First of all, Machu Picchu is amazing. Even if your tour is as terrible as mine was. No matter how you choose to do Machu Picchu, you should choose to do Machu Picchu.
With that said, I would do it very differently with the hindsight I now have.
As per usual, I have tons of awesome photos. But first, let’s talk about it. For those of you that don’t want to read the whole article (let’s be honest, most of you are kind of lazy), I have highlighted in bold some of the key points.
Things to consider before you go:
There are many ways to see Machu Picchu. I always knew that I would not be doing the Inca Trail. My reason – although many believe this is the “proper” way to see Machu Picchu – is simply because with the type of traveling I do, I was not able to commit far enough in advance to exact dates as to when I would be there. If your heart is set on hiking the Inca Trail, you need a few months of advanced planning because the tours book up far in advance. This is also true if you want to see the higher Huayna Picchu once you reach MP.
There are quite a few other options for Non-Inca-Trail trekkers who just have to see this wonder of the world. There are several other hikes ranging from 3-5 days that can booked a bit closer to your departure date. With a week or two of notice, you may be able to sign yourself up for the Salkantay, Jungle, or Lares treks. Each one offers a unique experience of either sight-seeing icy mountain peaks, or adventure. I had particular interest in the Lares trek, which offers a glimpse into the local indigenous cultures of the region. But when I arrived in Cusco and inquired about it, the trek was over $500 (US) a person (to sleep in tents in the cold). Being the budget backpacker that I am, I ultimately opted against this.
There are also 2 options for non-trekkers who prefer not to spend several days tormenting themselves with uphill, high altitude, pack-on-your-back hiking. Maybe it’s cheating a bit, but I’m ok with that. The first option (and probably then better option) is a train that takes you all the way up to Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is a charming (but touristy) little town, not reachable by automobiles, at the foot of Machu Picchu. Visitors spend the night there before and/or after visiting MP). The train costs upwards of $200 (US) not including entrance fees, food or hotel accommodations. Some vendors may offer a package deal with those options included for an extra fee.
I went with the 2nd option and it was a mistake. It turns out, there’s a lot that people don’t tell you about visiting Machu Picchu. I think this is because it’s so stunning and interesting that people forget how bad their tours were. So I will tell you about my experience in hopes that future people will heed my warning and do MP properly.
*Just a side note – another thing nobody talks about is the extremely winding mountain roads that ALL tours and treks need to drive several hours along before arriving. Quite a few people vomited. If you are prone to motion sickness take whatever tablets, plastic bags and precautions necessary.
How not to see Machu Picchu:
The 2nd no-hike option was joining a coach car. For only $90 a person, we could be driven to Hydra Electrica and walk 2 hours to Aguas Calientes. When we arrived, we would be greeted by our tour guide who would give us instructions for when and how to reach Machu Picchu the next morning. Dinner and breakfast were to be included. Entrance fees were to be included. This sounded great, and by far the most economical option.
I had one monkey wrench for the tour vendors. I was to see Machu Picchu with Miguel, who only speaks Spanish. I speak Spanish, but not 100%, and I have a hard time on tours with fast-talking guides. So I said we needed a guide that could talk to us and answer questions in both languages (this is not a strange request, as most guides in all other places in and around Cusco spoke both languages on the tours). Two salespeople said no, their guides only speak one or the other and we had pick one. We chose to buy this tour from a friendly woman close to the main Plaza in Cusco because she assured us that we would have a bilingual guide.
I inquired about seeing Huayna Picchu – to which I was informed it was full and I would have needed to sign up a long time ago. No problem. For other incredible views, she offered me (for an additional fee) entrance fees to “the mountains”.
I was sold.
DO NOT TAKE THIS TYPE OF TOUR. Everyone from our coach car was unhappy for different reasons. And throughout our day at Machu Picchu, we overheard many unhappy visitors conversing about how terrible their tours were. For one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, it was quite shocking that so many tourists were upset. I still can’t believe that Machu Picchu tour agencies (even if they are budget tours) can’t get their shit together.
Why were people so unhappy?
