Many of the guidebooks imply that you should book your Machu Picchu tickets months in advance and that it is near impossible to procure tickets once you are already in Peru. The truth is, of course, quite radically different. There are many tour agencies offering all types of trips in Cusco and you will come across a variety of prices and promises. I chose to book a two night/three-day tour that offered me the possibility of a full day in Machu Picchu. The tour was offered by Manu Tours located just off Plaza de Armas. It was my understanding that a minivan would collect me at their office and transport me to Hidroelectrica. From there, it would be a short walk to Aguas Calientes. I would spend two nights in a hotel there- in my own room.
Some Cuscueños were a little sceptical of the tour I was offered (particularly as I was paying $100).
Trip to Hidroelectrica
From Cusco to Santa Maria
Things got off to a relatively good start. The bus arrived on time and we made a tour of Cusco to pick people up from a variety of hotels and hostels. We were soon on the open road and speeding through the towns and villages of the Sacred Valley. Chinchero looked poor and downtrodden while Ollantaytambo had an appealing central Plaza.
Any idea of a stay in the former was quickly dumped, but the latter climbed significantly in my list of places to visit in the Sacred Valley. We eventually stopped at 10 am at a service station where we had thirty minutes to drink a coffee and to use the bathroom. Then on we sped towards our destination.
From Santa Maria to Hidroelectrica
Santa Maria marked a change in the trip. Derelict buildings. Bare concrete walls with no roofs. The lower part of the town looked like it had fought a war and lost- badly. And this is where I planned to spend a few days after Machu Picchu…
In fact, I did spend the best part of a week on a coffee farm between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa (possibly my favourite experience in Peru, even if these first impressions were not quite positive).
El Camino de la Muerte (Peruvian Version)
The road from Santa Maria to Hidroelectrica can best be described as Camino de la Muerte on steroids. In fact, there is no way that I would ever ride a bicycle there. Forget tar surfaces and think plenty of mud and dust. Then, add in zero room to overtake, precipitous drops, blind turns, and insane driving. You might feel glad to arrive at your destination, except that the destination in question is Hidroelectrica. It is a place with a decidedly middle of nowhere feel.
Walk to Aguas Calientes
The short walk ends up taking three hours, which is hardly surprising since it is 12km and I’m carrying a backpack and a daypack…
For those who have bigger budgets, the train from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes costs $29 one way. I decided to go for the more hardcore backpacker option- the short walk. Basically, it is a laid-back jungle trek on the flat. It would be easy if you are travelling light rather than carrying two weeks´ worth of clothes. However, there is a steep climb to reach the railway line and that path is uneven, even treacherous.
A Scary Start
We came across an unconscious backpacker being attended to by a small group on our way up (not quite the start that I was expecting). Following along the path I got talking to an Ecuadorian from our bus. Taking pity on me, he offered to carry my daypack and we chatted all the way to Aguas Calientes. Despite a 10kg backpack, only the section approaching the town was more challenging. This is due to the slightly steeper slope as you walk up into the town.
By the time we reached the town we had been walking for three hours. Arriving in Plaza de Armas, we were met by tour leaders shouting our names and our group slowly assembled. It transpired that I was to share a room with two Scottish girls. However, I cannot complain since unlike other groups, nobody arrived back drunk at midnight and/ or snored all night. Our evening meal was part of the trip price and I ended up at a table with my Ecuadorian friends and an Argentinian called David. He was from Buenos Aires and told me that Uruguay was ´como si fuera una provincia nuestra´ (as if it were one of our provinces). Luckily, there were no Uruguayos (pronounced Uru-gwashos in Argentinian and Uruguayan Spanish) on our bus. Standing 190cm tall, I would have bet on David in any ensuing argument.
South American Politics
Given that our table was 75% South American and 25% oddball Spanish-speaking Irish, the talk soon turned to politics. The South Americans were comparing political leaders- mucha corrupción. Choose between a leader who started with promise and is now facing all sorts of corruption charges and one who started with great promise and is now apparently turning into Gollum. At the end of the evening, we were given our tickets to Machu Picchu. I was amused to see that I am now 25 and come from Afghanistan. Hopefully, this will not count heavily against me when I return to Europe.
Due to a host of complications and despite getting up at 3:30 am, I ran behind time and decided to accompany my Ecuadorian tripmates on the bus. The ticket office doesn´t open until 5 am and the first bus doesn´t leave until 5:30 am. The line for the bus was LONG, but we arrived at 6:30 am. Getting into the site was straightforward and you can enter and exit three or four times. Note that your ticket is marked each time and all cafe and toilet facilities are outside the gates.
