Machu Picchu is arguably one of the most magical, mystical places on Earth. In fact, it's hard to believe that such a place even exists outside of fairy tales. There's so much hype around Machu Picchu, but when it comes to researching, we found that there was a lot of confusing or vague information out there. The following blog post is not only about Machu Picchu itself, but our experience getting to the 7th wonder of the world. As you may know, we like to travel slooooow. One night in a place is not sufficient for us. We spent a couple of weeks enjoying the towns along the way. We loved each and every place we stayed and truly felt the good vibes that Peru has to offer.
Daniel and I fell in love with Cusco at first sight. After spending 11 nights at 11,151 feet in the small city, I think we could happily move there and enjoy our lives in the sunshine amongst the red roofs and alpacas. The pisco sours don't hurt either.
where to stay:
In order to fully enjoy Cusco and all that it has to offer, we chose to spend a few nights at El Balcón in Cusco. This small hotel provides more than a bed to sleep in and free wifi. El Balcón, was originally a pre-colonial home built on Incan terraces that was later renovated into a hotel. The rooms face inwards onto beautiful gardens overlooking Cusco. Our favorite feature of El Balcón is the dining room with full-height windows and rustic decor. We spent many hours soaking in the sunshine and sipping on complimentary coca tea (known to help aid altitude sickness).
where to eat:
El Balcón has a new restaurant opening up in November (2018), lead by Chef Lorenzo Medina Sicus. One night while at the hotel, we were fortunate enough to sample some of the featured dishes. The menu will highlight fresh salads from El Albergue farm, hand made pastas, alpaca stew, and a variety of other options (many vegetarian or vegan) -- all utilizing local livestock and seasonal veggies. As some of the first guests to taste Lorenzo's specialties, we will be the first to admit that the flavor was unreal! We left the restaurant stuffed and practically had to be rolled to our bed.
Check out our full Cusco city guide coming soon to our blog.
From Cusco, we opted to take an inexpensive taxi colectivo to Ollantaytambo - the gateway to Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley. Colectivo taxis are basically mini vans that locals take to hop from location to location. This trip cost us 12 soles ($3.63 USD) each and took about two hours. Grab the colectivo on Pavito street in Cusco. The train is also an option, but runs at a much steeper price.
I know we just said we fell in love with Cusco, but we fell in love all over again with Ollantaytambo. The small town is nestled in the Sacred Valley below an impressive site of Incan ruins. After winding our way through canyons and farmland, the colectivo dropped us off in the main square that was bustling with people, hanging colorful textiles, and restaurants. It was wild to walk on cobblestone streets that were originally made by the Incas. They were barely wide enough for both pedestrians and the tourist buses passing through town. The buildings flanking each side of the roads were made of adobe. The town felt primitive, like we had stepped back in time hundreds of years.
where to stay:
We made our way to the train tracks nearby in search of El Alberque hotel. We knew ahead of time that El Alberque was near the train tracks, but we didn't realize how integrated the hotel was with the station. Just a few steps away from the bustling train station was the front door to our hotel. El Alberque is an absolute oasis: an inspiring contrast of a vintage train station on the front side and tropical gardens on the back side. Upon entering the hotel, we truly felt like we were living in a simpler world far away from any distractions or current events.
It was here that got to know Joaquin, the owner of both El Balcon and El Alberque. Joaquin was born in Ollantaytambo, in a small house on the exact property that we were staying at. His parents decided to leave their life at home in the United States in the 1970s and go travel. That's when they fell in love with Ollantaytambo, bought a rundown train station hotel, renovated, and never left. His mother, Wendy Weeks, is a talented artist, whose work is displayed throughout the hotel. You can feel the family history running through the veins of El Alberque.
where to eat:
In addition to El Alberque, Joaquin has opened up the newest restaurant in town, Chuncho. The word “chuncho” comes from the Quechua language meaning “native” and “wild.” The menu reflects just that -- traditional, native dishes that are grown at the organic farm near El Alberque. Eating at Chuncho is a unique experience bursting with earthy flavors combined in an unexpected way. We recommend ordering the small dishes to share so that you can try a variety of dishes. Eating with your hands is recommended. Don't skip the cocktails! Joaquin and his team have a sugarcane-based (cañazo) distillery adjacent to their farm. Their head bartender, Andre, is a master at mixing cocktails that combine locally-sourced botanicals with cañazo. Daniel and I collectively tried four cocktails and it was impossible to pick a favorite. Being vegetarians, it was often a challenge to eat throughout Peru, but Chuncho easily catered to us.
We were treated to a traditional Incan meal at the organic farm near El Albergue one sunny afternoon. This was more intimate than eating at a restaurant with a farm-to-table concept. Our food was cooked utilizing an ancient technique called pachamanca -- which means "earth oven." The fresh meats, root vegetables, and trout were cooked underground in front of our eyes. The food was placed on hot rocks in a shallow hole in the ground. From there, the chefs covered the food in rocks that had been heating for over an hour, a moist cheesecloth, a tarp, and covered completely in dirt. While the food was cooking, we toured the organic farm, the coffee roasting facility, and the distillery. Within approximately 20 minutes, the food was fully cooked and ready to eat. The food was accompanied by fresh salad and chicha morada - a delicious purple corn beverage. Anyone can attend the pachamanca farm lunch, regardless of if you're staying at El Albergue.
