Round the World in 40 Days: Stage 9 – Cusco and Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu had long been top of my bucket list, but as a senior traveller I was concerned about the its high altitude (8,000 ft) and the even higher altitude of Cusco (11,000 ft), the transit city for visiting Machu Picchu.

First magnificent, panoramic view of Machu Picchu
First magnificent, panoramic view of Machu Picchu

I was not too troubled by the thought of a bit of altitude sickness, but I’d read that the DJ John Peel had died in Cusco from an altitude induced heart attack – that was worrying. However, not worrying enough to stop our visit. We had plans in place to rapidly head to lower altitudes if necessary.

In the event, no one in our party of four suffered anything more than mild headaches and cramp, although we did walk around rather more slowly than usual.

Lima, the capital of Peru was just a four hour flight north from Santiago in Chile, Stage 8 of our Round the World journey.

Sunday Parade in the Plaza de Armas
Sunday Parade in the Plaza de Armas, Cusco

After a short transit in Lima Airport, where we collected some Peruvian Sols from an ATM machine, we boarded an LC Peru flight to Cusco. However, engine problems meant we were sitting on the plane for two hours before it took off. Again a bit worrying, but the flight was fine with great views of the Andes along the way.

Although all our pre-trip planning had been to enable us to get to Machu Picchu, we had been told that there was much to see in Cusco and that certainly proved to be the case.


Catedral de Cuzco
Catedral de Cuzco

Cusco (also known as Cuzco) was the capital of the Inca Empire and has many archaeological remains and impressive Spanish colonial architecture.

We stayed at the centrally situated Tierra Viva Hotel. A friendly, smart hotel with a lot of character, but rather cold in the rooms in the evening. We were in easy walking distance of the central square of the old city, the Plaza de Armas, with its arcades and colonial buildings with wooden balconies. The Catedral de Cuzco, which dates back to 1654, proudly overlooks the plaza.

Santo Domingo Convent over the Incan Temple of the Sun
Santo Domingo Convent over the Incan Temple of the Sun

We were fortunate to be visiting on a Sunday and could enjoy the weekly parade through the square of dance troupes in traditional dress with bands playing. Quite spectacular!

It took us just a few minutes to walk from the Plaza de Armas to the Baroque-style Santo Domingo Convent built on top of the Incan Temple of the Sun, Qoricancha.

Roast guinea pig
Roasted guinea pig

We finished our walking tour of central Cusco in Plaza San Francisco by the 16th Century San Francisco Church. The colourful food market in front of the nearby Colegio Nacional de Ciencias had a whole range of local delicacies including, of course, roasted guinea pig.

Cusco to Machu Picchu via Ollantaytambo

When we visited in March, the train service to Aguas Calientes (the base town for Machu Picchu) was only running from Ollantaytambo, 50 miles away from Cusco by road along the Sacred Valley. However the taxi trip to Ollantaytambo cost only 130 Sols, about £30, for the four of us. We had organised this with one of the taxi stands at Cusco airport and all went very smoothly.

Of course it is possible to walk the 26 miles along the Inca Trail from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, but as senior travellers and at a high altitude, we decided that Inca Rail was a better option. The round trip rail fare was US$127 per person, which included refreshments along the way. The Inca Rail website includes a ‘Chat Online’ option which we found very useful.

Inca Rail at Ollantaytambo
Inca Rail at Ollantaytambo

The train journey following the Urubamba River in full flow was quite dramatic, with several Inca ruins being visible along the way, beneath snow-capped mountains.

In Aguas Calientes we purchased tickets for travelling next day to Machu Picchu on the shuttle bus (about US$24 return), before checking in to the Panorama B&B overlooking the roaring Urubamba River.

Aguas Calientes itself is a fairly ramshackle town full of back-packer hostels and tourist restaurants plus a large market which almost envelops the railway station.

Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes overlooking the Urubamba River
Aguas Calientes overlooking the Urubamba River

We had purchased our entry tickets to Machu Picchu in advance from the official government website for about £35 each, so after surviving the shuttle bus swinging around tight hair-pin bends, with steep drops to the sides, we entered directly into the site.

I’d seen lots of pictures of Machu Picchu before and even watched TV programmes about it, but nothing really prepared me for that first magnificent, panoramic view.

Yes I appreciate it has been much rebuilt, and yes there were lots of other tourists wandering around, but the whole experience was quite awe-inspiring. It reminded me of when I first looked across the Grand Canyon.

An awe-inspiring experience
An awe-inspiring experience

There is of course much of interest as you wander around the site including the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Intihuatana Stone which was possibly used as a calendar or an astronomic clock.

(One small warning, particularly for senior travellers. There are no toilet facilities within the site and the ones by the entrance were not functioning properly when we visited.)

Was visiting Machu Picchu really worth the cost and effort of getting there – the dodgy flight, the long taxi ride, the rail journey and the frightening shuttle bus ride? Yes of course it was and yes I agree it should be included as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

Our return journey to Lima and Stage 10 of our RTW trip went without any hitches.

See also: 
Round the World in 40 Days: Planning and Booking
Stage 1 – Golden Triangle of Agra, Jaipur and Delhi
Stage 2 – Singapore and the Gardens by the Bay
Stage 3 – Taipei and NE Taiwan
Stage 4 – Seoul and the DMZ
Stage 5 – Hong Kong Revisited
Stage 6 – Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef
Stage 7 – Earthquakes and Vineyards in New Zealand
Stage 8 – A Tour of Santiago, Chile
Stage 10 – Lima and Miraflores, Peru
Stage 11 – Miami and the Everglades