Let’s Go Exploring: Cusco and the Lost City of Machu Picchu

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“Holy…crap…how…much…further?” I panted.

I was carrying a 10L jug of filtered water from the supermarket to our AirBnb. What’s normally a common and uneventful task in South America turned into an unexpected slog because of one major thing you have to watch out for if you ever visit Cusco, Peru: the altitude.

Cusco sits about 11,000 feet above sea level, which is *checks notes* really freakin’ high.

We had gotten a prescription for Diamox, an anti-altitude sickness drug, before we left for Peru, and once we arrived we were chugging the coca tea generously provided by our host like crazy, and even then we were struggling for the first few days.

That’s because not only is Cusco at 11,000 feet, the city itself itself is built into a mountain, so in order to get to and from the city centre meant climbing up and down a series of steep stairs and switchback roads. Then strap a jug of water to your back and try to do it while constantly being out of breath. Not fun.

Eventually, panting and with sweat pouring off my back, we made it to our AirBnb with the most precious jug of water in the entire world…only to discover a convenience store right next to the AirBnb selling the exact same water at only a slight markup. Dammit! Oh well, lesson learned.

Cheap Local Eats

At its height, Cusco was the capital city of the Inca Empire from the 13th century until the Spanish conquest. Today, Cusco has a local population of just under half a million, yet it hosts more than 2 million visitors a year, so it’s fair to say that Cusco is definitely a city built around tourism.

The central hub of tourist activity, where all the fancy restaurants, walking tours, and touts selling homemade jewelry is the Plaza de Armas in the city centre. It’s the site of the Cusco cathedral, and definitely a spot to check out at night, because with the surrounding hills lit up, it makes for a stunning photo spot.

However, that’s not where you should go to eat. I mean, definitely check out a few touristy restaurants and eat some alpaca while you’re there, but that’s not where the locals go for lunch. Instead, they go here.

I’m not sure how we stumbled on this place, but the Mercado de Rosaspata definitely has a local vibe to it. In general, when you’re travelling and you find a place packed with locals and with no English signage, you’re gonna have a good time.

This market sells fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as ceviche and delicious lunches. Again, not a lot of English is spoken, so brush up on your high school Spanish before you come here. But if you can hack it, you can get a 3 course meal for next to nothing.

By the way, that symbol in front of the price isn’t a $. It’s actually S/ 6, which is how the locals write prices in Peruvian Sols. Translated to USD, that’s $1.65.

At that price, it’s basically as cheap as groceries, so we ended up visiting this mercado a lot while we were here. Since it’s only open for lunch, we tended to grab lunch and some groceries while we were here, and then cooking dinner back at our AirBnb to keep food costs down.

The Way to Machu Picchu

However, people don’t come to Cusco just to visit Cusco. Everyone uses it as a stop-off point to get to the lost city of Machu Picchu.

That being said, try not to rush through Cusco. Not only will you miss a pretty cool city and UNESCO world heritage site in its own right, you need some time in Cusco to acclimatize to the altitude. Machu Picchu is actually at a slightly lower elevation (8,000 ft vs. 11,000 ft), so if you stay 2-3 days in Cusco to get used to 11,000 ft, you should feel right at home once you reach Machu Picchu.

There are two main ways to get to Machu Picchu: The Crazy Way (trek), or the Lazy Way (train). Trekking involves walking the famous Inca Trail, and it’s a 4 day hike. It’s also a classic hike for nature lovers, and widely considered one of the top 5 hikes in the world, but it also involves overnight camping, which we’re not such a huge fan of, so we gave Crazy Way a pass.

Lazy Way involves a scenic 4 hour train ride, which is way more our speed. 2 train operators run this route: PeruRail and IncaRail. Tickets run approximately $80 USD/person each way.

They only allow you to take a 7 kg day pack with you onto the train, so that generally means you have to leave your stuff behind in Cusco. Our AirBnb host let us leave our luggage in the building since we were staying at the same place once we came back, but check with your hotel as they’re used to storing luggage for people visiting Machu Picchu.

