~By: Amanda, with salt bae and history facts from Anna and Julie
Last week someone told me that, “everyone visits Machu Picchu!” I imagine they are probably correct. It’s a relatively short flight from the United States down to Peru, as opposed to other destinations. I have always believed that it’s not if you do it, but how you do it and what you gain from the challenges and obstacles that you overcome. Often, one does not always appreciate things as much until they are able to reflect on them later.
There are many ways to tackle Machu Picchu (MP), and it all comes down to the correlation between your budget, time constraints and hiking abilities. First get to Cusco, an Andean city built over the historic capital of the Incan Empire. Cusco is ground zero for all Machu Picchu and Inca Trail tours. While there are options to pre-book online, we found it is much cheaper to make our way to Cusco and then book locally, which also gives your body time to adjust to the high altitude.
When I initially researched from my couch in NYC, I concluded a day to MP would cost around $300. Peru Rail and Inca Rail both operate trains between Cusco and Aguas Calientes (AC), the small town located at the base of MP. These trains are pricey– an advance ticket will run you $80-100 each direction. Tack on the Machu Picchu entrance fee of $70 and bus tickets up and down the rock face at around $30 round trip and you have a three hundred dollar day before even considering food, guide or celebration beers.
After careful research we determined the cheapest route involved booking what we named the “backpacker route.” Be ready, as this is a no-frills option involving a 5-6 hour bus ride on probably the windiest road in the world, two 11 km walks between Hydroelectrica and Aguas Calientes and a grueling vertical hike between base and summit of Machu Picchu. Through our hostel Pariwana in Cusco, we booked this package which also included a hostel for the night in AC and an English speaking guide, for just over $100. With plans for being on the road in South America for over the next month, this seemed like the only acceptable option for our budget.
The tour meets in the main town square in Cusco in front of the McDonalds. For our two day trip we opted and definitely recommend leaving your larger backpack locked in the hostel bag room, as you will have to carry everything you bring for 11 kilometers. Layers are the key for packing for this trip; the temperature and weather variances change rapidly. One minute you are enjoying the warm sun, and the next minute the wind kicks up and the sky opens in a downpour. I have decided this is how the ancient Inca gods mess with the tourists tresspassing on their sacred land. Also, make sure to bring enough bug spray to supply an army. The mosquitos in Agua Calientes are brutal– they leave scars. I’m pretty sure those Incan gods are responsible for this as well.
Packing list for Machu Picchu:
- Layers, Layers, Layers: workout tanks and tees, a fleece and windbreaker or waterproof outer layer. For ladies, leggings (how can we live without them) and for men workout or hiking pants.
- Hiking boots or running shoes with proper socks, which dry quickly
- Swimsuit and towel for the hot springs
- Three days worth of undergarments
- Flipflops for the hostel shower
- Pajamas (unless you’re that hostel mate we all talk about)
Our small bus held 19 passengers and they pack you and your luggage in like sardines. Once outside of Cusco, the driver takes you down one of the most terrifying roads I have ever experienced. The switch backs are threaded together without a moment’s peace from the twists and turns. We drove through waterfalls and speeds that make your stomach church. Don’t worry, the guard rails won’t ruin your Instagram photos– they are not present! So as you climb over and down each mountain you stare out your window at a terrifying shear drop down the mountain right beside the bus wheels. If you have ever experienced motion sickness in a car, Dramamine will be your best friend for this ride. For six hours I quietly leaned my head against the window and let those little pills keep breakfast from revising. This is the least I have ever spoken over a period this long.
After spending half a day cramped in the van on “hell road,” you arrive at Hydroelectrica definitely ready to stretch your legs. Here you have the option to either hike or purchase tickets for the over-priced train to Aguas Calientes. The first 10 minutes of the hike are a bit challenging climbing around the dam, but it straightens out to flat even terrain as you follow the railroad tracks. The total distance here is about 11K and will take 2.5-4 hours depending on your pace and abilities. Vendors and restaurants dot the side of the tracks selling necessary water and beer, so make the most of it and enjoy a couple cold ones as you walk in the afternoon sun.
We arrived later than expected in AC, having stopped for sandwiches and beer along the way. Ecopackers Machu Picchu Hostel was included in our tour package and was both clean and included free breakfast and WiFi. With only an hour to spare before closing time at 8 pm, we quickly changed into our swim suits and headed to the Aguas Calientes Hot Springs at the top of the town. The entrance fee was about $5. There are several man-made pools at various temperatures of heated natural spring water. It was not the best hot springs I have ever seen, but super effective at soothing the muscles of our exhausted legs. If you are planning to do any hiking while you visit MP, the hot springs are a good idea just for therapeutic reasons. They will also deliver you drinks poolside, for an additional charge.
