The Long Hard Road to Machu Picchu

MacPicLongDIstGetting to Machu Picchu on a budget is not as straightforward as you might think – the journey to this wonderful site can be a real challenge and, at times, is certainly not for the faint-hearted! If you want to visit while spending as little cash as possible be prepared for arduous walks, nerve-shredding drives and times of overwhelming exhaustion. Read on to find out how I sorted tickets and travel arrangements before I made my way from Lima to the mountain citadel via Cusco and Aguas Calientes.

Tickets

My travel companion and I were warned by a previous visitor to Machu Picchu that booking tickets in advance was best to ensure you make it to the ruins on your chosen day as visitor numbers are limited on a day-to-day basis. Heeding this advice we used the Peruvian government’s official site to book tickets three months in advance. We paid extra to scale montaña as we were told the views of Machu Picchu from this point were spectacular. In total our tickets came to roughly £50 per person which I felt was quite reasonable for visiting such a famous location.

One thing I think important to mention regards the email you receive from the government confirming payment for your ticket. This email includes a link to the selfsame government site which allows you to check in and print off the tickets you need to enter the site. This link is easy to miss and we only discovered it the day before we were due to set off for Aguas Calientes which necessitated a mad dash around Cusco to get them printed off. I would highly recommend checking this email thoroughly and printing tickets well in advance to save you the hassles we had to undertake at the last minute.

Additionally, the site used to book tickets is notoriously unreliable and we fell foul to one of its many eccentricities. When I was purchasing the tickets I entered my companion’s and my own details with the utmost care and treble checked everything in my usual fastidious manner before submitting. The system, however, still managed to reset my travel mate’s sex to male and her nationality to Afghani. Thankfully, as the name, passport number and date of birth were accurate, this didn’t stop her from entering the site but it did cause unnecessary stress in the lead up to our visit. Log in using the link in the email you receive straightaway to make sure everything has gone through without error – this will give you plenty of time to rectify any major issues should any arise.

Getting to Machu Picchu

Getting to Machu Picchu isn’t easy. You can’t just turn up on its doorstep, even if you take the more expensive and luxurious methods of getting there. If you want to get there on the cheap be prepared for a long hard slog to reach the reward at your journey’s conclusion.

We started out in Lima and tried to reach Machu Picchu as cheaply as possible. The trip was broken into four main legs: a bus from Lima to Cusco, a minivan from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, an 11km walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes and an uphill climb from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu itself.

The best budget option for getting from Lima to Cusco is by bus. We decided on using Cruz Del Sur as we had travelled with them before and were quite happy with the services they provided. We booked our bus trip quite close to our departure date and as such were forced to purchase VIP seats which fell into the cama category of recline – this basically means that your seat will lean further back and, in theory, should be more comfortable. Our tickets cost 360 soles (roughly £86 or $110) for a return trip. The journey was roughly 21 hours each way.

Travelling with Cruz Del Sur can be a mixed experience. You get your own personal TV screen and a small selection of recent movies that are subtitled in English which can keep you entertained for a good long while. Meals are provided which should keep you from starving to death but often the hot food portion is hard to identify and rather dubious-looking – I’d recommend packing a decent selection of snacks if you are a fussy eater.  Seat comfort varies from bus to bus. When we first saw the VIP seats our faces lit up – they looked ultra fancy and really comfortable with their specialised shaping and thick layer of cushioning. However, they turned out to be the most uncomfortable seats we had to endure during our three month adventure. The armrests, which were sizeable and unmoving, don’t allow you to take up a comfortable position and the myriad lumps and bumps in the backrest turned out to be devices in torture rather than aids to comfort. Other buses we had frequented with Cruz Del Sur in lower classes actually turned out to be more conducive for sleeping than the VIP class – the fact that armrests can be lifted on other buses made a world of difference as they freed up that little bit of extra space to allow you to curl up in an ever so slightly more comfortable position.

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Our personalised TV screen on the bus from Lima to Cusco

Regardless of which class you chose for your journey, the roads leading to Cusco from Lima are filled with twists and turns and road sickness is a real possibility. If know you suffer from motion sickness be sure to stock up on suitable medication or, at the very least, sick bags before setting off. Even if you can find a comfortable position in your seat, sleep isn’t guaranteed as you’ll be thrown – often quite forcibly – from side to side as the bus progresses throughout the night. To summarise, expect a long and often unpleasant trip.

