The beautiful city of Split

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Split is a costal town, oddly reminiscent of Southern California. Palm trees, beautiful ocean, ancient architecture and cobblestone houses. No, wait, that last part isn’t at all like SoCal. Split has a lot of things to see, and most people spend the majority of their time in the old quarter. The old quarter has a market place, a small surrounding area of older streets and their apartments, and, in vast majority, Diocletian’s Palace.

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The palace is a beautiful, massive fortress, with multiple squares and dozens of tiny, squigly back alley style streets that are hard to navigate but full of interesting restaurants and shops.

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It was built around 300 AD as a retirement house for the Emperor Diocletian. Half retreat and half garrison, it was heavily fortified and at times housed over 9000 people. Today it stands as the world’s most complete Roman ruin. It really is magical to see – the majority of the palace is intact and its towers, plazas, and tunnels are endlessly interesting to explore.

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The majority of the palace is well preserved and is in active use today. Some portions – mostly along the seaside souther wall – have decayed into a state of not-quite-ruins. The structure amazingly holds itself together even there.

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The towers that watched over the sea and city are a focal point even today.

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Outside of the architectural beauty, there’s a lot of shopping in the old city. As with any good tourist location, businesses big and small have set up shop to sell clothes, souvenirs, and food.

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The plazas under the towers are a main gathering point – hundreds of people will sit at the cafes, smoke, sip, and talk. Here we got a taste of what Italy might be like – there are a lot of Italian visitors, and they and the locals love to sit for hours.

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The smaller segments of the palace, tucked away from the main square, have been turned into twisting mazes of restaurants and apartments. The food in these is very good, especially the hard-to-find ones. Locals mostly go there, hoping to enjoy the city without the crowds.

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The apartments are mostly for rent to tourists, but from the looks of it some of them are actually occupied by residents of the city.

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Seating at these alley cafes is pretty limited, but that’s ok! The atmosphere is quiet compared to the bustling plazas.

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Sometimes the path takes you through an architectural tunnel. The ‘ceiling’ is a connector between two buildings up above.

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There is always more to see in the palace. We walked through it every day, and every day we found yet another section we hadn’t explored.

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In some parts of the palace, you can’t even tell it’s a colossal Roman construction anymore. This looks like a tiny village, not part of a fortress.

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From some parts of the palace you can see the water. This is the view from a restaurant we ate at, and the food was just as fantastic. We’re not even sure how we got there!

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Next time : sights from outside the palace!

 

Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.
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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.
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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.

Prambanan: Top of the ruins

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A view of Prambanan from the top of Bubrah Temple’s reconstruction scaffold.

Like ruins around the world, the temples at Prambanan stand today because they have been reassembled following centuries of neglect and decay. The reconstruction process is still ongoing; visit the ruins, including the main Prambanan Temple, and you’ll be greeted by piles of bricks scattered around the temple complexes. You’ll also find teams working together to put these ancient buildings back together, piece by piece.

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A collapsed building in the shadow of Sewu Temple awaits reconstruction.

Most visitors don’t stray far from the main Prambanan Temple, but we made a circuit around the temple grounds to visit Sewu Temple and Bubrah Temple, both of which were in earlier stages of reconstruction. Sewu was empty, with no one working on it and no one visiting. We had the ruin entirely to ourselves. Buhbrah was likewise devoid of visitors, probably because it was covered in a dense wood scaffold for reconstruction.

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Bubrah Temple, circa April 2017.

 

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Photographs of the reconstruction work at Bubrah Temple. They’re literally reassembling it from the foundation up.

We thought Buhbrah was devoid of workers as well until a guy surprised us while we were looking at reconstruction photos and schematics posted next to the ruins. His English was limited, but from what we could gather he 1) worked on reconstruction here at Buhbrah and 2) was really, really excited we had stopped by to visit. He pointed up to the scaffolding and grinned at us. “Want to go up?”

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The front of Bubrah Temple, dense with scaffolding.

