Matchu Picchu — part 2: how-to-get-there hints

Greetings to all who have landed on this spiritually-inclined place, where we can all Sing as One!
I’m saying that, because that saying “Where we can all Sing as One” is about as good a description as any I’ve ever heard of what, exactly, Matchu Picchu is all about. Like other famous and popular places in the world, MP has become a good excuse for an international party and it’s extremely festive and well worth the effort to get there. Yet in the same breath I’m warning you that it’s not easy to get there. Once you’re there though, you feel as if you’ve literally and figuratively surmounted one of the great challenges of life, just arriving.

Sure, MP is one of the modern day 7 Wonders of the World, along with the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, The Colosseum in Rome, the Maya ruins at Chichen Itza, Brazil’s Giant Jesus; and Petra, the rosy carved-stone Ancient Greek city in Jordan.

the main pyramid in chichen itza

the main pyramid in the Yucatan’s Chichen Itza, a Maya ruin.

How amazing is it, that three of the world’s present marvels come from Latin America: Mexico, Brazil, and Peru.

Love and Light for ALL

High above Rio, stands open-armed Jesus Christ, the reminder of Light, of Love for ALL

So it’s no wonder that Machu Picchu is today a crowded, tourist-friendly place. Just a decade ago, it wasn’t. Not because it hadn’t made some list, either. A decade ago the anti-government guerrilla group, the Shining Path (los Cendero Luminoso) was stopped terrorizing locals all around the Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrado) and environs. The concierge at our small hotel in Cuzco told us how, in the early 80s, her grandmother hid her under her skirts when the Shining Path ambushed their Inca family when she was only a child. The massacre that day, at Lucanamarca, when 69 peasants, Quechua-speaking indigenous, men and women, were killed by the communist-inspired guerrillas, shocked all of Peru. If they had reserved judgement before, Peruvians were loudly unsympathetic with these rebels after this horrible incident. The mountain-hid guerrillas terrorized everyone, native and tourists, targeting mostly poor indigenous locals until the arrest of the Cendero leader in 1992. Only then did people, whether indigenous or tourists, start to feel safe again.

For many years my consort carterO and I stayed away from MP, although we often talked of how very much we wanted to see the great Inca ruins high in the Andes. Now in 2014, finally we had time!

In July, three months before we wanted to be there, we began our search for “How do we get to MP?”

For anyone who has googled MP, they immediately find out there are huge hoops to be lunged through, head first, and then more whistles blown, and tickets for buses, trains, park entrance reservations and fees that all need to be juggled high in the sky. DO NOT DESPAIR. Here’s some tips, and hopefully they will inspire you to make the trip and have fun in the pre-traveling stage! Do not be put off by this challenge, nor the fact that MP is a popular tourist destination. Instead, rejoice that the Peruvian poor have an opportunity to make money from tourism.


Wild llamas, the only permanent inhabitants of the ruins of Matchu Picchu

* Some people just show up (not the best decision, only for the brave, foolish, and hearty risk-takers). Other more plan-ahead-and-be-sure types begin to think out their trek to MP a year in advance. I highly recommend if you wish to walk the 4-day, or even the lesser days, or 1-day Inca Trail trek, you book ahead as early as you can. The Inka Trail is very popular, and sells out months ahead. We did an in between kind of trip and it worked out perfectly, for us. Our knees dictated “no trekking” but otherwise, we’re super fit for our age group and planned on doing a lot of hiking (trekking is overnight camping plus hiking, using tents, outdoor cooking, etc.).

* A big ahem here folks. A warning about the BIG elephant on the Inca trail. I’m afraid I must say something after witnessing for myself the true story of how local indigenous people are not being treated well ( I can’t say “abused). To me they appear to be treated little more than pack-horses, burros. I cringe to say this, but they’re latino-sherpas. Really, it’s not cool. I have to forewarn trekkers about this single humanitarian aspect of the packers’ situation. I saw too many Inca (Quechua-speakers, also spelled InKa) old-timers stooped over, unable to stand straight. There are far too many young dudes carrying heavy weights on the trail with lousy shoes (I found out shoes are not provided by the trekking companies they worked for). When I saw the plastic slippers some are forced to wear because of their poverty, I realized something else. The livelihood of an Inca Trail packer is one of the few ways the people around there have to earn money.

