Undoubtedly, without question, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had! Absolutely nothing can prepare you for the marvel that is Machu Picchu! And I’m so lucky that I got to share the experience with my mum & other half, and that we survived to tell the tale..!
The kind people at the LP Los Portales Hotel booked us an early taxi from the hotel to Poroy station, about 25 minutes from Cusco. It’s not possible for tourists to travel from Cusco train station when travelling to Machu Picchu.
With Machu Picchu being the main reason most people travel to Peru, and visitor numbers are capped by UNESCO each day, you need to be organised and book your train and entry tickets well in advance. I put this trip together myself as I wanted to enter Machu Picchu twice and bought separate entry tickets and train tickets, but you can buy packages from tour operators such as Expedia and Viator.
Poroy station has a nice waiting room with cafe and plenty of seating. Boarding was quite orderly although it wasn’t immediately clear how to check in. I just handed my tickets to a guy with a Peru Rail coat on and he stamped the tickets. The train set off exactly on time at 0734.
I’d booked Peru Rail Vistadome class which had comfy seats in a spacious carriage. The high ceiling with panoramic windows allowed us to take in the awesome views during the near 4-hour journey to Aguas Calientes. The journey was occasionally punctuated with informative commentary about the local area, landscapes and customs. The only annoying thing is that it’s hard to take pictures from the train as you can see the reflection in the windows.
There’s a couple of rail operators for this journey and I would have loved to have done the luxury Hiram Bingham train but the other half wouldn’t loosen the purse strings! There’s also Inca Rail which offers 3 different classes of service so there’s an option to suit all budgets. You can, of course, walk the Inca Trail if you’ve got the time and stamina.
Tea, coffee and soft drinks were served about 45 minutes after leaving Poroy with a menu to buy extra snacks, wine and beers put on the table. We were served a cheese, tomato and pesto sandwich which was really nice, but mum doesn’t like pesto so she had pringles and a twix! I ordered an English tea which was very herbal and not very English! They also handed out passion fruit, which I’d never eaten whole before and wasn’t sure what to do with it! That was an experience!
We arrived in Aguas Calientes at around 1100 and was met off the train by a hotel representative. He would have taken us to the hotel but we had entry tickets to Machu Picchu from 1200, so we decided to walk the short distance to the hotel ourselves.
We dropped off our bags and headed straight to buy the tickets for the bus up to Machu Picchu. The queue for the bus gets massive so the hotel advised that one of us should go buy the bus tickets and the others join the queue for the bus, which is what we did. I queued for bus tickets for only about 10 minutes and the joined mum & the other half in the bus queue. The line was massive but it only took about 15 minutes in total as there were 2 or 3 busses at a time picking people up. The 25-minute journey up to Machu Picchu is an experience in itself and if you’re not great with heights, sit in the aisle seat on the right side of the bus on the way up! The white squiggle of road shown on Google doesn’t quite demonstrate the sheer cliff edges!
Machu Picchu limits entry to time slots each day and you pick your slot when booking your tickets. You can only stay a maximum of 4 hours and re-entry isn’t permitted on the basic ticket. There are also no toilets on the inside of the citadel so you have to go on arrival at the site and then hold it in for the duration of your visit! The toilets are decent, clean and cheap to use. You also need to show your passport to get into the site but you can get a special Machu Picchu stamp in your passport which is pretty cool!
You must have a guide on your first visit to Machu Picchu and if you’re not travelling on an organised tour, you can hire a guide for groups up to 16 people on arrival. We had a guide to ourselves for 2 hours and it wasn’t expensive.
Our guide took us to the main parts of the citadel and that first glimpse after trudging up the steep steps is mind-blowing! You’ve seen the pictures and seen it on TV but seeing it in real life just open out in front of you is a truly magical experience. It’s impossible to describe how it looks and makes you feel. With mountains all around and views down into the valley, it’s hard not to have a massive respect for the ingenuity of the Incas. Architects today would struggle to build in that landscape so what the Incas achieved is incredible!
Each area of the citadel had its specific use whether it was for farming, socialising or religious uses. Most of the terraces were used for farming and some were just retaining walls. It’s thought that about 1000 peopled lived in the mountain town where the Inca king would spend his annual 2-week holiday!