The train ride alone is an experience on its own, as you’ll get stunning views of the mountains and valleys as your train makes its way to its destination. Highly recommend.

Also, I didn’t have to go camping. Yay!

The Lost City

Machu Picchu city is designed for one purpose: getting people to and from Machu Picchu itself. So don’t come here expecting a quiet city teeming with local culture. It’s a tourist hub.

That being said, I completely understand why they picked this location. The mountains surround you on all sides, making it practically impossible to take a bad picture. In terms of tourist hubs, this ain’t too shabby.

But enough with the foreplay. It’s time to reach the Lost City itself.

Making it to the entrance of Machu Picchu involves another bus, this one only 30 minutes from the city centre. Tickets cost: $24 USD/person round-trip.

Now’s a good time to mention that they only allow a certain number of visitors into the site per day, so you have to book a ticket, and you have to do it in advance. Make sure you go to the official Peruvian Ministry of Culture website to book these tickets so you don’t get scammed.

Going to that site, you’ll notice that there are multiple tickets available, and that’s because there are multiple “circuits” that you can go through the site, some involving some pretty involved mountain climbs. The easiest one (and the main one that everyone does) is the “Llaqta de Machupicchu” route, which allows you to visit the ruins themselves.

Machu Picchu has been on our travel bucket list for a while now, and when we made it, we realized that pictures don’t even come close to preparing you for actually seeing it in person.

It probably has to do with the journey itself to get there. Machu Picchu isn’t exactly a weekend getaway kind of place. In order to reach it, you have to fly to Peru, most likely to Lima since it’s the most well-connected airport in the country. Then you have to grab a domestic flight to Cusco. Then you have to spend a few days huffing and puffing to acclimatize to the change in altitude. Then you have to either do a 4-day trek or a 4-hour train ride to get to Machu Picchu city, and then another winding bus to get to the ruins themselves. By now, you’ve probably spend at least a week travelling just to get here. So when you actually see the ruins with your own eyes, it feels like the end of a very long journey.

The city itself has a journey of its own. Built in the 15th century as a home for the Incan emperor, when the Spanish arrived the Incas abandoned the site in order to keep the conquistadors from finding it and destroying it. It wasn’t re-discovered until the 19th century, and what they found was a testament to the ingenuity of ancient Incan engineers.

First of all, they built the entire city without any mortar. All the walls have nothing connecting the stones together. Instead, they cut the stones so precisely that they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. This gives the walls a natural resistance to earthquakes. Because there’s no mortar holding it all together, when an earthquake hits nothing cracks. Instead, the rocks move with the ground shifting, and then naturally settle back into their original positions.

The second thing you notice is the iconic terraces that surround the city. I’ve seen pictures of these and never given them a second thought, but it turns out they serve a pretty useful function: they’re a drainage system.

Each terrace consists of three layers: Gravel, sand, and mulch. The top layer absorbs all the rainwater coming off the mountain, and the other two layers allow the water to filter down through the terraces and drain safely out of the city without triggering landslides. The Incas also used these terraces, already convenient rain-catching devices, to grow food to sustain the city’s inhabitants.

And finally, Machu Picchu has running water.

Apparently, the ancient Incans planned the city around something very rare and precious at the time: a water source in the mountains in the form of a natural spring. They built a system of canals to bring that spring water into the city, and then a series of aqueducts to distribute it to fountains all over the city. Those fountains are still working to this day. That’s some pretty impressive old-world engineering.

Machu Picchu Mountain & Wayna Picchu

Even after you get to the lost city of Machu Picchu, there’s still more hiking you can do!

Surrounding the city are two mountains: Machu Picchu mountain and Wayna Picchu. Both have hiking trails that allow you get to the top.

You need to book tickets to these trails separately at the same Peruvian Ministry of Tourism site. The slots on these hikes is fairly limited, so book early to reserve your spot. We decided to do both climbs (on separate days) with our friends Alan & Katie Donegan.

