Over-Tourism in Perú - Cusco'n'Machu Picchu

The visit to the tourist hotspots Cusco and on to Machu Picchu. A journey thru a world somehow out of Perú.  Everything optimized for the organized tourism industry to rush thru all sights masses of visitors without consideration of any impact. 

Cusco 2 Machu Picchu

Cusco, 27th September

We were really thinking for a long time whether we should visit Cusco, Machu Picchu‘n’Valle Sagrado or not. We’re definitely afraid to repeat the experience we’ve lived in Egypt’s Gizeh, China’s Yunnan, or Mexico’s Chichen Itza: to experience how parts of a country are converted into a Disneyland to please a certain class of visitors and to maximize profit for a few in this industry. To pay huge amounts for the poorest food and rundown sleeperies. To be constantly disturbed by all these touts, souvenir sellers, and tip hunters who try to get their miserable part of the profit. Surely you know this situation, it’s just over-tourism at its worst.

Nevertheless, we bought our expensive tickets to enter Machu Picchu, the even more expensive tickets on this so-called tourist train to Aguas Calientes. And the bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu at a higher cost per km than a taxi with Japanese tourists in central Paris. Thus, no chance to skip Perú’s most famous tourist area.

We’re in Cusco. Let’s see to which degree it fulfills the worst of our expectations. Anyway, we decide to take it with a smile. Monika maybe as usual with a slightly tensed smile. Martin in eager anticipation to take pictures of the world’s most ugly souvenir they try to sell to innocent tourists.

Well, we’re not getting disappointed. Sneaking thru Cusco’s historic center around the Plaza de Armas we’re asked every 20m if we need a massage, something to eat, a tour, or simply need to buy some of these beautiful Chinese-made souvenirs.

Ok, we can live with it. Nevertheless, we’re slightly less amused once we try to visit Cusco’s famous cathedral. We knew they ask for an exorbitant entry fee for foreign tourists. But arriving there we discover they simply doubled that fee. Probably to compensate for the losses during the pandemic.

Immediately we develop another idea to enter. Every morning during their mass poor sinners may visit for religious purposes. Thus, the next morning Monika approaches the entrance with a pretty pious expression on her face.

She’s allowed to enter without problems. Martin needs to wear an extra big facemask to follow her. What the hell, we’re in. Still, the interior is not too spectacular.

Ok, enough complaints. We’ve decided to visit the town without any bias. To have a look at its famous plazas, its scenic alleys, and its lively markets – should they still exist.

We start at the Plaza de Armas. As we have to postpone the visit to the cathedral to tomorrow morning, we head for the Church of the Society of Jesus. Said to be the most beautiful in town.

Later sneaking thru Cusco’s small alleys. A mix of push hotels, decaying houses, lousy’n’better eateries, and endless souvenir shops. Visibly many houses are built on the remaining foundation walls of former Inca constructions.

We know, in the evening you expect to peacefully sip your local IPA at the Plaza de Armas. Observing the Cuscies passing by, lovers on their bit on the side on the benches of the municipality, and elderly girls drinking bottles of Pisco to repress their feelings of injustice in the world.

Way off. Dance groups pass by. Especially dressed by the famous Chinese-Happy-Life-Colourful- Dressmaking-Company to give the poor tourists the impression they’re part of Cusco’s daily cultural life.

Whatever, you can quietly sip your beer in a side alley.

Next morning. Of course, we head immediately to the cathedral for our special no-cost visit to this place. Many other tourists try unsuccessfully to do the same. Probably, they don’t have the expression on their face to be immediately recognized as poor sinners. Nevertheless, a few happy 1s get in.

After this enlightening experience, we’re on our way to the town’s famous San Pedro Market.

The market a place with 2 completely different sections: the 1 with all these Chinese articles like synthetic Alpaca, furry Lamas so sweet good girls divorce immediately from their beloved husbands, all kinds of bags, and whatever may please souvenir-addicted tourists. Here you can pay with all current credit cards, Dollars, Euros, Indian Rupees, and Swazi Lilangenis. A place infested by tourists on the search for the purchase of their life.

Then there’s the other section. Well, just the usual stuff, you normally discover on a market. Full of Cuscies buying their daily needs.

Definitely, when you’ll head for Cusco you will discover much more. All these museums, many more churches, and 1000s of shops more than eager to sell you a beautiful souvenir. You could spend weeks in this town – just visiting every 10′ another souvenir shop.

For us, we think 2 days are enough. We move on.

Ollantaytambo, 28th September

We’re on the way to the village of Ollantaytambo in Perú’s famous Valle Sagrado. The valley where tourists can admire all these old stones of the Incas –  if the Spanish colonialists didn’t use them to build their churches. And the starting point to visit world-famous Machu Picchu. Finally, Ollantaytambo is the place where the Allmighty-Machu-Picchu-Transport-Authority tries to channel all tourists into their super expensive trains for the visit.

It’s not a long drive from Cusco. Just 60km. Over the highland, then down and along the valley. On the way several opportunities to admire the snow-capped Nevado Colque Cruz, and further away Nevado Veronica (the latter probably named after the famous Double IPA of a brewery in Cusco). Of course, also a few opportunities to buy some souvenirs for auntie Jane.