So please research your trekking agent, and use the most compassionate decisions about your trek. Use kind-hearted trekking companies.

* Another heads-up, about TOURs. If you can find another way, besides the BIG tour companies that take care of everything from trail guides to transportation to a cup of coca tea, conveniently booking your everything for the most super-values — your conscience will sit easier if you research first. Look for smaller, more compassionate tour companies. Do the research. You can get to MP many ways. You don’t have to take the first hit on the web when you’re ready to make plans. The more you make compassion the deciding factor about everything — from what kind of food do I eat (even at home) to what tour company I’ll book — the sooner the world starts changing, one person’s decision at a time. So before giving your credit card to any tour company, ask questions. Make sure your tour choice is run by a compassionate company, especially trekking ones. Be aware that unscrupulous companies do take advantage of people’s ignorance and impatience. Enjoy your time in Peru and at the powerfully awe-inspiring Inca city of Matchu Picchu knowing that you are doing no harm to anyone, including the planet, coming here.

* There are other ways besides the abuse of indigenous, to walk the trail or stay at bargain places. Just take time to research. All the trekkers I saw arrived fresh as daisies because for the four previous days they only carried their light-weight backpacks, with a water bottle, a change of clothes and maybe a toothbrush in it. Maybe they can turn a blind eye to the forward-bent men who arrived much later, each carrying what looked to be nearly a hundred-pound pack with tents and cooking supplies, and other trekking needs (I did not ask if they have to pack-out everyone’s own waste, every drop of it, as they do on Grand Canyon rafting treks, shudder). And lastly, wherever you go in Valle Sagrado, you find remnants of the Inca Trail. You can hike it for long lengths, as it criss-crosses honeycomb-like all over the tops of the mountains. You don’t have to do “the” Inca Trail, the one that gets you to MP. You can make a lot of day trips and get all your full of hiking the real thing, the Inka Trail, and then go back to your hotel at night, or move on to another location in the valley.

* Here are the things you have to purchase in order to smoothly arrive at Matchu Picchu care-free.

1) Your plane ticket from either Quito in Ecuador or Lima (Peru’s capital, on the Pacific coast) to Cuzco, Peru (the ancient city of los Inka, located an hour plane ride away. MP is another 80 kilometers, following the Sacred Valley as the condor flies. But you can’t fly there. You have to arrange either bus or taxi, but eventually they both lead to a train station. Train is the only way to MP coming from Cuzco.

2) Decide if you’re going to a lower altitude first, to acclimate, or stay in higher Cuzco and take it easy for a few days. (We chose to go to more quiet and much smaller Pisac, an Inca town an hour from Cuzco: it also has lower altitude. For 3 days we stayed at The Pisac Inn which was quite artisitically lovely.T hey provided the taxi that picked us up at the airport. The Pisac Inn also has terrifically delicious and healthy food in their small restaurant.

3) Before leaving either Cuzco or Pisac, many advise to have your entrance tickets already purchased for MP. The reason you need to do this first, way before leaving home even, for some plan-ahead types, is because to understand this segmented journey to MP you have to work backwards. And everything all depends on day of your arrival at the base of MP, ready to start your journey of discovering the ancient Inka ruin.

NOTE: We bought all our train, Aquas bus and entrance tickets to MP at the Pisac Inn, with the hospitality hostess, Roxanne doing all the paperwork for us. No pain. Easy. Roxanne is a sweetheart and very efficient.

4) So first decide when you’ll be able to spend at least TWO DAYS wandering the ruins of cloud-kissing MP (less is ridiculous, it’s too complex and intriguing). Then, for the day(s) on which you will be MP-ing you need a (very short ride) bus ticket going from (and returning to) the small modern-day town below MP, called Aquas Calientes, “Hot Waters” because of its hot springs, but it’s real name is Matchupicchu Pueblo. The day before you “do” MP, you will buy a TRAIN Ticket (if you haven’t done so already), mentioned in #5 below (from either Cuzco, Urumbamba or Ollantaytambo, the town before MP). If you stayed in Pisac, it’s a hour taxi ride to either Ollantaytambo, or half hour to Urubamba, where you’ll catch the train to MP. The taxi ride is quite enjoyable, you’ll want to have your camera ready and on high speed shutter.

