Planes, Trains, and Terrifyingly Decrepit Automobiles: Getting to Machu Picchu

- by Michael!

Machu Picchu is absolutely breathtaking.

In all honesty, so is the process of getting there.

From the United States, you have to first fly to Lima – roughly a seven hour direct flight. From there, you have to get to Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire seated up in the central highlands of the country. (Way, way, way up in the central highlands.) This trip can be done in one of two ways: by plane, which takes roughly 45 minutes; or by bus, which takes about twelve hours.

It’s not that the roads are bad. (They are – spectacularly so – but that’s beside the point.) It’s that you have to climb from the Pacific coast straight up the Andes. There’s not really much in the US that compares to Cuzco’s elevation, but for context Denver is about 5,690 feet above sea level – and Cuzco is about 11,150. Hence, the bus trip is very long, very arduous, and actually a bit dangerous, as rock slides are not uncommon on those winding Andean roads.

(Spoiler alert: we did not take the bus.)

“Mile high city? Oh, that’s so CUTE!”
Thus far on our imaginary trip to Machu Picchu, we’ve flown for just under eight hours. The next leg of the trip takes us from Cuzco to the small town of Ollantaytambo. This involves finding a bus or car to make the two hour drive up the mountain north of Cuzco, past Saqsayhuaman (which is pronounced “Sexy-Woman,” but you are not allowed to laugh at this, gringo), across the highland mesas, and down into the beautiful “Sacred Valley,” a fertile region between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. You’ll see some ruggedly beautiful terrain on your trip, crowned by mountains in the distance – and no, they’re not dancing with joy at your approach, that’s just the shocks on your bus giving out.

Not the actual road to Ollantaytambo, but close enough.
Once in Ollantaytambo, you get in line for a train. This train will take you along the course of the river, winding downward through the Andes – the transition from mesa forest to semi-jungle sneaks up on you, especially if you’re busy gawking at the tops of the mountains through the glass ceiling of the train car. This ceiling not only allows you to take in some spectacular views, but also serves as a means to bake you and your fellow tourists into an amicable “smell bundle” wherein, thanks to the warm clothes you needed to wear up in Cuzco, you all sweat like pigs – but at least you’re pigs with a deep appreciation for the beauty of the mountains above!

The train deposits you in the town of Aguas Calientes (Joanie: “Michael, you are now in Hot Water.”), from whence you can either hike up Machu Picchu mountain or, if you like breathing, you can take a half-hour bus ride.

All told, it’s twelve hours of actual transport to get to Machu Picchu – not counting time waiting for your various means of conveyance to get where you are. It’s not an easy trip, but it’s beautiful in its own right, and the difficulties of the trek simply add to the awe you feel when you finally climb the last stairs and look down into Machu Picchu itself.

Do we look exhausted? We were exhausted. Exhausted and in awe.