Tour and Roaming
Our visit began with an informative guided tour of the main sights (available in Spanish and English). After this, we were free to roam and discover. The early morning light was challenging for photography using an iPad and iPhone, but the site was enchanting. Watching the sunrise above the surrounding mountains is an experience that I won´t quickly forget. Indeed, it is a good idea to get to Machu Picchu as early as possible. Also, arriving early allows you to avoid the crowds that develop later in the morning.
Photo Opportunities Abound
My newfound Ecuadorian friends liked to take photos, so there were numerous photo ops and stops. Every corner seemed to uncover a new surprise and a new photo angle. The mystery of the ancient stones is enhanced is by the verdant beauty of the surrounding mountains. You might say that the appeal of the site can best be described in three words- LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. The Sun Gate is a particularly good spot to take photos. However, you will have to share it with a few hundred other people at busy times. I wanted to follow a path to the left of the Sun Gate, but the Ecuadorians needed to leave to walk back to Hidroelectrica, so we went to the cafe for some coffee.
The stones are believed to exude their own energy and Machu Picchu is thought to be one of the best places in the world to meditate. Just choose your stone and relax!
Having the full day meant that I could now revisit the places that I loved in the morning. Also, I could explore new places that I hadn´t had time to see at all- i.e. the route to the left of the Sun Gate. Having had lunch with David, we made an appointment to meet at the Sun Gate. However, I thought that he also meant to follow the same route as me and off I went on my climb above the whole site. In fact, what I didn´t know was that this was Machu Picchu mountain. FYI, it requires a special ticket that didn’t have at all.
Machu Picchu Mountain
Luck was on my side in the sense that there was no ticket check and I was free to follow the path- UP! The sun was still strong and the climb was horrendous (I am by no means a hillwalker back home). But the views were amazing- apologies for the cliche, but it rings true in this case. Although I didn´t get right up to the top of the mountain, I got far enough to find some beautiful spots to relax and take photos. As incredible as the ruins are close up, they are even more impressive when seen from a distance.
The changing light above the site is another element that adds to the magic of the place.
Having wrongly decided that David had abandoned me, I left the site at 4 pm. What followed was a comedy of errors. I had no water, but I thought that I hardly needed any for the downhill trek to Aguas Calientes. Truly I should have known better! I had laughed at the story of the girl who arrived at the entrance in the morning and threw herself on the ground crying. However, I might have questioned why that had been the case, but I didn´t. Uneven steps, twists and turns, jungle heat and no water. As Good As It Gets...Luckily I hadn´t drunk the pineapple juice in my breakfast pack, so I was able to drink something in the middle of the misery. Put it like this, I was more than happy to enjoy the aguas calientes of a hot shower when I got back to the hotel…
- Buy plenty of water the night before. Everything at the site is super expensive and the sun is hot, hot, hot. You need water at all times to avoid dehydration.
- Try to take a tour that allows you to spend the full day in Machu Picchu. The changing light is one of the highlights of a day spent here.
- Be careful when booking a tour from Cusco. You will be promised the sun, moon, and stars, but paying more may even turn out to be less in reality. Overall, I was happy with the tour I booked with Manu Tours, despite some discrepancies.
- Wear good walking shoes, preferably with a good grip. The walk up to the Sun Gate is not that easy (steep gradient most of the way).
- Have sunscreen and wear it. You are high in the mountains and the sun is strong.
- Aguas Calientes is a tourist trip. Seek out the central market and eat there. The breakfasts are particularly good value. Also, most restaurants have the exact same menus and prices- go figure.
- Be prepared for some tough walking if you decide to use the pedestrian route up or down to the site.
- Try to travel light. The walk to Aguas Calientes takes you through pristine nature that you will better appreciate if you are not overburdened.
- Consider Ollantaytambo as an alternative starting point instead of Cusco. It is well worth a few days and agencies there can easily organise for you to be collected by the Cusco buses.
- Be aware that the cafe and all toilet facilities are outside the site. Also, use of the toilets costs 1 sol, so bring some small change.
Machu Picchu is a highlight of any visit to South America. Make sure to go and take the time to enjoy it!
Please feel free to leave a comment below if you want to share an opinion or an experience. You can also mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear your feedback, both positive feedback, and constructive criticism. Also, I am interested in hearing any relevant experiences and tips that you would like to share with other travellers.