A City of Granite: Machu Picchu

Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.
-Hiram Bingham

It started calling to me

almost four years ago.
The first time:
I was driving a long stretch home from a family visit when my radio shorted out to a different station. Normally at this point I cant pick up a clear signal, and switch the channel to the next audible station, however today the clouds hung low and the words came in clear. The first words that rang through were “Machu Picchu” and it caught my attention. Id honestly never heard about it. The radio station was broadcasting an NPR special on the new wonders of the world and their descriptions of the mountain were phenomenal.
The second time:
I had just started school as a pre-dental student and at that time in my life I had deleted my Facebook. I was looking for ways to get involved on campus, and had a friend who knew of my interests and abilities. She sent me a picture of a Facebook post and told me I should look into it. The post was an announcement for volunteer training abroad, and students willing to start a club to facilitate it. I jumped in, went through loads of documents and interviews, and landed the position with a friend. We were given two locations to choose from, one of which was in Peru.
The third time:
I had just landed an amazing new job in an orthodontic office and was rolling along with my training. After a particularly difficult week I was called in to speak with the manager, and we began talking about school/work schedules. I mentioned my new club and our location choices, and immediately her eyes grew. Her daughter had spent years in South America working and traveling. She put us in touch and again I was urged to go to Peru.
The fourth time:
I seated a patient for a long appointment, starting the usual small talk to get to know them. As I reclined the patient they told me of their recent travels to Peru, and informed them of our club opportunity. They sat straight up and looked directly at me, stating that I had no choice but to go to Peru.

I like to say I take can take a hint pretty easily, but looking back its laughable how many hints it took for the powers-that-be to get me to Peru.

Of course, there’s no way that we can fit that entire trip in just one blog. So today I’m going to focus on one of the amazing sites we saw while volunteering in Peru. The trip was two weeks in duration, but it afforded us 2 days of exploration. For our expedition, we decided on Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.
If you ever find yourself in this beautiful land, I urge you to take in the trio: Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu. It is absolutely, utterly breath taking.



The epicenter of the Ancient Incas. It’s the honest capital of the Incan empire. You’ll find a plethora of routes to the mountain (Machu Picchu) from Cusco, depending on your level of adventure. There are guided and self-guided hikes, car tours, private tours, and bus tours of the land. I dream that one day you’ll find me hiking the Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu. But, from my own experience in the matter, I recommend a tour company to get you to and from your destination safely, and with the most education en route.
The tour, which we had booked in advance, left early in the morning from the Plaza de Armas (city square). We visited Cristo Blanco and peeked over the ruins of Sacsaywamen hanging in the hills above Cusco.


Sacred Valley
The winding roads of the Peruvian backcountry afforded some of the most Awe-Inspiring views. Terraces jutted out from the hillsides, and the various crops sprouting from inside gave the illusion of painted staircases ascending each mountainside. There were many Quechan villages along the way, and our guide allowed us to stop and shop for goods.


The markets are seemingly overflowing with the brightest colored alpaca and wool textiles I had ever seen. We bought scarves, socks, and trinkets for family. Another stop afforded us to see a woman creating the colored yarn used for textiles, dipping it in richly colored liquids made from ground berries, clay, and even beetles.


We made our way to an alpaca observation, to take pictures and feed stalks of alfalfa to the fluffy creatures. However I don’t recommend being stingy with your visible stalks. Llamas are not the only angry spitters.


As the trip continued on we found our way to Pisac ruins, and our first true glimpse of ancient Incan architecture. As we wandered the terraces, it was hard not to feel slightly overwhelmed at the amount of man power they would have taken to construct. From the roads they looked like staircases, in person, we were only tiny ants wandering on a single step. We discovered that archaeologists had determined the ancient Incas grew and developed nearly 1000 different types of Potatoes. They also cultivated and grew Maize, and Coca, all on these vast terraces.


Hours later descended from the mountains, into a riverside town named Ollantaytambo. From the parking lot, there was not much to see, but after a short walk through the village revealed a massive terraced mountainside and a grand sun-temple folded into a valley. Visitors are allowed to climb to the top, however the feat was not so easy. Our guide pushed us along, as to not miss our next destination, but within a few feet we each stopped to take our breath, and catch the views from the valley we were ascending from. Remarkably, my phone didn’t make it off the bus, so my memory and a couple snaps from friends are the only souvenirs I could take from this city.