 

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The view from the top floor of the scaffolding.

What followed was a definitely-not-on-the-regular-docket tour of Buhbrah ruins. The guy led us up through the wooden scaffolding around the temple, ascending makeshift inclines and scaling handmade ladders. There were on guardrails on the outside edge. There were no safety ropes. The only defense from disaster was to keep our balance.

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Some of the temple’s stupas, encased in scaffolding for reconstruction.

 

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The top floor of the scaffolding, where the workers are reassembling the temple’s ceiling and main stupa.

We finished our climb at the scaffolding’s top floor, five stories up, where our guide delighted in showing us the reconstruction materials and methods and cheerfully posed us for photos. He pointed down a shaft with a pulley and bucket that extends down to the ground; this was how they brought materials up.

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Looking down the shaft used to bring tools and materials up.

He then led us to one side of the temple’s central stupa and gave us a fascinatingly tactile tour of temple reconstruction, passing us bricks and tools. The bricks are surprisingly light and formless, and as I squinted at one I realize that’s because it’s just aerated concrete. So this is how they deal with missing pieces in the temple reconstruction: just replicate replacements on site with skilled craftsmen and low-cost material. It won’t last forever, but it gets the job done.

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Our host around the ruins posed me for this photo, pretending to work on the ruins, butall the scattered chips are from his work. Note the difference between the lightweight concrete bricks and darker original stone.

But in the humid tropics of Indonesia, nothing lasts forever. The original stones from the temple all sport heavy weathering in whites and grays. Many of the ornate carvings wear a veil of moss that in time will efface their details. Even the new wood scaffolding around the ruin is already showing signs of decay: a mushroom peeks from between the cracks, fed by the tropical warmth and rain. The manicured lawns around the temples may not be jungle, but nature still sends forth tendrils to reclaim the works of man.

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A mushroom pokes out from between slats in Bubrah Temple’s scaffolding.
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Moss grows on an ornately carved temple stone. Its growth will slowly eat away at the stone’s detailed shapes.

Alternatives to Machu Picchu

Last time we talked about the full cost of visiting Machu Picchu and how much it can be compared to the few hours you get exploring the ancient ruins. You can either pay in comfort and time and the whole 4-day trip will cost about $737 (including airfare), or if you don’t want to/can’t hike 14+ kilometers, it’s going to cost you a whopping $1,382 for the same trip!

While there is no place exactly like Machu Picchu, these six places might also match your travel dreams and deliver more value for the money. Prices below are divided into cheap and comfortable: on the cheap end, you’re hosteling/camping and eating cheaper meals with locals, while on the comfortable end, you’re staying in air-conditioned two/three-star hotels and eating at trendier restaurants. For the purposes of this list, we’ve divided the reasons for visiting Machu Picchu into the following: archaeological ruins, natural beauty, and hiking.

South America

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Teotihuacan’s central plaza

Mexico’s Teotihuacan

Good for: ruins

Price: $410 (cheap) or $640 (comfortable) for 4 days/night trip to Mexico City and Teotihuacan

Details: Mexico City is a short flight away from the U.S. and is located less than two hours away from the ruins of Teotihuacan, an ancient city build more than 2,000 years ago by an unknown people. Their avenues, homes, and temples were so impressive that the later Aztecs revered this site as sacred and claimed it had been built by gods. $275 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board in Mexico City as well as transportation, admission, and a guide for Teotihuacan. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, so you could stay for a whole week and still save money compared to Machu Picchu. Insider’s tip: if you can, visit Mexico City and Teotihuacan for the Day of the Dead festival (October 29-November 2). The City has a huge display of handmade papier-mâché Alebrijes, Calle Regina gets decked out in beautiful dioramas celebrating the dead, and the ruins of Teotihuacan plays host to a huge festival. (P.S. Despite popular perception, most parts of Mexico City are pretty safe.)

