Machu Picchu is the ultimate bucket list for many people. They dream of visiting the secluded jungle city of the Inca, hidden from most of society for hundreds of years. After falling in love with Peru during our first week, incredible the question Eric and I had to ask was, would it live up to the hype?
Day 7 The Sacred Valley
If there is one piece of advice I can offer when visiting Peru, it is to go with the flow. Our experience may have been unique, but from the moment we met our, “contact” at our hotel to take us on our tour of the Sacred Valley on the Inca an on to Machu Picchu, control was out of Eric and I’s hands.
Tip: Visiting the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu Almost ever visitor that comes to Peru visits the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. The standard trip bases out of Cusco and begins with a day long tour of the Sacred Valley. Visitors then spend the night in one of the Valley’s towns before making an early morning train/bus ride to Machu Picchu. Some choose to visit Machu Picchu directly from Cusco. It takes just over three hours to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco, making a day-long trip quite the feat!
Tip: Packing for Machu Picchu: The train to Machu Picchu has strict luggage limits which most carry-on bags will not meet. We found the buses to be more restrictive. I highly recommend packing only what you need in a back pack for your time in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.
Eric, our backpacks, full of our necessities for the next three days (yes, I wore the same clothes for three days straight) met our contact at 8am to being our tour. Without a word, she beckoned us to follow her, led us to a bus and “gently” shoved us on board. Neither of us thought to ask where the bus was headed or if we were in the right place. When we sat down, we realize that we looked to be the only English speakers on board…
Our bus took off, and after seeing the look of utter disbelief on my face, our guide reassured us, “I see your face, don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll explain in English and in Spanish.” Ok….. As he explained our itinerary, Eric and I realized we had no idea how we were supposed to get to our hotel in the town of Urumbamba, as the tour circled back to Cusco at the end of the day. But that was a bridge to be crossed later. Literally. In the meantime, we made our first stop, an obligatory stop at a literally tourist trap all visitors to the Sacred Valley are routed to. Luckily we ran into some of our friends from the Amazon an previous tours who we were able to ease our concerns to by joking about our tour.
Our first real stop was in the town of Pisac, famous for it’s market. On Sundays, tourists and locals alike flock to the market to haggle deals. Even though we didn’t visit on a traditional market day, there were still plenty of goods to gaze at.
After our stop off at the market, we climbed, and climbed and climbed from the valley to the mountain top and the ruined Incan city of Pisaca. Perhaps it was that this was our introduction to the Sacred Valley, but Pisaca was one of my favorite stops in the Sacred Valley. He views were stunning, and for those with the time, there is ample hiking in the area.
The reoccurring theme with all places associated with Incans…. stairs… We did not have much time, but Eric and I broke from the tourists and hiked along the ruins as far as time allowed.
Next up, was lunch! We drove to the town of Urumbamba for lunch. Our travel agent had booked our buffet lunch at a different restaurant than the rest of our tour. We drove an drove through town, getting a preview of our lodgings for the night. Our impression…..Ummmm….. There are a lot of charming places in Peru, on the surface, the working town of Urumbamba is not one of them. We were able to take the time to ask our guide how we would get back to town that day to stay overnight. The answer, we would walk. Sort of. There was one last stop on our tour, and after that, our bus would return to Urumbamba where it would cross the river to return to Cusco. At that crossing, Eric and I would need to depart and walk the rest of the way to the hotel. Cool.
Tip: Buffet Lunches For some reason, buffet lunches are a “thing” in the toursisty spots of Peru. When making your way to places with limited options such as Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley, expect to see buffets. While I love nothing more than a good (or not so good depending on your standards) buffet, don’t expect fried chicken. The good buffets in Peru have incredible cevice and high quality food!
But first – Ollantaytambo! In the 1400s, an Incan general broke off from the Incan king and established the fortress city of Ollantaytambo.
Though the fortress was a strategic stronghold and fended off one Spanish attack, when the Spanish returned with a force four times the size of the Incan defenders, they were force into retreat further into the jungle.
After exploring the ruins it was time to return to our bus for a short ride to our drop off point for the night. When we reached the bridge in Urumbamba, we bade our Spanish speaking bus farewell, slung our packs over our backs and set off to find our hotel. As we walked, Eric had the idea to pop into one of the street side convenience stores which are 2 per block in Peru, grab a Cusquena, and watch the sunset in the Valley. It may have made no sense to spend the night there, but it was the perfect way to end the day.
