Peru Jet Lag Journal: Machu Picchu & Cusco
It’s just been over three months since I got back from my Peruvian ‘Amazing Race’, and so, fittingly, I thought I’d finally conclude this Jet Lag Journals series out with the third and final installment: Machu Picchu and Cusco.
True to the last Jet Lag Journals for this trip, the journey is best explained through learned lessons and tips of the trade. . . starting with how to actually get from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
Notes to remember: To get even remotely close to Machu Picchu, you must fly into Cusco (I guess you could drive there but that would be one long, excruciating drive). Once you land in Cusco, there is a train that shall take you to the closest point of stay near Machu Pichhu: Agua Calientes. Now, PeruRail is the train that takes you on that journey. We possibly waited a bit too long to buy our train tickets online, so we were forced to start our train journey in Ollantaytambo, and not in Cusco. What does this mean? You have to take a taxi to Ollantaytambo from Cusco. But taxi didn’t imply a 20-30 mins. ride. . . it was more like 2 hours! So note, if you’re taxing a taxi anywhere it will be over and upwards of an hour most likely. But had we not taken the taxi we wouldn’t have encountered the above and below beautiful scenes on the side of the road.
There are 3-4 options of the type of train experience you can have to get to Agua Calientes and they’re priced accordingly. We took the second to cheapest one, and we were happy as clams. Also to note: The train ride from Ollantaytambo is another 2.5 hours to Agua Calientes, so pack some snacks or buy some before you hop on. Unfortunately, as you can see clouds had rolled in and the train ride to Agua Calientes was rainy and grey, but had they cleared, the train offers wonderful full and large windows and even ceiling ones as well!
Here we are waiting for them to call “All aboard!” in Spanish so we can get out of the dreary rain!
I always pack snacks as a way to be prepared. You never know when and where you could get stuck somewhere for hours (plus, I have to eat every three to four hours anyway, so yeah. . .)
Once you arrive in Agua Calientes, hopefully, if you’re staying at a fairly decent place, a hotel staff member meets you with a sign and helps direct (and carry your luggage) around the sloped and mountain city. I was super thankful for this helpful hand, as it was still raining, and even more difficult to get your head around directions in a new place.
The small tourist village sits on practically a 30-45 degree angle so you’re always walking down and up and down and up. But at this point, it’s pretty cultivated with a ton of restaurants and bars, and makes you feel like you’re staying in a little ski village.
Next tip to note: If like us, you were unsuccessful at buying your Machu Picchu tickets online (we literally checked every day for a month, and the January 1st entrance tickets never were released), make it a point to get to the ticket/tourist office ASAP. Once we dropped off our stuff and checked in to our above boutique romanticized hotel (love is truly all around in the world!), we got ourselves to the park ticket office. If memory serves me correctly, it closes around 7 PM. You’ll of course need your passport to buy these park tickets, so don’t leave that behind! Once you have those in hand, you can then buy your bus tickets.
At this point, it should be mentioned, that we were not doing a three to four day Incan trek hike to Machu Picchu. If you’re doing that type of trip most of these tips won’t be very useful for you and you’ll be planning a much different type of visit. But we decided to just do a full day at the park and be satisfied with that experience while in Peru.
So then, we trekked ourselves over to the bus station to buy those tickets. It probably should be reiterated, but you’ll need cash to purchase all of these pieces, no cards are taken for either park or bus tickets. We were sad that we didn’t get to buy the additional pass for Huana Picchu mountain within the park, because by the time we bought them on-site in Agua Calientes, the allotted number of those passes were gone. Again, try to buy your park and specific mountain passes online ahead of time. We would have if we could have! So we had to suffice with actual Machu Picchu mountain hike additional pass.
Once our purchases and passes were secure we took some time to roam the hilly lil’ streets of Agua Calientes. Above photos are from a sidewalk seller section where you can see how the color continues to abound even at the base of a mountain.
Agua Calientes sits and straddles the Urubamba river, so the sound of rushing water is always in the background. It’s not exactly the prettiest river with its brown color tendencies, but it is a mighty one.
These dollies are seen everywhere by the locals as there aren’t any cars in the area, if you hadn’t noticed yet. Everything is carried by hand up and down the hilly streets, including the sugar-induced sodas for tourists the size of one’s head.
Our trip ended up where we were to visit Machu Picchu on New Year’s Day (after a somewhat lackluster New Year’s Eve, which was fine by us, really) we couldn’t have been more excited than kids visiting Disney World. We knew that going on New Year’s Day would see significant decrease in crowds, and also, by going first thing in the morning, would also help to not have to navigate our way through tour groups. So we opted to take one of the first buses up and into the park.
For history buffs, for environmentalists, for those who seek out culture that is eye opening, Machu Pichu is everything that everyone says it is. With the every-changing weather and cloud movement, if you breathe and just listen, you can absorb so much.
Now at this point, I haven’t even mentioned altitude sickness, which seems to always be on the first and top of every traveler’s list to Peru and Machu Picchu. And I haven’t mentioned it for good reason: It wasn’t an issue or even an effect that I had to deal with. Call me lucky, but apparently, my body isn’t affected by the change in elevation (at this point in my age), so we were so blessed to not even have to deal with that. I can only imagine how it would change the experience if that was in the forefront of my mind. But we did come prepared ahead of time with Peruvian medicine just in case.
I tend to notice trees when I’m traveling, and while yes, this was a standout one in its solitary stance, it’s one of my favorite aspects of the park, just as much as the ruins. There is something so Zen about it, which is probably why I gravitate to this picture and memory.
