I only had one day to visit the famous attraction, and in an effort to make the most of my experience, I decided against going DIY. It seemed quite complicated and there weren’t many guides online written for someone on a time-budget in mind. I was worried about screwing up my one opportunity to see Machu Picchu if I somehow messed it up.
…and I wanted ALL of the smiles and none of the stress
There’s a number of agencies offering packaged “one-day train to Machu Picchu” trips from Cusco. The prices range from $200-350, with the cheaper end of the spectrum available to those booking in person, paying in cash, and usually through a hotel or hostel.
With only 2 nights in Cusco, I didn’t want to risk a trip or a train filling up, so I booked a few weeks in advance with a well-reviewed Machu Picchu day trip company, Haku Travel. They seemed super organized and knowledgeable on email, though the trip was incredibly expensive at the regular price of $370, including the fee for paying with a credit card to book in advance.
I reserved the Machu Picchu train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo for the very last ticket time (6:20PM) before the Machu Picchu Park closes, along with roundtrip transfer from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, and an English-speaking guide at Machu Pichu. My goal was to maximize my time at the attraction and get the full use out of my pricey ticket.
I arrived to Cusco a day early to get as acclimated as possible, especially as I’d been suffering from some hardcore altitude sickness previously. Even though my trip was booked and everything seemed to be all set, I couldn’t shake a feeling of anxiety.
Note: Total foreshadowing. [shoutout to Mr. Larsen, Lowell High School’s AP English teacher, for implanting “foreshadowing” into my brain forever and ever and ever]
To use up my nervous energy, I meticulously arranged my day pack, and then went to bed super early in anticipation for my early pickup (3am)… because, you know, sleep works SO well when you’re a bit anxious. Nahhhhht.
Still, I hit the hay around 8pm, to at least try to rest up for the long day to follow.
I couldn’t sleep and idly scrolled through my emails. To my surprise, an email from Haku Travel popped up a bit after 9pm.
Weird, I thought, as it was less than 8 hours before the trip was set to begin. The agency instructed me that my documents required for the trip had been left at reception. I didn’t even know I needed documents before the van pickup in the morning, but okay.
I checked the tickets over, and realized right away that not only was the personal information I’d provided them incorrect (like my birthday), I’d also been given the wrong train ticket. It wasn’t the train ticket time I’d paid for, it was a much earlier train, cutting my time at Machu Picchu almost in half.
What’s that saying about the best laid plans?
Of course, I emailed Haku Travel right away about the mistakes.
I received an immediate response about the birthday (blaming the Machu Picchu ticket office for the mistake), and was told not to worry.
My question about fixing my train ticket time was ignored. I tried emailing several times, no answer. Needless to say, I was pretty upset to have my planned time at Machu Picchu cut by two hours.
When my alarm buzzed at just before 3am, I’d barely slept and was picked up by a haphazard and apparently very 3rd party shuttle service (everyone in the van had booked through different agencies). I don’t know what was up with the heat in the van, but even though I’d dressed really warmly, I was freezing the entire ride.
Thankfully, the train itself was fine (and heated!!) — I was even given a hot drink and a snack.
Upon disembarkation, though, my guide was nowhere to be found. I frantically searched for her (“Rebecca” as she was named on the packet Haku Travel left at my guesthouse) for almost an hour.
I finally found a guide (Joe*) willing to help me out. I explained my own no-show guide situation, and showed him my paperwork. He’d never heard of Haku, but called using the number that was on my packet. They told him that she wasn’t at the train station but she’d be at the mountain.
Apparently, they didn’t think to have someone tell me that… so I guess I would have just wandered around until I gave up and went up to Machu Picchu by myself, guideless?
Joe let me come with him to the mountain, so I tagged along with his group to the bus and up to Machu Picchu. Again at the mountain, he searched for my guide for me before again calling my company, who finally let us know she’d be a complete flake.
Joe the hero
Joe offered to let me join his already full tour, which I did, slightly embarrassed as searching for my nonexistent guide had wasted EVERYONE’s precious time at Machu Picchu. I was super cognizant of the ticking seconds.
I had less than 3 hours total from the time I arrived at Machu Picchu (including the bullshitting around with Joe looking for my guide, calling my company, etc) before I had to go back down the mountain. I still managed to learn so much, snap some selfies, and take in the majesty of Machu Picchu, thanks in no small part to save-the-day Joe who I would have been at a loss without. A Machu Picchu guide is ESSENTIAL when visiting, as you learn so much more than you would have just wandering around with your ignorant self.