Lot’s of reasons. The first thing that went wrong for us happened the evening before we were supposed to leave for Machu Picchu. We were on our Sacred Valley tour – also a terrible tour, and also booked through the same agency – when the woman who sold us our tour called our tour guide and asked her to pass us the phone.
1. Changing our Date
“Rachel”, she said “You never gave me the date you wanted to leave for Machu Picchu”. This was a lie. I had the date in writing on both an itinerary she gave me, and my reciept. I told her that wasn’t true, we had discussed it and had every intention of going tomorrow. She then told me that it was too late for her to purchase our tickets for entry, and we would have to put it off until the following day. This was irritating. And for anyone on a set schedule, a major problem. Fortunately, we were not on a set schedule so rather than argue and get angry I said it would be fine.
So when we finally left for Machu Picchu, there were a total of 8 people in our coach car. Most of us had a pre-paid lunch included, and 2 did not. We were told we would be stopping in a small town along the way (Hydra Electrica is a 6 hour drive from Cusco) where there would be a buffet style lunch. Around 1:00 people were hungry and started asking when we would be having lunch. The driver seemed completely surprised by the question. He had no idea any of us had pre-paid for lunch. So he told us we would have lunch when we got to Hydra Electrica, but that we would have to eat quickly. Umm…? Ok. The lunch was terrible with only a few options, and no buffet. The 2 people that did not pre-pay ate much better.
Our driver then instructed us on the route that we had to walk to Aguas Calientes. He told us when we got to the main Plaza to look for “Jimmy”, our tour guide. Umm….? Ok? This was the first any of us realized that we would not be walking with a guide. This seemed careless and dangerous. He instructed us to all stick together and make sure nobody gets left behind.
The walk turned out to be fairly easy and quite beautiful. You walk along the train tracks and river. The only uphill part is only the first 5-10 minutes. But the walk was significantly longer than described to us. And we were apparently late to get started because of our “un-planned” lunch. What we were told would take 2 hours took about 3.5. Partially because everyone walked at different paces, and we tried to stick together, and partially because it’s just longer than they tell you. That would not have been an issue if it didn’t get dark before we reached Aguas Calientes. Nobody even suggested that we may be walking in the dark. Nobody told us to bring flashlights. Only 2 people in the group had flashlights, and a few had cell phone flashlights that weren’t quite adequate. There are gaps along the train tracks where you can fall and really hurt yourself if you aren’t looking, or if you can’t see them because it’s dark. Luckily we were all ok, and helped each other out with this. But the negligence astounded me. It was bad enough that they sent us without a guide. But why wouldn’t they tell us what we needed to be prepared for this walk? Telling us that we may need flashlights and a poncho would not have been any sweat off of anyone’s back. It was also raining.
Then we arrive at the main plaza, and the 8 of us just looked at each other and asked, “so where’s Jimmy?” Now the trip took a comical turn. All 8 of us began wandering the square shouting “Jimmy?” for a good 5-10 minutes. I am sure we seemed ridiculous. But this disorganization was ridiculous. Someone finally approached us and said he would show us to our hotels.
“Are you Jimmy”? someone asked.
“No.” Ummmm….. ok?????
We were then instructed when and where to meet for dinner, at which point we would be given instructions for Machu Picchu tomorrow. And then we were taken to our separate accommodations.
Ok, So Miguel and I were actually not upset about the accommodations. But the rest of the people in our group were.
When we met back up with the group for dinner they were all very upset. Their complaints:
- No soap in the bathroom
- No towels
- No toilet paper
As a backpacker with 8 months in South America already behind me, I was quite accustomed to not having these luxuries (and yes, for backpacking travelers, toilet paper is a luxury). I alway carry them with me. But most people visiting Machu Picchu are not “backpackers”. They are people taking a special vacation to see the world-wonder. And this was shocking and unexpected for them. When they complained to someone that worked for the tour company, he simply shrugged and said “this is a budget tour”.
Dinner was included for all. Our group of 8 joined two more groups of 8 for one big dinner. There were lots of really delicious looking restaurants in Aguas Calientes, and we were hungry. So we were really looking forward to dinner and getting to know other people that we would be seeing Machu Picchu with. We were taken to the one restaurant in town that had food that both of us had to turn our noses at. And jungle boys will eat almost anything. We passed on our pre-paid dinner, and agreed that after the guide’s explanation we would leave and pay for an edible meal at one of the many more enticing restaurants.
