This post is the first of a four-post series of (you guessed it) four incredible man-made wonders that we’ve been fortunate enough to visit. While lists of world wonders are obviously subjective and sometimes change, these four incredible sites have appeared on the top of countless lists time and time again: Machu Picchu, The Pyramids of Giza, The Taj Mahal and The Great Wall of China.
If you ask four people who have visited each of these places, there’s a good chance that each person will name a different one of these wonders as his/her favorite. Of course you can easily make a case for any of these, as each one of these sites is truly breathtaking and extraordinary in its own right. But for us, the choice is clear. Machu Picchu is simply the most incredible site we have ever visited. Period. Maybe it’s because we went over eleven years ago, when we were less seasoned travelers and had less destinations/experiences to compare it to. Maybe it’s the fact that we were there on a beautiful sunny day and there was not a cloud in the sky. Maybe it’s because the number of visitors in 2005 was less than 600,000, whereas that number drastically increased to nearly 1.2 million last year, and so we were lucky to go when it was far less crowded and not as overrun by tourists. But I know there’s so much more to it than all of that. Over a decade later and we are still blown away by this place. The Incas have left their mark on this glorious world of ours and our traveling hearts and minds have never been the same.
An Incan citadel set high in the Andes, Machu Picchu is a mysterious masterpiece. Its setting is so isolated and strategic that it remained hidden from the outside world until 1911. Isn’t that absolutely craaazyyy? Did the Inca empire design this marvel as a ceremonial site? An estate for the elite? A sacred religious site? So many theories and not nearly as many answers. The remarkable complex is comprised of plazas, palaces, temples, warehouses, irrigation terraces, and homes. The intricate stonework of Machu Picchu is extraordinary; the cut stone fits together so perfectly that its cracks still can’t be penetrated by a blade of a knife. Similar to the astounding masonry of the Pyramids, you can’t help but repeatedly ask, How on Earth did they manage to build this without any modern-day technology when I can barely figure out how to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture? Seriously. HOW?
The easiest way to travel to Machu Picchu is by taking the 3.5 hour direct train from Cuzco (stay tuned for a future Cuzco post) to the closest town of Aqua Calientes. We purchased our rail tickets online months in advance but you can also buy tickets at the Peru Rail office in Cuzco’s main square, Plaza de Armas. Admittedly, I am a bit (ok, a lot) anal when it comes to planning and booking travel and I don’t like leaving many things to chance. So while you can probably wait to purchase your train tickets until you arrive in Cuzco, why would you? Seriously. Whyyy? If you are traveling to Peru, you’re mostly likely going to see Machu Picchu, right? Visiting quite arguably the most incredible archeological site in the entire world is just too important to leave to chance–what if the office is closed? What if train tickets are sold out? What if, well I don’t know what else, but just buy your train tickets in advance and stop stressing me out!!! I’m breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.
I digress. The comfortable and scenic train ride runs along the Urubamba River with gorgeous canyons along each side. Once you arrive in Aqua Calientes, you can either hike up to Machu Pichu (about a 90 minute walk) or take a 20 minute bus ride–we took the bus and it couldn’t have been easier.
The infamous Inca Trail that we did NOT hike (but I did walk on it for a solid 8 minutes so that must count for something, am I right?)
If you are at all interested in learning a bit about Machu Picchu’s history, I also strongly recommend booking a tour in advance. We booked a four-hour tour where we were part of a ten-person group with a tour guide. For us, this amount of time was perfect and we learned a lot. Admittedly, after a few hours of anything history, my mind starts to wander and I lose focus. T, on the other hand, probably could’ve taken a ten-hour tour and would’ve loved every minute. Unfortunately, I can’t remember or find the name of the tour company we used. Sorry…how was I supposed to know that I’d have a travel blog eleven years later and I would need this information? My advice? Try Google. I hear you can find a lot of information there.
Some Additional Tips:
*Altitude Sickness is a real thing. We luckily didn’t experience it in Peru thanks to drinking copious amounts of mate de coca tea and water, but I did experience it during our last trip to Colorado and let me assure you, the altitude sickness struggle is certainly real. Stay hydrated, drink lots of coca tea, and take it easy…listen to your body and if you need to rest here and there, do it. Ain’t no shame in the altitude sickness game.
Dress in layers: It may be a warm day, but it can get quite chilly when you are nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. Temperatures really fluctuate here– I can’t even count how many times I put on and took off my sweatshirt. Wear layers as well as comfortable and sturdy walking shoes.
*Try to choose non-peak times to visit: I recognize this is not always possible (I mean I’m a teacher so we are always traveling during high-peak seasons like summer and spring break). But if you can visit on a weekday, like a Tuesday like we did, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter smaller crowds and shorter lines than you will on the weekend.
*Wear sunscreen and lip balm: The high altitude makes it easier to burn and get chapped lips.
*Bring a good camera, money (including small bills for tips) and ID: I mean, duh, right? And I know you would never forget said things. But, you know, those other people? Sometimes they need simple reminders. But not you, rockstar, never you.
*If you eat at the Sanctuary Lodge, T would like you to proceed with caution: It’s hard to know if the buffet was at fault, but T got sick that night (I was completely fine, so not 100% sure the restaurant was to blame here). If you ask T, he will say that he was violently ill and vomiting all night. I love my husband. But he likes to exaggerate. Yes, he vomited, but it was not an all-night thing, and miraculously his degree of sickness that night has progressively gotten worse as the years have gone by. Much like Machu Picchu, both his level and source of illness still remain a mystery.
*My final piece of advice? Go sooner than later, if you can. Over the past several years, the Peruvian government has been attempting to protect Machu Picchu by trying to reduce the number of visitors. While it’s unclear what the future holds for tourists, it may be better to add Peru and Machu Picchu to your upcoming travel plans rather than wait. You’ll thank the Incas (and me!) that you did.