A few more comments on Machu Picchu

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After yesterday's post and my other very brief post on the trip, I thought it might be worthwhile to write something a little more in depth about our trip to Machu Picchu.

As I've mentioned previously, the primary way of getting into Machu Picchu takes you through Cusco and Aguas Calientes. Our flight from Buenos Aires had a short connection in Lima, Peru's capital. From the air Lima looked quite dirty and run down. Though it's a coastal city (bordering the pacific), it's also a desert city as the Sechura desert basically spans the entire coastline of Peru. We talked to a few other people who visited the city and it does sound like it has some nice areas that would be worth spending some time in.

Knowing that the primary reason most travelers visit the city is to get to Machu Picchu,
I had little expectations of Cusco. However, I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived in the City. The area where we spent most of our time had a mix of colonial and western influence, traditional Incan influence, and of course tourism.

The streets are lined with rock walls, behind which lies everything from rich homes, run down middle class houses, and the poorest corrugated tin roof buildings (of which I can only imagine how many people live in these shacks). In the more touristy area of the city (where we stayed), there were many people wondering around selling knitted goods, photos of the city, cigarettes, and even people asking to have their photos taken, sometimes with a pet, for a small fee. If you can handle the high altitude the city lies at (3500 meters) it would be a nice place to spend a bit of time in. We had limited time and basically spent less than a day there.

The train from Cusco to Machu Picchu, though expensive (roughly $90USD / person round trip), was really an amazing ride. And it's the only way to get to Machu Picchu besides on foot, so there's not too much choice anyway. The train leaves Cusco by climbing a mountain side in which it takes a series of (hard to describe) switch backs, cutting right through one of Cusco's poorer rural areas. The scenery and landscape along the ride made the trip well worth our money, though the last train leaves Cusco at 6:50am, so it's an early wake up.

The train ends in a small town called Aguas Calientes. At first site, the town appears to be a picturesque little mountain town... after a few moments you realize it's actually a poor run down tourist trap. Considering it's basically the only way into Machu Picchu, that's not really too surprising. Aguas Calientes literally translates to "hot waters". On the edge of the town there's a small hot spring. Besides the bus to Machu Picchu, this was probably the nicest thing about the town. Nestled in between very steep lush green mountains, sitting in the hot springs was the perfect way to relax after hiking around the ruins.

We bought tickets to enter the park within Aguas Calientes, I'm still not sure if you can buy tickets in the park itself, but it seemed like that wasn't possible. Because of this make sure you buy tickets the day before if you're planning on heading up to the city before dawn, as the ticket office doesn't open until well into the morning. Tickets were roughly 100 soles (about $31 USD) for each person (per day). The bus from Ag. Cal. to Machu Picchu was $28USD round trip. Inflation seems quite high here, and most peoples (including our) guidebooks list prices that are somewhat lower than the actual costs. Private rooms in both Cusco and Ag. Cal. could be found for about $25USD/night if you looked around. Since we visited in the rainy/low season, things might be a bit more costly at other times of the year. Not including our plane ticket to Cusco and food, the entire trip cost us roughly $250 USD / each (two days and one night in Ag. Cal. and two nights in Cusco).

As anyone who's traveled with me knows, I'm not really that big into museums and typical touristy site seeing things. I tend to find those attractions a bit boring and I guess "prescribed". In that very little, especially with ruins and old artifacts, is left to the viewers imagination, everything explained on little plaques and low budget drawings of how things supposedly /use/ to look, or how an artifact was supposedly used by the ancient people that created it. Thankfully, Machu Picchu (and some other attractions I visited, such as Iguazu falls) weren't like that. There were separate buildings you could go into to get that stuff if you prefer it, but the sites weren't littered with it. You could optionally get a guide, but we chose to wonder in ignorance making up our own (likely very misguided) interpretations of everything. Every once in a while chatting with someone who had been on a tour and getting a bit more of a reputable interpretation of the site.

Regardless of the fact that we visited in rainy season, the trip was well worth it. In fact, we had only a couple spurts of rain while we were walking about the ruins, it seemed to rain mostly at night and clear up slightly during the day. Since we did a 4.5hr hike around Waynu Picchu the second day, the cooler weather was actually a blessing.

The trip back was more or less uneventful (besides a "small mixup" at the hostel). The train leaves Ag. Cal. at around 5pm for Cusco. Many people take the train out in the morning, spend the day in the ruins, and then take the afternoon train back. You can't get the morning sunrise if you go this route, but since the park closes at around 5:30pm and the sun doesn't set until a couple hours after that, it's probably a good time for the train to leave.

I wasn't going to do this trip at all, so I'm glad Scott came to visit and got me into it. No question that it's one of the top highlights of my three months in South America.