The second leg of our journey was undertaken by minivan from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, a hydro electric plant some 11km outside of Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. There are hundreds of tourist offices in Cusco that provide this service so be sure to shop around for the best price and use your common sense to find a provider that seems trustworthy. We paid 60 soles for a return which seemed to be the going rate for the trip although we did come across quotes as high as 120 soles and a few as low as 50 which we avoided for being too high and suspiciously low. Minivans usually leave between 7:30am and 8am in the morning to make it to Hidroelectrica at a reasonable time for those choosing to walk the tracks to their accommodation in Aguas Calientes.

When we were looking to book our transport to Hidroelectrica we were told by one operator that the journey would take four hours. Being fools we bought this information without question, never thinking to confirm with another tourist office. The bus ride actually takes closer to seven hours to reach its destination. We didn’t find this out until the driver mentioned we had five hours or so to go when we were already an hour and a half into our journey. After all of our recent long distance bus trips this tidbit of information didn’t go down well with us and a few quiet moments were spent contemplating, head in hands. We weren’t allowed to spend long in this disappointed state as, once the paved roads end, the ride changes rather drastically.

After a final toilet and convenience store stop we quickly moved off straight roads through populated areas and onto winding bends that threaded themselves through impossibly sheer mountain faces. The scenery was breathtaking, the first to really hold my attention since the rolling green hills of Colombia at the beginning of our trip. We passed cascading waterfalls, ventured through veils of cloud and passed pools of crystal clear waters that attracted the occasional thirsty llama. I couldn’t help but marvel at this landscape that seemed to have come directly from a Lord of the Rings film and at the fact that roads could have been built in such difficult and inhospitable conditions. Soon, however, my admiration of my surroundings was replaced by absolute terror.

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One of the spectacular views from our minivan journey to Aguas Calientes

The final two hours of this journey were the most unpleasant and terrifying of my entire travelling life. Once the paving ends the roads become barely worthy of that moniker. You will find yourself on uneven dirt tracks barely wide enough for your bus that twist and turn sharply every few seconds. Our lunatic driver was fond of careening through these hairpin bends on his phone at high speed when mere inches separated the bus from a fatal drop of hundreds of metres into the churning river of death far below. Rockslides are in frequent evidence which does nothing to assuage your fears and we encountered one enormous dislodged boulder right in the middle of the road which our driver had to brake harshly to avoid. When an oncoming vehicle approaches forcing you to reverse in these conditions your heart really is in your mouth.

There were some nerve-racking moments during our drive out to Hidroelectrica and I really didn’t appreciate them. I was wondering whether I’m just soft but conversing with fellow passengers when we somehow made it safely to our destination confirmed that pretty much everyone else had had a similar experience to me – the collective sense of relief was palpable as we finally stepped out of the minivan. A return by this method is really cheap but probably one minivan journey too many. Unless you like putting your life in the hands of an unreliable driver or have an insatiable craving for danger then I would highly recommend taking the train to Aguas Calientes if you can afford it. If you do plump for the minivan return, prepare for a stressful final/initial two hours of hanging onto your seat’s armrest for dear life – my thoughts are with you if you encounter poor weather conditions during your journey. The minivan return to Cusco leaves Hidroelectrica between 2pm and 2:30pm so be sure to give yourself plenty of time if leaving Aguas Calientes on foot.

One final thing I will mention about these minivans is how terribly disorganised they are. On our way out of Cusco one couple was brought onto our van, asked to leave, brought on again, taken off once more before eventually being sat down a third time allowing us to leave. On the way back we were delayed for an hour as the man responsible for getting passengers on the bus had misspelled the surname of a group of five people. I was furious that people could be so late to the agreed pickup but it turned out that the family that was missing was the exact same group we had walked the tracks with on the way to Hidroelectrica and had been waiting the same amount of time as we had in utter confusion. To make the horrendous road conditions and delay even worse the seats on the return minivan were hideously uncomfortable and, in conjunction with my aches and pains from ascending and descending Machu Picchu, made for an extremely miserable journey. I guess the old adage ‘You get what you pay for’ was true in this case and made me feel more certain that the extra expense for the train would have been worth it.

