A Solo Female Traveler's Experiences On And Off The Beaten Path

Travel Bucket List: Machu Picchu



The time has come to mark one off the travel bucket list. Machu Picchu has been completed, after years of waiting, wondering, dreaming, and all that other stuff that goes with having an item on one’s travel bucket list. Was it worth the wait? Definitely. Would I change anything about the experience? I would have preferred to not have been suffering from a raging sinus and bronchial infection, but it was all part of the experience. I still climbed my way to the Sun Gate, with what must have been only 60% lung functionality. Take that, all of you other climbers who were using walking sticks and did not have to carry a pound of Kleenex in your pocket.

The journey to Machu Picchu was easy, as it is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. I cheated only mildly, opting to take the a plane from Lima to Cusco in lieu of the 21-hour bus ride. It only cost about $20 more to hop on the flight, and while I travel on a budget I am willing to make a concession when it comes to comfort. The plane arrived in Cusco without fail and a quick 20 sols cab ride dropped me just outside the city center at the coldest hostel I have ever encountered (this from a woman who has been to Iceland, and the mountains of Macedonia in winter). Cusco Packers in Cusco has potential, and an incredible view of the city, but it is absolutely FREEZING at all times of the day. As for taking a hot shower, not in your future as the electric showers do not heat the water enough to warrant the use of word “hot.” You now see why I became a walking nightmare of infection after two days in Cusco, and one day before departing for Machu Picchu.

My Dear Friend Trying To Warm Himself At CuscoPackers With The Hall Heater

My Dear Friend Trying To Warm Himself At CuscoPackers With The Hall Heater

I don’t blame Cusco Packers, entirely, but staying there did not help. Does one need to rinse their hair ever over the course of four days? I made the executive decision that no, one does not. When I arrived in Aguas Calientes my hair was sticking out in all sorts of directions–it was not pretty, but neither is a woman with piles of snot rags in her pockets or a nose that refuses to stop running, coupled with glassy eyes, red skin around the nose, and cracking lips. Yes, I was a looker on the train. My sincerest apologies to the poor woman who had to sit next to me for three hours while she surely worried I was infecting her with the plague. Had the train not been full I would have switched seats and sat alone.

There are a variety of ways to get to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town outside of the official Machu Picchu site, from Cusco. You can take a trek; my friends went on 4-day Jungle Trek and loved it. There are buses that somehow get you part of the way–I am unsure how you make it the rest as no roads go into Aguas Calientes. Or you can take the “Gringo Rail,” also known as Peru Rail. But I assure you, the name should be changed to Gringo Rail as it is a train ride built for the tourist-in-mind. Peruvians have access to a locally run train line that costs a fraction of what Peru Rail is charging tourists (lowest price from Cusco to Aguas Calientes is US $77–the prices go as high as US $300+). It is a beautiful train ride, though. You make your way through the mountains and along the river shaded by lush trees and plant life and towering mountain tops. It may not be the cheapest form of travel but your dollars are well spent by the beauty you encounter.

The fun does not end at the train ride upon arrival in Aguas Calientes. Built next to a river, and on a daunting hill, the entire town is without vehicles. No moto-taxis, or buses, just your feet to hike up the town’s streets to get where you are going. This would not be such a big deal if you were not deathly ill, carrying one large and two small bags (as your travel companion’s things are with you while he treks his way there) and your hostel just happens to be at the top of the stair pathway/main road of town. Oh yes, I thought I was going to pass out after a few steps; the restaurant hecklers would have found me lying face down on the stone steps, drooling out of my mouth, my lungs having exploded from the gross effort of trying to walk half-a-mile up hill, up stairs, with my weight on my back. I wonder if they would have still asked me if I wanted something to eat? I still do not know how I made it to the top. The fog of sickness overwhelms my memory. But dammit, I made it to the second floor entrance of my hostel on top of the hill, aptly named Hostel Mistico. The mysticalness being that no one in town seemed to know where this place was located. Perhaps they are smart enough to never walk all the way to the top of the street.

A day-and-a-half in bed, only leaving for sustenance, found me waking up at 3:30 a.m. to meet my trekking friends at the entrance to Machu Picchu. I made it; taking the very organized and comfortable bus shuttle service offered in town–starting at 5:00 a.m. each and every day. Just because there are buses to Machu Picchu does not mean they go anywhere else–in case you were confused by my previous statement on how there are no transportation services in Aguas Calientes.

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When the gates opened at 6:00 a.m. we were amongst the first 100 people in. No one told me the entire complex was built on a hill. I had a feeling that would be the case but oh lord how the Inkas liked to hike up stairs, and mountains. The first stop is the place where you have seen everyone that has ever been to Machu Picchu take a picture. You cannot blame them, and I did it too. The view is amazing; breathtaking. Completely worth waking up the myriad of steps to get there. After the initial introduction to the landscape–and you do want to get there first thing in the morning because you can get a photo without people walking amongst the ruins–it is all about hitting the Sun Gate. You want to catch the sun coming over the mountains towards the gate.

The Sun Gate is located up a mountain. Not just any old mountain, oh no. It is a long hike up, up, and up. It twists and turns along the side of a mountain, fakes you into believing you have made it when you are only half way, and then suddenly you are there. For me, it was a moment of complete defiance against illness and possible failure. My lungs were on fire, my head willing itself to explode, and my entire body weak from exhaustion. I wanted to turn back multiple times. Prayed to the Inkan Gods for help, release, and the fortitude to continue. I have been told visiting Machu Picchu is a religious experience for many. It became that for me as I pushed my tired and infected body up each and every step towards the Sun Gate.

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When I arrived I stood there (and sat), basking in the beauty of this place shrouded in history and mystery. I embraced what I had just achieved and accepted that I was being a huge baby about it all. I was fulfilling one of my travel bucket list items and complaining about a damn cold was not going to make things better, only worse. I sucked it all up, and smiled. Camera in hand I took in all I could see, and made the most of my Machu Picchu journey.

I then spent the next two days in bed; my travel bucket list can wait a few weeks before resuming activities.

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