I spent my visit incredulous of both the natural beauty of the surrounding area and the incredible feat of building such intricate (HEAVY stone) structures in such an awe-inspiring location.
Do I wish I had more time at Machu Picchu? Yes, definitely, I could have used the 2 extra hours that would have came with my originally confirmed ticket time.
When my time was up, I made my way to the bus ticket line (that almost $400 day trip cost doesn’t include a $10 bus ticket back down the hill is not included, though that’s made clear in advance), and then waited over an hour in the line to actually get on the bus. Not sure if the bus line is typically so long, but I was unprepared had to run from the bus when it arrived at the bottom of to the train station (only to find out it was delayed).
Upon getting to my seat, I fell asleep almost immediately.
When the train arrived to the station, the shuttle to take me back into Cusco was no where to be found. The driver finally appeared, almost thirty minutes late, and took a group of us (our names marked on his sign) to an old van in the back of a full parking lot. He unlocked the van, motioned us inside, and disappeared for almost an hour. By the time he returned, we were the last vehicle in the parking lot, and then proceeded to drive around seemingly aimlessly picking up more “freelance” riders until the van was absolutely packed.
Instead of dropping us off at our hotel (which I knew wasn’t going to happen in advance, though for almost $400 though you’d expect a bit better service), we were dropped off at a deserted park — not the agreed-upon drop off point in the main plaza.
Aside from the annoyance of (again) not getting what you paid for and agreed upon, it’s just not very safe to end up by yourself, especially as a solo female traveler, in a random dark square at night (and because I’m cheap AF I need to add: especially after paying so much money!!!!)
I thought I was paying the big bucks for peace of mind and an organized tour. In actuality, it was a total Machu Picchu misadventure. I’d bet my bottom dollar that the whole trip would have gone infinitely smoother if I’d booked and arranged everything myself.
Having to rush through Machu Picchu in 3 hours (and spend 4x that amount of time in transport) isn’t worth any amount of money.
One bright spot in this whole Machu Picchu misadventure?
I was on the morning shuttle with two Canadian guys (shoutout to Alex and Armin!), who just so happened to be in guide Joe’s group. They were gracious enough to let me tag along with them throughout the tour, and afterwards, taking photos, wandering the ruins, and talking about a variety of topics ranging from relationships to the issues in the Middle East to the disturbing rise of violent messages from unknown men on the internet.
I had to peace out too soon (to take my ridiculously early train), but my disappointed Machu Pichu misadventure frown was turned upside down when I received the only awesome Dick Pic in the history of the universe and human communication.
*Full disclosure: I’m usually a much better travel writer than this — or, I like to tell myself I am — but I was so flustered that I didn’t catch my savior guide’s name and I was too ashamed of myself to ask again at the end of the tour. I’m pretty sure it’s not Joe.
Full disclosure #2: Haku Travel offered me 50% off the package price in exchange for writing a post about the experience.
While they did have excellent online reviews, based on my experience (incorrect information on the tickets, different ticket time provided than what was agreed upon, bad shuttle transportation, a no-show guide at Machu Picchu, and a post-trip issue I’ll mention below), I cannot recommend using them.
When confronted about the issues, Haku Travel did apologize that I was unhappy with my experience, but did not make any move to rectify the situation or take responsibility for the aspects of the trip that they failed to complete as confirmed. Instead, they made excuses, including most frustratingly that they purchased the earlier train ticket for my “comfort”. If that was the case, why wouldn’t they have told me the earlier train would be better for my comfort when I tried to book the later, supposedly less comfortable, train in the first place? The two train options are identical, the only difference is the time of departure.
If the manager really did book the earlier train for my “comfort”, it is offensive to me (a solo female, and also a very experienced traveler) that the manager of the travel agency (a male in a position of relative authority) would insinuate that he knows more about my comfort and preferences than I do, and that he wouldn’t even consider to double check with me before going against the deal we had made and both agreed upon, and booking different tickets. It reeks of mansplaining and that’s not something I can recommend to you, reader.
Not familiar with the word mansplaining? I’m trying to become more aware of the instances of it in my own life, and here’s a definition from Bustle so you can too:
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