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Carvings at Sayil’s palace, along the Puuc Route

Mexico’s Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and the Puuc Route

Good for: ruins, natural beauty

Price: $702 (cheap) or $1100 (comfortable) for 4 days/nights Cancun->Merida->Cancun

Details: While the Yucatan region is better known for the party city of Cancun, it also hosts some of the most amazing Mayan ruins, including pyramids, temples, palaces, fortresses, and sacred sites. Chichen Itza is the most well-known, but the Puuc route near the city of Merida also boasts more than six archaeological sites, including the lesser-known ancient city of Uxmal, the palace of Sayil, and Loltun Cave (believed by the Mayans to be the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld). $280 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board, a car rental + road tolls + gas to drive yourself around, entrance fees to all of the sites, and guides. Staying an extra day in Merida or Cancun would cost between $30 (cheap) and $110 (comfortable) for food/board, not counting any extra days of car rental. If you want to make it cheaper, skip the car rental and book day tours to these sites. Insider’s tip: the guides will highball you on both their rates and how much is acceptable to tip. Remember to negotiate and tip IF you really felt your guide delivered value.

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Barefoot hiking the Pueblito trail in Parque Tayrona, an ancient trail paved with granite stones by the indigenous people

Colombia’s Parque Tayrona

Good for: natural beauty, hiking

Price: $560 (cheap) and $950 (comfortable) for a 6 day Cartagena->Santa Marta->Parque Tayrona->Santa Marta->Cartagena trip.

Details: The dollar goes further in Colombia, and the country’s Tayrona National Park is as beautiful as it is remote. Home to several indigenous tribes and three different types of tropical forest, the park has a few excellent hiking trails and a plethora of native species that are easy to spot, including a species of monkey. Though it doesn’t have ruins, it has a hike to an indigenous village via a granite trail made centuries ago. $370 of both of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for two nights in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park, with money for transport and food/rooms in Cartagena and Santa Marta at the beginning and end. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, with +/- $10-$40 depending on which place you chose to spend your extra days.

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The view from La Piedra in Guatape

Colombia’s Guatape and Le Piedra del Penol

Good for: natural beauty, hiking

Price: $490 (cheap) or $830 (comfortable) for a 4-day Medellin->Guatape->Medellin trip.

Details: If you’re looking for natural beauty, the idyllic Colombian lakeside town of Guatape and their enigmatic stone monolith La Piedra del Penol (linkout) may be perfect. Medellin is the starting point for the trip, and while once known for its sordid role as Pablo Escobar’s hometown during the height of the cocaine trade, it’s cleaned itself up and is now a beautiful, metro-linked, red-roofed city (linkout). $400 of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for room/board, transportation between Medellin and Guatape, and transportation and admission to La Piedra del Penol. Adding extra time would be between $18 and $85 per day. Insider’s tip: Guatape is famous for its trout, and you can both savor the local delicacy in restaurants or fish your own. There’s also an AMAZING chocolate store in town that’s a must-visit (linkout).

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Choquequirao, courtesy of Wikipedia

By Ericbronder at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Peru’s Choquequirao

Good for: hiking (required), ruins, natural beauty

Price: $695 (cheap) or $1275 (comfortable) for a 7-night Cusco->Cachora->Choquequirao->Cachora->Cusco trip.

Details: Perhaps the best substitute for Machu Picchu for those able to hike (though we haven’t done this one), Choquequirao is an ancient Incan city that’s actually larger than Machu Picchu and has beautifully preserved stone carvings. The ruin is only reachable by 2 days of hiking from the towns Santa Teresa or Cachora (~31 km), so it’s fairly isolated (meaning it sees FAR fewer tourists) and admission is currently free. Airfare is taken from the Machu Picchu guide of the last post (580 cheap, 655 comfortable), and the rest covers room/board, supplies for the hike, and transport to/from Cachora. There’s a limit to what we can do here for comfort, since there’s an obligatory hike, but you could hire a guide + private transport + porter in town for ~$200, which I included in the “comfortable” price. Insider’s Tip: The Peruvian government is currently developing a cable car system from Mollepata to Choquequirao as part of a plan to develop the site for tourism, so go now while it’s still isolated and free!

