The two days preceding our trip to Machu Picchu, we became worried that the trip wouldn't happen. We feared that we wouldn't be able to catch a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo due to a driver's strike that lasted two days. The stikers were placing rocks and boulders in the middle of the roads to prevent any cars from coming or going. We're not sure of their exact motivation, but we overheard many tousists trying to get refunds due to canceled trips.
But, on Friday morning, we headed to the collectivo station to catch a bus without any issues.
We got there in time to take the 9 AM bus. You can't miss the bus because the hawkers/salesmen yell up and down the street for passengers in order to fill up the bus. The cost is 10 soles/person, so just over $3 for a 2 hour ride to Ollantaytambo where you must pick up the train.
The rides are always crazy, with the driver constantly trying to win an imaginary race up and down the mountain to the destination. Constantly passing slower cars and gunning it over speed bumps is typical.
When we arrived in Ollantaytambo, we had around an hour before the train, so we walked up to town where there was a festival in the square honoring women for International Women's Day. There was dancing and at the end the younger women served the older women a special drink.
Our 1.5 hour train ride was fairly uneventful. Beautiful views of the Sacred Valley passed as we swayed and jerked along the river.
When we arrived it started pouring rain. Exiting the train station is very confusing, as it forces you to go thru a giant artisan market before you can get to town. There are dozens of stalls selling, keychains, jewelry, and handmade textiles. It's very easy to get lost within the market, and we stayed there for 20 minutes while getting our bearing. What we know now is that you don't take the stairs when exiting the train, but instead walk along the tracks into the city.
The city is built into the hills along the river and is overwhelmingly touristy. Prices are grossly inflated and there are restaurants lining the nearly vertical streets, where people yell out constantly at you to come eat there. It makes choosing very difficult and annoying.
After finding the ticket window for the bus to MP, tickets are valid for a departure up and down at anytime-bus leaves every 15 minutes, we walked to our hostel in a less touristy version of town. We stayed at the Ecologica Mapi hotel, which is closer to the residential area of the pueblo. It was a decent place for the money and quiet enough.
Many people choose to take the 5:30 AM bus to arrive in time for the 6 AM opening. We decided to take the 7 AM bus up to Machu Picchu and were so glad we did. The drive up really is spectacular, providing views of the valley as your rise. Our timing was perfect because fog shrouded the ruins and made them indiscernable, as we found out from some Canadians (also fellow Gator fans!). The fog started to clear and the sun peaked through the clouds as we climbed the winding Machu Picchu mountain, taking in every beautiful vista.
When we arrived, we immediately turned left up the stairs - all the way up, huffing and puffing in the thin air - to find the magical photo opportunity of Machu Picchu. It really is incredible to see the clouds hovering just over the ruins, with the sun peaking out and the green mountains surrounding it. We took many pictures before climbing to the Inka Bridge, which is scary-small. It is carved into the rock face, and the bridge iteself consists of a few pieces of wood spanning a 10 foot gap. There is no way people actually walked over this gap and up the small, narrow trail!
Although we had plenty time, we decided to forgo hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain simply due to the already-incredible views from the photo opp spot and the fact that clouds continued to hang on the mountaintop. There just didn't seem to be any reason to make the extra hike for a similar view.
We wandered thru the ruins, occasionally eavesdropping on an English tour before moving on. The place is incredible but it's pretty hard to really tell the difference between each of the rooms' uses when all that remains is a base layer of stone.
Brian had a hilarious interaction with one of the resident llamas because the llama was entranced by his blue water bottle. As we walked on past all the tourists feeding the other llama, one little boy was teasing the animals by walking back and forth with food in his hand. The llama had enough of his taunting and spit on the boy! It was so funny to watch and proved that, just like the stereotype of camels, llamas are spitters too.
By 11 AM we felt like we had seen our fair share and the tour groups were swarming, so we got our cheesy Machu Picchu stamp in our passports and grabbed the bus back to A.C.
Our train departing Aguas Calientes didn't board until 2:30, so we had plenty of time to kill. Having read about a hidden market where you could get traditional and cheap Peruvian food, we set off for lunch. We definitely found it! Up some unidentified stairs is an oval shaped room with food stalls lining the entire wall. Only local Peruvians were eating there... a good sign. We chose one that was fairly packed and sat at the bar to eat the menu del dia. The soup was giant, per usual, and each of us enjoyed our meals. The lunch counters didn't have names, just dry erase menus and similar dishes. I guess you choose based on your favorite cook! We were do happy to eat there, try some strange herbal drink, and only pay 14 soles (around $4.50). Finally found a deal in Aguas!
After lunch we wandered the market to find Brian a PERU patch for his backpack. Trying to backtrack to find a specific stall in that market - good luck! It's just a crazy maze of cheap yet overpriced knickknacks.
As soon as we got off our slow and uneventful train ride, the mayhem began. Every where you turn, someone is yelling at you...CUSCO! CUSCO! 10 soles! and trying to get you into their taxi or bus. It's overwhelming. We finally heard 8 soles, so we said ok and climbed into the bus. Our driver was a complete idiot. It was terrifying. For 1.5 hours he swerved and slammed on his breaks, just trying to get 1 mini-bus length ahead. He even got pulled over by the police through a small town for speeding, but just kept driving like he didn't hear the police whistle. Finally he had to pull over to let people out and the cop caught up to him. He was let off with a warning, but ugh, what an idiot. On top of this, our entire bus reeked of B.O. Ugh.
We finally made it back to the plaza after two long, but adventurous days.
Machu Picchu is one of those places you must cross off your list during a visit to Peru. The experience of getting there is tiresome and crowded due to the 2,000-3,000 people who visit the site daily. The rampant commercialism and price-inflation makes it feel like a Peruvian Disney World. However, if you get to the ruins early enough to beat the biggest crowds, you'll be rewarded with an intimate and awe-inspiring experience. The impressive ruins and their setting among the mist-draped mountains is something we'll never forget.