I must’ve seen at least a hundred photographs which look exactly like this one I took of Machu Picchu before I booked my flight from Hong Kong to Lima. This sight itself would’ve been impressive enough to make the 30-hour long journey worthwhile. But even though my newest wide-angle camera lens can frame these Inca ruins pretty well, capturing this New7Wonders of the World in still motion, or even describing it, could not do justice to the experience of being in the presence of this magical site among the Andes mountains 2500m above sea level.
Even if your Instagram feed is also spammed with these shots, visiting Machu Picchu in Peru could not be overrated. Admittedly, despite the Peruvian government’s effort to limit visitors per day, it still does get quite crowded at certain times of the day. This is why I strongly recommend doing one of the treks and visiting the site over two days.
Acclimatising in Cuzco/Altitude Sickness
We flew from Lima to Cuzco and had about 48 hours to acclimatise to the high altitude. This is absolutely necessary and 48 hours is the minimum, in my opinion. High altitudes affect people differently and despite taking altitude sickness medication (I had “Acetazolamide” or Diamox prescribed before travelling), I spent the first day feeling completely out of it. Not only was I constantly out of breath, unable to walk 3 steps of stairs without resting, my brain felt dazed and I almost walked off a ledge, mistaking it for stairs! This reaction is not abnormal though and my body simply needed time to adjust.
Cuzco is at approximately 3400m above sea level, while Machu Picchu is at around 2500m. Therefore, the hike to Machu Picchu won’t feel too demanding, after you’ve spent two days in Cuzco. But it was definitely more tiring than expected, even though I regularly hike in Hong Kong.
Hiking to Machu Picchu – The 2D/1N Inca Trail
You can visit Machu Picchu directly (by train and bus) in one day, without much walking, but I recommend doing one of the treks. Taking time to immerse yourself within the Andes mountains so high up, is a pretty special and indescribable sensation, which I felt was the essence of the amazement of Machu Picchu.
Doing the 2D/1N Inca Trail also meant that we saw Machu Picchu at three different times of the day and I couldn’t believe how different the sight was, just because of the angle of the sun and weather. The sight at all three times of the day were beautiful in their own way and completely worth the extra effort.
Book in advance (6 months or more, if you can)
There are two Inca Trail trekking options: Short (2D/1N) and Full (4D/3N). The Inca Trail treks require permits, which always sell out in advance – potentially over 6 months in advance. But luckily the tour operators we contacted still had space for the shortened trail, despite planning only 2 months ahead. So try your luck anyway, even if you’re planning this trip with short notice.
If these permits are sold out, you can also try other popular trekking options which still take you to Machu Picchu, but don’t require permits: Salkantay Trek (5D/4N) and Lares Trek (4D/3N).
What to expect on the Inca Trail (2D/1N, with hotel)
- (Day 1) Early start: We started early (3:45am pickup in Cuzco) and arrived at the start of the trail (“KM – 104”) after a bus and train ride.
- (Day 1) 4-hour morning hike: The morning part of the hike was probably most demanding. But it was split between an easy 2 hours and a tougher 2 hours. The walk itself is only hard in the last hour of the morning because the higher altitude makes the uphill climb more strenuous than expected.
- (Day 1) 3-hour afternoon hike, reaching Machu Picchu: We break for lunch at this beautiful spot called Wiñay Wayna, before continuing for a relatively mild 3 hour walk to arrive at Machu Picchu right before sunset.
- (Day 1) One night stay in Aguas Calientes: We head down to the nearby town by bus. It’s a super charming and beautiful place. After checking into our hotel, we headed to dinner with the rest of our tour group.
- (Day 2) Half-day exploring Machu Picchu: Everyone who stays overnight at Aguas Calientes is trying to get to Machu Picchu before sunrise. The first bus leaves at 5:30am, but people are queuing up at 3:30am. We started queuing at 4am – it’s early and painful, but it’s just got to be done. The sunrise is beautiful and absolutely unmissable. Plus, once it reaches 9-10am, Machu Picchu gets super busy. We did a 2-hour tour around the site, and some people booked additional day hikes up Machu Picchu mountain or Huayna Picchu – you need to book these and pay extra in advance – they sell out even more quickly!
- (Day 2) Back to Aguas Calientes: Our ticket required us to leave the Machu Picchu site by 1am – honestly it’s enough time. We then had about 2 hours to walk around the town before our train and bus ride back to Cuzco.
Recommended Tour Operator: Alpaca Expeditions
Information about the different treks are easily available online, but I had most difficulty choosing a tour company. The research was painstakingly overwhelming. Plus, it made me extremely nervous to read about how important choosing the right one is due to the drastic variation in quality.
I did some research but was probably also lucky as I can now recommend the one we ended up with. Reviews of Alpaca Expeditions were all very positive. Bonnie was super friendly, approachable and helpful when I was inquiring via email, which was what made me feel more comfortable with this company, versus others I contacted initially. But it was only on that day, I truly appreciated how much a difference a good company could make to the overall experience.
Here were some of the highlights:
- Precise expectations management: a lot is going on during the two-day trip (bus rides, trains, hiking, eating, etc.) and our guides Manuel and Toribio were precise in communicating what to expect next: the upcoming difficulty of the hike, our next break, toilet availability… It makes a difference in mentally planning your day.
- Seamless logistics: with all the transportation changes and tickets required, it could’ve been a slow frustrating nightmare. But they were super organised and efficient. I especially appreciated this, as I experienced innumerable logistics-related delays with much simpler tours throughout my time in South America.
- Good quality food: they had porters carry up ingredients, equipment and tents to set up and cook us a proper lunch in the middle of the mountains (at Wiñay Wayna)! The quality of food was very impressive. While almost all other tours we bumped into had simply provided cold sandwiches and juice boxes (which people had to carry up themselves). I also liked their choice of restaurant (Indio Feliz) for dinner at Aguas Calientes, where we enjoyed a good quality 3-course dinner.
- Excellent accommodation: I didn’t expect much when the website said “3-star hotel” but the rooms at La Cabaña were super new, clean and spacious. I only wish I had more energy to enjoy the big bath tub!
- Reasonable pricing: I was initially taken aback when I was told this 2D/1N trip would cost me US$500 – most tour operators I researched charge approximately this number, if not US$50-150 more. But on the trip, I realised that there are a lot of fixed costs involved – I mentally calculated that around US$250 is spent just on our bus, train and entrance tickets. This doesn’t even take into account our 3-course dinner (~US$25), hotel accommodation, lunch and car ride from Cuzco. So after the whole experience, it definitely felt worth it.
My 1-month trip to South America (Peru, Bolivia and Chile)
Planning a trip to South America all the way from Hong Kong was… difficult. I didn’t realise how little I knew about this huge continent. Over one month, we travelled through Peru, Bolivia and Chile – this is a pretty common and extremely rewarding route to cover, which I would easily recommend. Getting practical advice from someone in the know is definitely helpful – so please reach out and leave a comment if you have any questions or need any advice!
Stay tuned for more posts on South America.