The nice part about low season is that you can waltz into the tourism center in Aguas Calientes and buy general tickets for Machu Picchu for the next day. You may not be able to get the more limited tickets to climb Huayna Piccu, but most of the time they still have the standard 152 sole (USD $46) ticket to visit the archaeological site. Likewise, while Aguas Calientes might be a tourist trap, the actual tourism office here is wonderfully helpful free of charge. After purchasing our tickets to Machu Picchu yesterday, we stopped by to ask how to get back to Cusco if we couldn’t afford the train. They told us we could walk back along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica and take a van from there. “The last van leaves around 3:00 pm,” they said.
Next came the decision of whether we wanted to take the bus up to the ruins. The first one left at 6:00 am, but when we asked about how much it cost, we found out it would be $35 per person for the 20-minute ride to the top. Uh, no thanks.
Our 6:30 am start the next day was early for us, but when we left our hotel there were already more than a hundred people lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to take the buses up. We started out too late to beat them to the top (and have Machu Picchu to ourselves), but hopefully we’d still make it before the ruins got too busy. We hiked out of Aguas and took the left fork in the road for Machu Picchu. The guards at the suspension bridge there checked our tickets for the ruin, along with our passports, then waved us on. Another group wasn’t so lucky—one of them had forgotten their passport, and we watched him sprint off back toward Aguas Calientes.
Now it was time for the pain before the gain. You’ve seen the pictures of Machu Picchu in the National Geographic or online, high in the mountains and shrouded in mist. It’s mysterious. It’s gorgeous. And it looks like this because it actually is on the mountain. And the hike up is just that—up, up more than a thousand stone steps. Some are wide and easy to traverse. Some are narrow and your foot won’t fully fit, so you step diagonally and cautiously. Some are unevenly spaced. And some are wedged into walls so you’re climbing them like you’re in some kind of real-life video game. We raced to the top stopping only a couple of times and passing more than a dozen other groups. We would pay for this later, but for now we’re going for gold.
We knew when we were near the top because suddenly little old ladies selling water and premade lunches appeared, sitting on the side of their trail and calling out their wares. A few steps later, we were out into the pavement in front of Machu Picchu’s entrance, which was already thronged with tourists. We ducked between tour groups gathering their members and got to the entry turnstyles, presented our ticket and passport yet again, and then stumbled through into the open dirt path. Made it!
We had only four hours at the ruins if we wanted to catch a bus back to Cusco from Hidroelectrica. There weren’t too many tourists yet, so we sprinted around the compound to see everything we wanted. First on our list was the Sun Gate (the end of the Inca Trail), but we scrapped that when we found out it took two hours to hike there and back. But we still walked some of the trail in that direction, to get a feel for what the Inca Trail would have been like. The conclusion was rocky and knobbly and full of people with trekking poles and some egos. As we passed one hiking group from the Inca Trail, one guy snarkily asked us if we had enjoyed our train ride here. “We hiked the Salkantay,” Stoytcho said, and neither of us bothered to stop. As we left them behind, I heard their guide say, “That trail is harder than ours. Much harder.”
Exploring the rest of Machu Picchu’s ruins was more leisurely, as we climbed up to the northwest part of the compound, then walked down along the north edge to the east side. We visited what looked like dwellings, storehouses, meeting grounds, and temples, all painstakingly reconstructed from the ruins over the past century. I say “looked like” because I couldn’t actually tell you much about the ruins: there are only a handful of informational signposts in the ruins, so learning anything about them requires prior study or a guide. (And no, we couldn’t get signal for Wikipedia up on the mountain.)
So instead of studying the ruins, we studied the tourists visiting them. What had started as a smattering of people when we arrived had turned into a torrent by late morning. They posed for pictures, took selfies, and were overall insanely excited to be here. We’ve been on the road for a few months now, and Machu Picchu is just one destination of many for us. But for some of these people, coming here is a lifelong dream and it shows.
And despite the dearth of information on the ruins, it’s clear they’re deeply loved by the staff that cares for them. We encountered more than twenty khaki-clad workers in our visit, doing everything from removing plants and dirt from between the stones to measuring the impact of thousands of human footsteps on the stability of the ruins. From the first moment in the morning to the end of the day, these men and women work hard to preserve Machu Picchu in the face of more than a million tourists each year*. And through chatting with them, we learned it’s definitely not for the money; one worker was stunned and amused to find out how much foreigners paid for admission compared to how much he made working there. “We see very little of that money,” he told us.
So is Machu Picchu worth all of this? The expensive fuss to get here, the painfully touristic atmosphere of Aguas Calientes, the long hike through and up mountains to get here? It could be reviled as the cash cow of the Peruvian government and the local area, or admired as the dream destination of so many and the labor of love for those that work to preserve it. To know if it’s worth it, take a look and decide for yourself.
*Note: that 2014 linked article stated that guides would become a requirement, but when we visited (January 2017), this was still not in effect. There were some concerted efforts to move people more quickly through bottleneck points though.