“Jimmy” explained in both Spanish and English the process of entry into Machu Picchu. He told us to meet at 6 am at the entrance. He also explained that we would have to be in line for a bus, or begin our trek up the mountain by 4 am to reach Machu Picchu in time.
6. More Confusion
So the big day arrives. We wake up at an ungodly hour and wait in line for 2.5 hours to be among the first to arrive at Machu Picchu when doors open at 6 am. Upon arrival we are immediately informed that the only set of bathrooms for the thousands of visitors (located outside the entrance) were out of order because there was no running water today. Ew. This is not the fault of a bad tour operator, but I had to throw that one in there to paint a complete picture.
We were shuffled into line with the masses, where we awaited entrance. We looked around for anyone we might recognize from our tour… for “Jimmy”. Eventually we spotted another couple from dinner the night before, also in line. When we made it through the entrance, we were even more clueless. A handful of other people from our group started to show up, equally confused about where exactly we were supposed to wait. So we decided to stick together and wait close to the main entrance. But security guards were trying to shuffle us along, and did not want us waiting by the entrance (even though it was a bigger and more logical place to wait than the narrow pathway ahead). After about 30 minutes of this, one of us finally spotted “Jimmy”, holding up a flag on the other side of the entry gates. We weren’t supposed to get in line and wait inside the entrance? Oy.
7. The Language Thing
Eventually that all got sorted out and the entire group was gathered together inside the entry gates. They immediately started to separate the group into Spanish-speakers and English-speakers. So of course, I had to speak up.
“We requested a bilingual guide”. And that was when I was informed that this company does not offer bilingual tours.
“But neither of us are fluent in the other language” I explained. They basically responded with a, “tough shit”. I argued that the reason we payed for this tour was because we were told that we would have a guide speaking both languages. They told me to complain when I got back to Cusco.
“We will figure something out”, I was told in English. But by this point the Spanish speaking group had already took off. And then the English speaking guide began. I could barely hear or understand him, even though he was speaking English. So I knew Miguel couldn’t understand ANYTHING. The guide also reminded me of the monotone drone-like science teacher from The Wonder Years that put all the kids to sleep. I got really upset, and told Miguel we should walk out. He tried to tell me that it was fine, and he didn’t need the explanations. But I was not ok with this.
This was the last straw. I stormed out and he followed me. And I cried. I felt like a baby, but I cried. I had been dreaming of seeing Machu Picchu for years. Like many others, it was a bucket-list destination for me. To finally get there and have this sort of let down got me choked up.
When we got to the gate, I told him that we were going to look for a guide that could communicate. And we exited Machu Picchu.
We talked to several guides outside the front entrance, inquired about language and cost. When we found one that spoke clearly in both languages, seemed friendly and had competitive pricing – we were all in. Livid, and wanting a full refund from our other tour – but all in. I was determined to enjoy my time at Machu Picchu, regardless of the money I had thrown away on a bad tour.
Our hand-picked tour guide was fantastic. He was enthusiastic and knowledgable. He spoke several languages. And when he spoke Spanish he was slow and clear enough for me to understand. He was also fully willing to repeat and answer questions in English.
We never should have pre-booked in the first place. We should have arranged our own transportation and bought Machu Picchu entrance tickets on our own. We should have hand-picked a guide once we got there. But nobody in Cusco tells you that this is possible. So you don’t know until you’ve already fallen into the tourist trap.
8. No Entrance to the Mountains
Remember when the nice lady at the sales agency convinced me to pay entrance fees to the mountains for the spectacular views? Turns out, even though we payed for it, she never actually payed for our tickets. And when we showed our tickets at the mountain entrance, we were told we did not have access to the mountains. As if I wasn’t already pissed off enough.
It’s ok. We were able to spend the rest of the day walking to the Sun Gate, and later to the Puente del Inca (Bridge of the Inca). This was enough to fill up the entire day at Machu Picchu. And honestly, the views were stunning enough along these walks, that I didn’t feel like I really missed out terribly. But it doesn’t change the fact that we didn’t get what we payed for.
