5. DON'T acclimate in Cusco
Face it, everywhere around Machu Picchu is high-altitude, and the dangers of altitude sickness, or soroche as it’s called in Peru, are real. No matter how good of shape you’re in, you’ll be huffing and puffing as you hike among the ruins, and you might get a slight headache. That’s why a lot of travel guides and tour companies suggest spending a day or two in Cusco acclimating to the thin air. We think that’s a mistake for a few reasons, however.
First, Cusco is at a lung-popping elevation of 3,400 meters, or 11,500 feet, while Machu Picchu is almost a kilometer lower at 2,430 meters, or just under 8,000 feet. They’re both still pretty high, but we’re fans of gradual change, so that’s why after our flight to Cusco, we continued straight on to Machu Picchu and were no worse for wear. Then, when we returned to Cusco a few days later, we acclimated to the even higher altitude much easier. No lightheadedness, no trouble breathing, no headaches.
The story is different if you plan to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu—then you definitely need to acclimate in Cusco. But if you’re just taking the train, one of the reasons people suggest waiting to go to Machu Picchu is the difficulty arranging transport to the ruins immediately from the airport, but there are plenty of options like…
The view from the Backpacker Train of the river that caused all those flooding problems recently
4. DON'T take the train all the way from Cusco
It might seem like the simplest way to go, but it’s a huge mistake to take PeruRail or IncaRail all the way from Cusco. Not only because parts of the tracks still haven’t been repaired from the flood damage from last summer (we hear that getting to and from the town of Poroy on the route is nearly impossible), but because even once the lines are back up and running full steam, it takes a lot longer than hopping on a bus or taxi to the town of Ollytatambo in the Sacred Valley and taking the train from there. The taxi ride costs about $20 (the bus is even less at around $5) and takes just under 90 minutes as opposed to the 2.5 hours we hear the train can run.
3. DON'T take the Vistadome train
Unless you’re dishing out hundreds of dollars for the first-class service on the luxury Hiram Bingham, you’ll be taking either the Vistadome or Backpacker train to the town of Machu Picchu. The Vistadome is nicer in several respects: it has fewer seats, there’s just one intimate car, they serve little snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, and the windows in the roof that give the train its name really do give you great views of the surrounding countryside.
However, it costs almost $50 more than the regular old Backpacker Train, which gets you to Machu Picchu just as fast. The cars (there are usually 4 or so on the train) are all self-contained, so you won’t have to worry about people roaming up and down the aisles. There are plenty of windows for you to snap photos from, and there’s still full luggage service so all your things make it to Machu Picchu with you. The only real drawback is that there are no snacks or drinks for sale, so you need to bring something with you, though the ride is just 90 minutes. And with the $50 you save, you can go out for a nice dinner once you arrive.
Inside the Backpacker Train
2. DON'T think that staying at the Sanctuary Lodge is the only option for catching sunrise at Machu Picchu.
We’re not discouraging you from staying at this gorgeous Orient-Express property if you want to. It is in an unparalleled setting right outside the main gate to Machu Picchu, with beautiful rooms and an excellent restaurant. It’s just that it can be impossible to get a reservation at the small hotel without booking months and months in advance, and when you do, you’ll be paying several hundred dollars a night as a premium. That’s because the hotel, and many guides, bill a stay at the property as essential to getting into Machu Picchu ahead of the crowds. Based on our recent experience, though, that’s not the case.
Instead, we stayed at the newest five-star luxury property in the town of Machu Picchu down at the base of the mountain—the more moderately priced Sumaq Hotel—and the following morning, we were able to catch a bus up to the ruins at 5:30am sharp, and were among the first wandering amongst the ruins.
Inside our room at the Sumaq Hotel
1. DON'T plan on paying by credit card
Luckily we were told before we arrived in Machu Picchu that we’d need to pay for our transportation from Cusco and our entrance tickets to the ruins in cash—either American dollars or Peruvian soles. That rang up to almost $150 in cash, so be sure your checking account is up to the strain, and that you can pull out the money in Cusco before hitting the tracks to Machu Picchu, because once you’re there, there’s no way to take out money to pay for your tickets, and the guards at the gate aren’t exactly friendly or understanding.
We know we’ve already given you five things to think about, but here are a few more quick tips on what not to forget for your time at Machu Picchu:
Cusco might be a high desert, but Machu Picchu is definitely a sub-tropical jungle, meaning it can get very cold at night but downright steamy during the days. So don’t forget to pile on the layers for your day at the ruins. Also, don’t forget: sunscreen, mosquito repellent, and comfortable shoes (the ground is uneven and cobblestoned).
There are no concessions within the park, and the snack stand outside the gate is a rip off, so pack a bottle of water and a little snack if you need one because you don’t want to have to keep hiking back and forth to the entrance.
Perhaps most importantly: remember how we told you to bring cash? That includes to the ruins themselves, because it costs you a sole each time you use the bathroom, and no matter how hard you beg (or how gracefully you do the pee pee dance), the attendants will not let you in without handing over a shiny coin.
[All photos: Eric Rosen for Jaunted]
Eric Rosen traveled to Machu Picchu courtesy of PromPeru, but all opinions expressed are his own.