I’m not gonna lie: These hikes were pretty tough. Both trails were well marked and well-maintained, but it’s definitely not for people scared of heights.

They even had a section affectionally nicknamed the “Stairs of Death.”

As long as you go slow and take your time, you’re going to be fine, but I was still a little nervous about climbing something called the “Stairs of Death.”

Once you get to the top and are able to look down through the clouds at the ruins that you started your hike from, that’s a feeling that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

Our guide told us that looking down at the Inca ruins from this viewpoint, you can see an upside down condor, the Inca representation for the heavens. Can you see it?

And after we got back down, there are hot springs in town to reward ourselves for a job well done and a mountain well climbed.

Photo By Robert Meszaros @ Wikipedia

The Numbers

Now, I know there’s a number of you reading this going “OK, yeah that’s fine. But how much did you spend?!?

We got you, boo.

Cusco:

CategoryCost in USD/couple per dayCost in CAD/couple per dayNotes
Accomodations$25.51$34.7The airbnb was super cheap at only $25 USD/night for a 3 bedroom apartment with amazing views that we shared with our friends, Alan and Katie.
Food$40.71

($37.04 on eating out; $3.68 on groceries)
$55.37

($50.37 on eating out; $5 on groceries)
We eat out a often for dinner and for lunch we went the Mercado to eat like the locals. Meals were delicious, local and only 6-7 soles (less than $2 USD) for a soup, main and a drink.
Transportation$27.75$37.75Flights from Lima to Cusco costs $91 USD round trip/person. Add 2 taxi rides to/from the Airport split between 4 people, amortized over 7 days, that’s $27.75 USD/couple/day. Luckily, Cusco was pretty walkable (if you can handle all the elevation and stairs) so we didn’t need to spend additional money on buses, cars, or taxis to get around the city. I lost 5 lbs in one week from all the exercise at high altitude and when I got back down to sea level I could run for a hour without breaking a sweat. Awesome!
Entertainment$3.97$5.40We didn’t go to too many attractions in Cusco (since the best ones are in Aguas Caliente/Machu Picchu). “Temple of the Moon” was free and we only paid for an outdoor escape room/scavenger hunt.
Misc (data/toiletries/etc)$5.50$7.48Altitude sickness medication was $10 CAD (which we bought in Canada before leaving for Peru), data was $6 CAD, and we got two extra heaters in the Cusco Airbnb for $36.37 CAD (or $5.20 CAD/day). Amortized over 7 days, we get $7.48 CAD/day. Cusco was surprisingly chilly (I thought all of SA would be warm!) and lots of locals wear sweaters indoors.
Total$103.45$140.70Cusco was very affordable though still considered expensive for South America because it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu. I would go back and visit again in a heartbeat!

Aguas Caliente/Machu Picchu:

Accomodations$36$48.96We stayed at the Hotel Ferre Boulevard Machu Picchu which was walking distance to everything and close to the train station. Great for a few nights just to get some sleep before our early morning hikes. It’s not fancy but staff were very nice and we barely spent any time in our rooms. The breakfast area had breathtaking views of the mountains.
Food$68.17

($56.40 on eating out; $11.76 on groceries)
$92.71

($76.71 on eating out; $16 on groceries)
Since we didn’t have a kitchen, we spent more on eating out Aguas Caliente. The restaurants were way more touristy and overpriced than the ones in Cusco and pretty repetitive. If you decide to get an Airbnb and cook instead, you won’t be missed out on much.
Transportation$110.16$149.82Transportation is one of the most expensive categories because we took the train instead of doing the 4 day Inca hike from Custco to Augas Caliente. This cost us $78 USD per person each way! Once you are in Aguas Caliente, you need to take another bus daily up to Machu Picchu, which costs  $12 UDS/person each way. So that’s another $24 USD/person each day round trip. You could also walk up, but it would take at least 1.5 hours and you want to save your energy for the actual epic Machu Picchu hikes. Overall, amortizing the costs over 4 days, means we ended up spending $110/per couple per day. Wowza!
Entertainment$78.76$107.12We went all out and got a 3 day pass to the park so we could visit not just the Machu Picchu ruins, but also do the Wayna Pichu (must be booked at least 3 months in advance) and the Machu Picchu mountain hike. We had 1 day break in between to relax in a hot spring which was desperately needed and costs only 20 soles (or $5 USD/person).
Misc (data/toiletries/etc)$1.29$1.75We spent 2 soles each time on bathroom entry outside Machu Picchu because there are no bathrooms in the park so make sure you go ahead of time
Total$294.38$400.36Was Machu Picchu expensive? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

