Every country has a “must-see” attraction. In France, it’s the Eiffel Tower. In Rome, it’s the Colosseum. In Peru, the big “must-see” is the 15th-century Incan citadel, Machu Picchu. When friends and family found out we were going to Peru, they asked in excitement: “Are you going to see Machu Picchu?” Well, t’yeaah. I mean, who goes to Peru and doesn’t see Machu Picchu? As travellers before us can attest, seeing Machu Picchu is only half the fun – getting there is the real adventure.
You can’t just drive your vehicle up to the doorstep of Machu Picchu. The Incan ruins are located at the top of a mountain ridge at 2430 m (7970 ft) elevation, high above the Urubamba Valley (also known as the “Sacred Valley of the Incas”). Machu Picchu is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, so the Peruvian government limits the type of vehicles and the number of people that can enter. Currently, the limit is 2500 visitors per day, and only designated buses and maintenance vehicles can drive up to the ruins.
Gregor and I had three options to get to Machu Picchu:
1. Take a multi-day trek on the Inca Trail. Various trekking companies offer different routes, comfort levels, and prices to match. When we were researching this option, the cost of a 4-day trek varied from $350-$650 USD per person.
2. Take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, then take a bus to Machu Picchu. This 2- to 3-day trip costs about $150 USD per person for transportation ($120 return train ticket + $30 two-way bus fare) + $40 USD admission to Machu Picchu + 1-2 nights food and accommodation in Aguas Calientes.
Since Gregor and I were horribly out-of-shape and wanted to reduce costs, we decided to take the “back-door” route to Machu Picchu:
3. Drive from Ollantaytambo to Santa Teresa, take a taxi to the Machu Picchu Central Hydroelectric Station, then walk 12 km along the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes. This 4- to 5-day return trip costs about $60 USD per person in transportation costs (gas, taxi, and bus fare) + $40 admission to Machu Picchu + 1-2 nights food and accommodation in Aguas Calientes.
We found out about this route from detailed articles written by overlanders Drive Nacho Drive and Desk to Glory. Not only did this route save us money, it also allowed us to combine driving, public transportation, and backpacking into our Machu Picchu adventure.
Ollantaytambo to Santa Teresa
From Ollantaytambo, we drove to the alpine regions of the Sacred Valley along a nicely paved highway.
After reaching a chilly elevation of 3500 m (11480 ft), we descended into what looked liked a tropical ecosystem smack dab in the Andes mountains.
Suddenly, it became nice and warm in the van. Gregor and I rolled down the windows and felt the humidity on our skin. We cruised down the highway, watching the beautiful scenery and singing to our outdated Michael Bublé collection. Life was good.
And then we came to an ugly town where the pavement turned to gravel.
The gravel road got narrower…
…and rather terrifying.
We were pretty relieved when we arrived at our campground in Santa Teresa.
The Genaro Moscosco La Torre campground allows overlanders like us to safely park their vehicles for $3 USD per night while they visit Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. The campground’s main clients are actually trekking groups. When we got there, there were dozens of tents set up for all the backpackers making their way to and from Machu Picchu.
That night, Gregor and I decided to go to bed early so that we could start hiking to Aguas Calientes early the next morning. We tucked ourselves under our blankets at about 9:00 pm and had barely closed our eyes when the ground beneath us started thumping.
“Is that what I think it is?” I groaned.
“Yup,” Gregor sighed, “It’s dance music.”
Throughout our Latin American travels, we have come to expect the occasional sleepless night due to loud music from the bar next door, or a nearby pool party, or neighbouring campers. We didn’t expect to hear throbbing dance music in a campground specifically built for travellers going to Machu Picchu.
I jumped out of the van and marched towards the noise. It was a full-on outdoor dance party right in the middle of the campground. There were blinking multi-coloured concert lights and huge professional-grade speakers and a kick-ass sound system with a DJ pumping his fist in the air. There were about 40 people on the grass lawn gyrating to “Macarena”, holding cocktails, beer bottles, and cans of Red Bull.
“Why does this have to happen tonight?!” I thought to myself, absolutely furious. We came all this way, ready to hike to one of the most sacred places in the world, and I can’t get a good night’s sleep because there’s a DJ blasting the Macarena at Machu Picchu base camp.
I went straight to the reception desk, which had turned into a makeshift cocktail bar. The music was so loud that I had to scream at the campground owner to get his attention. “What’s going on?” I asked him in Spanish. He told me that it was a birthday party, a special occasion. It would all end at 11:00 pm. “No se preocupe”, he said. “Don’t worry”.
Not surprisingly, the dance party didn’t end at 11:00 pm. I tossed and turned with my crappy earplugs on, getting more frustrated by the minute. I got so worked up that I started to cry like an overtired baby. Gregor can’t stand to see me cry. Like a hero, he quickly pulled out his noise-cancellation headphones from his computer bag and put them on my head. I fell to sleep right away.
Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
The next morning, we packed our backpacks and hopped into a taxi bound for the Central Hydroelectric Station. From there, we would hike to Aguas Calientes.