See how few people are out and about in the morning? It’s totally worth getting your butt out of bed in the dark to make it here before the surge of tourists!
We spent the first half of our day at the park hiking to The Sun Gate and the actual Machu Pichu Mountain. I, not being in the best of shape, and not wanting to kill myself a top a historic site, decided to take a break and skip out heading to the top of Machu Pichu Mountain. In my two and a half break (the lengthy break was extended a bit due to forces out of my control) I attempted a “macro study” if you will of the foliage on the mountain. I did a little meditating and observing.
Lunch options are minimal at the park. There’s a “fancy” buffet restaurant or a mountain side café, and we opted for the café. But just look at that view! The Andes were so lush as the sun came out for a mid-day break.
The afternoon and second half of the day we spent touring the actual ruins and walking the perimeter path set-up by the park. The rain made it’s daily appearance during this, so much of it was spent looking through a watery haze.
If you are making any type of trip to Machu Picchu I do recommend the book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Just the right amount of history and in a traveler’s somewhat real and sarcastic voice, the book was so great in bringing context to the trip.
What can I say, other than I feel so blessed and privileged to have had the life experience of the visit to a wonder of the world.
We actually had one more full day in Agua Calientes before we headed back to Cusco, so we filled the day with a long-distance walk (more on that below) and some market shopping. Above are a traditional local snack which is the equivalent to Smack Pops the cereal. They’re also mad cheap: like 50 cents cheap.
Like I said, there is no short of restaurants in Agua Calientes, so we had our fair share of really great meals. Above is a lunch when Claudia thought she was ordering a kebab. As it turned out, it was more like a tenderloin in full form! El Indio Feliz is the restaurant to stow away to if you’re looking for a great selection of beers, amazing house made chips and a great selection of fish and meat. The restaurant is also artfully curated in a nautical theme and practically every inch of every wall has something for the eye to gaze on. Do visit!
Another fabulous restaurant to try while there: The Tree House. Everything is organically sourced (not that much isn’t in the area) and the dishes are inventive with flavor and combinations.
As I mentioned above, we wanted to take a leisurely walk to the waterfall we had heard about in the area. And per typical Peruvian ways, we were told it was a 30 min. walk–well, we really should have known by that point the equation of 30=more like 60 or 90. You really should just triple the time it takes to do something. We walked and walked and saw a little photo for a waterfall but saw no entrance, so we walked and walked. And only after an hour and a half later, did we realize we had to have passed it. So we walked and we walked back, and came back to the little propped up poster image, went around a fence and out comes an older woman to explain to us, the waterfall is on the other side of the road (behind a locked gate), and didn’t we see the sign? Ugh, entrance signs aren’t marked, beware!
We’d come this far and walked for almost 2.5 hours so we had to at least see the waterfall. . .
It really wasn’t much to speak of as you can see! Typical! But what else would we have done with our day? I’m not really sure, and we were so lucky that the entire afternoon didn’t see a single point of rain, just sun–a rare thing indeed.The old train tracks run through this mountain pathway, so you walk alongside them continuously and across points of the river as well.
After so many wet days wearing my trusty hiking boots, they finally called it “kaput.” The soles were literally disintegrating and falling off, so I said “bye” to them in Cusco sadly! They came along on so many life’s grand adventures to New Mexico back in 2003 to Patagonia to Atacama to Machu Picchu. How great they were, sigh.
So, once our stay in Agua Calientes was over, we had half a day in Cusco before flying off to our next destination. After our return train ride back that was sunny this time, and a fast taxi cab ride (he did it in an hour and twenty minutes versus the original two hours, don’t ask the dare devil driving that ensued to get us there in that time), we arrived mid-day to our Hotel Rumi Punku. I highly, highly recommend this hotel! It feels very Spanish colonial, is clean, hot water in a nice big bathroom, oh and cheap!
The main market in Cusco, also called the textile market, should not be missed. If it’s raining, as it often is, it’s a perfect way to get out of the wet weather. And you get a glimpse into the daily life of local citizens, as the textile market doubles up as a fabulous food market for locals to come take their lunch and shop for produce. I snagged up some textiles of course, and Claudia gathered up some quinoa that was so dang cheap it’s a crime how much it’s sold for in the US. But I would say you only need about an hour or so at the market, so don’t think it can take up an entire afternoon.
Now that the sun was back out for a hot 30 mins. we took a stroll around the downtown center square. The two fabulous cathedrals mirror one another in their grandness and act as a spiritual smile and guardian to this little downtown.
Next up on our Cusco list was to see the “Christo Blanco” of Cusco. The Peruvian version of Brazil’s famous one.
It’s best just to take a cab up to the top of the site, and ask your cab driver to wait. We really only needed like 5 mins. to take in the view and statue, so then we were insured of having a ride and way to get back down and through the city. . .
It was pretty majestic, and while my religious faith doesn’t lie in a God with a capital G or one true, singular God, the moment had some spirituality to it that can’t be denied.
The rest of the day was spent catching a dinner at a restaurant on the downtown square and enjoying our hotel room, as we found it luxurious and comfortable, we took in some peaceful lounging at night. We did miss out on visiting one of the more artisan populated neighborhoods, which we were sad to learn, so do look it up before you go so to visit, but other than that, I felt like a half day to one day is all you needed in the city.
Hope you found some of the tips and stories helpful and inspiring to make your own memorable trip to the beautiful country! It’s a country and of course wonder of the world not to be missed in life!