Conclusion

FIRECracker and I have been travelling since 2015, and by now have visited over 50 countries. Peru, and Machu Picchu in particular, turned out to be one of our most memorable travel experience ever.

Which was super surprising because we were expecting Machu Picchu to be super touristy. And to be fair, it was, but somehow the majesty of the ruins and the views from the mountains above somehow overrode all the touristy parts of our journey. For the rest of our lives, FIRECracker and I will be able to look at these pictures and go “Wow, we actually made it there.”


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30 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring: Cusco and the Lost City of Machu Picchu”

  1. I’m more interested in how you get from Toronto/or US to Peru, Lima.

    How much were the plane tickets? How did you pay for those?

    As the plane tickets are the most expensive part of the trip — and hence the biggest barrier keeping most people from visiting the places you’re visiting — I really wish you’d include more discussions on this front.

    This is a pretty important piece of the transportation cost missing from the post and the table, no?

    1. I don’t think that would make sense. Their readers could be departing from anywhere in the world, so flight cost could vary significantly.
      There’s plenty of other resources to help you find cheap flights. You can look into credit card hacking or sites that track error/cheap fares.

      1. Agree with Al, but a couple of notes specifically on flying to Cusco. It’s been a lot harder since the pandemic (especially coming from Canada), and the protests at the beginning of this year didn’t help tourism. It took me 5 flights on 3 airlines and two separate tickets to get here last weekend. There have been no fares available on any airline or site from my secondary airport for the last year, and no Star Alliance fares from Vancouver to Cusco, while I’d never previously had trouble with the route. Air Canada is only flying to Lima as a seasonal (late October to March) route now. Tourism does seem to be ramping up the last couple of months, so I’m hoping there will be more flights and options by next year.

        1. Yeah we really lucked out that we got there before the protests started. Our route went Toronto -> Bogota (for Chautauqua Colombia) -> Lima -> Cusco, so we didn’t notice what the availability of the long-haul flights looked like. Hopefully things return back to normal soon after the craziness dies down.

    2. flights to lima from the u.s. generally aren’t bad. i flew r/t trip a few years back for $600. my peruvian neighbor usually spends around $800 to get home every xmas.

    3. Our flights to Cusco are included in the table, and they’re only $91 USD per person because they were short-haul domestics from Lima.

      The long-haul international portion was paid using points.

  2. Machu Picchu remains one of my favourite trips as well. I did the Inca Trail hike and highly recommend it. I normally hate camping, but it’s very different when there are guides and porters who cook for you and set everything up for you. Go with a company that will properly pay and take care of your porters though, and tip well!

    1. I talked to a few people who did the Inca Trail hike as well, and it seems that if the altitude sickness isn’t too bad, they have fun, but if they’re sick during the hike, it’s miserable.

      Given that I was getting my ass kicked by carrying a water bottle up a hill, I think I made the right choice πŸ™‚

  3. Rad post – my kids are too young for the stairs of death but they love trains!

    I have been following your journeys since discovering FIRE last year. I am currently beachside on the Greek island of Naxos with my family of four, and soon headed to Portugal (via the United excursionist perk). It is our first travel hacked trip and our first big achievement since catching on FIRE. Hope to one day meet up with you two and my other “bucket listers” Brandon and JL Collins: your books and pods set me and my family on an awesome new path in life!