Ollantaytambo – even when having a nearby bush fire a surprisingly nice village. Just a part of it is dedicated to mass tourism: near the eponymous archeological site and of course near the train station for Machu Picchu. The rest old houses, cobblestone alleys, and few sleeperies’n’eateries. Visibly the mass of tourists doesn’t stay here. They’re carried by numerous buses from Cusco to the train station – and off they are.

In the afternoon, we head for the archeological site of Ollantaytambo. It’s just next to the village, you find the entrance gate a little hidden behind these endless souvenir stalls.  

In the meantime, we all know that the guys organizing tourism in this area do whatever is possible to ensure an easy and stress-free visit to all these beautiful sites they have to offer. After having organized the trip to Machu Picchu everybody knows as well, that 1 of the worst experiences in life is buying an entrance ticket: either you have to queue up for a few minutes, tell the ticket seller what you need, and pay for the ticket – or, fight with a pretty unfunctional website and their weird payment method rarely accepting your credit card. Whatever. To facilitate your life, they created a so-called Tourist Card. Valid for 16 sites in Cusco and Valle Sagrado. Costing about 1/4 of the average Peruvian salary, valid for 10 days. Well, most people do not really want to see all these 16 sites. But just 1 or 2 of them. Especially as the most interesting places are excluded anyway.

Even knowing all this, we’re slightly shocked when we have to hand over to the guy at the entrance door 1/2 of the average Peruvian salary to enter. 

Then we’re in. Fortunately, at the moment there are only a few visitors sneaking around. We’re ready to climb up the stairs.

Halfway up we discover masses of visitors rushing thru the gate. And many more outside. Looks like an excursion of cruise ship passengers.  Just difficult to imagine a cruise ship sailing up all these rivers to reach  Ollantaytambo. We’re pretty happy all these guys are so much behind us. Hopefully, they have talkative guides delaying them a lot.

In the meantime, we have to hurry up a little bit. All these masses of cruise-shippies are approaching quickly. Visibly their guides know well the sites and the potential to shorten the visit wherever possible. Understandable, today probably they have to visit another 10 sites before returning to Cusco.

On the other side of the village, there are a number of warehouses the Incas built. They’re placed a few 100m above Ollantaytambo on a steep hill, accessible on a narrow’n’steep trail only. Thus, no entrance gate, no entrance fees, and next to nobody climbing up.

Aguas Calientes, 29th September

We’re on the way to Aguas Calientes. The gateway to Machu Picchu. The village is definitely not easy to reach. There’s no road connection. Either you walk for 2h from the nearest road or you take this special tourist train. We booked the train. 

Entering the station, they check carefully our tickets and even compare them more carefully to our passports. Just to make sure that everything is ok. 

After waiting for 1/2h we’re allowed to board. Of course, only after carefully checking our tickets and even comparing them more carefully to our passports. To make even more sure that everything is ok. 

Then we’re ready for departure. Slightly amazed at how old-fashioned these trains are. Everything looks like the good old sixties. Finally, the train departs. Nearly 2h for 50km. Shaking the whole time. Dear ladies managing Perurail, could you imagine changing the rails somewhen in near future? We definitely think with your prizes for this trip – even more expensive than the infamous Swizzy railways – you should be able to improve a little bit. 

Aguas Calientes. Immediately it becomes clear its only reason to exist is its location as the gateway to Machu Picchu. A train station, buses carrying visitors up to the site, a huge souvenir market, and numerous sleeperies, eateries’n’watering holes. So, all oriented towards visitors staying just a few minutes or maybe 1 night. Thus, no need to be great, or nice. Anyway, nobody will remember this village.

We need some time to find our sleepery. We have to enter a souvenir shop to access it. Well, that’s Aguas Calientes.

In the evening a real surprise: we discover an excellent and pretty reasonably prized restaurant: El Incontri del Pueblo Viejo. Remember that for your next visit to Aguas Calientes.

They serve excellent Alpaca Steaks and Ravioli stuffed with sweet potatoes. And even better pasta – a rare occasion in Perú.

Ollantaytambo, 1st October

If you were lucky enough to get 1 of the last available entry tickets to Machu Picchu you have to accept that your entry is at 6 am. Yes, 6 am – shortly after sunrise. And you have to accept that you get up at 4.30 am, have a quick coffee, and queue up for the bus to the site. So far, everything is fine. Just slightly more difficult to accept is the pouring rain this morning. Especially if you plan to climb Mount Machu Picchu as well. What the hell, we’ve already paid for the whole thing. Thus, no way back.

A little after 5 am we’re queuing up for the bus. In front of us already 100s of people having the same great idea. But no problem. From 5h30 onwards, some 10 or more buses arrive. Within minutes we’re on the way to Machu Picchu’s entrance gate.  

Arriving there a little before 6 am we discover another queue. Strangely in front of the gate with a big signboard indicating SalidaWay Out. No problem, we learn that here Way Out also may mean Way In.

