Peru Stories and Tips

Planning Machu Picchu

Cusco Photo, Cusco, Peru

While reviewing Tiwanaku I mentioned Angkor. The same is inevitable while visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu. Simply, all these complexes date more or less from the same period and belong to failed kingdoms. This should be taken with several pinches of salt, pepper and chili; at its peak Angkor had over a million denizens and was one of the world’s largest cities and heir to a complex Hindu culture, while Cusco was just an oversized village with some impressive temples-on-cliffs at its edges.

For the travelers, there are also other – and far less expected – contact points between these spots. While referring to Angkor, I wrote:

Wining Strategies for Visiting the Complex

All the local guides have read the Lonely Planet books and would try to sell that company's idea of how to visit the temples. They offer the free sunset view plus a two days trip along the short and long circuits described on those guides. Moreover, the pricing strategy of the place follows the pattern as well, asking twenty dollars for the first day, the same amount for the second day and then giving a free third day.

There are better tactics for covering the main sights. The day before the planned visit, rent a…

This is correct also for Cusco and Machu Picchu. The packages offered here suffer from inherent drawbacks. They begin with a two-day visit to the city – Cusco – and follow it with a rapid tour of the Sacred Valley. Before having a chance to recover, the traveler is on the train to the Machu Picchu temples.

Now, if adopting the strategy proposed in the first entry of this journal – namely arriving from La Paz, which is higher than Cusco – the commercial tours make sense and the order of the visit is of little relevance. However, let’s face reality: my entries probably won’t change a reality in which most travelers arrive at Cusco from Lima, which is far below and near the Pacific Ocean. Under such circumstances, the popular packages are awfully wrong. They deny the fact most travelers wouldn’t have acclimatized to Cusco’s altitude (3400m) upon arrival. That’s why there are so many altitude complaints despite the relatively harmless altitude. Acclimatizing to such altitude causes some minor symptoms which would diminish the capability to enjoy the sights.

A much better strategy is to begin with the Sacred Valley; at 2900m it allows a gentle acclimatizing and an easier arrival to Cusco and Machu Picchu. Moreover, there is also an historic justification for the choice, since such a path would allow seeing the ruins of Ollantaytambo and Pisac before Machu Picchu. To maximize the value of the visit, the one-day Sacred Valley tours should be scheduled from Cusco for Tuesdays, Thursdays or Sundays, since these are the Pisac market days. Plan arriving the night before to Cusco; thus, after a night at the desired acclimatization altitude, the visitor would spend the day walking at a lower altitude. This is an excellent tactic employed widely among trekkers and climbers in the faraway Himalayas. Not surprisingly, it would work also in the Andes. After the market, the tours include a lunch at Urubamba and then a visit to Ollantaytambo, which contains Inca ruins second only to Machu Picchu. Moreover, the Inca village is well preserved, in sharp contrast to Cusco. The last was the Inca capital city and looks like an architectural battlefield between the Inca and the Spaniards. Both cultures fought for every space in this small town, creating a mishmash which makes difficult appreciating each of these styles.

One this is agreed upon, there is another important point. Travelers from Cusco to Machu Picchu can enjoy only a few hours at the complex during the middle of the day. However, Cusco is not the closest town to the ruins; Aguas Calientes proudly carries this title. If staying there overnight it is possible to watch the sunrise at the ruins and to stay there until sunset, de facto owning the ruins for much of the day. A four-hour train ride connects Cusco with Aguas Calientes, making this reshuffle of the popular path an easy and very worthy on. The stay at Cusco should be kept thus for the end of the tour, when a couple of days among the touristy shops would be easier to digest.

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