Advice for visiting Inca ruins: Timing is key at Machu Picchu

We’ve been planning a trip — on-and-off — to Machu Picchu for over 20 years. We researched and discussed details with our travel friends, but we had other trips we wanted to take first, and it kept getting pushed forward. Now it was really going to happen.

We pulled out all the research and advice we had gotten from others and set out to plan what we hoped would be the perfect trip to the Inca ruins for ourselves. The research for planning a visit to the most important ruin, Machu Picchu, had a unified theme: timing. Timing when to buy the tickets and train reservations (early), timing as to season (not rainy), timing to enter the site (very early).

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We followed the prescribed advice to go in the dry season and were rewarded with sunny skies and perfect weather.

A trip to Peru in the wet season would have been less expensive, but the thought of trudging around Machu Picchu in a cold rain was enough to convince us that this was not the option for us.

We realized in our planning that visiting Machu Picchu over two days would be better than one day.   For those of us who monitor carefully our travel dollars, this was quite a leap. We reasoned that Machu Picchu is on everyone’s list of top sites to see in the world and trying to race through in one day just wasn’t sufficient.

Did we follow all the advice we read? No, and here’s where we differed. The first day, we took the very early train from Cusco (actually the Poroy station which is 20 minutes away) to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly Aguas Calientes) and checked into our hotel. By the time we left the hotel to make our way up to the ruins, it was after noon. At that hour, it only took a few minutes to get the bus tickets and catch the shuttle. With each passing hour at Machu Picchu, the number of visitors dropped. By 4pm we headed back on the shuttle bus to our hotel, exhausted and happy with all that we had seen.

Taking photos without people in them proved easier than we had expected in the afternoon.

Taking photos without other tourists in them proved easier than we had expected in the afternoon.

On day 2, we slept in, had an early lunch in Aguas Calientes, and entered Machu Picchu at 1:30pm.

We hiked up step after step for an hour to the Sun Gate, only to discover many tourists sitting on the walls, windows, and even blocking the stairs to get in – just what we had hoped to avoid.

We hiked up step after step for an hour to the Sun Gate, only to discover many tourists sitting on the walls, windows, and even blocking the stairs to get in – just what we had hoped to avoid.

We quickly left the Sun Gate and headed back down to the main complex to explore an area we’d missed the day before.

And, as the sun dropped in the sky, so did the number of visitors.  

And, as the sun dropped in the sky, so did the number of visitors.

The weather was perfect in mid-afternoon, and we could more easily take photos of the Temple of the Condor.

The weather was perfect in mid-afternoon, and we could more easily take photos of the Temple of the Condor.

We explored freely with few others around. It was exactly what we’d hoped for. We stayed until 4:30pm, shortly before closing time.

So, our advice is to plan your schedule at Machu Picchu based on 1. What you plan to see and do. Clearly, a hike requiring timed entry or of a long duration makes sense to do in the morning.

Our goal was to see as many details as possible, like the 12 angle stone construction with no mortar. We also wanted to take lots of photos.

Our goal was to see as many details as possible, like the 12 angle stone construction with no mortar. We also wanted to take lots of photos.

Plan your schedule based on 2. How long you want to be at the site. We know that our energy (and enthusiasm) wane after 3 or 4 hours. Instead of an early visit to the site from 7am – 11am, we thought a visit from noon till 4pm made more sense for us.

Preparation was helpful, but timing turned out to be key.

 

July 2016

 

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The only way to get around: a motorized canoe

On the second day of our trip to Manu National Park we left the dirt roads and got into a motorized canoe with 2 boatmen to guide us down the rivers.

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Our days often started before dawn. Aurelio perched in the front and gave directional signals to our driver, Jose.

When our canoe made a stop, we balanced on a wooden plank to get off. Fortunately, one of the crew was always there to give us a hand.

When our canoe made a stop, we balanced on a wooden plank to get off. Fortunately, one of the crew was always there to give us a hand.

The rivers appeared challenging to navigate: shallow water in the dry season, tree branches caught in the rocks, fast-moving channels. One day, against a powerful current, Aurelio took out a saw, balanced himself on a tree branch in the river, and sawed off a branch that blocked our passage. We held our breaths until he was finished and back in the canoe.

The rivers appeared challenging to navigate: shallow water in the dry season, tree branches caught in the rocks, fast-moving channels. One day, against a powerful current, Aurelio took out a saw, balanced himself on a tree branch in the river, and sawed off a branch that blocked our passage. We held our breaths until he was finished and back in the canoe.

We spent our time in the canoe watching wildlife and birds.

We spent our time in the canoe watching wildlife and birds – and taking photos.

On the days when we started before dawn, there wasn’t the visibility to see anything. On those days we took photos of the sunrise.

On the days when we started before dawn, there wasn’t the visibility to see anything. On those days we took watched the sun rise.

