So you’ve finally done it. You’ve bought your PeruRail tickets, your entrance pass, and your chuyo, and you’re on your way to Machu Picchu. Mission accomplished—at least the first stage. By now your envious friends are blowing up your Facebook page with “OMG! How exciting!” posts and asking you to fill up your memory card with selfies showing the iconic sugarloaf mountains as background.
And that’s not all. Since you want to take your time exploring South America’s most photogenic ruins, you’ve also decided to brave the swarms of souvenir hawkers and spend the night at Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu’s mega-touristy base camp. Sure, its commercialization and cheesiness are at near-Las Vegas levels, but its proximity allows you to get the jump on day two at this crown jewel of the Andes.
But after you’ve thoroughly reconnoitered the stones of the Inca citadel, what else is there to do at Machu Picchu?
As it turns out, plenty. The park that houses Peru’s top attraction is also home to other diversions, including waterfalls, hiking, and some of the most heart-stopping views in Latin America. To help you map out the logistics for your second day at Machu Picchu, here’s a countdown of the top four activities available.
4. Mandor Waterfalls
Located some two and a half miles from Aguas Calientes, these 40-foot cascades descend from the peaks of Yanantin, one of the sacred crags in the valley of Cuzco. They’re surrounded by a wild reserve that’s full of butterflies and exotic birds, and that’s (usually) blessedly free of tourists after the throngs at Machu Picchu. In other words, they’re the perfect escape.
The hike there is undemanding. From Aguas Calientes, you follow the railroad tracks that run parallel to the Urubamba River, in the direction of the nearby hydroelectric plant. There you’ll pass through an old coffee plantation before turning off into the cloud forest, where you’ll see crops of avocados, bananas, orchids, and medicinal plants. To enter the Mandor Waterfalls, there’s a nominal fee of 10 soles ($3), but afterwards you’re free to wander. Beyond the falls, the park continues. Spectacled bears and river otters make their homes on the far ridge.
The total travel time is approximately one and one-half hours each way, depending on your physical condition. Hiring a guide and bringing lunch are recommended.
3. Machu Picchu Mountain
Machu Picchu Mountain is the dark horse of the Machu Picchu complex. Overlooked by many travelers, its 10,000-foot summit nonetheless offers unparalleled views of the archaeological precincts and the surrounding landscape. And like the rest of the area’s peaks, it’s an Inca holy place. There the citadel’s villcas or priests would offer sacrifices to Salkantay Apu, the god of the mountain.
To get to the trail head from Machu Picchu’s main entrance, you’ll take the upper path that leads to the Guardhouse. Once past this landmark, turn right to ascend through the agricultural terraces to the Warden’s Hut. There you’ll have to show your passport, but there’s no additional fee to enter.
The actual hike can be a bit of a challenge, especially towards the top, but the path is broad and well-marked. Following an original Inca trail, it winds ever upward past lookouts and stone gateways to the summit. There you’ll find a small hut to shelter you from the winds, as well as some of the area’s most stunning views of the Sacred Valley.
There are now two scheduled entrance times for Machu Picchu Mountain, 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., with a limit of 400 visitors for each shift. The cost is 142 soles ($42), and since it is inside the park, you’ll have to pay the second-day entrance fee as well. A shuttle bus to the complex is available from Aguas Calientes. The hiking time will depend on your fitness level, but two hours each way is typical.
2. Inti Punku
The Inti Punku or Sun Gate was the original entry into Machu Picchu. Sacred to Inti, the sun god, it was the point from which the sun emerged on key days in the Inca calendar—a significance not lost on modern-day visitors, who uphold ancient tradition by ascending its steps to see the sun rise.
The climb to Inti Punku parallels the path to Machu Picchu Mountain, but without the steepness. Starting from the Guardhouse, you again ascend via the agricultural terraces, this time along a path that’s clearly marked. These stones too are Inca originals, and remain in excellent condition. At the top, you’ll find the former military checkpoint, with its stunning northern view.
As with Machu Picchu Mountain, Inti Punku is inside the park, so the second-day entrance fee is required. Guides and registration fees are not necessary. Total there-and-back hiking time: around three hours.
1. Huayna Picchu
Huayna Picchu is without a doubt the most popular of the hikes from Machu Picchu´s ruins, and a highlight of any trip to Cuzco. When you first see the mist-shrouded crag trusting upwards into the clouds like a shark’s fin, its near-vertical slopes seem unscaleable. But here as elsewhere, the Incas’ engineering genius has found a way, carving stairs, altars, terraces, and even tunnels into the rock. The result: a vertiginous climb, with unbeatable views from the top.
The logistics here are a bit complicated. Park authorities limit access to the mountain to 400 people per day. Tickets for the two entrance times, 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., go quickly, so you’ll need to purchase them in advance if you want to be among the 200 visitors admitted for each shift. Generally these tickets are sold with the Machu Picchu admission; cost is 152 soles ($45). (This is, of course, in addition to the second-day entrance fee.)
Once you reach the trail head, you’ll have to sign in with your passport at the Warden’s Hut. From there, the path winds around the mountain, forking some 20 minutes into the hike. Here you have two options. The Upper Trail mounts directly to the summit of Huayna Picchu, passing through a narrow rock tunnel and agricultural terracing before disclosing the astonishing panoramas above. By contrast, the Lower Trail curves around back to the mysterious Moon Temple, a fully-fashioned shrine inside a cavern, before crossing a one-story wooden ladder and ascending to the pinnacle. The hiking time, round trip, for the Upper Trail runs approximately two hours. The longer Lower Trail, by contrast, takes four.
As with the other climbs at Machu Picchu, a guide is not necessary here. The difficulty level is moderate, but manageable for all reasonably fit visitors.
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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin America Confidential.