The sun temple revealed to me exactly the perplexing thoughts I had encountered while reading high school history books. The stones, which constructed the temple, were not like anything near by. It was found that the stones and boulders were actually from neighboring mountain peaks, and had been transported by these ancient people to its resting place. What’s more perplexing is the intricacy of the stones. They were cut with such precision, with square corners and perfect angles. There were some perfectly square boulders that were larger than my house, in pristine, unscathed condition.


I left Ollantaytambo in awe of this culture and its architectural genius.


We hopped on a train near the city, taking us though jungle landscapes which I would have pictured in fairy tales. The tall, pointed mountains peeked out from passing clouds, the train tracks wound along canyons with the river in sync, and the treats served on board were exactly what we needed to take in the full experience.


Aquas Calientes
Arriving in Aquas Calientes, we found our hotel and unpacked for the night. Later we snooped around the town, finding refuge at a delicious pizza and pasta restaurant along the train tracks, enjoying Pisco sours until we crashed from a days travel.


Traveler tip, for anyone wanting to see Machu Picchu- sleep is not a priority. We awoke at 4am, only to rush to the bus stop and find a line, which wound down the street. We finally hopped on the 7am bus for the mountain.


Machu Picchu
While we did not see the sunrise, we were able to ascend to the main city at a time when the morning clouds still danced in and out of the city walls and gave an eerie transcendence to mountainside.


Our guide gave us the history of the mountaintop city, its most recent inhabitants, and its excavation. We toured the entire city with mouths agape and wide eyes. It.Was.Massive. The restorations of the city were ongoing as we were there. While visitation is limited daily, it is still heavily trafficked, and maintained with great effort. It is truly amazing how well preserved the city is for how many people visit daily.


Incan architecture leaves me in absolute awe. At each ruin site I noticed the same thing. Intricately cut boulders, smooth surfaces, each fitting together like perfectly matched puzzle pieces.


We were told that the Incans would make cracks in the rocks, fill them with dry wood, and then add water slowly to control further cracking of the rocks. I’m not questioning theories, but it’s hard to picture a bolder the size of a car being chiseled and cut into an exact square with water and wood.


There were amazing temples, gardens, storage chambers, and huts in the city.
Another thing that amazed me – the water system. When we entered the park, the walkways we took were original architecture. Within a few steps I noticed small channels hollowed into the walkway, which continued down each consecutive slab. Often the channels would lead to large holes, and I found it so odd until I came upon a pathway with actively flowing water. The entire city had a water system winding throughout. These channels really were channels. Springs and catchways intermittently filled them with water and directed the water to different parts of the city. How cool.


Lastly, my awe came from the creativity sprinkled throughout the city. We came upon a chamber with a large stone jutting through the floor. With closer inspection, the stone was carved into the head of a bird. If you stood back you could see that not only was this stone involved, but also actually, the entire room made up the massive wings and body of a condor. There were many creative sculptures, sundials, and rooms which emitted streams of light to fall on the walls which depicted a calendar. These people are truly out of this world.


As the clouds began to clear from the city, we made our way to the Machu Picchu mountain trail. I personally had not done my research on the extent of the mountain trail, but I assure you it is not for the faint of heart.


I believe we made it to the top from shear ignorance. As we climbed stairs made of boulders, and passed those coming the other direction, we regularly asked how much longer we would climb. Perhaps it was language barriers or misinterpretation, but nearly every person who answered told us it was just over the hill.


We climbed for over an hour, all stairs, all rocks, all knees and quads. But we made it. We made it to the tip of Machu Picchu mountain and collapsed with the other exhausted and excited climbers.


The view made us feel atop the world. Clouds would sweep over us and surround us. Clouds would pass below us and intermittently block our view of the city. As we sat, we regained our motivation, and began our descent back down the mountain. By choosing to ascend early, clouds often cushioned our downward view of the valley.

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However descending in the afternoon allowed just enough time for clouds to begin to burn off, and then disappear entirely. The mountainside revealed just how enormous, and steep it truly was, and my stomach turned with every sharp, steep, rail-less turn we took on the stairs. If the climb itself wasn’t for the faint of heart, the descent is nothing for the weary either. It’s certainly a corner of the world that makes you realize just how small you really are.

The descent took half the time, and with shaky knees we hit solid ground and found our guide waiting for us at the city overlooks. We had our passports stamped, and waited in line to head home, which included a train, and a night bus, depositing us in Cusco once more.


