September 19-21, 2012
The girls had three days off from school last week so we decided to plan our trip to Machu Picchu for this time. Rather than take a tour we arranged the trip independently (and also a little more economically because visiting Machu Picchu is pretty expensive). Since we wanted to spend a full day at the site but we didn't really want to stay in Aguas Calientes (the small, overpriced tourist town below Macchu Picchu), we decided to stay for two nights in Ollantaytambo. This allowed us to catch an early train from Ollantytambo to Aguas Calientes, then a bus up to Machu Picchu, and then about seven hours at the site before walking back down to Aguas Calientes to catch a late train back to Ollantaytambo.
So, on Wednesday we jumped on a local bus from Pisac to Urubamba (about an hour), then changed to a combi (jam-packed minibus) from Urubamba to Ollantaytambo (about half an hour). I had a bag full of ten live chickens at my feet for this part of the journey. On reaching Ollantaytambo we checked into the very pleasant hostal, Casa de Wow. We had a handmade bunk-bed made from a cherry tree in our room. After exploring the town a little and going to the train station to pick up our tickets, we had a great meal at Hearts Cafe and then retired to the hostal to watch The Lorax on DVD (our first movie in three months).
The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn to catch our train to Aguas Calientes. We were in "executive class" with Inca Rail, which got us a snack (a brownie and a chocolate) to go with our hot drink. As the train bumped down the valley, the clouds rolled in and the vegetation got lusher and more overgrown - the start of the cloud forest. After an hour and a half we reached Aguas Calientes and went in search of the buses up to Machu Picchu. A short (20 minute), steep, overpriced bus ride up a series of switchbacks and we were there.
We spent the next seven hours wandering the site, including hiking along the end of the Inca Trail up to the Intipunku (Sun Gate). There were hordes of tourists all over the site throughout the day (the maximum number of visitors is capped at 2500 and there were probably close to this number in total), yet the site is vast enough that it never felt particularly crowded. We didn't hire a guide but on a few occasions as we rested or snacked we listened in to a guide talking about a particular aspect of the site to others. Often the explanations seemed a little vague, speculative, or hard to understand, so I'm not sure we really missed anything by not having a guide. The most impressive part of the site is the setting, of course, something that is hard to appreciate from photos. The drop-off on all sides of the main complex is unfathomably steep, and the surrounding mountains in the near and far distance are quite spectacular.
We also found it interesting to try to visualize the various animals represented in different parts of Machu Picchu, such as the puma (Huayna Picchu), the condor (just to the left of Huayna Picchu), the giant lizard (the view from above of all the buildings as a whole), and the snake (the Rio Urubamaba). In the late afternoon, having had our fill of Machu Picchu, we climbed down countless steep steps to the river, then crossed over and walked into Aguas Calientes (just over an hour's walk in total). We found a decent Chinese restaurant, Canton Chifa, and bought some take-out food to take to the train station to eat while we waited for the train. We were just traveling "tourist class" this time (with a more limited selection of hot drinks and no snack), but we were all too zonked to mind - Sierra conked out five minutes into the journey. We finally made it back to Ollantaytambo and then walked back to the hostal.
The next day, after a good breakfast of eggs, bread, and coffee at the hostal, we went for a short, steep hike up to some more Incan ruins, then went for a good lunch at the Coffee Tree in the main square (Sierra had poutine!). Then we made our way back "home" to Pisac, taking a combi to Urubamba, then a bus (full of boisterous school-children) to Pisac.
The whole trip to Machu Picchu was a little challenging to organize since information from guidebooks and online was invariably out of date and incorrect. So, here are some details that might be of use to anyone planning a trip with children (correct as of September 2012):
- There's no need to go with a tour from Cusco - it's fairly easy to organize yourself.
- Staying in Ollantaytambo is a viable and better-value alternative to staying in Aguas Calientes.
- I bought half-price Machu Picchu tickets for the children in Cusco in-person at at the Oficinas de la Direccion Regional de Cultura since it didn't seem possible to buy these online (same for student tickets).
- The most expensive part of visiting Machu Picchu is the train to Aguas Calientes, but the only viable alternative we read about is going via Santa Teresa and catching a once-a-day train from a hydroelectric station. I'm not sure this would be too easy with children.
- I don't think that walking up from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu would be too much fun, but walking down was fine (and saved us about US$30).
- Approximate overall costs for the four of us were: Machu Picchu entrance $130, train to/from Ollantaytambo $300, bus from Aguas Calientes $30, two nights' accommodation in Ollantaytambo $70, total (excluding food) $530.