Machu Picchu, Peru: Into the (Crowded) Mystic

machu picchu

Machu Picchu with Wayna Picchu in the background.

The final destination of our South American tour was to be the absolute apex of 4 months exploring the continent: a trip to Machu Picchu and Peru’s Sacred Valley.

As a travel writer and digital content producer I have written about and sourced photos for Machu Picchu-related content on countless occasions. Immersing myself in this world from a distance has long inspired my desire to see these epic ruins for myself.

Now, it turns out that if you’re writing about, researching, or simply hearing travel stories of Machu Picchu, you’ve probably encountered tales of spiritual enlightenment, or some profound energetic experiences had by travelers to the region.

Ah, I imagined having my own spiritual transformation in the mist-shrouded Andes, staring down into the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu. I was giddy to feel the vibes, the good sensations so many have opined about.

Well.

Machu Picchu turned out to be extraordinary, and the landscape of the Andes is one of the more epic I’ve been privy to explore.

Does Machu Picchu live up to its hype? Yes. Did I have a spiritual transformation? Um, no.

What travel writers and literature had failed to properly express to me (or what I may have failed to read between the lines) is how absurdly crowded the ruins actually are, even in mid-May, a few weeks before peak season strikes.

Picture it: an influx of tour groups comprised of folks wearing their finest North Face moisture wicking fabrics, Merrell hiking shoes and wielding walking sticks. They are clogging every imaginable walkway and stairway, and they are surrounded by the additional scores of folks NOT on a tour — the backpackers and hikers. And these people have often just emerged from 4 days trekking the Inca Trail. They are badass. They, too, wield walking sticks.

Everyone is clamoring around iconic viewpoints, eager to get the money shot of themselves with the Machu Picchu ruins and Wayna Picchu peak behind them. What their pictures won’t show are the hordes just behind the camera, elbowing to get to the same ledge, to snap the same picture.

Under the circumstances it’s hard to find a moment alone, much less connect with an ancient energy field.

How to avoid the crowds and make the most of your trip?

Machu Picchu

The ruins of Machu Picchu.

Of course, if you’ve had your bucket list trip to Machu Picchu planned for ages, you’re going to enjoy those ruins come hell, high water or a swift poke in the shins with a walking stick.

And yes, you will enjoy the ruins. You will be amazed and enthralled and emotional as you see your bucket-list dreams in person, in vivid, living color.

But there are a few things worth knowing to have the best experience possible.

Here are a few tips I picked up along the way that could help other travelers enjoy some peace, quiet and reflection while exploring the ruins — but I make no promises on your spiritual transformations!

  • Most tour groups explore the ruins between 10 am and 2 pm. To avoid the hordes, plan to arrive at the break of day (which you will if you’re planning to hike Wayna Picchu) or plan to stay at the site well past 2 pm after the crowds thin.
  • Spend the night in Aguas Calientes. This charmless town is the most convenient location to stay if you want to reach the ruins. I pitied the travelers who took the train in from Cusco or Ollantaytambo; they were forced to rush through the ruins and worse — forced to be there during peak hours.
  • Pack a picnic lunch or eat at the cafe or restaurant located just outside the ruins — you do not need to return to town for lunch. Food is not allowed inside the ruins, so plan to have your picnic just outside the gate. You are allowed to leave the ruins and return on the same ticket, no worries.
  • If you’ve stayed in Aguas Calientes, you can take the bus from town to the ruins at any point during the day (though the last bus leaves the ruins to return to town at 5:30 pm. This will give you a good deal of freedom to arrive and depart as your little heart desires.
  • Stay at the ruins until you are asked to leave, typically after 5pm. After 3 pm, there are few people wandering the grounds, and you will have ample time to enjoy the peace and quiet of the site. It’s extraordinary how the vibe shifts at this point in the day.

Finally, a word on walking sticks. I can roll my eyes at the maddening crowds wielding them, but let it be known: those grounds and steps are UNEVEN. And I am NOT steady on my feet.

Guess who bought a walking stick (German engineered with anti-shock features, I might add!) and loved every freaking minute of it? Mmhm. THIS girl.

walking stick

Me and my stick.

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