Our last day, we took a 2-hour boat trip south on the Manu River and then southwest down the Madre de Dios River to the tiny town of Boca Colorado.

Our last day, we took a 2-hour boat trip south on the Manu River and then southwest down the Madre de Dios River to the tiny town of Boca Colorado.

Boca Colorado is well outside the park and a transportation hub since this is where the river meets the nearest road.

Boca Colorado is well outside the park and a transportation hub since this is where the river meets the nearest road.

Taxis pulled onto the beach to take us by road to Puerto Carlos, where we hopped on a short ferry to cross the Inambari River, and then took another taxi to Puerto Maldonado’s airport for the flight back to Cusco. Total travel time this day: 9 hours.

We had spent long stretches of time over 7 days in the canoe. We saw caimans floating in the river water and stretched out on the beach; we saw monkeys dangling from the trees on shore; we saw so many species of birds and so often, that we could identify most by week’s end. We ate on the canoe, we napped, and my cousin even dried her still-damp pants in the fast-moving air.

We usually thought of small boats as pleasure craft. The notion of canoes as serious transport was a new experience for us.

 

July 2016

Note: Before our visit to Peru, we did lots of research and chose Manu Expeditions’ 9-day “THE COMPLETE MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE EXPERIENCE.”

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We weren’t prepared for this

We climbed to the top of the 35 m. (115’) high observation tower to have a vista of the tree canopy outside Manu National Park in Peru.

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Beth was terrified at what appeared to her to be the substandard construction of the tower that we all had just climbed. So it goes when we travel to far-away places.

A few days earlier we had spent considerable time at Cocha Salavador observing a family of threatened giant river otters. Danny, our guide, had told us that, when young males reached a certain age, they were forced to leave the family and set out on their own to establish a new family at a new lake.

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So, when out boatmen saw a young male otter draped over a branch on the Manu River they were startled.

Giant otters are not seen in the Manu River, only in lakes, and this young male giant otter, who had recently been expelled from the lake to start life on his own, appeared to have been wounded. The crew knew this otter as a member of the family that we had been observing the day before, and it made them very sad to see him struggling.

One of the most unexpected sightings on the trip was a rare appearance by “Vanessa” at the Manu Adventure Center.

After dinner one night, a tapir appeared outside the kitchen door.   The tapir, named “Vanessa” by the staff, is about 17 years old. She can be gone for months at a time but then appears at the kitchen door for a “hand-out” of vegetables.

After dinner one night, a tapir appeared outside the kitchen door.   The tapir, named “Vanessa” by the staff, is about 17 years old. She can be gone for months at a time but then appears at the kitchen door for a “hand-out” of vegetables.

We think that one of the highpoints of our trip was an early morning, peaceful raft trip on Blanco Lake.

IMG_1787Our cousins, Susie and Tom, and sat on chairs as we quietly drifted across the lake. We saw more birds than we ever thought possible.

One of our favorite birds of the trip, a hoatzin, had been perched on a low branch above the water, but, when the raft drifted near, it clumsily took flight.

One of our favorite birds of the trip, a hoatzin, had been perched on a low branch above the water, but, when the raft drifted near, it clumsily took flight.

Hoatzins are one of the strangest birds we’ve ever observed. The young have claws on their wings. They’re the only birds in the world that eat only leaves and have bovine-type stomachs. Hoatzins are certainly unique in the bird world. According to an article in “Audubon”, they branched off the “avian tree about 65 million years ago and are the only species in the group today.” They’re only found on lakes in the Amazon and Orinoco Delta region of South America.

We weren’t prepared for all that we saw in the Manu Park area. We love seeing new birds and animals, and then reading the interesting stories about them afterwards made what we had seen in the wild all the more fascinating.

 

July 2016

Note: Before our visit to Peru, we did lots of research and chose Manu Expeditions’ 9-day “THE COMPLETE MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE EXPERIENCE.”   

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A long vigil at the clay lick

We didn’t travel all the way to Peru’s remote Manu National Park area to miss visiting a clay lick. Even though parrots and macaws are found in other places around the world, it is only in the Amazon Basin where they come to the licks to eat clay – and sometimes in great numbers.

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We took the motorized canoe upriver at dawn and then hiked the short distance to the Blanquillo clay lick. (Photo taken at 6:40AM.)

We had a wonderful buffet “picnic” breakfast on the observation platform while we waited – and then waited some more.

What comfort in this jungle setting! A large open pavilion with seating faced a clay bank rising up from the river.

What comfort in this jungle setting! A large open pavilion with seating faced a clay bank rising up from the river.

Our guide and boat driver, Danny and Jose, waited and watched. Birds started to gather, but stayed high in the trees.

Our guide and boat driver, Danny and Jose, waited and watched. Birds started to gather, but stayed high in the trees.

