As I mentioned, it wasn’t easy to get to Machu Picchu, but once we were there, man oh man, did we have fun.
As soon as you step off the bus, you’re accosted by a guide who has guessed your native tongue. The standard tour is two hours and around $40 per person. Everything we’d read said that the guides were required, but they aren’t. The first day we didn’t use a guide, choosing instead to take pictures and pet llamas on our own. The second day, we negotiated for a shorter tour since we’d seen much of the upper portion already. I’m so glad we got a guide! We learned so much, and it really helped to have a narrative to drive our exploring. Paolo did a great job leading us through the site, providing the history of Machu Picchu as well as the presumed reasons for the town’s abandonment. All the guides are willing to fulfill the other role of photographer, but we were glad that we’d already done most of that before we booked him.
Note that the guide’s tour will end via a one-way road to the exit. If you’re there for two days, I recommend you use the guide on the second day.
Can’t get mooshy pictures like this with a guide
But you can get pics like these
There are no definitive reasons for Machu Picchu’s existence—the Incas had no written language and the site was abandoned a century before the Spanish arrived—so I can only share what we learned on site. Bonus: it’s probably the most entertaining version.
Were houses like this for virgins who would later be married to royalty?
The story we got was that the village was built by citizens as the kingdom’s way of paying taxes—a happy, healthy labor force much more efficient than slavery. People are always happy to do forced manual labor for months at a time! Ignoring our eyerolls, Paolo continued: the town was built for nobles as an astronomical research station, religious temple, and to groom the best upper-class marriages. Celestially, they only seemed interested in solar eclipses and the growing seasons—the site’s location two miles high in the Amazon provides a lot of rain and a little sunlight, so days were less important than seasons. The idea that they had three different ways to measure the season but not the hour implies that either we’re not getting the whole story or that the Incans had a lot of free (albeit cloudy) time on their hands.
El Torreón, or the Temple of the Sun
There are two main areas to the site: the upper level by the guard hut and the lower town and plaza. There was a separate guard tower way up on Huayna Picchu (the mountain overlooking Machu Picchu), but according to Paolo, the “guards” weren’t guards at all, but to keep a watchful eye for fires or incoming tradesmen. No weapons have been found on site.
Everything was built with stones carved by hand
A UNESCO site since 1983, the site is unsurprisingly well maintained, but what is surprising is how complete it is. There’s no need to use your imagination, like you would at Troy. Rows of terraces cascade down the mountainside, evidence of how self-sustained the community was. Water still flows through the same canals they built six hundred years ago, providing clean ways to drink, wash, and cook. Buildings still stand upright, despite being built without use of the wheel (!) or iron tools. If it weren’t for the lack of thatched roofs, you could move in tomorrow.
Hundreds of terraces line Machu Picchu
Hiking is available to those who register, but we weren’t able to get one of the 400 daily tickets to climb Huayna Picchu or La Puerta del Inca (Bridge of the Incans). Which meant we spent a lot of time wandering, avoiding school field trips and selfie sticks as best we could. So many women with their backs to the camera, looking contemplatively out over the site! An astonishing number of belly buttons for a World Heritage Site.
It’s an incredible amount to take in. The heights, the buildings, the llamas, the views, the clouds, the history, the crowds, the elevation . . . it’s too much to absorb at once. We needed some time to process, so we snuck back into a corner where, although not hidden, we could sit alone and talk about it all. There also may have been booming, but since they don’t allow alcohol into the park, we’ll never tell. It started to rain and the crowds thinned quickly. We watched the clouds roll through and sat silent, drinking in how lucky we were. Soon it was just us, the llamas, and the guards asking us too nicely to leave.
It’s raining, it’s pouring
All by ourselves
The best part about visiting late is the llamas. They come down to the site in the afternoon to graze. The llamas are unafraid of people and could not care less about you or what you’re doing. The only thing they care about is grass. If you stand in the way, they will move around you. If you try to interrupt them with whistles and snaps and pleas, they will ignore you with a single-mindedness that is #lifegoals. In other words, the llama is my spirit animal.
That said, the guides carry plantains and will offer the llamas enticing sniffs in exchange for raising their heads. I think the unsuccessful candids are more fun, but that might just be because I didn’t have a guide when the llamas were out.
BEWARE THE MOSQUITO BITES OF DEATH. Honest, two weeks later, mine are still itching. The bug lotion they sold us in Aguas Calientes (at a terrible mark-up) didn’t help at all. Buy the spray. Wear bug repellant clothing, too – my Ex Officio pants worked for me the first day, at least. Skeet skeet.
Pay attention to the clock. Coming in so late on the first day, we didn’t have any lines for the bus. The next morning was a toooooootally different story. Get in line early, but remember: While you can go up on the bus at any time, they’re very strict about not letting you enter the site until your slot time. We tried 5 minutes before and they turned us away.
Get your passport stamped. There’s a spot outside the gates, before you get to the bus stop, that lets you stamp your passport with the Macchupicchu stamp. We might have violated a federal document, but hey, new stamp!