The style of building and the bricks used gave an insight in to who would have lived there with the rougher, haphazard building being used by the lower social classes. Temples and buildings for higher social classes have much more uniform brickwork. Some 70% of what you see is original buildings with about 30% restored. What’s particularly impressive is that the whole site probably took no more than 100 years to build!
The site was abandoned in 1536, shortly after the Spaniards arrived in Peru. The clever Incas didn’t want the Spanish to find Machu Picchu so destroyed the trail leading to it and the site remained “lost” until 1912.
Having been up so early to catch the train, we decided to head back to Aguas Calientes and our hotel after our guided tour. I’d booked us in to the Tierra Viva Hotel which was in a quiet part of town, away from the noise of the train station and busy restaurants but next to the thundering Urubamba River. We had a fairly chilled out evening with an early dinner and hot chocolate as we had to be up early again for another day at Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is alright for an overnight stop, but it’s not as nice as Cusco.
The next morning, the queue for the bus was even longer than the day before, snaking all the way up the hill as far as the eye can see. These lines apparently get up to an hour long in peak season, but we only waited about 20 minutes as busses arrived thick and fast to whisk people up that death-defying road!
On arrival at Machu Picchu, there was a good 10-minute queue for the toilet but as we were climbing Machu Picchu Mountain we had no choice but to wait as once you start the climb, there’s nowhere to go for a pee! We were starting to cut it a bit fine with getting to the check point for the mountain climb as we had to check in by 0800 and with all the waiting in line for the bus and the loo, we were starting to get a bit panicky! As it was, we got the check point at 0745. You need to show your ticket at the check point and sign a register with your entry time. You also need to sign out so that the staff at the national park know you’re not dead on the mountain somewhere!
Now look, I’ll be honest. I had no bloody idea what this climb was all about. There are 2 climbs at Machu Picchu; Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. Huayna is very challenging, very steep and not for people with a fear of heights. I know mum isn’t great with heights, so I ruled that out. Machu Picchu Mountain I read as more sedate, still a challenging walk but easier than Huayna and the views would be “picture postcard”. The climb was meant to take about 3 hours round trip which I thought sounded fine. How wrong I was.
The sign at the check point warns about the 2500 steps, but we set off in high spirits, completely clueless as to what awaited us. Everything starts off fine. Fortunately, with us being in the first group, the temperature is tolerable and the air is cool with lots of shade from the trees. The steps are steep in places and the thin air makes the climb difficult but for about the first 40 minutes or so, we’re doing alright. There’s the odd resting place with fantastic views down the Machu Picchu and across the mountains and it was great to see hummingbirds and butterflies flitting about the trees.
At about an hour in, a sign.
Narrow doesn’t even cut it. We rounded the corner and a path about 4-foot-wide gives way to nothing but a sheer drop. Mum trots off around the corner with me in the middle and the other half freaking out behind me. “I can’t do it”, he wails! All he can do is stare at the million-foot drop, shake and cling to the rock. With mum up ahead, I go back along the path to see if he’s alright. He’s been comforted by 2 girls on a gap year and they’re reassuring him that he’ll be alright. “Is he coming?” mum shouts, clinging to the side of the mountain, only halfway down the path herself. I tentatively walk the path to give her an update whilst the other half is coaxed along by the 2 girls.
Once we’re safely off the narrow path and get to the next resting place, the 5 of us take a breather and get our heads around what we’ve just been through. Thinking that this climb is 90 minutes each way, we rationalise that we must be nearly at the top by now. Surely?
As we carry on climbing, sweating and panting, people pass us on their way down and reassure us that it’s only another 20 minutes. Everybody that passes, “well done, you’re nearly there, just another 20 minutes”. The last couple said it was 20 minutes and that was at least 20 minutes ago! How much longer is it?!
An American family catches up to us with the youngest having turned just 13 the day before! Fearlessly, they overtake us. And then it’s my turn to freak out.
Clinging to the rockface, perched on a narrow strip of path with nothing but a sheer drop to the right of me, I can’t go on. The other half is at the front, with mum in the middle and me at the back with the 2 girls. “I can’t do it”. After the other half’s freak out, I took the camera bag which was now putting my life in danger. “This f-ing camera bag”, I scream! The other half is also freaking out and declares that enough is enough. The mountain has beaten us, no one will ever know that we didn’t make it to the top, but this shiz is too scary. Retreat! Retreat!
