Machu Picchu Review: A Perfect Blend of Adventure & Relaxation

Today we have a captivating guest post from a friend of mine who writes professionally: Katie Lange!  She’s here with her review of the historic Machu Picchu and she’s doling out lots of tips on booking a trip to, and visiting, the Peruvian wonder.  Take it away, Katie!

As a journalist, I’ve had a taste for adventure since I was a kid. Dubai, Australia, Alaska, Israel, Spain – they’ve all been checked off my list, and at pretty low costs.

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The sun rises over the ruins of ancient Machu Picchu as Huayna Picchu Mountain towers in the background.

My goal in life is to get to all seven continents, so with four already in the books, I recently decided it was time to check off a new one – South America. My destination of choice? One of the modern wonders of the world: Peru’s Machu Picchu.

The trip was the perfect blend of adventure and relaxation on a budget. Good accommodations in Peru are super cheap (I’m talking $90-$150 per night), the U.S. dollar goes far (we got hour-long massages for $18!), and you can find some fantastic restaurants in which a few drinks, an appetizer, dinner and a dessert will only run you between $30-40 per person.

Oh, and there’s plenty of pisco! But I’ll fill you in on that later. For now, back to Machu Picchu.

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The view of Machu Picchu’s ruins about halfway up the stone path of Machu Picchu Mountain, taken through a fisheye lens.

The ruins have become a huge tourist destination, and for good reason. Just about every photo you take is like a postcard: Gorgeous mountains, pristine rivers, centuries-old architecture, and llamas and alpacas — lots of llamas and alpacas. You’ll see them in the streets being peddled for cuddles for 1 sol (roughly 33 U.S. cents), as well as roaming the ruins like any other tourist.

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Locals in Cusco let tourists hold and pet their llamas and alpacas … for a very small fee. Worth it!

But I digress. Again, back to Machu Picchu.

If you don’t know much about that area, here’s the quick history. Machu Picchu is an ancient fortress nestled in the Andes Mountains in an area known as the Sacred Valley. It was founded in the 1400s by the Incans and was eventually conquered by the Spanish. Thanks to the Incans’ architectural brilliance, however, the ruins of their structures remain standing to this day as true marvels of engineering.

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And they’re pretty spectacular. My two friends and I got to the ruins in the early morning (as everyone does – you won’t be alone) just in time to see the sun rising over the mountains onto the sleepy ancient town. It’s still evident that the massive rock-and-boulder formations had been made into temples, warehouses and agricultural plots – plots that I had previously mistaken in photos as grass steps going up the mountain.

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A view of the ruins from the ruins of Machu Picchu.

From the ruins rise two mountains you can hike: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. The one bearing the famous name is the one we decided to climb. It’s about two hours, give or take, straight up stone steps that reach the 1,640-foot high precipice. Once at the top, it’s an unbelievable view of the ruins, except now they look like tiny Lego blocks, the people touring them like tiny ants. You can see for miles and miles, including snow-capped mountains in the distance and the Urubamba River down below. It’s pretty majestic.

Getting to Machu Picchu

So how, exactly, do you get to Machu Picchu? There are two main options from the town of Cusco, where just about everyone starts their trip. There’s the train or the Inca Trail, a pretty extensive four-day hike involving tents, porters and no showers. We decided to forgo the hardcore option and do the train trip.

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La Compania, a Jesuit church built in the 1600s, lines the Plaza de Armas, which is Cusco’s main square.

Cusco was also built by the Incans, but you can easily see the Spanish influence in its plazas and cathedrals. Its bustling streets are filled with good food (try a restaurant named Cicciolina – it’s amazing), shops and fun tourist stops, including the Choco Museum. It doesn’t look impressive from the outside, but inside you learn how chocolate is made from the native coca plant, you can actually join a chocolate-making class, and you can get ample samples of the finished product and chocolate liquors — all for free. Needless to say, I was a bit tipsy and full of chocolate when I left.

From Cusco, we hopped to the market town of Pisac, where you can barter for anything from alpaca socks and blankets to artwork and pottery. We then stayed a night in Ollantaytambo (pronounced Oy-an-tay-tambo), a little town with more Incan ruins, and got a room at Hotel Sol, right along the Patacancha River. Our balcony overlooked the town’s ruins, and we slept with its doors open so we could hear the soothing rush of the river below. It was one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in a while!

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The view from the breakfast room at Hotel Sol in Ollantaytambo. That first balcony on the right was ours!

No matter which option you choose to get to Machu Picchu, I suggest you take the train at least once! In fact, you’ll probably have to. It’s the only way to get to and from Aguas Calientes, the tiny frontier-like town at the base of Machu PeruRail offers a few train options to get there, all with various starting points.

We picked one via Vistadome, and it was well worth it. Not only did the trains offer amazing views of the tops of the mountains through glass ceiling panels, but they fed us a meal and drinks, too, while piping relaxing pan-flute music over the sound system (Click here to hear what sounds like. We heard this song at least 20 times during our nine-day stay. Apparently it’s a Peruvian favorite).

The train attendants also told local legends, complete with a scary guy in a jester-like costume and wolf mask sneaking up on everyone, and they even held an alpaca clothing fashion show. It was ridiculous and silly, but I actually found myself clapping and cheering them on the whole time.

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A view of the mountain town of Cusco, taken through a fisheye lens.