* The one thing we did RIGHT was pay for an additional night in Aguas Calientes so that we would have the full day to explore Machu Picchu. This budget tour offers only one night unless you choose to pay for more. One night would not have been enough time. Immediately after ending the 2 hour walking tour, it would already be time to leave MP and walk back to Hydra Electrica. It is not enough time to really enjoy and appreciate this incredible place.
9. Getting Home
More disorganization. The following day we were told that we would have time for breakfast on our own, and then we would need to walk back to Hydra Electrica by 3:00 pm, where our coach cars would be waiting to drive us back to Cusco. Sounds simple enough. We left earlier than necessary so that we could walk back at more of a leisurely stroll and enjoy the beautiful sunny day.
When we arrived at Hydra Electrica, before we even reached the coach cars our driver from 2 days ago greeted us and walked us to the car where the same 6 people we drove up with were waiting for us. At that moment the driver told Miguel and I that we had to pay 30 soles each to be driven back to Cusco. Umm…. What?!? That was definitely included in the price of our tour. The other people in the car were not asked to pay this fee. Only us. The driver insisted that we had not yet paid our return fair. You can imagine how livid I am at this point. I flat out refused to pay. For another half hour or so we argued with the driver while he tried to call the woman that sold us our tour without success.
Finally, we were approached by a driver from a different car. He was looking for a “Miguel and Rachel” who were very late. Why were the two of us in a different car without our group? I have no idea. And why did our original driver approach us and try to get money out of us to return? I have no idea. And how were we expected to know that we had a different driver? I have no idea. But at least we had a ride back to Cusco.
10. The Refund
When we returned to Cusco we gave ourselves a day to rest and cool off our tempers. Ok, my temper. And then we went back to that “nice lady” to give her a piece of our mind. She was very apologetic. She told us that she always had problems and complaints with the Machu Picchu tours. Not exactly what I wanted to hear after the fact. She also said “I need to go on one of these tours to see what really happens”. That was a baffling statement. So she has no idea what she is even selling. She felt bad and handed me 50 soles out of her pocket. I hardly thought it was enough considering we spent 100 on a new guide, and didn’t receive entrance that we payed for to the mountains for 2 people. But I was out of energy for this, and I accepted. 2 days later she spotted us on the street and ran after us. Again she apologized and told me how bad she felt, and she gave me a scarf as a gift. That was nice of her. But I would have preferred a good tour to Machu Picchu.
I Am Done Complaining.
Even with everything that went wrong, and some regrettable choices about our tour – Machu Picchu itself did not disappoint. This is an incredible place that should be on any wander-lusters bucket list. When we got past the disorganization and confusion we really enjoyed and were awe-struck by beauty of MP. So here are photos. Honestly, when I look back at these images I don’t remember the bad stuff. I remember the sites that took my breath away and the feeling of achieving a long-term goal.
But I did want to tell my story because I don’t want other people to be disappointed the way I was on their visit to Machu Picchu.
The first couple pictures were taken along the walk between Hydra Electrica and Aguas Calientes.
As stated above, people prone to motion sickness – beware. This is the road the buses take from Aguas Calientes to the top of Machu Picchu. You can hike it with a series of stairs instead – it’s your call.
And then there’s Machu Picchu. This is upon Arrival and along our guided tour of the main sections of MP.
After our tour ended, we headed upwards for the iconic panoramic views.
Next we trekked to the Sun Gate. Along the way, the foggy mountains took our breath away.
As Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu got farther away, the incredible views did not.
Around the other side, we went to peak at the Puente Del Inca – a treacherously narrow bridge and walkway built into the cliff-side that connected Machu Picchu to other regions. Today it is not accessible to walk on (for obvious safety reasons). However, the pathways you walk along to view the Puente del Inca are also very narrow and very scary for anyone afraid of heights (cough, Miguel). Even I was a little anxious, and I do not have a fear of heights.
I hope you enjoyed my photos. And I hope if you are planning your Machu Picchu trip you heed my warnings. It is worth it to spent the extra money for a more quality experience.