Outside of South America

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Mount Bromo at sunrise

Indonesia’s Borobudur, Prambanan, and Mount Bromo

Good for: ruins, hiking, and natural beauty

Price: $1080 for a 7-night Jakarta->Yogyakarta->Bromo->Jakarta trip (cheap; maybe add $300-400 for “comfortable”, but I have limited data)

Details: So this isn’t technically cheaper in total compared to Machu Picchu, but a weeklong visit to Indonesia’s Java is comparable per day and is an amazing destination that spans sprawling megacities, ancient temples, and still-smoking volcanoes. While most people only visit Bali, Java is Indonesia’s most populous island and home to both ancient ruins and stunning natural scenery. As a bonus, Indonesians are some of the friendliest people ever, and you’ll be interviewed by schoolchildren practicing English and pose for selfies with random people on the street (and in the countryside). Borobudur and Prambanan, located near the city of Yogyakarta, are some of the most impressive and well-preserved Buddhist and Hindu archaeological sites in the world. And Mount Bromo is a live volcano in the middle of the island, where you can walk straight up to the volcano’s rim and watch a stunning sunrise over the surrounding area. After the $665 airfare to Jakarta (that drops to about $550 if you’re on the west coast), the remaining $415 covers 7 days’ worth of cheap food, board, admission to all three locations, AND a front-row seat to the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet, an insane retelling of the Ramayana story that involves setting the stage on fire (in the non-rainy season, at least).  Insider’s tip: Booking private transport to/from Bromo can be worthwhile just to avoid Probolinggo, the island’s scammiest location.

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The ruins of Prambanan
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Carvings in the ruins at Prambanan

Summary

The point of this article isn’t to say that you must go somewhere else instead of Machu Picchu. This article exists because we were shocked at how much Machu Picchu costs compared to how much we valued the experience. In our travelling, we found the above places delivered better value for the money spent, but it’s up to you to decide what you want out of your travel experience.

Machu Picchu in Pictures

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Morning mist at the ruins of Machu Picchu

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a photoessay on our visit to Machu Picchu. For those of you who want a wordier post (and some critical commentary on visiting), here’s the essay.

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Mountains obscured by mist and clouds, as viewed from the trail to the Sun Gate
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A worker removes dirt from between the stones on the trail to the Sun Gate
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Passing clouds obscure the ruins as seen from the terraces to the northwest of the main gate (former cemetary and guard quarters)
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Machu Picchu as seen from the terraces to the northwest of the main gate
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Terraces and buildings that have been reconstructed and given new thatched roofs
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A worker poses beside a wall where he has removed dirt from between the stones. If you encounter the workers, I would treat them with respect and thank them. They work hard to maintain Machu Picchu.
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A man poses for a selfie on the terraces of Machu Picchu
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A full view of the ruins from near the main entrance.Huayna Picchu (upper right) is obscured by clouds.
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Tourists pose questionably while an employee works on a nearby wall
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A woman is excited after getting her picture at the Sacred Plaza in the ruins
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Nature’s lawnmowers: llamas and alpacas are used to keep grass in check on the ruin’s terraces. They also serve as an informal petting zoo for the curious.
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A tour group waits at one of the many “bottlenecks” along the Machu Picchu ruins path. The whole path is arranged to be unidirectional and marked with signs to prevent total chaos. At some extremely narrow or famous points, tour groups get bunched up and chaos ensues anyway.
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Workers measure the impact of thousands of human feet on the ruins by measuring the height of the dirt path. This is in the Eastern Urban Sector of the ruins.
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A path leading off a cliff in the northern part of the ruins.
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A view of the Urubamba River from the terraces in the north of Machu Picchu. The thin line above the split in the river is the rail track we crossed on the hike here.
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The archetypal view of Machu Picchu.
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Narrow corridors between the buildings is a characteristic hallmark of the Eastern Urban Sector at the ruins. This area could have housed hundreds or even a thousand people during the height of the Incan Empire.

