Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Peru – Machu Picchu: Magical, mesmerizing, yet so touristic

We both talked for years about wanting to visit Machu Picchu, the once lost Inca town in the high Andes, spared from discovery and destruction by the Spanish conquerors of Latin America.We both had Machu Picchu high up on our bucket list – who hasn't? (Confession: Here are a few of the remaining bucket list items that are not yet crossed off: Galapagos Islands, Palau (in the Pacific), Prague).

Today is the day we finally fulfill this long lasting wish to step foot on this archeological treasure... A highlight in our six month Central/South American travels.

To get to this point we didn't simply take the usual tourist route. Instead we walked for the past 4 days on the Salkantay Trek to the town of Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Town). Yesterday we had a breathtaking "teaser" view of Machu Picchu from across the valley, raising our excitement to finally see it in person.

The morning mist adds a
mystical touch
There are actually two peaks that can be climbed. The most popular is the mountain that is in the background of all the famous Machu Picchu pictures, called Wayna Picchu (young peak in local Quechua language) the other being the much taller Cerro Machu Picchu. Our choice is done easily. Wayna Picchu is restricted to 400 tourists a day, permits are given on a first come, first serve basis. During peak season (which is now!) people line up at the bus stop at 3am to get a permit. The first bus leaves at 5am and the gate to the ruins open at 6am! This is totally crazy. We would rather sleep a bit longer and climb Cerro Machu Picchu instead

Our group meets at the shuttle bus depot at 6am after a relaxed breakfast in the hotel. Our trekking guide Jose, is also our tour guide for Machu Picchu. The $300 price of our Salkantay trek includes the entrance to MP and the train back afterwards at 6:30pm.

Our guide Jose explains the history
We walk through a few stone ruins near the entrance and stop halfway across some agricultural terraces. The site is covered in this mist... adding to the mystery. (The early morning mist is very common). We can't figure out where exactly we are. Despite having seen many pictures of Machu Picchu, we are somewhat disoriented. The mist is covering most landmarks both manmade and natural. We feel like in a suspense movie or a Discovery channel documentary.

We cluster together in a terrace while Jose explains the history of the Incan dynasties with the family feuds between the various rulers. All the while the mist teases us occasionally revealing short glimpses of the site. At one point, we can see the all so famous Wayna Picchu mountain peak – gotcha, now we know exactly where we are on the ruins. We are standing approximately in the middle right-hand side of the site as seen on the classic postcard picture.

A picture of our Salkantay
trekking group
Jose gives us a two hour tour of the site, offering many details about the customs and life in the old days at Machu Picchu. We are surprised to learn that the site originally must have been very rugged and all but picturesque. The Incas flattened the top and used the granite boulders as building material for all the structures. It would have been a huge endeavor to create a livable environment here in such a remote and rugged terrain.

Our tour with Jose ends at around 9:30am. We take a final group picture and then split up to explore on our own. Unfortunately, none of us got permits to climb up to Wayna Picchu. As we explained above: we didn't feel like queuing up at 3am for the permits.

The first "classical view" after the
mist has lifted
We are visiting Machu Picchu at peak season. When we entered at 7am this morning, there were a lot of tourists already inside (we are certain of this as all the daily allotment of 400 Wayna Picchu tickets have been given out). At 9:30am, the amount of people quadruples with just people coming up from Aguas Calientes and the day trippers from Cusco are not even here yet (the first train from Cusco arrives at 9:30am down in Aguas Calientes). This means it will be very crowded soon!

Inca bridge
We decide to make an "escape" first to the Inca bridge and then to Cerro Machu Picchu, (Machu Picchu Mountain) in anticipation that most people leave in the early afternoon and won't have time to "waste" on physical activity like climbing.

The Inca Bridge is a short 20 minute walk from the main ruins. It's actually part of an ancient Inca trail that was never fully completed. The "bridge" is an impressive stone structure built along steep cliffs, forming a narrow walkway. The "bridge" is off limits to tourists as someone had fallen off the bridge years back and died. It is a steep cliff and might have been planned as an escape route if the town were invaded as the wooden log planks could be removed and enable the people (probably the royal family) to flee invaders.

The climb up to Cerro Machu
is steep and tough
Afterwards, we head towards Cerro Machu Picchu. The park rangers inform us that it's 90 minutes up and 90 minutes down. "Piece of cake" we think, still being used to Jose's sandbagging time estimates. Wrong! It took us the full hour and a half to climb up to Cerro Machu Picchu. And it was a tough climb. Of course, we had the excuse of already having 4 days trekking in our tired legs.
But the views on the way up are great
But it was more than that: 564 vertical meters (1850 ft) climb on continuous steep steps is damn tough even with perfectly rested muscles. We arrived at the top gasping for air as we had when we reached the top of Salkantay (some 1500 meters higher).