Planning Your Machu Picchu Trip

Machu Picchu’s location in South America means it isn’t exactly a short flight away so you’ll have to do a bit of planning to optimize your trip.  When we started our planning, I had no idea what to book first, how to set up the hikes, and what other than actual Machu Picchu was worth seeing. It took a lot of research (thanks, Google and TripAdvisor), but we figured it out. So here are my best suggestions.

Time Your Trip to Avoid Crowds and Rain

Pick dates outside of the busy season (June-August) when it’s less crowded, but don’t pick the rainy season, either (November-early April). We went in late May, and it was about as perfect as you can get.

Book the Big Hike First, then Flights, Trains and Hotels

You actually have to buy tickets for entering the ruins, and then separately for hiking the mountains, which can sell out well in advance (Huayna Picchu was sold out at least two months before we went). So before you go booking a flight, trains and hotels, make sure you get the hikes booked. You don’t want to spend all that money just to find out you can’t see the main attraction, right?

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The majestic Machu Picchu ruins in the morning as the sun comes up.

Incorporate an Altitude-Adjustment Day

Cusco is more than 11,150 feet above sea level, so give yourself time to get acclimated. Don’t book your Machu Picchu hike or anything strenuous for the first day or two that you’re there.

Pack Clothes for Temperature Swings

If you’ve been to a mountain town before, you know how it can be – hot during the day and cold during the night. Cusco can actually get pretty chilly, so definitely bring a jacket or a few layers for the evening, as well as a raincoat. But know that Machu Picchu is down in the valley and not as high up as Cusco, so it’ll be a lot warmer.

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Hanging out at the ruins of Ollantaytambo, which overlook the tiny town that was one of the few places where Spanish conquistadors lost a major battle.

A Slew of Tips for While You’re There!

Consider a Private Driver for Some Excursions

Hire a private driver to take you from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. It’s a great choice instead of taking a bus. Our driver first took us to Pisac to shop, and he waited for us with a smile. We didn’t have to worry about what to do with our luggage or getting to a bus station on time, and it only cost only $70 for the whole day!

Sample the Local Foods and Drinks

Pisco sours are the big drink in Peru — they’re a refreshing, frothy lime drink made with Peru’s famous pisco, a type of white brandy (here’s a good blog explaining it). Restaurants often offered them for free in Cusco (as long as you ate there, of course), so drink up as many as you can!

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Pisco sours! You’d be smiling, too, if you had one.

If you want to bring pisco back with you, make sure you’re not flying through a country where it’s banned. It is legal in the U.S., but since we flew through Panama, where it’s not, the airport’s duty free shops wouldn’t sell it to us. We were really disappointed, so I recommend that if you do want to bring it home, check your flights first. You can always buy some on your adventure and pack it in your checked luggage. The duty free folks said that likely wouldn’t have been a problem.

Try the coca tea! It’s a Peruvian staple that you can’t find at home … and it just might help you if you get altitude sickness. Oh, and also try the guinea pig at least once. It’s a favorite dish of theirs. When in Rome, right?

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This might look like a chicken thigh, but it’s a guinea pig. And you’ll have no trouble finding it — it’s on just about every menu!

Embrace the Llamas!

You can feed llamas apples when you’re at Machu Picchu.

OK, so I’m not sure if that’s technically allowed, but we did it, and it was a great way to hog all their attention from the crowds trying to snap a photo. But beware, they may try to steal your own food later — I lost a few Pringles when the llama we fed decided he wasn’t done eating. But what can I say – it was a great photo op!

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Wanna make friends with Machu Picchu’s llamas? Feed them a snack. Just know they might steal the snacks you brought for yourself, too.

Book the Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Bus the Night Before Your Visit

From Aguas Calientes, if you don’t want to walk 11 miles to the base of Machu Picchu, you have to book a 20-minute bus ride. There’s one place to get tickets, and it’s cash only (about $20 American). I suggest booking the bus the night before your hike. The line to get on the bus the next morning begins before dawn and gets really long, so you won’t want to waste time then.

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Some French folk thought they’d have some fun on their way back down Machu Picchu Mountain. If only I knew what they were spelling out!

There are so many amazing things to see and do in Peru, I feel like I only got to the tip of the iceberg in this post. Whether you plan everything ahead of time, play it by ear or do a mix of both, just know you’ll have an amazing time!

Michael’s Notes:

Thank you so much, Katie, for sharing all that great info!!

As Katie’s post highlights, there are many travel destinations which will leave you with cherished memories without leaving you in debt.  In this case hotel rooms only set Katie and her friends back about $100/night and food and services were cheap also.  To drop out-of-pocket costs further on a trip like this you could book/redeem the hotel rooms with a non-affiliated travel card such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, the Citi ThankYou Premier, etc.

This post also serves as a reminder that traveling with friends is a priceless experience.  You get to catch up with each other about life while also experiencing a new, exciting destination.

For American travelers, Machu Picchu is a bit of a journey away so I recommend combining a visit to the historic site with a stop in at least one other South America destination (e.g. Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro).

Have you been to Machu Picchu?  Share a note on your experience in the comments below!

And sign up for my email list for free to get notification of great posts like this one!  I’ll include a link to my credit card tracking spreadsheet and an eBook on planning an epic honeymoon or unforgettable vacation!

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