What it's like visiting one of the world's greatest treasures: Machu Picchu

It’s hard to describe the experience of visiting Machu Picchu. People who’ve visited like to call it “breathtaking.”

Visiting Machu PicchuBen Gilbert / Business InsiderThis is a real photo I took in real life standing at Machu Picchu in late March 2017.

While cliché, it’s not inaccurate. How often are you standing on an Andean peak, walking through thousand-year-old ruins, looking down on the clouds?

For Indiana Jones, perhaps the feeling is common. For the average person like myself, the feeling is momentous. Visiting Machu Picchu evoked the kind of awe that my childhood brain produced regularly – the kind of awe that’s since faded from my daily life.

Perhaps best of all, visiting Machu Picchu means dedication. Even if you live nearby, you have to really want to visit Machu Picchu. Even if you take a bus to the main entrance, you still have to work pretty hard to just traverse the grounds. Here’s what that experience is like, first-hand, based on my visit in late March 2017.

There’s no easy way to stay near Machu Picchu itself. That makes sense: Machu Picchu is on a remote mountaintop in the Peruvian Andes! For most travellers, including me and my wife, the trip starts <em>very early</em> in a bus at the Cusco bus station.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderNotice that the clock on the front of the bus says 4:41 — that’s AM, not PM.

The bus we took started in Cusco – the former capital of Peru, and the original capital of the Inka Empire – and went to Ollantaytambo.

You could stay in Ollantaytambo, thus saving yourself an ungodly early bus ride from Cusco. We instead chose to stay in Cusco, as many people do, because it’s a slightly bigger city and has plenty of stuff to do unto itself. It was the original capital of the Inka Empire, which means there’s a load of fascinating history in Cusco itself: gorgeous plazas, churches, museums, and more. It’s also a common staging area for tourists going to places other than Machu Picchu, which we did.

A few hours later, we arrived in Ollantaytambo. Since we booked our Machu Picchu travel through a company named “Inca Rail,” our bus was destined for trains operated by the same company.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderInca Rail operates the ‘Machu Picchu Train’ seen here.

There are several different train operators that run to Machu Picchu: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham. I’ve intentionally listed them in that order as it shows them in order of expense, from least to most expensive. The tickets we bought on Inca Rail cost $US310 in total, round trip, for two people.

That $US155 per person price includes the bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, the train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, and back again.

The train station in Ollantaytambo is ready for an influx of tourists with each new bus offloading nearby. There are little shops like this selling food, as well as locals selling all manner of food and supplies. If you forgot your poncho, this is the time to buy one.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderYou can grab fresh coffee, sandwiches, and pastries here. I spotted a woman selling pieces of homemade cake along the walk from the bus station to the train station, so we ended up with a delightfully moist slice of marble cake.

After a brief downtime between bus and train, we boarded and took our seats. Even though the train is somewhat aged on the outside, the interior is comfortable and bright. That last bit is especially important, as there are some completely dazzling views on the way to Machu Picchu.

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Right off the bat, you’re seeing mountains decorated by nearby cloud formations. It’s quite a sight.

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This is a lot of the (gorgeous) view for the next two hours between Ollantaytambo and the village outside of Machu Picchu.

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The train ride snakes along the Urubamba River, which can be seen here raging alongside the track.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderSince we were going around a curve, you can just make out the train cars ahead of ours in this photo (on the right side).

The main differences between the train line we took and the more expensive ones is luxury and window style. Though I was clearly able to capture some gorgeous photos from our train, if you’re willing to shell out more you can get an even better view.

Belmond Management LimitedThe Hiram Bingham line is named after Hiram Bingham III, a US senator and explorer who’s credited as having re-discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 (the site was known to locals before 1911).

I cannot stress this enough: The Inca Rail experience was beyond comfortable. We were given snacks on the early morning bus ride, a breakfast sandwich on the train, and the operators were very friendly. Many other riders didn’t speak Spanish, and the staff were very accommodating. The views were astonishing for the entire ride to Machu Picchu and back, even without a slightly wider viewing angle.

Unless you’re really looking for a luxurious experience, I don’t recommend spending more money on the fancier train lines. To put an even finer point on it, the town of Ollantaytambo isn’t exactly the lap of luxury – I already felt uncomfortable with how lavish our appointments were in contrast with the town. I’d have felt especially uncomfortable boarding a gold train. But hey, you do you.

But enough with trains! We arrived in the “District of Machu Picchu” after an hour or two of sweeping vistas. It’s a <em>very</em> small town at the base of the mountain, with a few dozens restaurants and hotels for folks who choose to stay nearby for a few days.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderBeyond Machu Picchu, there are several Inka sites nearby — the ‘Sacred Valley’ is an especially popular destination, but there are a half dozen ruins to explore in the area.