From Ollantaytambo, there are NO ROADS going to Matchupicchu, only the train. There is a road to MP from the opposite direction, coming up from the Amazon jungle on the Ecuador border.

If you’re okay with on-the-spur decisions, we found there were so many small pensions in Aquas that there was no need to book a room beforehand. Boy did we get scalped for thinking we needed to booking ahead in Aquas. There are millions of cheap spots available, just show up! Trust you’ll find a place if you’re looking for the real bargains. Just start walking the streets of Aquas and you’ll see Hospidales Touristicas (a lesser form of hotel) or Pensiones (lesser amenities) or backpackers’ hostels (dorm-like). If you need security or luxury, book ahead, but if you’re hoping to get more value for your buck, just show up.

Definitely Use Trip Advisor. The not-great place we ended up staying at in Aquas (someone’s last minute bum-steer referral in Pisac) is not even mentioned in Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet because it was so rough n’ tough. And way overpriced, by a hundred dollars! But hey, we learned!

5). Having decided exactly the day(s) you will do the MP ruins, book the appropriate days for the Train ride to and from Aquas. One train company is Peruvian-owned, Perurail, so try to use them. Here’s a useful site to find more info about these expensive but necessary trains (remember, there are no roads to Aguas or MP).

6). After your day(s) at MP, I highly suggest you plan on staying at our personal favorite. The stone-lined village of Ollantaytambo (call it “Oh-yan’-ta” for short) was such a delight for the five days we explored it and all the many ruins around. The place we stayed, PicaFlor Tambo Guest House, found by walking around the oldest district of Ollanta, we loved. We rented mountain bikes and explored the flat road right by the Urubama River (the same rive that wraps around three sides of MP), and to 14,000 feet high above the river, coasting down hill all the way. What fun! All Quechuan villages everywhere we went. Ollantaytambo (give yourself a week to pronounce correctly) also would make a great spot to acclimate to the Sacred Valley’s high altitude, because it’s not as high as Cuzco and just a bit higher than Pisac.

Salineras, the Inca salt mines of the Sacred Valley

Salineras, the Inca salt mines of the Sacred Valley

7. Do NOT leave the Sacred Valley without visiting the ancient, but still operating Inca salt mines that make you feel you’ve arrived at another planet named “Salt” with no Angelina Joli in sight. Salineras, or Salinas, it’s called both names, will be a memorable way to either begin or end your understanding of the complex story of the Inca Empire. Last of the long historical lineage of Peruvian indigenous, the InKa Empire, were overtaken (I don’t want to say “slaughtered” but that’s pretty close) by the conquistadores, the Spanish gold seekers, in the sixteenth century, along with many other indigenous cultures in the New World. The onslaught of the Spanish also brought about the end of MP, which for hundreds of years had been a cultural and religious center, dedicated to worshipping the Andean dieties: the Sun, the Moon and other elements, and Earth Mother, called Pachamama. From then onto today the Quechuan speaking folks practice an amalgam of their nature deities and Catholicism. Pachamama, Mother Earth, is reverred in many way, not least of which is to ask for her blessings using three perfect dried coca leaves, held pinched together in a fan-like fashion, blowing on them as you pray to Pachamama, also called Mama Coca, and offering Her your honor, your love. People who chew coca leaves do this little ceremony before they put the coca leaves in their mouth, one by one, removing stems as they go, getting a good-size cheek-full going for a chew that can last a few hours or all day. They add a bit of alkaline mixture, made from the ash of burnt plantain leaves.  People also do this little Pachamama ritual before doing any other special activity.

Lots more to share about our experiences at MP, check back!
love from your pal, LordFlea, aka teZa Lord

LordFlea standing before the Sacred Rock of Matchupicchu, honoring Juanapicchu, in background

LordFlea standing before the Sacred Rock of Matchupicchu, honoring Juanapicchu, in background

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