Cousin Tom monitored the gathering birds in hour three of our wait.

Cousin Tom monitored the gathering birds in hour three of our wait.

Why would the birds gather high in the trees and not fly down to the clay lick? Danny explained they sensed danger. While we waited, we spotted other birds from our observation point – smooth-billed ani, chestnut-eared aracari, lineated woodpecker, red-capped cardinals, and more.

As the 4th hour of waiting approached, red and green macaws moved lower in the trees. We thought that any minute they would swoop down to the clay, but still, they were tentative.

As the 4th hour of waiting approached, red and green macaws moved lower in the trees.

We thought that any minute they would swoop down to the clay, but still, they were tentative.

Success after 5 ½ hours of waiting! One flew down and within seconds, all moved down to the lick. The red and green macaws gathered clay and then flew higher up in the trees to eat the clay.

Success after 5 ½ hours of waiting! One flew down and within seconds, all moved down to the lick. The red and green macaws gathered clay and then flew higher up in the trees to eat it.

Why do parrots and macaws eat clay in Peru and nowhere else? The latest studies suggest it’s due to a sodium-poor diet.

It was a long vigil, but we all celebrated a successful outing to Blanquillo clay lick. After all – for us – it was a once-in-a-lifetime show.

 

July 2016

Note: Before our visit to Peru, we did lots of research and chose Manu Expeditions’ 9-day “THE COMPLETE MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE EXPERIENCE.”   http://www.ManuExpeditions.com

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Photographing the beautiful and unusual (in challenging conditions)

Photographers dream of finding themselves in an environment filled with the beautiful and exotic. We had many expectations for what we’d see on our trip to Peru’s Manu National Park, one of the most diverse places on Earth.

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Sometimes in Manu we had to look in unusual places. We spotted these two beautiful butterflies on a pile of dung. We didn’t even hesitate to snap the photo.

Our heads were down as we hiked (so we could avoid hazards). Others walked right by the tiny mushrooms by the side of the path.

Our heads were down as we hiked (so we could avoid hazards). Others walked right by the tiny mushrooms by the side of the path.

Trees host other plant life, and we particularly liked the festive garlanding of plants around this tree.

Trees host other plant life, and we particularly liked the festive garlanding of plants around this tree.

We were used to seeing termite nests hanging in trees but came across several of their mud nests on the forest floor.

We were used to seeing termite nests hanging in trees but came across several of their mud nests on the forest floor.

Remarkable spiders were the norm, and this one might have been the biggest and easiest to photograph.

Remarkable spiders were the norm, and this one might have been the biggest and easiest to photograph.

We saw a large butterfly laying very still on a path. We assumed it was dead and took some photos of its beautiful colors. With no warning, it flew up by our faces and away. Turns out it wasn’t a butterfly but a moth -- a double surprise to us.

We saw a large butterfly laying very still on a path. We assumed it was dead and took some photos of its beautiful colors. With no warning, it flew up by our faces and away. Turns out it wasn’t a butterfly but a moth — a double surprise to us.

Flowers, especially those unknown to us, made fascinating photographic subjects.

Flowers, especially those unknown to us, made fascinating photographic subjects.

Photography at Manu did have its challenges. We didn’t realize until the last days why we were having so much difficulty capturing good images. It was not an environment we were used to.  Lots of things in the jungle blend in for safety. How to capture the subject when it is so well camouflaghed?  The tree canopy was high and foliage could be thick. Even at mid-day, the light was dim. Birds and monkeys were rarely close enough – or still enough – to photograph with our cameras in the dim light. Still, we persevered.

Our nine-day trip wasn’t long enough for all there was to see. It was truly a “trip of a lifetime,” and we just wish our photographs could have reflected that.

 

July 2016 

Note: Before our visit to Peru, we did lots of research and chose Manu Expeditions’ 9-day “THE COMPLETE MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE EXPERIENCE.”   

 

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Staying far, far away

“Far away” is more than distance. When we have traveled around the world to developed areas, we know what we can expect – everything from roads to electricity, internet connection, and stores … On our 9-day trip to visit Peru’s Manu Biosphere Reserve we would be “far away,” and our expectations had to change.

We don’t expect fancy when we travel. We’re pretty happy with simple places to stay, and simple accommodations are what we got.

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Manu Wildlife Center, just outside the national park, had the most deluxe cabins of the trip.

We loved the thatched roof and the solar-powered light to supplement the candles.

We loved the thatched roof and the solar-powered light to supplement the candles.

All of our accommodations turned out to be basic wood cabins with no decoration and a few screened windows. Mosquito netting draped over the single beds. None of the cabins had electricity and most had no hot water in the simple bathrooms. (Yes, bathrooms! A huge plus!) Candles lit the cabin at night.