    1. Ooh so cool! Greece and Portugal are two of our favourite places in Europe, we loved it there!

      Had to look up what “United excursionist perk” meant, but now I learned a new travel hacking term!

  4. Great pics and good on you for doing Wayna Picchu. BTW, there are multiple “alternate” trails to the main trail. It was maybe 14 years ago buy I think I did the Salkantay Route. I booked at a place just off the square a day or two before and we bussed up to a high point, biked down from there to the river, then hiked for a few days staying in small hostel like places along the way, lastly hiking in along the train tracks (about 30 mins) to enter Aguas Calientes. The tour company owner was actually a Canadian (named Doug if my memory serves, and it may not). He hired all locals for office and guiding. Looking at a map later, it would have been possible to rent motorcycles and leave them at the same location we checked into before hiking along the train tracks. I did however rent motorcycle and visit the valley around Ollantaytambo. Beautiful area and one of my favorite trips by far.

    1. Ooh that sounds super cool! I feel like we could just hang out in Aguas Calientes for a month and just do a different hike each day and never get bored.

    2. Yes! I was going to mention Salkantay Route. Inca Trail has to be guided and we did that in November 2012, but had we known, we might have done Salkantay unguided. To be honest, back in 2012, the sanitary infrastructure on the Inca Trail wasn’t the best; it seemed like the campgrounds (which are reasonably fancy) weren’t set up for the number of people that they were getting, despite the capacity controls on the Inca Trail. Maybe FIREcracker wouldn’t have liked that. Though maybe it’s better now too. Inca Trail does get right to Macchu Picchu unlike Salkantay though.

      I could keep up with the porters (who had way less fancy gear than me) for as long as I felt like, but they were also carrying more stuff than me.

      I did bring climbing gear and was hoping to climb around Ollantaytambo but never got out to the crags.

  5. Great update. We were all set for a similar trip 4 or 5 years ago when rains washed out the train rails so we got cancelled. We bought travel insurance and didn’t lose a penny of the trip $$$ Wifey and I are about to buy a Chile/Argentinan trip for end of year…any advice would be greatly appreciated by those that have gone.

    1. Aww that sucks about the tracks getting washed up, but yay for travel insurance! I’ve never been to Chile or Argentina, but it’s definitely on my list.

    1. It was October I believe. The altitude made it surprisingly chilly for South America, which is why we have long sleeves on in the pictures.

  6. I also visited Machu Pitchu by 3rd way – took bus to Electrika hydro station and walked to Aquas Calente about 10km. On the way also entered Botanical Garden and water fall about 1.5 hours. At the Machu Pitchu claimed up Waine Pitchu mountain, from where you can see entire Machu Pitchu by Eagle eyes.

  7. I’m in Cusco right now, not doing any touristy stuff though. Went to Macchu Pichu almost 20 years ago, and it was a magical place (and a lot less controlled than now). I also recommend for anyone coming to this area to see a bit more of the Sacred Valley. There are several other interesting Inca sites, and tours from Cusco are easy to find. Also – do note the comments about the chill, and remember to bring warm clothes. With the altitude, the temperature drops a lot as soon as the sun goes down, and most houses aren’t heated so indoor temperatures are always cool. My hosts/Peruvian family mostly wear light puffy jackets in the evening, and their toddler is always in at least 3 layers.

    1. Good point Paula, I was there in May and it dipped to maybe 2C some night in Cusco. A bit warmer in Aguas Calientes though at lower elevation. I also stayed local and there was a pile of blankets on the bed, and getting a shower was BRRRR.

    2. second this. the sacred valley is a gem with many wonderful, less-visited, incan sites. peru is one of my favorite countries in the world.

  8. We’re on our way home from our Peru/Machu Picchu trip at this very moment! Such a magical time πŸ™‚ we rented a car for two days and explored Sacred Valley and some mountains south of Cusco. Lots of topes and honking, but we survived haha.

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