There’s an obvious fashion distinction between tourists and locals. The hat and dual braid seen on the woman here is typical of Andean culture, going back to pre-Inka times.

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Outside of a handful of aggressively touristy restaurants and hotels, there isn’t much to the town at the base of the mountain that houses Machu Picchu at its peak. It’s named “Aguas Calientes” for its hot springs, which you can still visit, but staying in Cusco was a far more lively experience. How long you stay in town depends on how long you’ve got in Peru and what you’re most interested in doing.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderThere’s a small market with locals selling everything from bottled water to alpaca sweaters. I picked up a sweet hat for just five soles (about $US1.50).

There’s a small central square featuring a statue of an Inka leader. You can also see the church in the background — of note, all the churches in Peru were built after 1532, when the Spanish first arrived in the country.

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The next leg of our journey was blessedly short: a quick bus ride up the mountain where Machu Picchu is. The buses run near constantly, both up and down the mountain. You <em>could</em> walk, which I’m told takes an hour or two up and another hour or two down.

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We didn’t walk for a whole variety of reasons, and I’d suggest you don’t either unless you’re in very good shape. It’s a pretty steep hike up the mountain, and that’s before you spend several hours hiking around the ruins of Machu Picchu itself.

To be all the way clear: I am a 32-year-old in pretty ok shape. I live in a major city and walk everywhere. My wife is in a similar position. Even still, it’s a pretty taxing experience – beyond the hike itself, you’re in a place that’s over 8,000 feet up. You’re likely to be short of breath due to the altitude, which makes the hike all the more taxing.

After a 20-minute bus ride up the ridiculously terrifying road between the village near Machu Picchu and the site itself, we were treated to the first of many absolutely ridiculous views:

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The weather up on the mountaintop is mercurial, thus my wife’s light rain jacket. In the four-ish hours we spent exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu, I got both sunburned and soaked from rain. Be more prepared than I was!

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From the minute you set foot inside Machu Picchu, you’re awash in ruins. We’re talking about an over-500-year-old citadel that was left untouched by the Spanish Conquistadors (only because they didn’t find it).

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It’s still not entirely clear why Machu Picchu was built or what its purpose was. The most commonly accepted theory nowadays is that it was built in the mid-1400s for Inka emperor Pachacuti – the Inka leader who expanded Inka society from a small kingdom to a sprawling empire. What’s clear is that Machu Picchu once housed a large town, including various temples, plazas, and residential housing.

Many of the original structures are still intact — Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s maintained strictly. The white line on the ground in the image below is one of many boundaries maintained between tourists visiting and the original structures. Park rangers are all over the site as well, making sure that tourists don’t do anything they shouldn’t.

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There are some residents that are allowed to alter the terrain: alpacas and llamas! These adorable animals are docile and friendly, and we ran into a dozen or so on our trek. I took way more photos of this one, but I’m limiting myself to only sharing one because, ya know, this isn’t a piece about how adorable alpacas and llamas are.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderBut also: COME ON! How adorable is this guy?!

OK, fine: one more.

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Much of what you see here is walkable. There were people straight up having picnics in the middle of their trek through the ruins.

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Not a bad place for a picnic, right?

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderThis is one of the highest points at Machu Picchu itself, but you can also hike up to the top of the adjacent mountain peak (seen here) and get ridiculously good photos.

A lot of the journey is spent walking up hundreds of years-old staircases, winding through gorgeous vegetation (and avoiding large tour groups).

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Much of the surrounding jungle is similarly untouched and majestic. My hands are small, but this leaf is ridiculously large.

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When Hiram Bingham and a cadre of locals “re-discovered” Machu Picchu in the early 20th century, a handful of folks were using the area to grow sustenance — they’d cleared off some of the original farming terraces, seen here.

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Much of the rest of the site was buried under overgrowth. In the following 50 years, the site was excavated and cleared. Around 1 million people visit Machu Picchu every year, though that’s highly controlled by the Peruvian government for preservation.

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Though some of Machu Picchu has succumbed to the elements over time, an astonishing amount is preserved beautifully. Keep in mind that this place was built by hand on a mountain peak without the use of modern technology.

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It’s a testament to the incredible skill of Inka architects that the site and many of its amenities are still in such great condition.

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There are a few re-creations, like this roof (which is not original). It does, however, do a great job of illustrating how residences on Machu Picchu would have looked 500 years ago. And the building foundation is original.

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When we weren’t busy looking at the marvellous construction of Machu Picchu, we were marveling at the glorious local rabbits. These little cuties were entirely unconcerned by our presence.

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One of the best shots you can get of Machu Picchu is from the near-top of the site itself. From here you can see much of the site (and you don’t have to climb that insane peak in the distance).

