When I saw my family and friends after studying abroad in Peru, no one asked about ceviche or the beach; everyone wanted to hear about Machu Picchu! I could understand their excitement. A quick Google search will bring up towering mountains and ancient green terraces, exotic landscapes we do not have back in Illinois. It’s hard to imagine a trip to Peru without a pit stop to Machu Picchu, but not everyone is prepared for the experience. Here are some things you’ll want to know before seeing the ruins.
1. Machu Picchu is expensive
This might seem like common sense. Of course it’s going to cost money to see Machu Picchu. But if you’re on a budget I suggest planning the costs ahead of time. The only way into the district of Machupicchu is to take a train out of Cusco. You might want to stay at a hostel in the Machupicchu district the night before seeing the ruins, especially if you plan on climbing Huayna Picchu (more on that later). Then you’ll also have to pay to take a bus up the mountain side and for a ticket into the ruins. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I traveled with a group, so I don’t remember the exact prices of the tickets. But here’s something I do remember: you gotta pay to pee. Only a couple Soles, but still something you won’t want to break a 50 for. Water is also very expensive when you are up the mountain, so I suggest stocking up a backpack before you take the bus. The restaurant situated right next to the ticket booth by Machu Picchu gates is also expensive, but smells delicious! If you want to cut costs, bring some granola or wait to take the bus down to eat.
2. If you want to climb Huayna Picchu…
In almost every Machu Picchu picture you will find a pointy looking mountain looming in the background of the ruins. This is Huayna Picchu mountain (also called Wayna Picchu). This is a beautiful and sometimes terrifying mountain that’s about 1,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu itself. I definitely suggest you do the climb if you aren’t deathly afraid of heights. Only about a 1.5 hour hike at a good pace, Huayna Picchu offers views that will literally take your breath away. Sounds awesome, right? Well if you want to get to the top, you have to really plan out your visit. Only 200 climbers are allowed on Huayna Picchu mountain a day. If you want to be one of them, plan on getting in line for the bus by 4:30am. No, I am not kidding. Many people want to see the sun rise over the mountains anyways, so visitors will line up well before dawn. Climbers not only have to get in line with them, but they also have to go straight to the ticket booth (please, no running) and ask for a ticket that includes Huayna Picchu. Failing to make this clear won’t get you on the mountain! You don’t need to immediately climb Huayna Picchu, but I suggest getting started before the sun rises too high in the sky (it gets hot!).
Spoiler: Ok, I’m not sure if this really counts as a spoiler, but in order to get to the tippy-top peak of Huayna Picchu you have to climb through a narrow tunnel. This might be scary for someone who doesn’t like small, dark places a couple thousand feet in the air. But believe me, nothing beats standing at the peak of Huayna Picchu. Plus, you’ll feel like such a badass when you show pictures to your friends back home. Just be safe and don’t look down!
3. What’s the weather like up there?
Good question. Well, it’s cold in the morning and hot when the sun rises. I went during the winter months but even then it felt hot as hell in the sun. Bring a light jacket for the morning, then do it 1990’s style and tie it around your waist when it gets warm. And remember, you’re on a mountain completely open to the elements. Put on sunscreen and wear a hat!
4. What’s that?
There is so much to learn about Machu Picchu. My group had a guide who lead us around the ruins and gave us the low down on the Incas. Again, I’m not sure how much this service would cost. But if you’re really interested about learning something sign up for a tour. You can also bring a guide book. I feel like the ruins mean a lot more if you can imagine the lives of the Incas while you’re there.
5. Pics or it didn’t happen!
That’s right. Go nuts with your camera. I usually can’t stand sweaty tourists and their thumbs-up pictures, but Machu Picchu is where I make the exception. There’s no way to capture the sheer magnitude and beauty of the place but go ahead and try! No one will believe how small the steps are down the side of Huayna Picchu or how fluffy the free range llamas are unless you have pics. Here’s a cultural note: if there is a woman or child dressed in festive clothing with a llama make sure to give her a few Soles for the picture. If you don’t, expect the lady and llama to follow you around until you do.
6. Stamp your passport
I was actually surprised more people in my group didn’t do this. Why not stamp your passport with the seal of Machu Picchu!? There will be a little kiosk with stamps right before the bridge (you’ll know what I’m talking about). This is a great, free souvenir.
7. How to truly be amazed
Alright. So you’ve packed your water, brought some Soles for the bathroom and applied the sunscreen. You have the golden ticket that will let you climb Huayna Picchu and your camera at the ready. Now it’s time to be amazed. Here’s a tip- close your eyes. Not fond of closing your eyes at such heights? Don’t blame you. At least stare at the ground until you make it over the bridge, around the mountainside and through the stone passageway. My guide had us hold hands and close our eyes through the passageway. At the time I was thinking, “What in the hell is this guy doing?” After a second of suspense he told us to open our eyes. What I saw literally made me scream from surprise. If you can, give yourself the same opportunity to be truly, unbelievably amazed.
8. Yes, you can climb on that
Machu Picchu is essentially an ancient Incan village built into the side of the mountain. If you know anything about the Incans, you know they’re very fond of their terraces. These basically resemble very large steps, and on each level they would grow a different product. Cool, right? They’re even cooler when you climb all over them. There are very few signs around Machu Picchu that explicitly ask you not to climb in certain areas. Take advantage of that. I stayed behind the group at the end of the day and did some exploring that led me to the base of the terraces. Me being the crazy person I am, started climbing the tiny stone steps up the side of the terraces. Sometimes I had to roll myself over the edge just to make it up. I climbed about six terraces up before I took a rest. I was in a place where I could see everything, but nothing and no one could see me. I stayed here for an hour just thinking about life and how beautiful the world is. If you can spare the time, I suggest you find your own special terrace. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Alex Trimble comes from the land of strip malls and Six Flags (a.k.a. Gurnee, Illinois). She’s wrapping up her last semester at Illinois State University studying Public Relations and a double minor in Peace and Conflict Resolution and Sociology. Last year she studied abroad in Peru, where she lived in the Andes and drank buckets of pisco and Cusqueña. When she’s not planning a grand reunion tour of South America, you can probably find her cooking for friends, downloading Podcasts, and singing along to Johnny Cash (sometimes all at the same time).