Machu Picchu

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The view from a window in the ruins of Machu Picchu

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.

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The only consolation I have regarding Aguas Calientes’ steep prices is that they made these adorable frog trash cans, which are free to enjoy.

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.

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The map of the trail up (green). I like how they actually drew all of the squiggles in the trail instead of doing the lazy thing and drawing a straight line up.

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.

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Steps along the trail. Cue up some video game music from either Super Mario or Ico.

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!

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Our first view of Machu Picchu

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.”

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Mountains in the morning mist along the route to the Sun Gate

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.)

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The only sign I remember seeing in the ruins. it proclaims that this was a “ceremonial rock”. Ok.

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.

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A man takes a selfie
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These women took photos of everything while grinning madly; it was probably their lifelong dream to come here.

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.

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Workers measure the impact of tourist footsteps/walking in the ruins.

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.

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The archetypal Machu Picchu view, available to everyone who visits.

*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.

Cusco’s Trail of Ruins

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A view from Tambomachay
After a day of rest and recovery in Cusco, we decided it was time to test our preparedness for the Salkantay Trail by hiking Cusco’s trail of Inca ruins, a ~7.5 km downhill hike that visits the Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Saqsayhuaman archaeological sites. While 48 hours isn’t a lot of time to acclimate to Cusco’s high altitude, we’re due to head out to the Salkantay tomorrow and it’s better to know now if we’re not in good enough shape. So we paid 17 soles (~$5 USD) for a taxi to the start of the trail at Tambomachay, where we paid 70 soles (~$21 USD) per person for day passes to all four ruins and got ready to hike.
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Cairns along the trail
 The ruin of Tambomachay was a few minutes’ walk uphill, with bilingual Spanish/English signs along the way that introduced the site’s history. To the Incas, Tambomachay was simultaneously a sacred site, a resort getaway, and a key defensive area. The Incan leaders worshiped the manifestation of water here through the abundant springs in the area, rested in its hot springs and enjoyed hunting, and commanded warriors to use this as a guardpoint for entry into ancient Cusco. Now the area was guarded by polite ropes cordoning off the ruins, and manned by a string of vendors selling souvenirs to the handful of tourists coming by. This time of year is the low season in Cusco, and mostly what these poor folks are doing is huddling under blankets to ward off the morning cold, chewing coca leaves and chatting to each other.
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A girl leads a stubborn lamb
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The ruins of Tambomachay
The ruins held our interest for about 10 minutes as we admired the masonry and construction, then we turned our attention to the patchwork of trails around the ruins. There didn’t seem to be a specific trail we should take, so we picked one and started hiking uphill, partly to test our fitness and partly just to see what else was around here. The flora and fauna was decidedly different here – there were plants and insects of brilliant color and odd design, from the papery husk of a wildflower set to seed to a metallic blue-green wasp. The view was also stunning, as the clouds of the rainy season drifted over the Andes.
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A worker who maintains the archaeological site walks a trail in the ruins
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Flowers set to seed
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A metallic green wasp rests among leaves
On a trail high above the ruins, we stopped to rest and were ambushed by a pack of llamas, who insisted on taking right-of-way on the path. We climbed up above them, gazing down in awe as the trail became a flowing river of wool, llamas and sheep walking, stopping to nibble, and rolling in the dust. As we waited for them to pass, I made the mistake of snapping a photo. The driver of this herd, an old woman, had rounded the bend by this time and approached me. “Moneda,” she said forcefully, holding out her hand. I was confused, and then it dawned on me that she was demanding money for my pictures. “Moneda,” she demanded again. “Uh…no,” I replied. The woman stood there for a few more moments, her hand out, frowning. But her herd was wandering on without her, and so she hissed and turned away. For the safety of the money that’s supposed to get me from here to home, I made a mental note to never photograph specific things or people here in Peru without asking first. It’s just too risky. It also seems absurd that photos of daily life would warrant payment, but when tourism pays so much better than anything else then everyone wants in on the action.
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A sudden abundance of llamas
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Sheep and llamas overflow the trail

