This post will be slightly out of sequence as, after leaving Bolivia, we went to Cusco in Peru, but due to the fact that Carl was expecting a post delivery, we had to return to Peru after visiting Machu Picchu. At the time of writing this I am still in Cusco, so it felt would be unfair to write about it first, knowing that I will be here for a while and might explore more of this beautiful city, so Machu Picchu had to come first.
I must admit, almost up until reaching the famous Inca Ruins, I was absolutely confused about our means of getting there. Here it proves that I am the most rubbish at planning anything, because, even though, we only came to Peru, as it was me who wanted to see Machu Picchu, I left it all to Carls planning skill and did not ask anything about it until few days before departing for it. And then, of course, I got all panicky, read some articles on internet, got even more stressed out and went around like a headless chicken.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu, and most of them are expensive and possibly unnecessary. Of course, it depends on what you want to see, how much time you have and how much disposable income is in your pockets. It is quite easy to get confused reading about various treks, like Inca Trail, which breaks down into different amount of days and distances you can complete. I was absolutely convinced that the Inca Trail is the only way to access Machu Picchu and got worried when I found out that it can only be done accompanied by a licensed tourist company (apparently this is a government rule). It sounded very expensive. To make matters worse, I freaked out about tickets, because in last few years, it has become harder to get them, as the daily visits are limited, so they can get sold out if not bought in advance.
The tickets to see the Machu Picchu can be purchased via DRC (Dirrecion Regional de Cultura) website if you are patient enough (but it does not always go through, so we did not attempt this option), or, alternatively, in one of the ticket offices in Cusco (at Instituto Nacional de Cultura, not far from Plaza de Armas) or in Aguas Calientes (tiny settlement near Machu Picchu, which is where you will end up on the way). You can choose to get the ticket to Machu Picchu alone, or for extra price, get a ticket to hike one of the mountains surrounding the ruins – Huayna Picchu or Montana Picchu. Note that the Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 visitors a day, as it is more popular, and both mountains have to be entered from 7am to 11am. There is plenty of information available online, comparing both hikes and discussing which one offers more views/is more dangerous etc. We chose to see Machu Picchu and climb Montana Picchu as the tickets for Huayna Picchu were sold out for the day of our visit. The ticket cost roughly 150 soles (approximately 30 GBP). Don’t forget your passport when buying tickets and entering Machu Picchu – the tickets are registered with your passport data.
As for the means of getting there – we were lucky enough to have our own transport, so we avoided sky high prices of the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (or getting a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and then a train to Aguas Calientes). These were the obvious options if you don’t want to do the Inca Trail. The problem is, that Aguas Calientes cannot be reached via the road and the only way to get there is on the train, which is heavily overpriced, with prices soaring up to 100 USD for a ticket from Cusco. Alternatively, it is possible to travel to the small town of Santa Teresa (or Santa Maria) northwest of Machu Picchu and take the route which is sometimes called the “backdoor to Machu Picchu”, because it is a cheaper alternative to those willing to save some soles.
Twisty road up to the mountain pass
It was not an easy road to Santa Teresa and took us almost 5 hours, as it is a mountain pass and the road was long and windy, taking us through the clouds, coldness and rain. The last leg of the journey also turned out to be a dirt road, which, we both admitted, was much more scary than the famous Death Road we did in Bolivia, with sheer drops on one side of the road and crumbling rocks on the other side. I was rather thankful when the journey was over. We stayed a night in an average hotel, but it allowed us to park the bike in the massive lobby and keep it there for a night whilst we return from Machu Picchu. The next morning we woke up bright and early as the next stage was getting to Hidro-electrica – the hydro electric power station from where a 15km hike to Aguas Calientes starts.
At the hotel lobby we met another motorcycle traveller – Philip from Sweden, who joined us as he was doing the same route. We took a taxi to Hidro-electrica and then our hike along the train tracks begun. We were lucky with the weather (as it was obvious that the rainy season is on the doorstep with some strong rain occurring in the afternoons), and with sun shining on our heads, it was pleasant hike, which took us approximately 2.5 hours spent chatting away and fighting off insects too eager to feast on our blood. Note, take plenty of insect repellent with you – all the area around Machu Picchu is teeming with little midge-like creatures biting furiously. Even with some strong repellent we still got plenty of nasty, itchy bites, but we fared better than some people we saw with massive red lumps on their legs.
