Machu Picchu by bike, raft, & zipline
Machu Picchu has always struck me as a right of passage for any traveler even moderately interested in adventure, culture, and history. Don't get me wrong, the stunning architecture is a modern marvel which earned its place as one of the new 7 Wonders of the World and as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The polished dry stone walls, where stones were cut with impossible precision without the use of modern tools, and were built to withstand earthquakes and climate erosion are truly impressive. I studied Inca ruins throughout Cusco and it boggles my mind that such precision was possible with 15th-century technology. Built around 1450 and abandoned around a century later, the purpose of Machu Picchu remains unknown. Fascinating theories exist speculating that it was a retreat for royalty, a holy nunnery, or was built to honor the natural "holy landscape." The Inca believed the sun to be their divine ancestor and during solstices and equinoxes, the rising and setting of the sun align with religiously significant mountains from certain viewpoints within Machu Picchu.
That said, seeing Machu Picchu photos in so many people's Facebook timeline and a friend telling me every girl he meets online features Machu Picchu photos on her profile made me less excited about my visit there. I was more excited about Choquequirao, "the other Machu Picchu", other magnificent Inca ruins that are very difficult to get to, meaning only 30 people visit each day, compared to Machu Picchu's 3-5,000 daily visitors. As a solo traveler who enjoys off-the-beaten-path, non-touristy adventures, Choquequirao was the main purpose of my trip to Peru and I considered even skipping Machu Picchu. Thankfully, I reconsidered.
My original plan was to take the train to Machu Picchu, run through it quickly, then take the train back to Cusco so I could get on with my month-long journey through Peru. I was planning my Machu Picchu trip as I would schedule an appointment to renew my drivers license - it needed to be done, I wanted to do it, but I also wanted to get it over with. Then I learned of the 4-day Inca Jungle Trek, which combines hiking, biking, rafting, and zip lining (canopy) through the mountains. I was sold. Days often started around 4am and were packed with adventure and information. We made jungle stops to see monkeys, learn about coca leaf production, and how the Inca used natural seeds like achiote as makeup and war paint. A knowledgeable guide is absolutely necessary to get the most out of the trip and I was fortunate to have such a spectacular guide that I'm working with him to organize a group tour there in May 2018. Contact me for details!
In order to avoid having 1,000 people in your photo (literally), it's a good idea to be in line by 3:30am for the 5:30am buses up the hill. If you plan to hike, you should start by 4:30am to be at the front of the line for the 6am opening. It's a very challenging hike so while I met young, active guys who did it in 40 minutes, I also met many people who took 90 minutes, some of whom described the steep hike as "the worst decision on their trip." Note that there are NO bathrooms inside Machu Picchu so you'll want to use the paid restroom outside the main entrance. Heavy cloud cover and rain are common (especially November - March), so be patient as the clouds come and go as they attempt to ruin your photos. To fully explore Machu Picchu requires more than the 6 hours allotted to morning visitors. I spent 7 hours there, worried I may have problems leaving after the 12pm exit time printed on my ticket, and I didn't even get to explore Machu Picchu Mountain or Wayna Picchu Mountain, both requiring additional tickets, time, and energy to climb and view.
Despite my initial lack of enthusiasm, I couldn't be happier with my visit to Machu Picchu and am so excited to lead group trips there in May, 2018. I will, however, insist on my guests wearing long sleeves and bug repellent to avoid being eaten alive, as I was. Fortunately, locals sell a regular bar of hand soap that is just as effective as bug repellent, minus all the chemicals.
Below is a sampling of photos from my trip to Machu Picchu and you can find more on my Facebook page.