Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

From Cusco we took a bus through the Sacred Valley. We were attempting to find the real bus station when we were co-oped by a crew of young American ladies studying in Costa Rica looking for extra people in their “small bus.” We wound up in a 10 seater with a local artist and these girls, cruising through the lush green Sacred Valley. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: An artist, a tour guide, and 6 Americans get into a bus…. 

We took the bus to Ollantaytambo, where we passed the afternoon. We got some great lunch, accompanied by a beautiful puppy that we named Linda. And then we went in pursuit of a hike!

We went to the “official” ruins where we learned we would have to pay for a full 3 day visit to many sites in the Sacred Valley, which probably is a good deal if you’re spending more time there, but since we only had one afternoon, it felt like a lot. It is worth walking over there though because there’s a large market selling all sorts of handmade arts and crafts.

Instead, we went across town and hiked Pinkuylluna, which is one of the free hikes that still showcases plenty of ruins! Although there were no signs to explain what we were looking at, it was nice to get to explore the mountainside in near solidarity. There were maybe 2 other people on the mountain, as opposed to the hundreds standing in line over at the “official” ruins. It was also nice to get to hike, as opposed to walking and climbing on cement-manicured ruins. Living in the cement jungle of NYC, I always prefer more natural hikes when given the choice.  

Afterwards we got dinner at a second floor restaurant. Truthfully, we got beef, which was not very good. The alpaca is much better! But the view was enjoyable! It looked out to the ruins on the mountainside, over the town square where some locals were playing music and dancing! We tried to peak out of the restaurant to see the dancers, but the proprietor got nervous that we were trying to run out on our meal so she followed us out into the square. Rather than cause a scene we just enjoyed the mountain view.

Jonathan wanted to get street meat after, because the beef left much to be desired, but exercising my better judgement, I nixed the idea because street meat just before a 2 hour train ride to a remote location followed by 8 hours of hiking and 4 hours of commuting the next day, seemed risky! 

Soooooo…finally! We made it to Machu Picchu! We stayed in the town of Aguas Calientes, which is a little bit of a trek from the actual UNESCO Heritage Site of Machu Picchu.. 

The first option is to walk from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins which adds approximately 1.5 hours and a million stairs to your hike. Alternately you can take a bus for $20, which I would recommend. We caught the 7am bus for our 8-9am entry. Upon arrival we headed straight for La Montaña Machu Picchu, thinking we’d be the first on the mountain, however, it apparently actually doesn’t open until 9am.

Having been turned away at the gate, needing to kill 45 minutes, we decided to hike to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is a free hike, available to everyone with who pays entry to the complex. Another option is the Inca Bridge, which is approximately 15 minutes and relatively flat.  

The Sun Gate marks the original entrance to Machu Picchu and if you hike in along the Inca Trail, then you will enter the complex here. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to do either the 4 day or even the 1 day Inca Trail hike, a disappointment that my subconscious commemorated with a nightmare in which I dreamt I had hiked the Inca Trail but there were spiders in my water, so I was forced to drink wine and thus was too drunk to remember the hike! Once you’re at the Guardhouse inside the ruins, which is where the Sun Gate trail starts, it took us approximately an hour and a half round trip, and we were hustling. We enjoyed the hike and the view from the top was beautiful, but it was more intense than we had planned, considering we had also booked tickets for Montaña Machu Picchu.

If you want to hike, but you don’t want to pay extra for either Huayna Picchu or Montaña Machu Picchu, then the Sun Gate is a perfect compromise. We definitely wouldn’t have minded hanging out at the top for a bit longer, but we had to press on in order to make it to La Montaña. 

Within 15 minutes of starting our trek up Machu Picchu Mountain, sweat dripping off my nose and already doubting whether we should continue, we encountered someone already making their descent. Turns out they open the trek closer to 8:35, so we were actually tardy! This man had done the entire trek in an hour or so, and said it “wasn’t too bad,” which gave us hope! 

Let me tell you, the hope was completely misplaced. It definitely took us approximately 2.5 hours and we were stopping for a 2-3 minute water and photo break every 10 minutes or so. The incline is pretty dramatic! And I live in a walk up! I do stairs like it’s my day job, and this was intense! Especially having just completed the Sun Gate and coming straight over. 

Nonetheless, we kicked butt and made it to the top in time for a 20 minute rest and snack break. (We had awesome asiago cheese bread we picked up at the bakery before the hike. We apparently don’t like hiking snack bars haha). They’re quite strict about kicking people off the top of the mountain in a timely manner to make sure that everyone descends safely before any rain or darkness sets it, which is to say, they politely informed us something along the lines of “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” at about noon. I believe the whole mountain closes at 2pm. 

After the trek, we joined up with a tour group in the ruins. I’m pretty sure we did this incorrectly, but we weren’t sure how to get a guide without going back to the front, so we just asked permission and tagged along with an existing group! Given that we were practically stalking several groups before finding one that would allow us to join, I can honestly say that all the guides are incredibly knowledgeable! 

We were taken to a variety of temples and an ancient resting area where people would heal after medical procedures. We also saw the throne as well as a stone that is imbued with the energy of the sun and passes it on to those who touch it. After the morning of rigorous hiking, the extra energy was much appreciated! We also got to touch llamas! Whats not to love about that!? 

Finally we boarded train in Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo where we transferred to a bus back to Cusco. The return trip took almost 4 hours, and yet when we looked it up, we discovered that the distance from Cusco to Machu Picchu is only 40 miles! I used to commute farther than that daily to one of my clinical rotation sites in Chicago. 

Nonetheless, getting to see this Wonder of the World was an incredible and beautiful opportunity. They are starting to limit tourism because of the impact that it’s having on the ruins. I was recently told of a virtual reality experience of Machu Picchu that’s in development to allow people to see the historical site without detrimental foot traffic. I’m glad they’re protecting the site, but I’m sad that so many people won’t be able to experience the architectural and cultural magic and mystery of Machu Picchu in person. 

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