Our group was scheduled to meet our guide at 8 pm to brief for our MP tour the next morning. As small as AC is, its easy to make a wrong turn and end up lost. Trying for a shortcut, we ended up 10 minutes late for our meeting. We were instructed to leave the hostel by 4:30-4:45 am to ensure we allowed enough time to climb the steps up the vertical face of Machu Picchu. Little did we know we would need all of that time and then some…
We awoke the next morning to the sound of raindrops beating down outside our window — yay a hike in the rain. In a last minute effort to avoid the rain, a group decision was made to attempt taking the bus to the top. I am pretty sure everyone else in Aguas Calientes had the exact same plan, because the line for bus tickets snaked around the bus terminal building and out of sight down the road. With that plan scratched, we only had one option: hike in the rain.
What awaited us was a trepidous hike up a mountain approximately 1,280 feet or 390 vertical meters. The hike is up, straight up, and stone steps are etched into the mountain to make the path slightly easier. I run about 20 miles a week and this hike kicked my butt. We had to stop several times for others to catch up who were slower and had asthma problems, or to try and adjust rain ponchos. All attempts to stay dry completely failed, there was too much slippery mud and torrential rain.
By the time we scrambled up over the last stone step, we felt like we had conquored the world. Soaked through and exhausted we met with our guide and the rest of our group. The entrance into the ruins was a hot mess; thousands of travelers crowded before the turnstiles in no apparent order or line (typical South America), pushing towards the entrance. You need both your passport and ticket with you in hand at this entrance point.
The weather continued to play hide and seek, with it raining one minute and the next getting too warm. It was a consistent peeling and replacing of layers. Our guide walked us through the ruins explaining the mysteries of this ancient culture. There are three large stone windows by symbolic rocks that line up perfectly once a year on the day of the summer solstice. The Inca loved three favorite animals: the condor, the puma, and the snake. As part of Incan mythology these animal symbols are often carved into stone walls and buildings. They also highly prioritized three favorite values: love, knowledge, and hard work.
It was fascinating to think how advanced this civilization was hundreds of years ago. There were several llamas roaming freely throughout the ruins that I badly wanted to pet until we determined these furry creatures can spit, so we kept our distance. The pictures speak for themselves, and also don’t do it justice, as I cannot properly convey how amazing this culture was to have created this civilization in the sky.
After our adventurous morning climb, we decided to buy a bus ticket back down to AC for $13/person. We were ready for the pizza and beer we had earned from our morning hike in the dark and rain. At the bottom we found a cute little restaurant where we ordered our steady favorite combination, warming ourselves at the restaurant’s brick oven. Considering we took far longer than we originally planned to hike to AC, we decided to also book a train ticket back to Hydroelectric. Buying a ticket last minute was very difficult and we were lucky to have a Spanish speaker with us. The ticket was well worth the money and we climbed into the clean and comfortable train; settling down with a complimentary coco tea.
The bus ride back to Cusco however was equally as crazy and I settled into my Dramamine induced haze, Spotify playlists ready.
How to plan your trip?
If you are planning a trip to Machu Picchu know your limits. Looking back, the sense of accomplishment I feel from hiking to the top is gratifying, but at the time I wanted to die! OK, being a little dramatic here. If I could plan it again, I would take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The sickness I experienced on the drive is enough for me to dig a little into my savings and fork over the extra money. If your budget won’t allow, come mentally and physically (pills) prepared for motion sickness. I have several friends who chose the train route and they definitely enjoyed the safety of the luxury train over our white-knuckle ride through the Peruvian mountains.
Stay two nights in Aguas Calientes! The hostel we stayed in was perfect and I believe about $10 a night. I would have enjoyed a more relaxed itinerary. The scenery surrounding AC alone was worth the extra time, as well as the multiple cute bars, I wanted to have a Pisco sour in them all. But hike Machu Picchu, and skip the bus. The feeling of accomplishment you will receive is worth it…
Our hearts and love go out to all the people in Aguas Calientes and Peru effected by the flooding. You are in our prayers!
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Pariwana Hostel: C. Meson de la Estrella 136, Cusco Peru +51 84 233751 www.pariwana-hostel.com
Ecopackers Hostel: Av Imperio de los Incas 136, Aguas Calientes, Peru +51 84 231800 www.ecopackersperu.com