For many visitors to Peru and even South America, a visit to the Inca city of Machu Picchu is the long-anticipated highpoint of their trip. In a spectacular location, it’s the best-known archaeological site on the continent. This awe-inspiring ancient city was never revealed to the conquering Spaniards and was virtually forgotten until the early part of the 20th century. In the high season, from late May until early September, 2500 people arrive daily. Despite this great tourist influx, the site manages to retain an air of grandeur and mystery, and is a must for all visitors to Peru.
One of the world’s great wonders, Machu Picchu is the holy grail for any traveler visiting South America. A common misconception is that one needs to complete the four-day trek to reach this incredible sight, and for many, surviving the Inca Trail is very much part of the Machu Picchu experience.
But for anyone with limited time, concerns about the physical challenge, or simply not keen on the lack of comfort during the trek, Machu Picchu is not out of reach. It is possible to visit the Inca site using a combination of public transportation services and without breaking a sweat.
Machu Picchu lies deep in the heart of the Sacred Valley in southeastern Peru, and these ancient Inca ruins are the country’s star attraction. The Inca Trail is one of the world’s most famous hikes - each year, more than 75,000 people tread the 26-mile route to reach the site of MachuPicchu. However, the trek is not for the faint-hearted; the altitude, steep climbs, extreme weather and basic accommodation can pose a barrier for many who wish to visit.
In fact, those traveling along the Inca Trail only make up one-fifth of tourists to the ancient site. While some visit as part of an organized tour, it is possible to buy permits to enter the site independently and arrive using trains and buses which serve Aguas Calientes, the closest settlement to Machu Picchu.
Alternatively, trains operate from Ollantaytambo, a town halfway along the train line between Cuzco and Aguas Calientes. You can do the 2-hour journey through the valley from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo by bus or combi (a collective minivan) to meet the train at Aguas Calientes. Cruz del Sur provides a safe and reliable service which fits around Peru Rail’s train times. The advantage of traveling via Ollantaytambo is you can visit the Inca ruins here, which is a great prelude to Machu Picchu.
It is advisable to reach Aguas Calientes the day before you plan to visit Machu Picchu so that you can stay overnight and reach the site early in the morning to get a full day exploring the ruins. If possible, reaching the site for sunrise is a magical experience and the journey in the early morning twilight adds to the magic. Buses run from Aguas Calientes from 5.30am, transporting passengers 25 minutes up the side of the mountain to the site. Alternatively, you can walk 8km up a steep mountainside path. If you do decide to walk, be prepared for an experience that is physically challenging, particularly with the altitude. The views are phenomenal, but allow additional rest time if you aim to be there for sunrise.
Remember, regardless of whether you choose to trek or not, it isn't possible to speed through this part of Peru as the altitude forces travelers to slow down in order to acclimatize. Which is just as well, as Cuzco is definitely not a place to be bypassed. Often considered just a jumping off point for the Inca Trail, Cuzco is a gem in its own right. At 11,000 feet above sea level, the city proffers a slow pace of life - travelers and locals alike congregate to acclimatize to the altitude, share stories from the road, rejuvenate for the next trip, or simply enjoy the historic city’s combination of colonial architecture, laid back vibes and sweeping valley vistas. Expect to spend at least a couple of days in Cuzco as altitude can cause extreme difficulties for travelers and should be handled carefully.
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