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Locked down but not out in Italy

Singing from the balconies! One nice thing about this crisis ... solidarity! “Guess you’re not living like a tourist anymore,” was the funny, truthful and somewhat gut-wrenching message of a friend the day the lockdown in Italy began. Today is day 6. My beloved Italia has been hit hard with the COVID19 epidemic. With the second largest elderly population in the world, the epidemic has meant a disproportionate amount of deaths in the country. So though I haven’t been worried about contracting it myself, this isn’t about me or someone like me who, if contracted it would probably have a sucky couple of weeks and then recover. It is about if someone like me contracted it and then spread it to a person with a complicated health history or an elderly person with a weakened immune system. Eerily orderly: Lines for the grocery store, each person one meter apart In a country with no concept (and no physical room really) for personal space, and in a city with reproachable hygie

10 Machu Picchu planning tips for non-planners

Machu Picchu. As I mentioned in my first post on Peru, I thought that the hype might overshadow the real thing. But it is as if all the noise and all the crowds, hush once you get to the top of the mountains and find an abandoned city hidden in the clouds, surrounded only by sky and other silent mountains. Even without knowing the exact history of Machu Picchu, just seeing what humans have created, (and humans 600 years ago no less) with and in respect for nature is humbling enough to leave anyone amazed. For the history buff and selfie-taker alike, Machu Picchu is magical. You have proof of genius and greatness that withstood time and conquests. It was as if nature, knowing that the city was honoring it, shielded its location and kept it hidden under its branches until it was safe to offer it back to the world.

Getting to Machu Picchu is not easy (easier than it was for its first discoverer, Hiram Bingham, I am sure), but the Peruvians have left in a bit of the adventure just to make you feel accomplished when you finally align all pieces and get to stand at the citadel.

1. Getting to Machu Picchu: The adventure begins

When you want to visit Machu Picchu, getting to Peru is the easy part. From there you still have many steps before reaching this legendary site. Assuming that your only goal is to get to Machu Picchu from Lima, you still need to take a flight, taxi, train, bus and/or hike to get to this wonder of the world.
  •  Get a flight from Lima to Cusco- Flight time is 1 hour. Few if any international flights go directly to Cusco, but the flight from Lima is cheap approximately $80 RT
  •  Taxi from Cusco to Poroy- The train from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes) does not actually leave from Cusco, it leaves from Poroy which is 25-30 minutes away. You need a taxi to get there.
  • Train from Poroy to Aguas Calientes- The train, either PeruRail or Inka Rail, from Poroy to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the hill from Machu Picchu, is 3.5 hours. The distance is not far, but the train does not go more than 40 mph. Sit and enjoy the ride.
  • Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu itself- You can hike up the 6km hill to Machu Picchu which takes about 1.5 hours at 4 am. Or you can pay $12 to take the bus which takes 30 minutes. I say save the energy for Machu Picchu itself.
  • Machu Picchu to Wayna Picchu (also refered to as Huaynapicchu)- If you want to see Machu Picchu from above, you then need to factor in a strenuous hike of another 1.5 hours and you need to plan this in advance as it is a separate ticket. More on this below.

2. Plan your trip at least 3-6 months in advance (yes, you need this much)

We are not really plan-your-vacations-in-advance people, but we didn’t have a choice with Machu Picchu. The internet calendar dictated the first available dates for Machu Picchu so we bought our spots and planned the trip around that. This was two months in advance. To really get the dates you want, you should book 3-6 months in advance. This rule also applies to the train to and accommodation in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town below Machu Picchu.
  • Pick your dates: End of May or early June is still good timing. It is after the rainy season, but it is not peak season. July and August might promise better weather, but it can also dish out 35 degree Celsius/95 degree Fahrenheit temperatures which can be brutal for hiking.
  • Pick your entry route- In all cases, you will need to book your Machu Picchu tickets online. However, there are three route options: 1) Machu Picchu, the citadel only, 2) Machu Picchu and Huaynapicchu (aka Wayna Picchu) and 3) Machu Picchu and La Montana. Entrance to main citadel of Machu Picchu is now limited to the first 2000 people per day. Huaynapicchu, the peak jutting up over the Citadel (the nose of the face if you will), is limited to 200 per day. La Montana is the hill behind Machu Picchu and those tickets are limited to 400 people per day. In terms of fitness level, the citadel is the easiest to do, La Montana the second easiest and Huaynapicchu the hardest.

