After two nights in Cusco, we hopped on the train for a gorgeous, three-and-a-half-hour ride to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town at the base of the mountains where Machu Picchu is perched.
We spent the afternoon exploring the town and enjoying the outdoor hot springs, then got to bed early for the next day’s 4:00 am wakeup call. We wanted to be among the first people to arrive at Machu Picchu, so breakfast was at 4:30, we got to the bus station at 5:00, we departed at 5:30 and, after a 30-minute ride uphill through constant switchbacks, we arrived at the Machu Picchu gates.
When we got there, it was so dense with fog that we accidentally walked right past the ruins and onto a trail that leads to the Sun Gate, the entrance at the end of the Inca Trail. One sweaty hour later, we turned around and arrived back where we started, this time with much less fog and an eerie view of the ruins shrouded in clouds.
All morning we wandered around, exploring every corner of the site. We had 10:00 am tickets to climb Wayna Picchu, the much higher mountain that sits next to Machu Picchu (in the background below). Of the 2,500 tickets available for Machu Picchu each day, only 400 of those people are permitted to do this extra hike – 200 people can start hiking between 7:00 and 8:00, and 200 more between 10:00 and 11:00.
Luckily we bought tickets for the second group, and by the time we were heading up Wayna Picchu, the fog had cleared and the sun was shining. We met some people who did the earlier hike, and they couldn’t see a thing from the top. This was our view:
The hike was steep, consisting mostly of cobblestone stairs with a cable running along beside for extra support. The very top, though, was slightly more unruly: large outcropping rocks, a small tunnel to climb through (we had to take off our backpacks to just barely squeeze through), crazy Incan stairs (rocks jutting straight out on the side of the mountain), and lots more fun but tricky obstacles.
The way down was the hardest part, with one of the steepest stairwells I’ve ever seen (and nothing to hold on to), a couple ladders and lots of opportunities to fall off the edge of the earth. However, the hike was actually very enjoyable, and I can’t imagine going to Machu Picchu without doing it. The view is crazy.
After descending, we ate lunch, had some drinks, then got a tour guide to take us around and explain the history and meaning of the ruins. All in all, we spent nine hours at Machu Picchu, but it could have easily been more.