Philip and Carl walking ahead
We got to Aguas Calientes by lunchtime and, after some refreshing cold beer, booked simple rooms in a hotel just by the train station. All we had to do now was to kill some time, as we would depart from Machu Picchu the next morning. Aguas Calientes is purely a touristy place, created only for that purpose, so full with restaurants offering exactly the same food, mostly overpriced hotels and hundreds of stalls selling all the usual tourist stuff like alpaca jumpers, woven bracelets and souvenirs (I must confess, by now I own an alpaca jumper and a bracelet too). I did find that being at the train station made me think of old western films where small towns were shown with people arriving there to look for gold.
The train station with the mountain looming in the background
It was an early morning next day with getting up at 5am to catch one of the first buses going up to Machu Picchu. Again, it was a pretty hefty price for a 20 minute bus journey – 28 USD for a return trip. You can hike up, but we were lazy so I am not complaining. Even though, I thought we got up really early, the queue was already stretching for what looked like 100m. Thankfully the buses go nonstop so by the time I finished my take-away coffee, it was our turn to board the bus.
The queue stretched way beyond that overhead bridge
The bus takes you up to the entry gates and there are toilets and luggage storage. There are no toilets on the site so it is a good idea to do your business just before entering. We had no luggage to store, as we arrived in Aguas Calientes with small rucksacks containing only essentials, so we were in in no time. Then it was just all steps up the mountain. Big people steps. Not for people with short little legs like me. But after what seemed an eternity of StairMaster, we were treated to the following view – Machu Picchu in all it’s glory, just as seen in travel guides or dreamt about.
We probably did not realise it yet, but we made the mistake of not picking up the little guides given out at the entry so we did not have a structured route in mind. Instead, we just wondered around slightly aimlessly. After snapping some pictures like the one above, we proceeded to walk up to the Sun Gate (Intu Punku), once a main entrance to Machu Picchu and dedicated to the Sun God. It was a tiring task, as it was stone steps of various sizes all over again and it took about 30 minutes of sweating and swearing. I was envious of people with walking sticks.
Carl looking pleased with himself on the steps, but notice the amazing surroundings
Sun Gate is located at the East Side of the Sanctuary, so I imagine, there could be some breathtaking views at the sunrise, but we were there at 7am, so the sun was already up.
The Sun Gate (and someone’s butt – I only noticed now)
From the above
After seeing the Sun Gate, we turned back the way we came (considerably easier going downhill) and proceeded on the way back to the main site. Before getting down to the ruins, we walked up to the Guardhouse or Caretaker’s Hut which is the main place to take the sort of the usual picture of Machu Picchu you see online or in travel guides. There were many people queuing there so I did not bother, as I had plenty of pictures anyway.
The Guardhouse with all the tourists around it
After that we walked down to the ruins to explore, but, maybe because we did not read much about it beforehand, maybe because neither of us know much about Inca history, it was not as spectacular as one would expect. It is certainly more impressive from the above and walking around could be slow and painful at the times due to all the tourists with their selfie sticks, sometimes even blocking pathways to take pictures and making all the others wait.
The ruins closer up
What I did enjoy were the llamas running around the site carelessly and some of them were very curious and came up to people poking their noses at the cameras, or just sniffing around. Silly as it sounds, it probably was my highlight of the whole thing.
It did not feel like we were doing much, but just getting around the site and looking at things, took us good 4 hours and we were starting to get tired and the sun was really strong and hot. We decided against climbing the mountain as the steps everywhere were tiring enough (I know, couch potatoes!) and the crowds of people were getting busier and busier. It was time to get the bus down, which proved much easier now. Once back in Agua Calientes, it turned out that there was a train going back to Hidro-electrica so we decided to try that out, instead of hiking back in the midday sun. The train was very touristy, but comfortable and slow so I dozed all the way back, tired after all the walking.
After returning to Santa Teresa, we had to stay in the hotel another night as it was too late to make our way back to Cusco and we set off early next morning without any delay.
Even though, we did not climb the Montana Picchu, and possibly did not see all that Machu Picchu had to offer, I was feeling pleased enough that I have been there and happy to be away from tourist crowds. Would I have gone to Machu Picchu, if I would not have known the cheap, alternative route? Possibly not. As with everything so grand and famous to see, it felt that Machu Picchu and everything surrounding it was overpriced and trying to get the most out of the visitors and there are plenty of more beautiful sites and views (including less visited, but equally stunning Inca Ruins and trails).