Once you arrive at Hidroelectrica you have two options for getting to isolated Aguas Calientes. You can pay the extortionate $30 train fare (it is a meagre 5 soles or $1.50 for Peruvians) for an easy twenty minute ride to the town or you can go by foot along the train tracks if you fancy an 11km hike. As we were trying to save cash we decided to walk.

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The train station at Hidroelectrica

Going against all warnings we took our packs with us on the trek. As we encountered inclement weather during our visit we were glad to have numerous changes of clothing and dry shoes with us which others who left their bags in Cusco might not have had available. That said, lugging 18kg on your back through humid rainforest gets a tad uncomfortable near the end. If you decide to walk, think long and hard about if you need to have all your gear with you. Check the weather forecasts for the days you will be in Machu Picchu and, if they look favourable, try jettisoning some of your stuff in Cusco like the sensible majority do.

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Me lugging my giant pack along the tracks

Walking along train tracks might sound like a dangerous business but as long as you are sensible and stay away from the tracks you should be fine. Trains don’t move at great speed and frequently sound their horns to alert you of their approach, giving you plenty of time to move even farther to safety if you are worried. The hike takes between two and two and a half hours depending on your walking speed. I would highly recommend walking the tracks if you are fit enough and not weighed down by heavy bags as there are some exquisite views to be admired and the stunningly violent, clay-coloured river that runs adjacent to the tracks is a sight to behold. Restaurants and rest stops are situated along the tracks and can be used to make the trek that little bit easier – prices for food and snacks are surprisingly reasonable considering the unlikely locations of the places selling them. If you do undertake this walk be sure to slap on plenty of DEET or cover up as much as possible as the insects here have voracious appetites – I forgot to apply protection on the return walk and was bitten 21 times on my legs.

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The train gives plenty of warning as it approaches

I’ll cover the final leg of the journey to Machu Picchu further on in this blog entry.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is a small town abuzz with activity. It is situated on the convergence of two rivers and is maze-like in its complexity. Despite its small size, don’t be surprised to find yourself turned around and scratching your head here. As the town has been expanded haphazardly to accommodate the growing number of tourists it receives each year, many of its connections don’t make sense.

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A view from the main square

The town is a pleasant enough little place with a tidy square and lively main street. A train track runs through the middle of the town and is used as a street when there are no trains running along it. The town has a number of stone sculptures dedicated to Peru’s Incan ancestors that form a circuit which can be useful when orienting oneself to the labyrinthine passageways of the town. Should you wish to undertake this circuit, you can pick up a map from the tourist information booth where the two rivers meet. A ten to fifteen minute walk from the main square will take you to the town’s hot springs which lend themselves to the town’s name (which roughly translates to Hot Waters in English) where you can strip off and relax after a hard day of trekking or warm up if you get caught in one of the many torrential downpours frequent to the area. There are plenty of opportunities to get yourself a massage in town if you need to further wind down, although I cannot vouch for their quality as I didn’t partake in one myself.

The vast majority of the buildings in the town are given over to restaurants. The majority of these eateries serve almost identical menus and much of the food is of very poor quality. Be aware of places that offer huge reductions in the prices of their food as they often claw back what you have saved by adding extortionate table service fees to your bill. We visited one such place, Chef Fredy (I wouldn’t recommend it), on our first night as the discount and four-for-one drinks deal offered to us seemed too good to be true and, of course, it was. The added table service was 16 soles per person and my £7/$9 ‘fajita’ was filled with baked beans straight out of a tin. Terrible.

That’s not to say there aren’t good restaurants to be found. We consulted trusty TripAdvisor the following day for a slightly classier establishment and decided on Mapacho, a restaurant that has quickly cemented itself as the number one place to visit in town despite having only been open a matter of months.

You immediately become aware that this place is different to the majority of the surrounding restaurants as, when you walk past, an employee doesn’t harangue you and attempt to drag you inside with ludicrous drinks offers – I think it says a lot when a place is confident enough to let its food alone do the talking.

