Made it to Peru, country #5, from La Paz late October with zero hassle and arrived at Loki Cusco to find the Three Musketeers and Mark where I knew I would – at the bar. Jordan, Mark and I went out and stayed out till closing time, then for sunrise we made it up to a Cusco lookout point with a local who turned out to be a little weirder than the dim lighting of that club at the plaza initially revealed. My bad, guys, it was I who insisted she was cool.
The musketeers and I were scheduled to do the cheap route to Machu Picchu together a couple of days later, with Mark providing the details of how to do so based on first-hand experience. If you don’t have a Mark, this road to Machu Picchu is described in great detail in various places on the web.
Of course, you can sell a kidney and use PeruRail from Cusco – you’ll cough up at least ZAR1 500 for the return trip, excluding Machu Picchu fees, food and accommodation.
But the walk is so gorgeous and so easy that there really are no reasons for you to use the train other than a physical disability or a too-much-money handicap.
You can also do a number of much longer treks (days and days and days) like the Inca Trail – overrated from what I hear, not to mention the price of a kidney and a part of your liver – or the Salkantay trek, which both favourite USAmerican Nikki and erstwhile colleague and current kindred spirit Natasha recommend. But if Natasha’s blog post is anything to go by, it’s rather strenuous and not ideal if you prefer life towards the more laid-back spectrum of things. Why sweat when you can swagger?
When I was planning my travels back in 2012 I came across a clandestine way of visiting expensive Machu Picchu. While wading deep in the recesses of Reddit I found a very long and very detailed post about the “not entirely legal” way of getting to the most familiar icon of Inca civilisation. That way is 33km long, and overly complicated.
The truth is far less controversial, much simpler and significantly shorter, regardless of whether you’re travelling with three 21-year-olds embarking one of their most life-threatening hangovers yet (I, eternally wise, was well-slept and already up on the morning of our departure when they crawled into bed. Variations on a theme for these guys!).
How to get to Machu Picchu without selling vital organs
- Take a collectivo (minibus) to Santa Maria (35 soles) and from there a taxi to Santa Teresa (10 soles). Try to leave your hostel by noon so that you get to Santa Teresa at a reasonable hour that allows for swimming and eating. The taxi drivers in Cusco know where to take you.
- Our taxi driver from Santa Maria hooked us up with accommodation for the night at 15 soles, much cheaper even than Loki back in Cusco.
- Slide into the hot springs of Santa Teresa – clean and soothing. Our driver took us there for a little bit extra and we scored a ride back up for 4 soles. The entry for the thermal pools is a steal, 5 soles or something. Mark says they’re much cleaner than the ones in Aguas Calientes.
- The same taxi driver picked us up at 6 the next morning and took us to Hidroelectrica, where the walk starts.
- It couldn’t be simpler: follow the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. It’s 11km of level walking, bridge crossing (some scarier than others), past rivers and Sacred Valley peaks straight out of the movies. Painfully beautiful, even in the pouring rain. There are some stalls selling plastic ponchos, water and snacks – stock up here if you didn’t in Santa Teresa, after this there’s nothing but the river, train tracks and trees.
- You have to buy your ticket for Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes. It’s 128 soles for the basic package, excluding the bus up to the main site. Tickets are valid for two days (in case of weather) but allow only one entry; you need positive ID so bring your passport (always). I took the bus up and walked down.
If you follow these instructions step by step you’ll get there – but if you’re obsessive and paranoid like me, do a thorough Google search and check out WikiTravel.
The drive from Cusco through the Sacred Valley is something else. The roads become ever steeper and narrower, winding up and around themselves, then down again. The twists and the views hit you in the stomach. The beauty mounts. The journey takes you into ever-deepening remoteness, uniform green peaks leading the eye towards where the Incas built their lost city. Just getting to Santa Teresa is a journey worth taking, and one I regret not repeating.
We hit those hot springs in Santa Teresa, hard.
Dinner and drinks and the boys were almost as good as new.
Cool story bro: We woke up in the rain and our taxi driver insisted that it was still fine to do the trek to Aguas Calientes. The prize for motivating everyone surprisingly goes to Tom, who argued me down when I started whimpering about the weather and started suggesting that we should wait a day.
Then, only two minutes out of Santa Teresa, the car came to a stop. A mudslide during the night had blocked the road with boulders, big ones. Rocks were still tumbling down from the mountains. But there’s no way but through, so the dudes (everyone except Alex, actually) got out and got to work pushing a big boulder down the cliff. Respect!
By 6:30 we had started walking.
It took me a while to cross this bridge (below). Tom was making fun of me from the opposite side, smug and British, citing some scene from a movie (“Oh my god, this is exactly like that scene in Stand By Me when that kid starts to panic and then a train comes to kill them all!”) and I considered crawling over the too-far-apart slats of wood that gaped to reveal water rushing past far, far below. I managed not to cry but it was close. Only upon my return the same way the next day did I notice the very prominent, obvious even, pedestrian bridge on the right.
We had a brilliant adventure, all of us consumed by our thoughts and silences most of the time, but by the time we got to Aguas Caliente at around 11am (it took us two hours and 15 minutes to walk the 11km) the rain was still coming down hard and I was tired and increasingly grumpy. Heading straight for Machu Picchu didn’t feel like the right thing to do – I knew I’d end up rushing it because I wanted a nap, and the rain would ruin my pictures. These circumstances aren’t conducive to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The dudes, however, had a ridiculous deadline to adhere to, so I bid them farewell as they headed up to the ruins and found a place to sleep for the night (30 soles) in Aguas Calientes.
I had made the right decision: early the next morning the clouds had departed, the sky was blue, my and the camera’s batteries were charged and my belly had developed that tickling excitement as it dawned on me that I was about to see something I never thought I would.