I remember when I first dreamed of this adventure, the number one sight on my list for South America was Machu Picchu – probably because I didn’t know anything else. Taking the train from Cuzco is really expensive (USD$122 return) so I decide to go for the cheaper, walk-in option.
I set out early one morning and drive through The Sacred Valley, passing Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Santa Maria and along a very narrow little track to the village of Santa Teresa. I’m amazed at the dense jungle and feel like I’m right back in Central America – complete with torrential rain, humidity and thick clouds of ferocious biting insects. I camp for the night at the “Inka Tour Hospedaje” where the friendly owner charges next to nothing and lets me park the Jeep while I go hiking for a few days. Walking the 40 minutes at dust to the Hot Springs near town is very worthwhile – an evening soak with just a couple of other people.
In the morning I hike two hours along a windy gravel road to Hydroelectrica, the heat and humidity climbing steadily the entire time. This is actually the last stop on the famous railway, and while I could catch a train for USD$8, I opt to walk the tracks for a further two hours to Aguas Calientes. Impressively, Machu Picchu Mountain is directly in front of me for most of the hike, and ruins are visible high above on Wayna Picchu to the left.
The town of Aguas Calientes is the very definition of a tourist trap, everything is over-priced about 400% and we are all quite literally stuck there for the night. After meeting up with a few friends and grabbing a “happy hour” beer we can’t help but make fun of the advertising – people are trying to lure us in left and right, we’re even told it’s 6-for-1 drinks right now. Upon closer investigation it’s nothing of the sort, and even the Argentineans with perfect Spanish can’t get the proprietor to explain how it even remotely resembles the claimed 6-for-1.
The beer is expensive, cold and great
I’m up at 4am in the morning, not content to pay the USD$8 one-way for the bus to the actual site of Machu Picchu. About 50 people have opted to walk the very steep ascent, which takes around 90 minutes. When I arrive soon after 5am I’m about the 15th person in line, clearly guaranteed to get the all-importatnt stamp to climb Wayna Picchu, of which there are only 400 issued each day.
Seeing the site for the first time is surreal, compounded by the fact I am one of the first through the gate, so there is not a single person wandering the ruins. Staring for half an hour does little to change my feeling of disbelief. Over the course of the day I hike up the nearby Wayna Picchu Mountain where the views are spectacular, hike the final section of The Inca Trail to Intipunku (The Sun Gate) and finally hike up Machu Picchu Mountain for superlative views of the whole area.
By the end of the day I am extremely hungry and thirsty, though not willing to pay the outrageously inflated prices for food and water on the mountain. I walk back down to Aguas Calientes, drink two liters of expensive water and collapse after a very big day.
For my final day I’m on the trail at 5.30am, hike the four hours back to Santa Teresa, then jump in the Jeep to drive the six hours back to Cuzco. Another big day.
Extremely tired and foot-sore I find the energy to walk into town and I’m pretty sure I make money at the USD$5 buffet.