The restaurant is mid-range in price and specialises in food and craft beers of Peruvian origin. You will pay more here than at other nearby places but you will also receive a much better standard of food, drink and service for your outlay. I had been wanting to try Lomo Saltado for a while so I ordered that (42 soles) and my companion went for Truche de Aji (39 soles) and we complimented our choices with a shared Peruvian IPA (20 soles) which was recommended to us by our helpful and friendly waiter. The food arrived promptly, was presented nicely and was absolutely delicious. My Lomo Saltado came with fried potatoes which were seasoned beautifully and my companion’s trout came with mashed potatoes which was extremely creamy and moreish. We wiped our plates. In addition to our food we were served complementary Cancha (Peruvian salted corn nuts) and a handmade salsa which complimented our meals fantastically. The restaurant charges no table service which was another positive when compared to other, inferior eateries around the town.

As we left the restaurant the owner came over to wish us a safe journey and conversed with us for a while which we found really pleasant. After our meal the previous night, we couldn’t have been happier with the jump in quality we experienced at Mapacho – when you factor in the ludicrous table charge we didn’t even pay that much more for a vastly better experience. In a town full of poor restaurants, Mapacho really stands out and is well worth a visit if you fancy a satisfying meal after an arduous day getting to the town or scaling Machu Picchu.

One thing we tried not to scrimp on during our trip to Machu Picchu was our accommodation. We wanted to be fully rested for our day up the mountain so we decided to pay a little bit more for our bed than usual and go for a hotel over a hostel. After doing a little research we made a reservation at Eco Machu Picchu Pueblo which has decent reviews and was reasonably priced. When we arrived we were greeted by the pleasant desk staff and given our keys. We made our way to our room which was spacious, clean and modern. It included a desk, TV with satellite channels in English, complimentary towels, shampoo and soap (which was a luxury in comparison to some of the places we stayed) and hangers which came in handy for draping our rain saturated clothes from over the coming days. The bathroom was again very clean and modern although one of the slats on the window was broken allowing a possible entry point for curious insects and outside noise. The double bed was new and provided me with some of the best sleep of my entire trip. One slight issue was that the room seemingly had a lack of ventilation or a problem with damp as wet clothing took an age to dry and sometimes the bed felt slightly damp to the touch.

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Our comfy hotel bed

Breakfast at the hotel is provided from 5am in the morning to accommodate people who wish to leave early for Machu Picchu. It consists of a good selection of breads, various spreads, sliced meats, cheese, cereals, coffee, tea and juices. If you require eggs, staff will cook them to your liking. Check out time is 9am which is very early but seems to be a thing in Aguas Calientes, a town which starts going about its business before the crack of dawn. We actually passed a few hotels that advertised 8am check outs so, in comparison, 9am felt rather generous. If you are adverse to early starts than double check this with your chosen accommodation before making payment. On the day of our check out I was feeling really ill and staff were nice enough to enquire about how I was feeling and make me coca tea to help me feel better.

Overall I enjoyed my stay at Eco Machu Picchu Pueblo. The bed was comfortable, the staff helpful and the hotel clean and tidy. The 5am breakfast was a welcome bonus as it meant we were able to set off for Machu Picchu with full bellies. The only thing that bothered me about the hotel was the very early check out time which wasn’t ideal considering our transport out of the town wasn’t due to leave until 2pm at the earliest – this must be an issue for many visitors and check out could be extended as a gesture of goodwill.

Final Destination: Machu Picchu

The fourth and final leg of reaching Machu Picchu is the walk up to the ruins themselves. Sensible folk flush with cash might choose to take the tourist bus up – these run from 5am in the morning and cost $12 each way – but you will be depriving yourself of a pretty scenic walk in the process. Be warned, however, that the hike up to Machu Picchu is quite challenging and can be exacerbated by poor weather conditions.