On the way back down, a vendor stopped us to try and barter some of his goods for Stoytcho’s watch, a ~$30 Casio G-Shock. We politely declined, but I asked if I could pay him 5 soles (~$1.50 USD) to take pictures of his wares. He agreed enthusiastically, suddenly donning a hat and holding up his brightest colored blankets for me to photograph. It was an absurd display, and it seemed so far from life in fact that I cringed inside. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t necessary, that I was interested in him just as himself, and that he didn’t have to dress in the kitsch he sells to tourists and put on a show. Instead, I took my picture and thanked him.

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A vendor displays his wares
The next two ruins were a blur as we trudged down the paved road and dirt trails toward Cusco. Puka Pukara had little information provided only in Spanish, though its walls were beautifully reconstructed and we could see the amazing stonecutting skills of the Incas. Each piece of stone seemed to fit together perfectly, without even space to slide a needle in. This hadn’t stopped plants, though, and mosses and weeds sprouted defiantly from some cracks in the walls, intent on rejoining the structures with the nature around us.
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The impeccable masonry of the Incas; each stone is carved and fitted together without any kind of joining material. Pale chalk lines are probably remnants of archaeological notes during reconstruction.
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Defiant weeds and mosses make their homes between the rocks
Q’enqo had no information whatsoever, its sign missing from the wooden frame. We walked the ruins anyway, puzzling over its cave and stairs that probably once led to an altar. “This was probably a worship site for the Incas.” I hypothesized to Stoytcho. “Whatever it was, it was meant for shorter people,” Stoytcho replied, bent at nearly ninety degrees as he squeezed through spaces between the rocks.
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While not particularly helpful for information, Q’enqo’s wooden information sign frame made a great place to collapse from exhaustion.
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Once an altar?
While we weren’t the only visitors on the hike, we seemed to be the only foreigners around. We passed local families walking the ruins, children playing in fields, and couples picnicking on the hills. Maybe they’re shopkeepers in the city, but they seem to be a different class entirely from the Cusquenos selling souvenirs from street stalls and at the ruins.
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Locals picnic on the grass
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Lovers in the woods
It’s late afternoon when we finally reached the ruins of Saqsayhuaman, and I fully admit to being pretty done with ruins. It was a shame, because Saqsayhuaman was one of the most interesting ruins, a reconstruction of the part of the ancient city of Cusco. Ancient Cusco was built in the shape of a jaguar, and the fortress at Saqsayhuaman was the jaguar’s head, complete with an eye and jagged teeth. Many guides here walked with tour groups, explaining the history and structure of the site, and there were several signs explaining the layout of the ruins in English and Spanish. But we were both tired, and so we stayed only 30 minutes before continuing on toward the city. We only stopped again for the giant Jesus on the hill.
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The jagged teeth of the jaguar
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Cusco seems so close now…
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The Jesus that watches over Cusco
Finally, seven hours and four aching feet later, we were walking through the streets of Cusco again. We trudged back down to Plaza de Armas where our trip had started, and sat in front of the Catedral del Cusco. It was a fitting if not morbid end to the trip, sitting before the works of the Spanish conquerors who laid waste to the Incan empire only a few hundred years ago. With guns and horses, they captured Cusco in 1533 and made it their base for Spanish colonization of the Andes. They spread Christianity and suppressed Incan beliefs and political systems, building new edifices of power while the remains of the Inca civilization faded. The Incans may have made the temples, walls, and fortresses, but these conquerors made the ruins we saw today.
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Finally on the streets of Cusco
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Cusco’s Cathedral, built by the Spanish in the ashes of the Incan capital
And as for the verdict on our condition after the hike? We’re exhausted but not dead exhausted and not injured, nor had we suffered any dizziness or fainting from the altitude. I’m pretty sure we’re ready for the Salkantay.