Written by Groupit Travel's Carryn Kliesen at One Wildlife Blog
Being one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is inevitably touristy. It is one of the main reasons people flock to Peru (even though there are dozens of places that should also not be missed!) and the towns surrounding it have been set up to support the influx of thousands who arrive daily. So if an authentic Peruvian experience is what you’re looking for, you're better off visiting smaller towns off the tourist track.
That being said, you should go to Machu Picchu. It is spectacular and the views are awesome. Most people do the Inca Trail which you have to reserve months in advance because it's so crowded, or do the Lares trek which is the same distance, a little easier on the knees, and a lot less crowded (this is the authentic Peruvian option).
Since I was traveling with my family and we were short on time, we decided to take the train so we caught a local bus from Pisac to Ollantaytambo in the morning and waited for our train that would leave at 3:30. Olly (which is much easier to pronounce) is separated into two sections: The main square and the train station. We first went to the ticket office to get our passes and store our bags (so we wouldn’t look quite so touristy) and then returned via tuk-tuk to the plaza. The driver convinced us he could take all four of us at one time so we squeezed into the back and my sister sat side saddle on the front seat beside the driver. The tuk-tuk barely made it up the hill. We ate in the square at one of the many restaurants offering pizza and sandwiches alongside grilled alpaca and then walked the mile back to the ticket office to wait.
I had gotten us tickets on the Vistadome, a train with windows on the ceiling meant to create a panoramic view. This was really helpful since the right side of the train ran along a steep cliff face that blocked most of the scenery for us. It was only a two hour ride. To get out of the station we had to pass through a series of tunnels created by the most souvenirs I’ve ever seen crammed into a small space. There were no signs directing us out; I think the point is to have people wander in circles until they break down and buy something. We found daylight and then the bus station where we purchased tickets for the next morning. You don’t buy them for a specific time, you just buy them and are expected to get in line at the crack of dawn to get your seat.
Our hotel was not in the center of town so things were quiet and our room opened onto the river. I pulled out what I thought were our tickets for the next day and decided I should check the website to make sure I had gotten it right. I had not. At the computer cafe I discovered that since we had not printed our tickets at home (because the reservation system had not allowed me to), our reservations had been cancelled. After a brief panic attack, I collected myself and scanned the website for what I should do. It mentioned tickets were available at the Cultural Center so I asked the clerk where I would find that and pushed my way through the crowd to get there. Thank goodness it was open. The man made a new reservation for us and I proudly returned to share my triumph with my family.
We were not in a hurry to get there the next morning. Some had suggested going for sunrise but that would mean standing in line at 4 AM and none of us were eager to do that. So we rolled out at 6 AM and stood in line for a half hour. The line itself moved pretty quickly with buses continuously pulling into position. The ride was a series of switchbacks and close calls as we met other buses coming down the mountain. The entrance looked like we had arrived at Disney World. It was just a mass of people being pushed through turnstiles and guides snagging tourists along the way. We were scheduled to climb Machu Picchu Mountain and so made tentative plans with a guide to meet us in the afternoon.
As we began, my dad quickly realized his knees were not going to survive the climb and agreed to meet us in three hours time back at the entrance. The higher we got, the steeper it became until we were climbing the stairs with all fours. We stopped every few minutes to rest (since none of us had ever actually climbed a real mountain before) and take in the views. There were mountains all around us, some snowcapped, some broken off in violent ridges. There were the remains of ancient terraces still visible on some. The trail was surrounded by beautiful plants - there were even epiphytic Bromeliads which are some of my favorites as they remind me of the Amazon.
By the time we reached the top, we were running incredibly late. We were supposed to meet my dad in five minutes which was not happening. We hung out for a few minutes just taking in the scenery before hurrying back down the mountain. An hour and a half later we were back where we started and my dad was nowhere to be found. We scanned the crowds and I went around the ruins with my binoculars looking for him. After a bit we figured he was either lost or had gone back to town so we started to go back into the site to look around. It was then that we spotted him and learned that he had been frantically trying to find us and had been in the offices asking if anyone matching our descriptions had been carried out on stretchers.
I guess all the guides quit around noon because we couldn’t find anyone to tell us what we were looking at. We circled the ruins and followed Viscachas (Andean Chinchillas) through passages. The architecture of the place is remarkable; There are canals leading to fountains throughout the entire city, agricultural terraces are woven throughout urban structures, and many of the buildings are built with perfectly fitted stones. I can understand why “It was built by aliens” is a popular theory. It seems impossible that such an intricate city was constructed with little more than hand tools.
It was only 3 PM but the sun was starting to get low in the sky so we found our way out and back to the buses. We looked pretty ragged after all the exertion and were in bed by 8, not because we had a 5 o’clock train the next morning, but because we were so tired we couldn’t sit up anymore. Apparently I was also pretty out of shape because I spent the next two days hobbling around like an old lady. Worth it.
This blog was written by Carryn Kliesen, Groupit Travel's Certified International Tour Manager and Travel Specialist. She is the author of One Wildlife Blog which details her many independent journeys around the world.
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