If you plan to walk to the ruins you should be aware of the opening times of the gates allowing entry to the site. The first is at the bridge just outside of Aguas Calientes which opens at 5am and the second is situated at the entry point of Machu Picchu itself and opens at 6am. Be sure to have your printed tickets and passport with you as the security will check them thoroughly at both gates. The walk up should take roughly an hour and thirty minutes if you are in good shape and considerably longer if you are unfit. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend this hike if you don’t exercise regularly or look after yourself properly as it was one of the most strenuous walks we undertook during our trip. In my opinion, it was far more difficult than summiting the volcano in Pucón.

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An example of what you’ll face on your walk up to Machu Picchu

Good weather at Machu Picchu is as unpredictable as rolling dice. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, we came up with snake eyes. From arrival to 11am we had thick cloud cover which badly obscured our views and from then until departure we had to contend with torrential rain and a wild drop in temperature. Of course, as soon as we got down from the mountain there were blue skies and glorious sunshine for the rest of the day. It is imperative that you check the forecast for the day of your visit and I would recommend bringing a waterproof jacket or poncho and extra layers even if the prediction is good as variable weather is common here.

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Making good use of my bin bag poncho in the rain

Just before you enter Machu Picchu you will come to an area with toilets and restaurants. Be aware that these are the only toilets on the site and you will have to leave Machu Picchu to use them. They cost one sole to use. Thankfully your ticket allows you to enter the park three times in total so you have some leeway if you need to use the loo during your visit. Food and drinks sold here are extortionately priced by Peru standards so I would heartily recommend packing some snacks of your own to get your through the day. Numerous guides mill about this area so if you fancy learning more about the ruins during your visit, attempt to pick one up before you enter.

Entry to the park leads to two pathways. The left path leads to the Sun Gate and montaña, the right pathway leads to the main Machu Picchu site and entry to Huayna Picchu. From the left fork the Sun Gate is a forty minute walk while the summit of montaña is an hour and thirty minutes up seemingly endless steep steps. We had booked to enter montaña between 9am and 10am so after a brief loop of the more famous ruins we headed in this direction. We were told the views from the summit were spectacular and were excited to see the ruins from an elevated viewpoint. Luck, however, was not on our side.

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Just to prove I made it to the top!

The hike up montaña was even more challenging than the initial climb to the Machu Picchu site and I wouldn’t recommend it to people who have even slight doubts about their fitness levels. The combined ascent and descent was brutal and left me with aching knees and a very painful lower back. To make matters worse, on our descent the heavens opened making things even more miserable for us. Already uneven steps were made all the more treacherous by the deluge, becoming slippery and at points outright dangerous due to the narrowness of the walkways. Parts of the hike down were like trudging through a muddy stream. Waterproof shoes are a must. Mine weren’t water resistant and I’m fairly certain the chilly afternoon temperatures combined with overexertion and wet feet led to my feeling really ill for the following few days.

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The steps down were waterlogged and treacherous

When we reached the top of montaña we breathed weary sigh of relief. Unfortunately, owing to the day’s heavy clouds, the views were non-existent bar one of two very brief and tantalising glimpses between the fast moving cloud. No doubt on a clear day the views are fantastic but we were left feeling sorely disappointed. Thankfully,  we managed to finish the arduous hike so at least we got a sense of achievement from that feat.

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One of our better views from near the summit of Machu Picchu mountain

Machu Picchu itself is as spectacular as you would imagine. If you need assistance the staff here are easy to find and are friendly and more than willing to help you out or offer advice. There are endless photographic opportunities and the surrounding mountains are themselves an absolute wonder. In certain areas of the site calm llamas can be found that are more than happy to pose for shots with you – if you’re lucky some of the more randy animals might even demonstrate some moves from the llama sutra for you. The only thing that can spoil your shots are the weather and other ignorant tourists who will often walk into your shots despite it being evident you are posing for a picture. In the morning we were unfortunate with cloud cover but with the onset of the rains these cleared somewhat in the afternoon and allowed us to photograph some clearer memories.

To summarise, Machu Picchu is as spectacular as you would imagine and it should be considering the challenges you’ll face getting to it. The park is open from 6am to 5pm and, weather permitting, it is worth staying as long as possible to get maximum enjoyment from your visit and to delay the punishing walk back down to Aguas Calientes. Pack efficiently to get the most out of your trip by taking a pack with additional layers, waterproof garments and sufficient food to get you through the day.

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