When booking your trip to Machu Picchu, one of the first decisions you will make is whether to do the Inca Trail. We chose not to, as we only had 2 weeks and many places to visit on our itinerary. We decided to do the climb up Wayna Picchu (also spelt Huayna Picchu) as an alternative – and we were not disappointed (it was incredible… more below)!
Electing to climb Wayna Picchu dictated our plans for travelling to the site. Only 200 people are allowed up the mountain from 7am and another 200 from 10am (I would book tickets for the 7am session, see more info below). For this reason, I strongly recommend that you book tickets in advance. I booked in Spring 2015 and many of the dates in September 2015 were already fully booked. You can book tickets for both the main site (where the ruins are) and Wayna Picchu (located at the back of the ruins) online. This should be cheaper than booking through a travel agency but be careful when making your ticket selection – purchasing a ticket for the main site will not grant you access to Wayna Picchu, you have to buy a combined ticket for that. The website is not very intuitive – whereas most websites will automatically direct you from reservations to payment etc, you have to manually click through the steps yourself using the tabs at the top of the web page and I found that some of the tabs did not work well in English. The website did not accept my Santander debit card or credit cards for payment. In the end, I was successful with a TSB debit card! Please also note that once you have paid, you have to “check in” on the website. I found this article on TripAdvisor about booking tickets helpful.
Getting there (be prepared for an early start!)
As we had the early ticket for Wayna Picchu, we decided that the best option would be to travel by train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes the day before we were due to visit the site. When booking our train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, we found that all of the scheduled trains ran in the morning, so we had to spend an entire day in Aguas Calientes. Please see my Cusco Blog for more information about the train. I would not visit Aguas Calientes with high expectations – although the mountains provide a beautiful backdrop to the town, the town itself is fairly depressing. There are mossies everywhere and the restaurants are a homage to bad Western food and neon signage. However, there is a good market next to the train station if you fancy a little shopping (but there are similar markets in the main square at Ollantaytambo). We stayed at Angie’s Hostel which had a good location off the main square, a few minutes walk from the bus stop. The room was clean and the staff were friendly and helpful (they bought me fresh hot water on request and carried our bags). The location was a little noisy as there are bars all around, but once we had our ear plugs in, all was peaceful and the bars closed around 11pm anyway.
Although Aguas Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu and all of the buses depart for Machu Picchu from there, a good alternative could be to stay in Ollantaytambo (which has excellent ruins to visit, a nice market, good hotel and food options) and get the train to Aguas Clientes on the day that you intend to visit Machu Picchu.
Buses to Machu Picchu depart from Hermanos Ayar, the main road running alongside the river. I purchased our bus tickets the day before our trip and these cost around $25 US each for a return ticket. Although this is incredibly expensive, the alternative is undertaking the 3 hour hike up to Machu Picchu and being absolutely knackered before you have had chance to climb Wayna Picchu or explore the ruins themselves! We were told that we needed to get in the queue at around 3.30am in order to get a good place in the queue. We actually arrived about 5.30am (the buses start running around 6.30am) and although there were hundreds of people in front of us, we still arrived at Machu Picchu for around 7am. If you are not visiting Wayna Picchu and do not want to spend the entire day at the ruins, you could always travel to Machu Picchu later in the day, as we found the site was a lot quieter after 3pm (although I have no idea what the bus queues are like at that time).
On arrival, I would recommend using the facilities (costing 1 sole), as there are no toilets in the site itself. The toilets are located to the right of the steps leading up to the ticket barriers. You should bring your passport as well as your ticket. You are allowed to exit and re-enter the site up to a maximum of 3 times.
To get to Wayna Picchu, you walk through the site (following the signs) until you arrive at the entrance hut, where you have to produce your ticket and sign in.
The walk to the top of the mountain takes about an hour and is strenuous at times, with uneven terrain and very steep steps. I would wear good walking shoes or trainers and even consider bringing gloves with you, as it can be a bit of a scramble across the boulders. Having said that, we saw elderly people making the climb, so I would not say that it is technically difficult. If you decide to buy a ticket for Wayna Picchu I would recommend that you choose the earlier slot. On our ascent, we hardly saw any people at all and the air was cool and misty but on the way back down, we kept having to stop for others coming up the mountain and it was baking hot. The ascent is absolutely worth it and probably my lasting memory of Peru – the views across the site and the mountain are jaw dropping and no picture can do it justice – but here are a few to tempt you!
After our descent from Wayna Picchu, we explored the ruins. These are easy to navigate (free maps are available at the site entrance) and there are guides available if you wish.
Lunch and general tips
For lunch, we skipped the buffet – it is USD $40 per person, served in an incredibly hot restaurant and always has a queue. We opted for the cafe – the queue moved relatively quickly, there are some nice open air tables with views of the mountain and we shared a tuna sandwich for 26 soles. A range of other options were available – sandwiches, pizza, burgers, cake and it all looked very fresh.
If you fancy a bit of downtime before you get the bus back to Aguas Calientes, I recommend having a chill out on one of the benches near to the entrance of the ruins. The one we sat on had a thatched awning over it for a bit of shade and fabulous views of the site (see photo above). Towards the end of the day, we found out how they mow the laws! We saw the rangers release a few alpacas (or maybe they were llamas!) onto the grass – I think they are used as low-tech lawn mowers!
A few other tips…
The guards do not search your bags, so you can bring food and water with you. However, try not to eat any food in ruins themselves. You will be told off by the no nonsense guards!
Bring sunblock and a poncho, as the weather at Machu Picchu can be a little temperamental!