As we enjoyed our meal outdoors on the farm with views of mountains on all sides of us, we had a moment of this is why we travel. Travel is about so much more than getting the best Instagram shots and the most passport stamps. We travel to taste the world, learn about century-old traditions, and make genuine connections.
salineras de maras
Be sure to set aside an afternoon to visit this dreamy destination. Read more about the salt mines in this blog post.
Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, is the launching point at the base of Machu Picchu. Keep in mind, there is no way to access this town except by train via Inca Rail or Peru Rail. Depending on your schedule for visiting Machu Picchu, you will likely spend a night or two here. Not too many of the options for where to stay stand out to us. We came to visit Machu Picchu, not to relax in our hotel room. It became evident to us that travelers will continue to visit the Incan site for many years to come, so hotels aren't too worried about losing business. Putting time and money into maintenance of their properties isn't a priority. Food options were limited and more expensive, but we enjoyed the brewery/restaurant called Mapacho.
After a long day at Machu Picchu, we visited the natural hot springs at the top of town to soak our sore muscles. The water wasn't as hot as we're used to, but it was still warm and relaxing. Nevertheless, they served us a beer while we soaked and stared at the mountains surrounding us. We had a little bit of time to kill in the town (we stayed two nights), so I decided to drag Daniel in circles around the artisan market until I found the perfect poncho. Prices aren't as inflated as I would've imagined, and they had some different textiles than anywhere else we'd seen in Peru.
And now for the grand finale, the main event, the shining star. We'd been dreaming of visiting Machu Picchu since we first learned about the famous Incan site in school. Yes, it's busy. Yes, you'll be fighting your way through tour groups holding flags and tourists taking photos with their iPads. But, yes, it's 100% worth it.
On our second wedding anniversary, September 3rd, we woke up at 3:30 AM to begin the day trip to Machu Picchu. We had purchased our bus tickets the day prior, had our entrance tickets printed, and our hotel made us a pack lunch, so we were good to go. Walking towards the bus station in Aguas Calientes, we were already zig-zagging through the crowds of other travelers headed to the same spot as us. Eventually, we made it to the bus stop around 4:15 AM and waited in a line that meandered farther than we could see. We waited nearly an hour before boarding the bus.
We made it to the top in one piece and finally headed inside the park. Instead of stopping at the guardhouse like most people do, we continued walking. The Incan site down below wasn't even visible yet due to heavy clouds. We walked a little further to the Incan bridge -- a draw bridge that was used to protect the western entrance. It was definitely worth the extra walk and moment of solitude.
Afterwards, we walked back near the guard station and waited. We found a nice quiet place to sit and observe the power of Mother Nature before our eyes. For a couple of hours, the clouds blew in and out of the valley as quickly as we could blink. The sun and clouds performed a magical dance before the sun finally took over and the clouds dispersed. The view below sent goosebumps up and down our spines. The rest of the day, we wandered through the ruins and sat in the sunshine. Instead of taking the bus down, we decided to walk. The hike followed a path that led essentially straight down thousands of steps. It took us about 1.5 hours to get back to town from the top.
tips for machu picchu
▲ Don't forget to get the famous Machu Picchu stamp in your passport! As you exit the ruins, there's a small unlabeled booth with an ink pad and stamp.
▲ Bring a plastic bag to pick up trash during your hike down from Machu Picchu (if you opt to hike). We picked up two huge bags of trash and multiple plastic bottles. As travelers, it's our job to take care of this earth and keep the trail looking clean. Help us spread the word to #pickuppicchu.
▲ Buying entrance tickets for Machu Picchu online is confusing and frustrating. We followed the instructions on this blog and successfully purchased tickets. However, make sure you print out your actual tickets, not just the confirmation page. A couple in front of us mistakenly printed the confirmation page and were frantically running around Aguas Calientes looking for a print shop at 4 AM. Don't be those people. Also, don't forget to bring your passport.
▲ Seek out some less-traveled paths, like the Incan bridge, to escape the crowds.
▲ This is more of a word of caution, not a tip -- but the bus up to the ruins is terrifying! The bus winds its way up a cliff side via hair-pin turns on a gravel dirt road with no guard rails. When another bus passed ours heading down, we had to go in reverse, on the edge of a 5,000,000 foot cliff to let the bus pass. If I had the chance to do Machu Picchu again, I'd opt to hike the 1.5 hour hike up to avoid the bus.
▲ If you want to learn all about the ruins, it's probably in your best interest to hire a guide. We are specific about our photography and taking our time, so we eaves-dropped on other English-speaking guides to learn a bit instead of hiring a guide.
a warning about the train
Instead of taking the less expensive train/colectivo taxi combination, we decided to splurge and take the 360 Inca Rail train the whole way from Aguas Calientes to Cusco. However, we were disappointed when we were shuffled from the train to an uncomfortable mini van two hours into our journey in Ollantaytambo. Our train only had about 12 people on it, so they made the decision to put us in a van instead of running the train the whole way (like we paid for). We weren't offered a refund or any explanation. I'm not sure if Inca Rail and Peru Rail pull this same stunt, but make sure to carefully read their website disclaimers before deciding to splurge. Had we known about this, we could've saved $40 USD and taken a colectivo instead.
For love & adventure,