For anyone wishing to see this beautiful land, here are a few ways to make the most of your journey

Tips and travel Tricks

Plan ahead
First and foremost, this is the most important piece of advice I could give you. We booked our guide in April, for a late July trip. Machu Picchu is a world-renowned wonder, and I’m not certain there is ever a shortage of visitors. However, there is a shortage of tickets for entrance to the mountain. No matter what route you take, you need a ticket to enter the city. You do need to buy it in advance, as they do not sell tickets at the gate. If you book through an agency, they will likely do all of this for you.
While we saw so very much on our short trip, there are agencies that do book longer and shorter versions of expeditions. Check out a few companies and compare prices. Be sure there is someone in the office that speaks your language, and be sure that you take a guide that speaks a language that you understand. I’ve heard horror stories of getting booked on trips with guides that they cannot understand, and half of the fun is learning about the What and Why of these beautiful wonders.
Trip logistics
Time your travel. Depending on where you live in the world, you may need to account for altitude changes. I live in the flat lands of the US (1000ft), Cusco is about 11,000ft. I was told that the young and spry would have no problem transitioning, jokes aside I had two days of what seemed like the flu. If you can maneuver it, fly in to Cusco then go straight to your hotel and sleep for at least 5-6 hours. Then when you awake, eat a good meal and stay hydrated. Coca leaves can be found at nearly every tourist hub and pharmacy – chew on them or drink coca tea. We were told not to drink caffeine, but I personally found a cup of Peruvian coffee to be the final thing to do the trick in alleviating my headache. You can take prescribed medications for altitude sickness which act as a diretic, and offer some relief to the side effects. It would be awful to have to miss plans by feeling sick, so give yourself time to adjust and take the first couple of days easy.
Wise Money
Travelers are great for the Peruvian economy, however you can also easily become prey. If looking for a ride from the airport in Cusco, don’t take cabs that sit out front. Ask if your accommodation has a bussing service, and if not, try to snag a cab that is coming from the city to drop someone off. The cabs that sit at the airport will charge you anywhere from 20-50 soles, whereas the street cabs should only charge 4-5. Also, NEVER, EVER get into an unmarked cab. Only marked, only ones coming from the city. If all else fails, call a cab company and ask to be picked up at the airport for 5-7 soles and they will gladly send over assistance.
Also, be sure to carry small bills and coins with you if you’re shopping in markets or villages. If you’re not careful, you may hand over a large bill in a market, and receive fake change in return. Check your bills for water marks, and compare their texture and quality. Lastly, debit/credit cards are not common in Peru. You should carry enough cash to get you around. If you happen to eat at a restaurant, do not give your card to the waiter and allow them to walk away, if the payment is not taken at a register they have portable registers they will bring to the table and allow you to run on.
Timing of the Mountain
Machu Picchu. If you want to see the mountain even remotely early in the morning, come early. If you want to see it at sunrise, plan to either hit the sheets VERY early, or be at the station in the middle of the night. I have heard of travelers posting up at station at 2am, trying to be ready to catch the first few busses. The first bus leaves at 5:30am, and they run about every 15 min. Dressing in layers is helpful for managing those cold morning hours, and the hot afternoon sunshine.
Passport safety
Belongings. You will want to have your passport on you to be stamped on Machu Picchu, but just be sure to keep an eye on it. Wear a passport belt under your shirt, or hold your bag in front of you when in crowds.
Smitten not Bitten
Lastly, bug spray. I was hillariously never told this, and likely should have known, but I can also say it definitely could have been worse. Luckily we climbed the mountain while it was cloudy, and descended before it had become hot and humid, but while standing in line to depart on our bus, I began to notice tiny little black flies landing on our exposed ankles and feet. They were fine at first, but I noticed within minuets, wherever they landed began to sting. We fought them off and boarded the bus, but within a day our feet and ankles were swollen, and each bite was a blistering red circle. We were told to leave them alone, but after being present for over a week we popped the blisters, to find a small stinger-like object in each. The blisters went down but it took nearly 3 months for my bites to disappear entirely. None of this would have happened with bug spray, or entirely covered legs.
Until next time,

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  1. November 7, 2018 / 3:19 am

    Loved your post! So much detail. It was like reading a novel lol

    • January 6, 2019 / 7:28 pm

      That is so kind! I’m glad you enjoyed reading!

  2. November 7, 2018 / 8:32 pm

    Great travel blog! Loved hearing your story about how Machu Picchu called to you. What an amazing view it must be from that ancient city. -Rebecca

    • January 6, 2019 / 7:27 pm

      Thank you so much! It was spectacular!

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