Ammon and Sasha continue:
For me Machu Picchu (MP) was the last of the new 7 wonders to visit. For many it is a mystical and magical place and the purpose and highlight of a visit to South America. Yes, we were looking forward to finally seeing it, but at the same time it is one I have had mixed feelings about for a long time as well. MP has become yet another example of mass tourism becoming a problem in an area, damaging the environment and infrastructure and complicating a routine visit to the area.
Unesco recommends capping the number of visitors well below its current levels. Peru, trying to balance its biggest tourism cash cow with sustainability, has capped the number of MP visitors at 3500 and Inca Trail trekkers at 500 per day. Demand far exceeds these numbers and new rules keep getting introduced to manage things, including new restrictions at the beginning of this year. It has already been necessary to book tickets in advance for a long time but now you have to book a specific starting time (on the hour throughout the day and the visit is only valid for 4 hours from your chosen start time). Fortunately we were not visiting in the busy season and didn’t have to worry about booking tickets weeks in advance. We’d decided long ago that trekking was not going to be worth it for us and the only thing we really had to do was coordinate entry times with train tickets.
Other than trekking there is only a train to MP. At the base of the ruins there is a small town known as Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Pueblo. It is expensive and extremely touristy but has a beautiful location in a valley surrounded by jungle and mountains. The only way there is by train or trek so naturally it is overpriced by Peruvian standards. From Aguas Calientes there is a road up the mountain and you can either hike for a couple hours to get to the ruins or again pay way too much for a short bus ride up. It is possible to visit the ruins as a day trip from Cusco or Ollantaytambo but we opted to stay in Aguas Calientes where the slight increase in hotel and food costs more than made up for the inflated train ticket prices required to do a day trip. Either way, the minimum cost for a trip to Machu Picchu is going to run at $250 US/person.
|The little train to Machu Picchu town|
What this all means is that I was actually kind of grumpy and eye-rolly and totally mentally prepared to not like MP. I was expecting wall to wall tourists and touts. Instead, we woke up to a beautiful sunny day, the site had well below its max number of tourists and the place is big enough that it spread out pretty well and didn’t feel too crowded.
As mentioned in my last post, the Incas knew how to stun with location. Immediately upon entering the site, you get the classic views of the ruins below you and with many terraces on the mountain above the city you could easily spread out and get your photos. I’ve seen the photos. It wasn’t a surprise but it still blew me away. Once inside there was no hassle and the site is done as a large circular circuit so you can’t backtrack and honestly the initial views are the best part and more interesting than the ruins themselves. We’d opted to forego the guide so we could move at our own pace but without any info on display I can only tell you that the place was magnificent and I still know virtually nothing about it. There were temples and living quarters and the Spanish never made it up here so it wasn’t destroyed by them but rather abandoned as the rest of the Incan empire collapsed and then largely forgotten until about 100 years ago when it was “rediscovered” by western explorers. Now it is arguably the most famous exotic ruins in the world.
I’d always been a fan of Angkor Wat and thought nothing could top my 2003 visit there but Machu Picchu 15 years ago might have come close. In any case, I enjoyed MP more than I thought I would but I’m looking forward to trying to find more remote and less visited ruins as we continue through Peru.