Machu Picchu is one of the stars of any South American itinerary, and for good reason. When we were planning our trip to check out the sacred Incan city we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to explore the site and capture a ton of amazing pictures to rival the postcards that line the streets of Machu Picchu Pueblo.
We decided not to do the Inca Trek. Call it laziness, weakness or stupidity but we wanted to see Machu Picchu with fresh eyes and not exhausted legs. Travelling with a photographer also means travelling with a sh*tload of gear so taking the train meant Rod had a lens for every possible situation. The benefit to not trekking our way along the trail was that we could spend two whole days at Machu Picchu, giving us plenty of time to take it all in.
This meant setting off from Cusco to Ollantaytambo to catch the Inka Rail train which took us through dry rugged surroundings and into the lush green mountains before arriving at Machu Picchu Pueblo, a small (and very touristy) town that lay at the base of the mountains below the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.
Our first day, we rolled out of bed at 4:30am and set off shortly after, opting to climb our way up the path from Machu Picchu Pueblo to the Incan city. Not our smartest idea, because we finally hauled ourselves up to the front gate covered with sweat (and the early morning rain that seems to be a daily ritual in the rainy season). But at least we beat the hundreds of people who were waiting in line back in town for one of the handful of minibuses to shuttle them up the steep hill.
On first impressions, Machu Picchu really isn’t much, because first thing in the morning it was completely shrouded in mist. We spent the better part of half an hour pondering our back up plan if the ancient city never managed to break free from its cloudy veil before light winds managed to tease away the white and began to reveal the lush jungle beyond.
We waited patiently and were rewarded as Machu Picchu was slowly revealed. We’d seen pictures and photos from friends who’d been to Machu Picchu before us, so we (cynically) expected to be somewhat let down by the reality. But Machu Picchu is one of those sites that doesn’t disappoint. The complexity of the ruins – most of which remains in the original condition they were discovered in more than 100 years ago – combined with the amazing natural jungle surroundings, nestled within breathtaking clouds all add up to an unforgettable experience.
After a few hours slowly wandering the site, alternately taking photos and just admiring the views, it was time for us to explore another area of the Incan site – Machu Picchu Mountain. Naively, we had assumed that we’d be climbing a small hill or overlooking area when we opted to add the Mountain climb to our ticket. Instead, we were faced with a 3,000m MOUNTAIN with rough-hewn stone steps staggered at various heights all the way up. Alternately cursing my stupidity and the Rod’s, we eventually made it to the top and congratulated ourselves on our great idea because the top of Machu Picchu Mountain offered even better views of not only Machu Picchu city but the surrounding jungle and hills. We found a spot to catch out breath and admire these views, trying not to think too much about the fact that what goes up, must come down.
Eventually we returned to Machu Picchu proper and despite itching to explore the ruins, we headed outside the site and off to the snack bar. Here, we were given a blessing in the disguise of a huge storm that passed through and sent most of the visitors scrambling for a bus back to their dry hotel rooms (or trains back to Cusco). An hour or so later we re-entered the ruins to find them practically deserted. After a morning spent dodging selfie sticks and tour groups, this was ABSOLUTE heaven. We had the place practically to ourselves, barring a few equally brace souls, a school group and three curious llamas.
The llamas are a definite highlight at Machu Picchu, mainly because they are so damn tame from being around humans all day every day that they will happily walk right in front of you if a certain patch of grass takes their fancy.
While we were slowly wandering around in the afternoon, Rod waiting for the Golden Hour so he could capture picturesque shot after postcard-perfect angle, we were interrupted by three llamas who clearly thought our patch of grass looked pretty tasty. They slowly wandered over and began munching, with zero regard for the humans captivated by their sudden appearance. A few selfies and too many llama photos later, we assumed these llamas would wander off in search of greener grasses but instead they seemed happy to follow us as we continued along the paths that wind in, out and around the Incan buildings. Each time they rounded a corner and out of sight, we assumed that was it – it was good while it lasted llamas. But instead they kept returning, eyeing us up as if to reassert their nonchalance as they munched the grass around us greedily.
I assumed Rod’s memory card would eventually explode, but before it could, we were told it was 5pm and time to leave Machu Picchu. We slowly allowed ourselves to be shepherded out by one of the park attendants, already thinking about our plans for day two.
Our early wake up wasn’t quite as easy the second time around and we definitely weren’t going to climb our way to the entrance after our mountain adventures on day one. Instead we joined the looooooooong line of fellow visitors hoping to get on a bus before too much of the day had passed us by (some people apparently start queuing at 3am for the first bus at 5:30).
We finally made it to the front gates around 7:30am and were greeted with another wall of white. As other visitors groaned audibly, we smiled to ourselves, smug with experience. Just you wait, we thought. And wait we all did, for the clouds didn’t part for another two hours. Once we could see where we were, we headed to the top terraces so we could get some shots of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu mountain. Photos and selfies snapped, we headed back outside to find ourselves a guide and learn more about the amazing Incas who built the city we’d been exploring.
Hugo, our friendly guide took us back along the paths that we’d almost memorised over our day and a half in the city, this time giving us new insights into how they created such an oasis in the middle of the jungle. He explained the history of Machu Picchu from creation in the 13th century to its abandonment in the 1500s and rediscovery in 1911. It was easy to imagine people hurrying home along the streets or tending gardens in the terraces that surrounded the city. And yet it was almost impossible to imagine how they transported soil from the jungle to fill their gardens or how they not only moved but also carved the massive stones needed to build their homes and temples.
Hugo answered our many questions but after seeing the amazing site of Machu Picchu and learning more about how the Incans lived in the surrounding Sacred Valley, both of us left Machu Picchu determined to find out more as we slowly continue our travels throughout South and Central America.