The Cock of the Rock Lodge had beautiful grounds and sparsely furnished cottages.

The Cock of the Rock Lodge had beautiful grounds and sparsely furnished cottages.

By candlelight every night, we uploaded all the photos we took that day to the MacBook Air.

By candlelight every night, we uploaded all the photos we took that day to the MacBook Air.

The dining rooms, lit by candles, had a very nice ambiance, but also offered a useful electronics charging station in the corner from 6-9 pm, courtesy of a generator.

The dining rooms, lit by candles, had a very nice ambiance, but also offered a useful electronics charging station in the corner from 6-9 pm, courtesy of a generator.

One day in the cabin, an incredibly small bug walked across Beth’s notepad.   It stopped. She snapped its photo. We suspect this was not the only bug to share our accommodations.

One day in the cabin, an incredibly small bug walked across Beth’s notepad.   It stopped. She snapped its photo. We suspect this was not the only bug to share our accommodations.

 

 

July 2016

Note: Before our visit to Peru, we did lots of research and chose Manu Expeditions’ 9-day “THE COMPLETE MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE EXPERIENCE.”   

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What’s Manu?

We’d never heard of Manu, and maybe you haven’t either. We stumbled upon a description of the park – very remote and one of the most bio-diverse places in the world – and we were hooked: we had to go there. Peru’s Manu National Park (the Reserved Zone and its bordering Cultural Zone) is a huge tract of land -18,811 square km – half the size of the Netherlands.

The park has 1,025 bird species (10% of the world’s species) within the park; 221 species of mammals; 1,307 species of butterflies; 8 species of wild cats; 15 species of primates – like this large-headed capuchin monkey (photo).

The park has 1,025 bird species (10% of the world’s species) within the park; 221 species of mammals; 1,307 species of butterflies; 8 species of wild cats; 15 species of primates – like this large-headed capuchin monkey (photo).

There’re also 650 species of beetles.

There’re also 650 species of beetles.

Unlike other National Parks we’ve been to, the Reserved Zone is not a park “open” for visitors. The park has no roads and it’s difficult to access. The only people who reside in the National Park are indigenous Amazonian tribes, including the Matsigenga, who are protected from outsiders. However, a small area along the Manu River, named the “Tourism and Recreation Zone”, is open to tour operators and their visitors.

Getting to the park required a long trip by vehicle from Cusco, much of it over rough, dirt roads. The van pulled over at a scenic spot, and the crew set out a hearty lunch for our group of 6.

Getting to the park required a long trip by vehicle from Cusco, much of it over rough, dirt roads. The van pulled over at a scenic spot, and the crew set out a hearty lunch for our group of 6.

On the second day the van pulled into Atalaya, where we boarded a motorized canoe that would be our transportation for the next seven days.

On the second day the van pulled into Atalaya, where we boarded a motorized canoe that would be our transportation for the next seven days.

After 2 days in the boat, first on the Alto Madre de Dios River and then the Manu River, we entered the park’s Reserved Zone.

Permits had to be obtained at the ranger station to enter the park.

Permits had to be obtained at the ranger station to enter the park.

It takes a lot of effort to get to Manu, and even we wondered was it all going to be worth it? We soon found out on an outing to one of the largest oxbow lakes in the park, Cocha Salvador, home to several families of the threatened giant otters.

At 6AM we boarded a floating raft with chairs. Alexander and Joe watched five members of an otter family swimming in the lake near the shore.

At the very early hour of 6AM we boarded a floating raft with chairs. Alexander and Joe watched, in the dim light, five members of an otter family swimming in the lake near the shore.

One otter cradled a huge fish in its paws. In a flash, a very large black caiman (related to an alligator) lunged at the otter and snatched the fish. A split second later the black caiman put his head up and the fish instantly disappeared down its throat.

One otter cradled a huge fish in its paws. In a flash, a very large black caiman (related to an alligator) lunged at the otter and snatched the fish. A split second later the black caiman put his head up and the fish instantly disappeared down its throat.

It had all happened so quickly. We thought the giant otters would swim away, but they stood their ground. One giant otter stayed in front of the black caiman, the other four swam around to the caiman’s backside and starting biting its tail. The black caiman seemed to be confused. This went on for a few minutes before the agitated caiman departed. The giant otters stayed close together and didn’t leave their territory.

We were all left with true appreciation for what we’d just seen. Where else could we see giant otters (a threatened species) battling with a black caiman (which one of us had never heard of before the trip) in a truly pristine Amazonian Basin environment? And all of this viewed from a comfortable floating raft on an oxbow lake? Manu National Park is a unique place and for the few visitors who have the opportunity to get there, an unforgettable experience.

 

July 2016

Note: Before our visit to Peru, we did lots of research and chose Manu Expeditions’ 9-day “THE COMPLETE MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE EXPERIENCE.”   

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