  • Local Tip: If you plan on going to Huaynapicchu, pick the 10-11 am entrance. There are two time slots, one at 7-8 am and the other at 10- 11am. Our local guide told us that it is extremely common for it to be foggy and rainy in the mornings in Machu Picchu, but it usually clears up around 10 am. This is exactly the situation we faced. The strenuous hike up to Wayna Picchu is primarily for the panoramic view overlooking Machu Picchu, so it is a shame to go in the morning when the fog would mask all of this.
3. Don’t put let the fear of altitude sickness rule your trip

Read about altitude sickness and its causes/cures, but don’t let it scare you out of or ruin your trip. We went against the advice to leave Cusco immediately and go to Machu Picchu pueblo directly mainly because of logistics. However, we found that if you take it easy the first few days, rest, drink water, don’t walk too much, eat light and just really heed your body’s warnings, most people will be fine. And for those who aren’t there are oxygen tanks at hotels, pharmacies with pills at every corner and a whole town of people who are geared for how to help treat sorochce, as it is locally called.

4. Enjoy the train as part of the full experience
Book your train tickets online in advance. There are two main train companies: Peru rail and Inca rail. Both have different class options that allow you for either a basic trip or one with a greater view, enhanced meals and music or entertainment. We found that Peru rail had more options in terms of timing and routes from Cusco, but Inca Rail can be a bit cheaper when comparing certain class tickets.

We took Perurail’s Vistadome there and its Expedition back. All the train options are fairly expensive (+/- $150 RT per person), so if you are looking to save money, but still want to savor the experience, book a day time ride with skylights (PeruRail’s Vistadome or Inca Rail’s Executive Class) train on your way there, but then an evening, more economic Expedition or Premium Economy on the way back. It is a good way to save 15-30 USD/per person.

5.  Don’t neglect Cusco. Stay at least a couple nights.

It is one of the most beautiful cities in South America. We stayed 5 nights and didn’t get bored. There are also a ton of fascinating day trips to do from Cusco: Maras, Moray, Rainbow hill, etc

6. Don’t be afraid to stay more than one night in Aguas Calientes (Machu Pichu pueblo)

Everyone will advise you not to stay in Aguas Calientes more than one night. And there are many reasons why this is good advice. However, you can miss out on a lot in order to avoid some commercialism and tourist traps. The point is that after all the effort to get to the Machu Picchu site, you don’t want to shorten your time there by having to worry about catching a train. We saw an exodus of people leave the park at 3-4pm just to be able to catch the evening train back. I think it is definitely worth the extra night to stay at Machu Pichu until closing time and get a few hours more at the incredible site.

The extra night also means you can fit in little known treasures like the Manuel Chávez Ballón Site Museum and attached gardens. Or for the die hard, I think that there is more than enough to see to book 2 days at Machu Picchu. There is no two-day pass, but it could be worth paying for two separate entrance tickets just to see it all. In fact, one day only at Machu Picchu usually means that you miss out on the farther sites like Temple of Moon, the Inka Bridge or the Sun gate. In terms of where to stay, there is a village full of accommodation options, but much of it is not the highest quality, booking it early means you have your choice of the nicer/cheaper places.

7. Good packing is key

Leave your big suitcase at your hotel in Cusco and pack a weekend bag. Most hotels willingly accommodate this request. It is a common one. For your Machu Pichu days, remember to pack exercise clothes, rain gear, mosquito repellant, sunscreen and water. Hiking boots are a must especially if you do Wayna Pichu.

8. Day of: Wake up early. Very early. It is worth it.

We got up at 4:45 am and were in line by 5:30. The line for the bus was already up the street but we only waited 25 minutes. The park only opens at 6am, but it takes 30 min to get there. 4:45 was not that early after all.

9. Get a tour guide but do not to arrange ahead of time

It might seem excessive to pay 40-60 USD on a 2-hour personal guide. However, Machu Picchu does not have any signage and as well preserved as it is, the sites and their significance are not at all obvious. We bought a detailed book on the important sites and still hired a guide and I would recommend both. There is a lot of mystery shrouding Machu Picchu, what it was built for, who lived there etc, but it is invaluable to hear the theories and accounts on what you are looking at while you are looking at it. TIP: You don’t need to book a guide from your hotel or from the town. It is more expensive and there are just as many certified guides at the entrance of the site. Also, if you understand Spanish, it is worth hiring a Spanish-speaking guide as they are less expensive. Guides charge more depending on the language you need: Spanish is the cheapest.

10. Bring your passport to Machu Picchu for a stamp!

Technically, you aren’t supposed to have stamps from anything but official border crossings in your passport, but I had an expiring passport that I didn’t mind.

Don't forget to respect the site. 

Machu Picchu is a natural wonder, a world heritage site, historically important and one of a kind, don't get carried away with your selfie taking and adventuring. The site is not about you. Be respectful and don’t leave a mark.