The Panoramic view from
Cerro Machu Picchu is fantastic...
The views from top are absolutely worth it! We have a 360° view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. The best part is that only a handful of other people were brave, tough, or foolish, enough to climb up here.

as is the view down to Machu Picchu
With so much achievement in our brains and leg muscles, we spontaneously decide to walk up to the Sungate once we are back at the base of Machu Picchu! We are so invigorated and think that this opportunity won't arise another time, so let's do it ALL! Maybe we are just having our own kind of mid-life crisis moment right now!

Still ecstatic and feeling the adrenaline rush from the climb up, we sprint down the steep steps that nearly took our breath on the way up: Julane sets a new record of 20 minutes from top to the guardhouse. Patrick is not as fast but with 28 minutes still high up in the charts. The guard does not believe us that we were all the way to the top as we signed into the registry only 125 minutes ago (132 min for Patrick) and that includes a 15 minute break at the top...
Ok, ok, enough bragging...you know, it's the mid-life crisis speaking right now! ; )

View from the Sun Gate
We take a little rest before we walk up to the Sungate. As the name implies this is the point where the sun rises on the day of the summer solstice and its rays hit the altar in the sun temple in the heart of the Machu Picchu ruins. The Sungate is also Machu Picchu's entry portal for people arriving from the famous Inca Trail.

The walk to the gate is an easy 25 minutes slightly uphill. We avoid looking back much, as we want to see the sight as the people that arrive from the Inca Trail have when they first see Machu Picchu. Once we reach the Sungate we even walk a few step down the Inca Trail (technically we are not supposed to do that without a permit) to get a bit of the trail under our shoe soles.

In the late afternoon, most tourists
are gone and Machu Picchu becomes
very enjoyable...

The sight to Machu Picchu is incredible from this angle – actually the sight of Machu Picchu is incredible from nearly every angle. We think of our friend Martin who entered from the Inca Trail through this gate a little more than one year ago – we understand why he was very enthusiastic recommending that we also take the Inca Trail (read our previous post why we couldn't).

even the Llamas are posing...
When we returned from the Sungate it was already 3 o'clock... time flies when you are having fun racing around the ruins like a maniac gone wild!
and we can take pictures of the site
without any other tourist in view
Thankfully most tourists are gone at this time and Machu Picchu gains back much of its mystical aura – sadly it's a bit like a theme park during the peak hours. Now it's just us and few llamas with some die-hard tourists roaming about.

We enjoy walking again through the ruins that we visited in the morning. With only a few dozen people around, we can take very picturesque photos and we sense that everybody is absorbed by this newfound tranquility. Even the residential Llamas (they are the natural lawn-mowers of Machu Picchu) seem more relaxed and willingly pose for our photos. In the morning one nearly attacked a tourist that blocked its way as he was trying to get to his breakfast spot!

What a day!!!
We leave Machu Picchu after nearly 9 hours – time flies!
Despite visiting during peak tourist season, we managed to have an unforgettable experience, and climbing up to Cerro Machu Picchu just before noon offered incredible views and an escape from the more than 3000 other visitors during the peak hours.

One more item scratched
off the bucket list!
And what a day this was!
This year is the 100th anniversary since the discovery of Machu Picchu by a western archeologist called Hiram Bingham. We heard rumors that the Peruvian Government is considering a daily cap to the number of visitors to Machu Picchu; similar to the 500 person per day limit on the Inca Trail. This may be a good thing to protect the site from damage and preserve some of its magic. Sadly, it would also drive up the already very high entrance fee of 126 Soles ($46) to a level beyond affordability for the average traveler.

We highly recommend to visit Machu Picchu, but try to avoid the high season from June - August.

August 11, 2011

The Peruvian government has now imposed a daily limit of 2500 visitors. The implementation was sudden and without warning, leaving many angry tourist stranded at the entrance gate. Tickets should now be purchased online well in advance at www.machupicchu.gob.pe

The ticket price is currently still 126 Soles. But rumors are floating around that the price will soon be raised to 100 USD.
Wayna Picchu tickets are no longer free, and currently go for $10, the limit of 400 people a day remains. Finally we believe that access to Cerro Machu Picchu is now limited to 400 people a day and cost $5 extra.

Tickets for both Wayna and Cerro Machu Picchu can be bought online in advance together with the ticket to Machu Picchu.