Tip: Where to stay the night before visiting Machu Picchu: To reach Machu Picchu, visitors almost always depart from Ollantaytambo. Those not taking the 4 day Inca trail by foot take a train for approximately 2 hours into the foothills of the cloud forest to Aguiles Calientes. From Aguiles Calientes, buses take visitors 25 minutes up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Almost all visitors to Machu Picchu spend the night before in either of these locations. Do so. Enough said.
Day 8 Machu Picchu
Spending the night in Urumbamba meant that before we took the 6 am train from Ollantaytambo to Aguiles Calientes, we needed to catch a 4am bus to Urumbamba . Yes. It was as crazy as it sounds. At 4:15, we were getting nervous and called our “contact” for help. 5 minutes later, we heard honking and ran onto a bus of sleeping Peruvian tourists. Yep. We arrive at the train station and took our seats on the train. As we made the approximately 2 hour trip, we watched the first dark blue light of the day creep in as we descended into the canyons of jungle.
Next, we boarded the buses and began to ascend into the cloudy mist of the mountain to Machu Picchu. So let me be honest here. I was bummed. Sure we were in a cloud forest and all but I really wanted to see the green, jungle valley, and snow capped mountains peaking through. In fact, I was acting like a diva. Part of the mystery and wonder of Machu Picchu is the mist. But still.
We had 7 am reservations to hike Huayno Picchu, a mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu so the moment we scanned our tickets, we made our way through the mist, unable to see the true glory that surrounded us as we mazed our way to the hike’s entrance.
Tip: Hiking Huyano Picchu: Only 400 visitors per ay are allowed to hike Huayno Pichhu, 200 at 7am, and 200 at 9am. Guys, the hike, while fairly short, is strenuous. Eric and I are descent hikers. We grew up hiking in the American West, and are fairly fit. When we hear that a hike is difficult, we typically disagree, and expected the same at Huayno Pichhu. Well, we were wrong it’s hard, and fun, and totally worth it!
The hike was S.T.E.E.P. Wow. The one thing I can say for sure about the Incans is that those people were in shape! Once we finally ascended the mountain, we emerged into the mist. Seriously, that is all we could see. What make This Huayno Picchu so famous is it’s steepness, and the view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding valley. The behest of a guide from another group, we waited for the mist to lift as it did, the early morning of Machu Picchu was revealed.
Hiking up Huayno Pichhu was tiring and steep, but the descent down, well, it was harrowing. The first part of the climb, descended the same steep stairs however as anyone who has climbed anything knows, going down is always harder than going up. There was nothing to hold on to, and a sheer cliff to one side! I fell back to my favorite piece of advice, always have three points of contact.
We spent the next few hours meandering through Machu Picchu. We had a tour scheduled for 11am, but, it turned out our “contact” had booked us another Spanish tour. We joined an English tour for 1.5 hours, but our favorite part was meeting fellow traveler, one of whom was an archeologist and taught us more than our guide! Snafu aside, if there is ne thing I can say about Machu Picchu – for all of the hype, it is not over rated!
Around 2 pm, we were exhausted (we had been up since 3:40am after all!) and headed down into Aguiles Calientes for another fabulous buffet lunch before checking into our hotel.
Despite being over-priced and a tourist hub, I found Aguiles Calientes to be a charming town.
Day 9 Aguiles Calientes to Machu Picchu
The next morning, we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo. On our ride, we made friends with two women from Lima, Margarita, and Sofia, who not only sent each of us home with gifts, but a standing invitation to visit them anytime in Lima! I love Peruvians. Once we arrived in Ollantaytambo , we had to catch another bus back to Cusco. As you can imagine, at this point, we had our fingers crossed that our bus would be there and we wouldn’t be riding on the roof. And we weren’t. We boarded a cozy (that makes it sound nice right? :)) bus here we were the only foreigners for the two hour rive back to Cusco. Our ride was elayed 45 minutes while we waited for a parade to pass through Urumbamba.
When we finally arrived back in Cusco, there was one thing we could say – we really did get to travel like locals! We arrived in time for a late lunch at our new favorite restaurant, Quinta Eulalia for one last idealistic meal.
After lunch, we spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering through Cusco, stopping in Paddy’s Irish Pub, aka the highest Irish-owned pub in the world. It was just as touristy and as friggin fantastic as it sounds! We ended our final evening at where else… Museo Del Pisco before dining at Cicciolina for incredible octopus and alpaca.
Our adventure retuning home to the US deserves a post in itself, but what I can say is that when Eric and I left Peru, we left with intentions we plan to fulfill, to return soon. Peru, you are amazing!
Where is the number one place in the world you want to visit?
Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list?