Yeah, just a word about this great System the Allmighty-Machu-Picchu-High-Authority put in place in recent years:

Since 1983 it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage. Nevertheless, it’s quite controversial if Machu Picchu might not lose this status. Not because anything went wrong with the good old Incas, but due to mismanagement and neglect of the current management. Thus, the guys had to act. To show some goodwill and maybe to pretend a responsible coexistence of archeological and touristic interests, they introduced 5 circuits the tourists can choose from. Each with a strict limitation on the number of visitors, the time to enter, and how long every visitor may sneak thru Machu Picchu’s old stones. 

In addition, they strictly regulated all items not permitted to bring in, wear, do, omit, etc. Well, you see a whole book of rules’n’regulations to satisfy UNESCO.

When we booked the tickets some days ago only Circuit 3 was available. All others being sold out for the next 2 months. Ok, Circuit 3 is definitely not everybody’s dream. You’re allowed to climb Mount Machu Picchu – a 1600stairs, 700m climb to experience the ruins as the crow does. Then you’re entitled to a very short walk in the lower part of the ruins. Just a few 100m, omitting all important sites of Machu Picchu. True, Monika was rather disappointed with this circuit, while Martin was mainly interested in learning how to outsmart the system of the Allmighty-Machu-Picchu-Circuit-Authority. Best would be to get into Circuit 2 – the longest 1 including everything Machu Picchu has to offer. Ok, let’s see what we can do for us.

Okay, the guy at the gate signed as Salida checks our tickets and passports carefully – and we’re in. And we’re happy the rain has stopped.

After a few meters thru the ruins a platform with a nice view, Nevertheless, it becomes clear, that something is wrong. This way we never get to the trail to the mountain. We ask 1 of the watchdogs hanging around. He confirms we’re completely wrong. But we can just bypass a few of the cordons they installed to keep everybody on the correct circuit. And we’re on our way to the mountain.  As a side effect, we’ve learned how easy it is to jump from 1 circuit to the other.

But now, we have to get up these 1600 stairs to Mount Machu Picchu. Up into the fog on the summit. A little over 1h to get up. At that time only few co-climbers.

On the top – a somehow pretty limited view. Without any evidence of improvement. 

On the way down, the hell a lot of guys crossing. Must be a few 100s. All hoping for bright sunshine on the top. And asking how much of the trail is left.

Down at the ruins we have no idea where to find Circuit 3. We have to ask another watchdog. He quickly indicates the direction, tells us that we have to bypass again 1 or 2 cordons, and then we should be on our way. 

So, we just follow his advice, sneaking for a while until we discover some of these cordons separating the circuits. Fortunately, we recognize Circuit 2 on the other side. Of course, we just follow the advice of the guy we asked. Carefully watching out for other guards – and in a slightly unattended moment, we quickly change the circuit.  Nobody starts shouting or shooting or whatever. Probably we’re on the right way, maybe not exactly on Circuit 3. But who cares, maybe it’s just a question of interpretation.

By now it becomes very clear we won’t feel lonely on our newly won circuit. It’s the 1 they rush thru all package tours. Huge groups of 50 or more people with their guides telling them constantly that there’s no time to look at anything as they still have their flight to Timbuktu this afternoon. 

We try to ignore all the stress of the guys at our level best and to sneak on at our own schedule.

Of course, sometimes we have to queue up a bit. Especially, if there are a few lamas posing in the foreground. Even the guards have problems convincing the visitors to move on and to avoid congestion on this circuit for the next few days.

We arrive at Machu Picchu’s most famous place: the Temple of the 3 Windows.  Unfortunately, we’re squeezed in the middle of an Italian all-inclusive package tour. At least 60 people. Despite all efforts to rush them thru Machu Picchu as fast as possible, it took an endless time until they all took pictures of each other and told each’n’everyone their problems with mama and their bambinis. Clearly, the guide was lost. Nobody listens to his long-winded explanations about these Incas. Why should they – if they have the opportunity to tell everybody how well their mama cooks Spaghetti Berlusconi

By noon, we’ve admired what can be admired on Circuit 2. We queue up for the buses back to Aguas Calientes. Amazed about the quarrels between the guides of different tours who have to bring back their victims as quickly as possible to Cusco.

And still indecisive if a visit to Machu Picchu is really worth the effort, the trouble, the masses of tourists, and the constant feeling to get ripped off by everybody enabling the visit. Well, at least we could outsmart the system of their circuits by combining them to our preference. Maybe not exactly the intention of the Almighty- Machu-Picchu-Circuit-Creation-Authority, but definitely a reason for not being too unhappy.

Nevertheless, we think we won’t plan for another visit in near future.

In Aguas Calientes, we have the opportunity to sip some watery’n’over-sugared juices until the train brings us back to Ollantaytambo. 

Arriving there, we just head to our beloved watering hole. For some Inti Punku – our preferred Cusceñan IPA. Happy to have survived Machu Picchu.

Guys. So you have read up to this point, you’ve shown great patience about our constant complaints. But enough is enough. By now we stop it. 

In the meantime just wait impatiently for our next post. Released soon. Promised.



The Long Way to Cusco, Perú
Valle Sagrado'n'On to Bolivia