Our taxi driver was a real maniac. He sped along the single-lane gravel road, which was perched along a cliff that plunged into the Urubamba River. There was no guard rail and there were plenty of blind corners.
During the nauseating 45-minute ride, Gregor kept giving me weird faces. At first, his face showed concern (like “Geez, this guy is driving a bit fast.”)…then surprise (“Wow, this guy is going waaay too fast.”)…followed by disbelief (“Woah, did you see how we almost hit that other car?”)…and finally, fear (“Please God, don’t let us die in this taxi!”).
Once we arrived at the hydroelectric station, we pried our sweaty selves from the vinyl seats and thanked the driver for keeping us alive. From there, we walked alongside the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes. The 3-hour hike is pretty flat and not very challenging, but we enjoyed the scenery and the freedom of backpacking to our destination.
As we entered the town of Aguas Calientes, we passed through a parade of restaurant greeters whose sole job is to shove menus in front of innocent tourists and lure them into eating food they probably wouldn’t otherwise eat.
We headed straight to Hotel Las Rocas, which we reserved on Booking.com. When we arrived, the owner said that all the rooms were booked. So he took us to his other hotel and gave us a lower quality room for a cheaper price.
After washing up, we passed through the same parade of restaurant greeters and picked a place to relax with a few beers. The menu advertised a “4 x 1 Happy Hour” special:
Based on this, we assumed that we would receive four drinks for the price of one. Not so. We actually received four drinks for one “promotional” price. So instead of paying the “regular” price of $12 for 4 beers, we paid the “promotional” price of $10.50 for 4 beers. Makes absolutely no sense, right? Try figuring this out in Spanish!
After happy hour, we walked around Aguas Calientes, enjoyed the sights, and had a lovely dinner.
That night, we went to bed early to catch the 5:00 am bus to Machu Picchu. I was about to doze off when I heard latin pop music streaming into our hotel room. I opened the window facing the hotel courtyard and found the source – a young skinny guy at the reception desk was bobbing to a Bachata beat blasting from the speakers above him.
“Is this really happening again?” I thought to myself, absolutely livid. We came all this way, ready to visit one of the most sacred places in the world, and I can’t get a good night’s sleep because there’s an ill-trained teenager trying to stay awake during his night shift.
I went straight to the reception desk, where the young man was texting on his oversized Samsung phone. The music was so loud that I had to yell at the guy to get his attention. “We need to get up early tomorrow morning. Can you please turn down the music?” He decreased the volume without objection and I crawled back into bed.
An hour later, the music was blaring again. No noise-cancellation headphones this time. I marched back to the reception desk and repeated the entire process, trying not to lose my cool on the skinny teen. He decreased the volume again and I eventually went to sleep. Perhaps the guy at reception went to sleep, too.
Gregor and I got up the next morning at 4:00 am, which is a ridiculous hour for us but we wanted to see Machu Picchu at sunrise. We scarfed down our hotel breakfast (white buns with butter and jam) and then lined up for the bus bound for the ancient city.
When we got out of the bus, we lined up again to enter Machu Picchu site.
The crowd of people pushing through the gates was horrendous. We all wanted that iconic shot of the mountain top before all the tour groups came in to pollute the frame. Gregor and I raced to the highest part of the site, dodging all the selfie sticks and tripods and tablets sweeping around in pano mode. We snapped about a million photos from the top and then took the rest of the morning to explore the site.
Machu Picchu doesn’t have an onsite museum or any interpretive displays to explain the ancient city. You’re expected to hire one of the guides at the entrance to learn more about the ruins. We opted not to do this, partially to save money and partially to let our imaginations do the interpreting.
By 11:00 am, the crowds were really thick and it became difficult to maneuver inside the site’s narrow passageways. Still, it was fun to explore the city’s structures and imagine how the Incans lived hundreds of years ago.
Eventually, nature came calling and we needed to go to the bathroom. To do this, we had to exit the ruins and stand in line for the pay-to-use toilets. Our admission ticket allowed us to enter the ruins a second time, but not a third. Fortunately, we went to the bathroom at the end of our self-guided tour.
Gregor and I took the bus back to Aguas Calientes for lunch and then hiked back to our campsite in Santa Teresa. Tired and sweaty, we took a dip in the nearby thermal baths called Baños Colcamayo.
That night, there was another incredibly loud dance party at the campground (apparently, it was a popular birthday week for backpackers in the Sacred Valley). As before, I went straight to the reception desk…yada yada…blah blah blah…and then I put on the noise-cancellation headphones.
Now that we’ve been to Machu Picchu, people ask us “So what did you think of it?”
To be completely honest, the city of Machu Picchu is not as sacred as we imagined. The perfectly restored nature of the ruins gave the place a less “mystical” feel and the visitor crowds took away some of the magic. What impressed us about Machu Picchu is the beautiful mountain setting. The fact that the Inca created these large-scale stone structures in such an inaccessible place is truly remarkable.
Was Machu Picchu worth all the hassle of getting there? Well, t’yeaah. After all, it’s not about the destination – it’s about the journey.