But mum isn’t having any of it. She wants to go to the top. A couple walk past, “6 minutes to the top”. I stand there for an eternity, shaking, desperately trying to focus my mind on finishing what we’ve started. I can’t let my mum down. We’ve come all this way, let’s just get this finished. The heart rate reading from the other half’s Fitbit says it all!
So off we go again. Every corner you think is the top. It isn’t. The steps get steeper, the paths narrower and then, we’re there.
The relief is immense and tears sting my eyes. There’s nothing but a lookout point and a hut with a few benches. My whole body shaking as I sit with mum and the other half on the bench and almost cry with emotion; relief, pride, fear of the journey back down!
I pluck up the courage to have my picture taken at the summit but every time I stand up I go dizzy with vertigo and daren’t get too near the edge! I spend most of the 20 minutes at the summit shaking on the bench! There’s great camaraderie at the top and people shake your hand and tell you “well done, you did it”. We did, but we’ll never do it again!
The walk back down isn’t half as bad. At the scary bit where I freaked out, I literally went down on my bum, keeping my centre of gravity low so I didn’t feel dizzy. The bit where the other half freaked out just wasn’t even an issue on the way back. In fact, going down the steep steps was infinitely easier than going up, but we still took it steady and didn’t rush. It was a lot hotter now that the sun had come up and my legs were still shaking!
All in all, the climb took us 4 hours and 20 minutes. I doubt anyone other than an Inca could do it in 3 hours! I felt incredibly guilty for putting us through it. It was truly terrifying in parts and I hadn’t properly researched what it was like. I put us in actual, genuine danger and I would never forgive myself if something bad had of happened.
Having said that, and only in hindsight, we look back and laugh at the pictures and videos we took and we’re glad we did it. Sort of.
After we’d safely got off the mountain, we stopped for lunch in the cafe at the entrance to the site. I couldn’t eat even a salad, I was still shaking too much and adrenaline was still pumping hard. We had a bit of a rest and went back into Machu Picchu for some last photos. None of us had the energy to tackle the steps up to the best viewing point so after a short while, we conceded defeat and left to join the bus queue back to Aguas Calientes.
It took over an hour to get back to the hotel, who had stored our bags whilst we diced with death. Fortunately, the hotel has a shower room which they let us use before getting the train back to Poroy. The shower was a god send and washed the remnants of mountain off us. We then treated ourselves to a pisco sour and empanada at a bar near the train station before catching the train. On our way to the bar, a man stopped mum in the street and said “last time I saw you, you were clinging to the side of a mountain”!
As we boarded the train, some more people in our carriage had seen our struggle on the mountain and clapped when we said we’d made it!
The food and drink service started fairly quickly after leaving Aguas Calientes with a chard sandwich and a chicha drink. The chicha was really nice, kind of plum and cinnamon. The sandwich had egg in it so the other half didn’t eat his.
As it was dark and you couldn’t see the scenery, the train crew put on a strange fashion show and a weird folklore beast came and danced around the carriage. It was fun but one of the more random things I’ve experienced during a train journey! I did buy a baby alpaca wool scarf for my dad for Father’s Day so it was worthwhile!
We arrived back in Poroy after what felt like the longest journey. The last hour really dragged, in both directions, but especially on the return as we were all shattered after the mountain climb.
We were returning the LP Los Portales Hotel in Cusco and they’d booked a taxi to pick us up from the station. Luckily, our driver was there when the train arrived and we were back in the hotel by around 2100. The hotel had stored our main luggage as you can only take overnight bags on the train and they were already in our rooms when we checked in.
We had a light dinner of salad and chips before going to bed. We’d had a full-on couple of days and we were looking forward to a long sleep and chill out day in Cusco tomorrow.
Date of trip: June 2019
Price paid: £270.00pp for return Vistadome train tickets from Poroy to Aguas Calientes, 2 separate day entry tickets to Machu Picchu and 1 day Machu Picchu Mountain entry all bought direct.
£50.00 for the 2 hour guided tour of Machu Picchu.
£45.00 + 26,850 Avios (the remaining from the Iberia 9000 promotion) for 2 rooms for 1 night at the Tierra Viva Hotel booked through Iberia Plus portal.
Points earned: 1298 Virgin Flying Club points for paying using my Virgin Atlantic credit card.