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But, if I’m being honest, there are incredible views from pretty much anywhere at Machu Picchu. This plateau provided a great view of the massive steps cut into the mountain for agriculture. And the wall on the right side is a great example of how the Inka carefully cut blocks and fit them together, creating walls that would last for hundreds of years in the process.

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Here’s a similar shot, from above, where you can see the entire setup. There are human-sized steps cut into portions of the farming steps, though they have been replaced in many areas by safer, less-weathered sets.

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One of the best parts of the experience is feeling like an ancient explorer. Though there are groups of tourists being guided around Machu Picchu, you’re just as likely to find yourself completely alone in this magical place — ruins to one side, mountaintop jungle to the other. I can’t quite put into words how that feels.

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There are even magical little details like these fantastical mushrooms growing in the cracks of ancient walls.

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Like something out of a fantasy tale:

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And the fact that — despite Machu Picchu being a major tourist destination AND a world heritage site — there’s danger around every turn. Notice that there’s no guard rail here, for instance.

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderThere are plenty of safety features, but you can’t escape the danger of being on a mountain peak. One wrong step and you’ve got yourself a very bad day.

As we finished our tour of Machu Picchu, a storm rolled in and soaked everyone. An exodus of tourists began, and buses began rolling in to ferry tourists down the mountainside. Since we weren’t with a tour group, we got to hop the line as the bus operator needed to fill seats.

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It’s nice having a tour guide, but it’s even nicer being able to walk around ancient ruins unattended. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wants a local guide – there are a few dozen stationed at the entrance to Machu Picchu, and they can be hired for a relatively low price. Some travel agents book packages to Machu Picchu that include a tour guide, even!

But I’d just as quickly encourage you to do some reading ahead of time and go it alone. Being able to explore Machu Picchu without a gaggle of fellow tourists – often asking the most asinine, obvious questions – made the experience all the more magical. If you have questions while exploring, your smartphone is in your pocket and, yes, there’s totally service up on the mountain.

OF NOTE: You are allowed to re-enter Machu Picchu after leaving with a single ticket. And that’s important to know as there are several different paths to take through the site. As a result, it’s entirely possible that you’ll miss something on your first tour. Simply return to the main entrance and show them your ticket once again.

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There is no time limit on your experience at Machu Picchu. We arrived around 11 a.m. and left around 3 p.m. We didn’t go to the adjacent peak, nor did we walk to the Sun Gate (a piece of Machu Picchu that’s somewhat remotely located). If you want to go all out on exploring Machu Picchu, you should book a hotel room in Aguas Calientes and really dig in across a few days. There are multi-day tickets available, and the bus ticket to the top isn’t outrageously expensive.

One last animal photo for the road — I couldn’t help myself.

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And here’s the obligatory “We actually went to Machu Picchu!” photo. We did! It’s true!

Ben Gilbert / Business InsiderMachu Picchu: Great for Facebook profile photos!

Now that you’ve reached the end, you’re undoubtedly thinking, “I should plan a trip to Peru so I can visit Machu Picchu.” Yes, friend, you should.

Here are a few things I wish I’d known before booking the trip and travelling to Peru:

You straight up cannot buy a ticket to visit Machu Picchu without being in Peru. The way the system works is you book a reservation online through the Peruvian government, and then you must visit a local bank (in Peru) to purchase the ticket within a short window of time (three days). It’s an expensive ticket (about $US50 per person), but you can pay with a credit card at the local bank.

There are several ways to walk to Machu Picchu along “The Inka Trail.” Unless you are pretty serious about hiking, you should not do this. There are options for public transportation all the way up to the entrance of Machu Picchu itself. Again: I’m in reasonably good shape, and was in no way prepared for this hike. Thankfully I was able to buy bus tickets on site.

You should spend at least two days in Cusco before visiting Machu Picchu. Even if you plan to stay in Aguas Calientes before the hike, you’re going to need time to physically acclimate to the altitude. Since Cusco is at about 11,000 feet, you’ll likely feel the affects of altitude sickness – I certainly did. That means shortness of breath, headaches, and an overall sense of exhaustion. The locals are used to it, and you’ll get passed – quickly – by elderly folks while you’re huffing and puffing. You’ll wanna drop any sense of ego; these are folks who not only live in the clouds, but they come from generations of people who’ve lived there. Cusco is the original capital of the Inka Empire, and it’s been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. You are literally not built for the region. Accept that!

Don’t hesitate to drink coca tea and suck on coca candies. They contain small amounts of coca – yes, the plant used to make cocaine – and it’s a useful way to deal with the exhaustion of being so high above sea level.

Do not eat a heavy meal or drink when you first arrive in Cusco. It will compound the effect of altitude sickness, and may cause anything from an upset stomach to vomiting. In so many words: Chill out! Make sure to give yourself ample time to chill out. It will make your time at Machu Picchu all the more memorable.

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