treks, whilst sounding pretty cool, don´t have much to do with the Incas or Machu Picchu itself – and I wasn´t fussed about trekking just for the sake of it. All this lead me to the `Machu Picchu by car’ trips and after a bit of bartering I secured my entry to the site (and Huayna Picchu), a nights accomodation with dinner and breakfast and a 7 hour bus ride (nearly) there and back for $130 US. This was more than $100 less than the cheapest trekking option and in my current financial situation by far the smartest choice!

The bus ride from Cusco to Hidro-Electrica was fairly long and uncomfortable and more than half of it was on a road much more terrifying than the Death Road in La Paz. By the time we got off, 3 days trekking almost seemed like the easy option. The ‘tour’ was all fairly chaotically organised and getting off the bus the instructions about what to do next were a little vague. Eventually we were passed the checkpoint and eating a surprisingly tasty lunch at a little restaurant beside the train tracks. We’d arrived about an hour or so later than scheduled and this would prove significant a little later on in the afternoon.

The town right next to Machu Picchu is called Aguas Calientes (thanks to some hot springs near by), but is served only by train. With no roads we’d been dropped at Hidro-Electrica about 11km away and had to walk the last part of the way alongside the train tracks. This was a really cool walk through some incredible scenery with the added excitement of the days final steam train chugging passed us as we walked. The walk takes about 3 hours, but because of our late arrival in Hidro-Electrica we did the last hour in pitch darkness. My little headlamp was pretty shit when it came to the crunch and it was quite a challenge walking on rocky uneaven ground in almost complete darkness. We made it without any trouble though and arriving along the train tracks into Aguas Calientes after dark was pretty special.

The room included in the package was nice, very comfortable with a good hot shower. After settling in we went off to meet the rest of the group for dinner (also included) and instructions for the next day. Dinner was fairly shambolic, with one guy taking orders and serving the 50-60 people in the restaurant. This meant a simple dinner of soup and spaghetti bolognese took 2 hours to get through. It also meant that the instructions after we´d eaten came very late in the evening, which in then end caused us a fairly big problem.

Kari speaks really good Spanish, I don’t. Included in the package we’d booked was a guided tour of the site and we both wanted this in English (Kari’s excellent Spanish skills not quite stretching to archeological and historical phrases). Unfortunately our tour leader gave a 30 minute talk in Spanish (the majority of the tour group being native Spanish speakers) with no reference to an alternative set of instructions to follow in English. Kari understood everything and these were the instructions we would follow the next day. As it turned out he then gave a shorter talk in English outside the restaurant to the English speakers who (like me) had not been able to follow the spanish talk. These instructions (where to wait and when) were very different to what we’d heard in Spanish… and this in the end meant we got no tour.

Waking up early the next day at 4am, we were up to Machu Picchu for the earliest possible entrance at 6am. There were already plenty of people, but nothing like the hoards of tourists that had flooded the site by the time we left 6-7 hours later. It was really spectacular to see the city at this time. The sun was up, but not fully and the shadows and light on the mountains and the site itself were changing spectacularly. We walked up to get some good views and photographs on our way to what we thought was the designated meeting point for the tours to start.

Due to the aformentioned mix up, we were in the wrong place. But nobody seemed to be able to resolve this and we were sent scurrying around the site for about half an hour trying to find the English tour. We had pre-booked Huayna Picchu entrance passes, meaning we’d be one of the 400 allowed up to see the Incan temples on the mountain looming large over the main city – but only if we went in between 7.30 and 8am. This meant time for a tour was disappearing and we were eventually, pretty rudely, told to forget it by one of the Spanish speaking guides. So we cut our losses and headed for Huayna Picchu…

The main site itself is actually on the middle of three mountain peaks – Machu Picchu which means ‘young peak’. Huayna Picchu, the name of the big mountain behind, means ‘old peak’. There’s also a third ‘Putucusi Picchu’ behind which means ‘happy peak’, I’m not sure what this was used for – probably executions, those Incans were an ironic bunch. Anyway, Huayna Picchu is home to some Inca temples and terraces and there are only 400 passes given out each day. This used to be done on a first come first served basis, but you can now pre-book for $25 US which is what we had done. Having given up on the guided tour we were there in plenty of time for our 7.30-8am entrance window and we started our ascent up the dauntingly steep old stairs.

The walk up to the top of Huayna Picchu takes about 45 minutes and provides a whole series of spectacular views over Machu Picchu and the rest of the mountains below. It’s quite hard going, made tougher by the altitude, and at points the steps are really uneven and narrow. There are some pretty impressive and significant ruins at the top, which I’ve since found out were home to Incan priests and virgins. There’s a second trail you can take around the back of the mountain which leads to some caves and the ‘Temple of the Moon’. This takes another 45 minutes and we decided to get back down to the main city rather than follow this trail, which is a shame but was necessary based on the time we had. You can read more about Huayna Picchu here.

Back in the main city we spent 3-4 hours exploring – taking in the various different sections and temples and trying to subtly pick up some insight from passing English tours. It was a lot of walking and we eventually found a quiet little sheltered area where we sat and admired the mountains opposite for a while. Even without the incredible lost city this would be a spectacular place to visit, the landscape is incredible and you can see why the Inca’s picked this spot to set up camp. At about 1pm we had to make tracks as our train out of Aguas Calientes was scheduled to leave just before 2pm. This was a shame, I’d have liked a full day to explore the site – 7 hours not quite seeming like enough when you take out 3-4 hours for Huayna Picchu as well. If I was advising anyone wanting to see Machu Picchu in the same way I did, I’d suggest arranging even more of it yourself and taking two days to see the site.

On the bus back to the town, Kari sat next to a really good English speaking guide who gave us a whole load of insight on the city and some of the problems with tourism. This only compounded the disappointment at noting getting the guided tour we were promised. Even without the tour it was still an amazing experience and one you just can’t miss out on if you find yourself in Peru.

Here are the best of the photos I took, you can check out the rest of the gallery here.

Check out the rest of my Machu Picchu photos here.