Rookie Mistakes No One Should Make Traveling to Peru’s Royal Estate
Let’s face it. As thrilling as travel spontaneity can serve our wanderlust desires and cravings for adventure, some trips by nature take an ornate amount of planning to simply do it right. Say, a sightseeing European vacation or a tour of the Hawaiian Islands. Bachelorette parties in Vegas, on the other hand, are usually best experienced without guidebook in hand.
That being said, I “planned” my trip to Machu Picchu as though I were gearing up for my last weekend of singledom, allowing everyone else to worry about the details and putting on my party face. It’s easy to underestimate just how significant a trip to one of the world wonders really is, right?
The Inca ruins were the last stop on my three-month backpacking trip through South America and I wish I could blame my lack of preparedness for the journey’s grand finale on altitude sickness, or a case of been-there-done-that travel mentality.
All I knew I wanted to do was be the first to hike to the top of Machu Picchu, summit it’s sister mountain and stroll around taking photo after photo, preferably with a llama in view at all times. About that. Let my rookie mistakes and poor planning be a lesson for all take it from me, while you visit the iconic ruins of Machu Picchu be sure you DO NOT…
1. Travel in the dark.
When the last train rolls into Aguas Calientes (the Machu Picchu starting point for every visitor) close to 11 p.m., you don’t want to be on it. You especially don’t want to arrive without room reservations. It’s a mad rush scene from the doomsday movie of your choice with everyone disembarking and scrambling off to their hotels and hostels and you don’t want to be left roaming the streets alone seeking shelter. Be sure to book reservations far in advance as nearly everywhere fills up during peak season. If you plan to hit the ruins early the day (or night) after arrival, know where you are going and get there early.
TIP – Skip on the savings of a late departure and ride the rail from Ollantaytambo in the afternoon, taking advantage of the train’s glass rooftop panels and panoramic windows while enjoying the landscape of the scenic route.
2. Skip the fine print.
For then there would be no need to make sweet eyes with rail staff in hopes they don’t notice nor question your massive, 50-pound Northface companion occupying the adjacent seat. Only failure to read your train ticket prior to departure will put you in this predicament. Note: you will be charged for oversized bags. Be aware of the fine lines that detail travel regulations and bring only a daypack, it will make everyone around you much happier.
TIP – Extend your Cusco accommodation reservations for your return date from Aguas Calientes and have them hold your bags for you.
3. Hike to the ruins directionless.
Well, this should go without saying but know before you go. Let me say, finding a map or anyone awake to point you in the right direction at 3:30 in the morning is almost as challenging as the climb ahead of you. It’s also embarrassing. Check with hotel concierge/hostel staff for hiking and weather conditions while getting directions ahead of time.
TIP – If hiking to the entrance of Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes (as opposed to taking the bus that leaves from town), check out the trail the day before your hike to know what to expect. There is limited light so when hiking early, it’s easy to head off in the wrong direction.
4. Expect strangers to provide accurate information.
I once believed someone who said you could casually stroll up to the gates of Machu Picchu whenever you please. Neg-a-tive. As a stranger with real experience I am telling you now that gates on the trail prohibit you from passing and beginning the hike earlier than 5 am. (This may seem like a strange piece of advice, but from one eager-to-get-to-the-top-first tourist to another, it’s crucial to manage expectations.)
5. Forget your passports or IDs.
I believe the fine print from #2 also states you need identification along with your ticket to enter the ruins. Let me reiterate, knowing the rules makes it much easier to follow them. Luckily, my unexplainable decision to solely carry a credit card bearing my name sufficed at the entrance. You may not be so lucky.
TIP – If hiking to Machu Picchu from town you will be asked for ID with your ticket at the aforementioned gates. Also, get your passport stamped just outside the gift shop at the park entrance. It’s not well advertised but you won’t want to miss it!
6. Hike in skinny jeans.
I know, we all want to look good for our Instagram photos in front of the ancient city ruins, but fact is, Gap skinnies just won’t cut it for a grueling 90-minute hike up the side of a mountain. At the very least, pack your jeans and a spare t-shirt for a quick change at the top. Throw some deodorant in your bag while you’re at it.
7. Scale Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu back-to-back.
I don’t care if you believe yourself to be the Lance Armstrong of mountaineering, that’s uphill like you won’t believe. After the Machu Picchu main entrance opens its gates at 6 a.m., two groups of 200 hundred elite (a.k.a. Huayna Picchu ticket holders) are allowed one hour to climb the ruins’ famous backdrop, and you need EVERY MINUTE of it. (If only I were kidding as I say it’s a knees-to-chin clamber to the top.) The groups leave at 7 and 10 a.m. so when you purchase your ticket in advance, opt for the later hike.
Most importantly, take your time and walk the ruins both with a guide and on your own. The one thing we managed to get right was staying all day until closing time. Sure, it’s a long day but with plenty of serene places to rest in the shade and an unforgettable view you can hardly complain. Plus, tourists begin to disappear in the late afternoon leaving you with prime photo ops as the sun
Other tips to consider:
Don’t underestimate the dangers of altitude sickness, or soroche as it’s known as in Peru. Regardless of how fit and in shape you may be, hiking at such high altitudes is challenging and you might experience dizziness or slight headaches from such physical activity. Again, take your time rather than rushing to the top and around the ruins.
Wear layers. Machu Picchu is nestled high in the tropical jungle where it’s quite cool early in the mornings and evenings and steamy during the day. Pack sunscreen and apply it liberally.
Bring plenty of water and snacks for the entire day. There is a ridiculously priced snack shop outside of the gates but no concessions are sold within the park.