On the usual whistle stop trip to Peru, because of the scarcity of time, visitors fly into Cusco. They then board the early morning train to Machu Picchu. After a 3 hour, 20-minute train ride they arrive at Aguas Calientes, which is the terminating station. Then visitors queue up to take the bus to the base of the citadel of Machu Picchu. This is a bumpy 20 minute ride and often during peak season the wait to board the bus can take as much as 90 minutes. You then arrive with hordes of other tourists and start to climb up to the ruins and arrive right amidst them again with hordes of tourists.
The entire charm of being there is effectively diminished if not completely wiped out.
But it doesn’t have to be this way!
To truly appreciate the grandeur of the lost city of the Incas with the mountain called Machu Picchu towering above it, your first view of it HAS to be from above and this is only possible if you do the Inca trail. The 9km km walk is pretty easy and takes about 6 hours and is well worth the effort just for this view.
And this is how you go about doing it.
There are only a certain number of walkers allowed the Inca trail per day so you need to book your slot in advance. Any travel operator specializing in the Inca trail will do this for you.
Then take the first train out of Cusco and alight at the 104km milestone which arrives about 2 hours into the trip. Here your permits (and your passport) are checked and then the beauty begins.
The trail is well defined and is a steady uphill slog until Winay Wayna which is a ruin with terraces and looks like an enigmatic amphitheater set into the mountain. Along the way, there are beautiful waterfalls, old wooden bridges and the views are just magical.
From Winay Wayna it is a steady and somewhat level walk to the Puerto del Sol or the Sun Gate and it is from here that you get your first view of the lost city of the Incas popularly called Machu Picchu. The sight of it sitting there is simply enchanting. Though there may be other trekkers at the sun gate, the atmosphere is very peaceful as everybody is sitting there quietly catching their breath and just taking in the gorgeous view.
Ever since you had started planning your Peru trip, Machu Picchu would have been something that you were looking forward to the most. And it is at the Sun Gate that it all becomes worth the long flight, the money, and the tiring walk. But if you don’t do the trail and just take the bus up you will be underwhelmed.
A few tips:
- Research online and find a good tour operator to book your spot on the two day Inca Trail. They will also procure train tickets for you as well as the shuttle bus tickets to and from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu complex.
- Preferably you should be on the first train out of Cusco so that you have enough time on the trail. Remember that the Sun Gate is locked by 3 pm
- You can easily book hotels in Aguas Calientes on booking.com. A good plan is to do the Inca Trail on the first day, then take the bus to Aguas Calientes from the Machu Picchu complex and spend the night in the town. The next day, take the bus back to the complex and explore the ruins at leisure. You can get back by late afternoon and take the evening train back to Cusco or spend one more night in Aguas Calientes and take the first train back to Cusco the next morning.
- Water is very expensive at the complex (almost 10 times the price) so carry your water with you from Aguas Calientes.
- You cannot drive to Aguas Calientes as cars are not allowed there. But you can drive from Cusco to Urubamba or Ollantaytambo through the Sacred Valley and this is a great drive. Urubamba and Ollantaytambo (where the train station is) are about 20km apart.
- Stay at the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba which is simply the best place to stay in the Sacred Valley. If you are driving you can park your car here, take the train from Ollantaytambo to the 104km milestone do the Inca Trail and then take the train back to Ollantaytambo.