I started my journey in Peru landing at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima in the peak hours of the morning. With very little sleep and food in me I was off to that same airport for an outbound flight to Cusco just 3 hours later. Upon arriving I had immediately felt the heaviness and weight of the air more commonly known to the locals as " soroche" or altitude sickness. For those who are unaware Cusco is situated at an elevation of 11,152 ft above sea level which means your lungs have to work that much harder to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Luckily the hotel had prepared hot coca tea which helped reverse the effects from the high altitude and also calmed my stomach. For anyone who feels super heroic their first couple hours in Cusco, it's advised to still take it easy while eating lightly as the sickness might not have hit you yet ( and hopefully it won't). My girlfriend brought along a portable finger pulse oxygen meter just for safe measure to monitor me throughout the day. The coca tea was a super effective life saver for me as the high altitude symptoms started to dissappear within hours of our Cusco adventure.
There are only a handful of ways to get to Machu Picchu. Most visitors either hike the five day 55 mile "Inca Trail" which takes you through endless snaking trails into the Andes Mountains or you take the tourist friendly "Peru Rail" which is a quiet, comfortable and fast ( well relatively fast at 4 hours compared to a five day hike ) method of getting to Aquas Calientes; a small historical town just miles away from Machu Picchu. Of course I opted to take the Peru Rail just incase my body still needed to recover from any altitude sickness. The rail itself had three tiers of comfort: Vistadome, Expedition and the Hiram Bingham ( least luxurious to most luxurious). FYI Machu Picchu is a history lesson in and of itself; there's tons of research out there on Hiram Bingham in case you wondering about the rail name reference. I ended up on the expedition rail seeing as how it might offer a semi luxurious ride while taking it easy on the wallet. The night before heading off via the Peru Rail we packed our bags rather lightly due to the bag/ backpack size restriction inside the train cabin ( there's a one backpack restriction at the ruins as well). I packed one night of clothes along with a vinyl poncho, sun screen and of course my camera.
Looking back at the pictures from this trip I'm still glad I brought my Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar 15mm f4.5 II lens. I had great success with this lens in my past trips and felt the focal length aspect and sharpness would be an excellent tool for this adventure. The heliar is a very popular lens for Leica M shooters because of its low distortion and light fall off on rangefinder bodies. There aren't many choices for a relatively cheap wide angle for the Leica M without spending an arm and a leg on the Leica Tri-Elmar 16mm. Because it is a super wide lens there is some faint vignetting on the corners due to a lack of light hitting the corners of the sensor. It's slightly noticeable in pictures but it's a characteristic I've become quite fond of the more I shoot it. In bright and sunny conditions the lens really shines with deep to light gradients of blue in the sky to the nearby horizon. I can't seem to shake how sharp and crisp this lens is! You can set the focus to infinity and turn your M body into a wide angle point and shoot camera ( or a Leica D-Lux Compact rather ). The heliar is the only lens I brought with me to the ruins, it was compact enough to manever through crowds of visitors and light enough to haul around my shoulder for the long hike. However I did have some trouble with the tricky lighting conditions from when the day started to mid afternoon conditions. Aguas Calientes was dark, damp and chilly when I set off for Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn and it seemed like a totally different part of the world when I finally made it to the top of the ruins ( literally ISO 1250 to ISO 160 within an hour). I'll admit the heliar on my Leica M8.2 struggled in the darkness but then soon showed it's brillance once the sun finally came out.
Machu Picchu is a very special place. The ruins themselves are breathtaking and finally seeing them in real life after browsing through many pictures on flickr and instagram; it all seemed unreal to be standing there looking at the same exact view through your very own two eyes. The UNESCO heritage assocation limits Machu Picchu to 2,500 visitors a day for fear that added tourism would potentially degrade and damage the ruins. At every look out point there were metal grates in the ground where people would stand to reinforce the pavement beneath. Rain water and sediment travel is what erodes the ruins the quickest, that being said I almost felt a little guilty inside walking every which way I wanted. I was free to touch any stone surface in the site and believe me you'll want you! It's hard to really understand how damn smooth all the stone surfaces were; what an incredible feat of technical skill for the incan builders and craftsman to have achieved. A few minutes into our hike into the entrance of Machu Picchu I was greeted by a herd of fuzzy llamas. They were laid back and friendly entertaining everyone's "selfie" shot with their huge heads and long necks in the background ( Yes I took my own selfie with one...might as well) . On my hike to the Inca Bridge I actually was intersected then passed by five llamas making their way up the trail. With only a 3 foot width of the cliff side trail the llamas scooted along though a couple "butt nudges" were needed to do the trick to get them to move aside. Machu Picchu is a must go in one's life time. I've never been so floored to the boards with excitement and amazement ever. Being an architecture freak myself I kept on obsessing over the edges gaps, corner conditions and elevation changes. It's simply phenomenal. ( Yes Machu Picchu takes the cake over the hugely famous La Sagrada Familia in my book). I'm so grateful that I had the chance to visit at least once in my life time.
OK. But what about the pictures? All the photos I've taken are straight out of the camera no post processing ( Yes thats how good this lens is! ) Notice the slight vignetting at the corners ( I shot everything at f/4.5 wide open ) and also the soft but natural color tone at the center of each photo. Oddly I didn't feel like a super tourist with my camera ( like I always do ) since everyone and their mothers were doing the same thing. Whew.
My tips for traveling to Machu Picchu:
Plan ahead! ( Special thanks to my wonderful girlfriend who prepared all the accommodations ) Have all your logistics planned out long beforehand in the comfort of your own computer at home to avoid any problems when you're actually there ( incase they only sell tickets in advance etc). Paying for all your tickets and hotel fees before hand saves the trouble to convert USD to Soles vice versa and also minimizes any possibility for you to get pick pocketed. For me personally I don't think I would have been able to find my way around, buy tickets and ask for help without knowing spanish ( or quechua for that matter ).
Machu Picchu is not quite ready for full on tourism like say the Grand Canyon or Times Square in New York City. Sometimes there won't be a bathroom or a place to buy food or a place to charge your phone/ connect to wifi. That was perfectly okay with me but I didn't expect it to be an amenities surplus lounge. Pack a water bottle, small snacks and medicine in case you get sick. And like I said before not everything will be written again in english, it might help to learn some survival phrases in the event you really need to be somewhere or get something.
Don't focus too hard on notifying the world you're in Peru via Facebook, Instagram, twitter etc. Also take it easy on always being behind the camera. For this trip especially I took the time to take in each experience distraction free before I began to take pictures. It's the memories that resonant with me not the time where I got that spot on focus picture but got photo bombed by that tourist shortly after.
Comfy shoes. Can't emphasis this enough really. I wore the most comfortable clothes I could without drawing too much attention to myself. And it paid off dearly when I was 12 hours into a day all on my toes and heels. Yikes! My nike lunar racers performed flawlessly but any old pair of comfy sneaks is good.
Be Safe. You'll be looking at the sites while other people will be looking closely you. Some parts of my trip in Peru I did think twice about taking my camera out. Keep a look out for your own belongs and be aware of your surroundings. Get the best use from your hotel. Ask for recommendations in food and travel as the hotel staff are most likely locals.