Top Travel Days of 2019, Waking Up at Machu Picchu
Few sights I’ve seen are as majestic as Machu Picchu. After a 2-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo, you arrive at the town of Aguas Calientes and switch to a bus for a 20-minute drive on a series of switchbacks up to the base of Machu Picchu. Once here, you better have one of the coveted timed tickets to enter these late 15th-century Incan ruins that miraculously the Spaniards never found. Row after row of stone walls lead up the steep hillsides creating a far vaster archaeological wonder than one can imagine on that quintessential photograph from above Machu Picchu.
I was on Day Five on an 8-day trip with the outfitter, Abercrombie & Kent, to Lima, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Cuzco. We arrived at Machu Picchu a little after 2:30 pm, when the crowds were already thinning, to feel the smooth rocks of the temple, see the maze of aqueducts, and find the sun dial that was used to predict summer solstice. The tightly knit stone structures are impressive, but to be honest, pale in comparison to the surrounding landscape, a panorama of jagged peaks that lead to the snow-capped Andes in the distance. This includes Huayna Picchu, the striking peak you see behind every photo of Machu Picchu. We had the opportunity hike this peak the next morning at 7 am, but I chose to hike part of the Inca Trail rising above Machu Picchu to the Sun Gate. Every step you took on the 3-hour round-trip trek was another breathtaking view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. Fantastic!
Abercrombie and Kent really earn their money on this portion of the trip. We have all heard of the overcrowding at Machu Picchu and by the time I arrived back from my hike on the Inca Trail around 10:30 am, there were hundreds of people on the Machu Picchu grounds. But the past day we really saw the site in relative quietude. We arrived mid-afternoon the day prior when the crowds were less (after having a memorable lunch aboard our train), stayed at the base of Machu Picchu at the only hotel on the grounds, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge (only 31 rooms, booked a year in advance by Abercrombie and Kent), and then received one of the few tickets the following morning to enter the grounds at 6 am, when there were few if any people around. Walking above Machu Picchu as the sun rose and the clouds cleared was an unforgettable experience.