Reading Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries is kind of a right of passage for backpackers traveling through South America. Guevara set out on a nine month motorcycle journey that allowed him to cover some 8,000 kilometers of the South American continent. He kept a journal along the way, which he later published. Hence, “Motorcycle Diaries”. It was the trip that inspired his Marxist revolution, but I think the reason it resonates with so many of us is that he’s also on a journey of self-discovery. It’s an adventure story that relies heavily on human connection and exploring other cultures. He travels through small villages and along open roads. At one point, he comes upon a completely empty Machu Picchu, and the silence allows him to imagine the Inca who used to dwell there. It taps into the kind of adventure that many of us are expecting when we plan a trip to South America.
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie version of Motorcycle Diaries is when Guevara and his friend arrive at Machu Picchu. It’s 1952. They come upon the ruins with their bags slung over their shoulders. They are completely alone and it looks fucking awesome. “How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” he asks.
The reason this moment is particularly memorable is that it touches on something many of us want so badly when we imagine our travels. We want a level of solitude so that we can pretend, even for a moment, that we are part of the places we’re visiting. We need that silence to suspend our disbelief just long enough that our experiences feel irreplicable. We want experiences that are completely ours. We desire to believe that we are the first, and the last, and the only.
Well, as you may have already supposed, the days of solitude at Machu Picchu are long gone. The site gets upwards of 1.2 million visitors a year. Where the Inca once roamed, you’ll find tour groups wielding selfie sticks and tagged llamas. Machu Picchu now has souvenir shops and hundreds of daily busses barreling up the formerly ragged road. There’s a stand where you can get a commemorative Machu Picchu passport stamp. Everyone is wearing the same exact sweater (myself included) with the hopes of snagging the most enviable Instagram photo. There are no quiet corners or low seasons that will allow you the loneliness you so desperately crave. Which probably has you wondering…
Is Machu Picchu worth it?
I’m not the kind of jerk that would leave a one-star review for a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yes, it’s crowded, but”overrated” is a pretty shit thing to say about one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. While there are some brilliant Machu Picchu alternatives, it’s safe to say that there’s nothing exactly like Machu Picchu anywhere else in the world. The citadel sprawls 325 km2 and there are 172 campuses. Machu Picchu is huge, brilliantly restored, and genuinely impressive. That said, there are a few things that you should consider when deciding if Machu Picchu is worth it for you.
Making the Best of It: Let’s start with some expectation setting. There is no chance that you’ll experience solitude at Machu Picchu. It’s good to go in with a realistic idea about that. With that in mind, there are still a few things you can do to have a better experience.
- Remember that nothing good happens after 10am. For the love of God, if you decide to go to Machu Picchu, please wake up and catch the very first bus to the ruins. Once the day-trippers roll in and the site fills with trekkers, Machu Picchu is chaos. My recommendation? Cut left from the park entrance when you get there. You can hike about an hour up to the Sun Gate for an incredible view of the site. Then, descend back down, and make a loop of the ruins before it gets busy for the day. You can only walk through Machu Picchu in one direction, so make a full round before 10am or be prepared to throw some elbows. If you decide to hike up to Huayna Picchu, go for the later time slot to ensure you maximize your morning hours at the main ruins.
- Go when it’s raining. There’s no true low season at Machu Picchu. Tickets sell out almost every day, but you can enjoy slightly fewer crowds and lower rates on hotels if you go during the rainy season (Nov-Apr). The ethereal fog can even look kind of nice in photos!
- Take an alternative trek to Machu Picchu. The Classic Inca Trail is infamously crowded, but there are a handful of Inca Trail alternatives. You can take in the solitude and incredible nature of the rest of the Sacred Valley while you make your way to Machu Picchu. They say it’s about the journey rather than the destination, right?
Cost: Visiting Machu Picchu is an expensive endeavor. A taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo will cost at least $20 each way. Round-trip train tickets from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes on PeruRail and IncaRail start from $130. Hostels in Aguas Calientes are pretty grim and cost significantly more than hostels in Cusco starting at $15 per night. Roundtrip bus fare from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu is $19. Entrance to Machu Picchu is $79, or if you add-on Huayna Picchu, it’s $99. So, you get the point. This trip can easily add up to $300 for just a couple of days, and there are very few ways to cut corners.
Impact: There are, of course, ethical implications of visiting any over-touristed destination. Studies have shown that foot traffic through Machu Picchu is causing noticeable erosion. Small villages and towns along the Inca Trail and alternative routes to Machu Picchu have grown unsustainably in efforts to keep up with the flood of people. Waste is a huge problem and garbage is piling up along the Urubamba river. Cultures are changing under the weight of commercial pressure.
It’s important to remember in this case, that every small decision makes a difference. Leave no trace is an especially important ethos to keep in mind if you do choose to visit Machu Picchu. Do your best to work with sustainable operators. Follow the rules. Don’t touch things because no one is looking or take something because you can. It’s the responsibility of every individual to keep this place accessible for the next generation.
Machu Picchu Alternatives
If you’re still questioning whether Machu Picchu is worth it for you, there are a handful of really interesting Machu Picchu alternatives that you should also look into before making your final decision. Each of these alternatives sees only a fraction of the annual visitors that Machu Picchu does. These are also ruins of historical importance, and if you choose to travel to these spots, you can help invest in new communities and diversify the ecological impacts of your visit.
Choquequirao: I’ve been places and seen things, but I’ve never seen anything quite as spectacular as Choquequirao. Accessible only by a very difficult trek, Choquequirao is a partially-excavated complex of Incan ruins estimated to be about 3x the size of Machu Picchu. Choquequirao only draws about 20 visitors per day. If there is any real alternative to Machu Picchu, this is it! Read more about Choquequirao and the Choquequirao trek.
Kuelap: Sitting high in the hills of Northern Peru, the mysterious ruins of Kuelap were once inhabited by the “people of the clouds”. The three levels of Kuelap were built between 400BC – 1470AD, and are entirely unusual thanks to their round structure. In the excavation of the site, archaeologists discovered blonde mummies – it’s up to you to decide whether these cloud people were indigenous, Spanish, or (curve ball!) vikings. Read more about Kuelap.
Lesser Known Ruins in the Sacred Valley: Within the Sacred Valley, you’ll find a host of other ruins like Ollantaytambo, Sacsahuaman, and Pisac. While these ruins are slightly smaller and more spread out than Machu Picchu, you’ll have your fill of Incan ruins if you manage to visit them all. Grab a Boleto Turístico, and you can visit as many as 16 Incan ruins within the 10 days of validity. Read more about these ruins.