This is a post about having the courage to achieve a dream, even when it looks impossible. Every traveller knows the feeling of having to decide whether to go on or turn back; take a risk or make a compromise. There are times – especially for people who, unlike me, place some value on their lives – when turning back might be the right thing to do. This wasn’t one of those times.
“You can go your own way!”
- Fleetwood Mac
Note: if you’re in a hurry, I’ve bolded all the important info on getting from Cusco to Machu Picchu the cheapest way, so feel free to scroll.
I first saw Machu Picchu – as I suspect did many of my artsy, subtitle-loving, travel-obsessed peers – on a misty morning in 2004 when Gael García Bernal took to the road as a moody Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Walter Salles’ brilliant Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries)…
…and I’d dreamed of following in his footsteps (Guevara’s? Bernal’s? Salles’? Bingham’s? Or some Inca’s?) ever since. So it was with mad anticipation that, years later, there I was, blitzing up South America – Bolivia, La Paz, Copacabana, Titicaca, Isla del Sol, crossing into Perú loaded up on “Mescaline” and “DMT” purchased from “witches”…
This was back when I’d laugh in the face of the word “tour” – back when I was young and poor and full of energy and enthusiasm for life. Now I’m older and wiser and…well, still poor.
So, Can I Reach Machu Picchu without Hiking the Inca Trail?
Yes, of course you can.
Is it easy?
Will you remember it forever as one of the greatest moments of your life?
I know I will.
How to Get to Machu Picchu from Cusco, Peru
In Cusco (Cuzco in Spanish, and therefore often, erroneously, in English), on a recommendation, I’d ended up at Wild Rover backpackers’ – a notorious (Loki-esque) party hostel and little piece of Irish drinking culture in the historic heartland of Peru. I spent my nights in the bar and my days wandering hungover amongst the dry-stone Inca alleys of this UNESCO World Heritage city.
I Googled (as you may be doing now) the “cheapest way to get to machu picchu”, but there wasn’t a lot on the net back then…unless you count a ridiculous TripAdvisor discussion where someone asked if there was a way to visit Machu Picchu without booking a tour and of the ten responses, not one person mentioned a reasonable solution. Among them were such pearls of wisdom as:
- “I did my entire 10 day trip without one booked tour. The only stuff I booked before I went were the plane tickets, hotels, and the train to Machu Picchu…I found a guide…to give us a tour”
- “You can…use someone like Sophie at email@example.com to help you with your arrangements”
- “The only “tour” I booked was the Inca Trail…tour”.
- “I can’t imagine visiting Machu Picchu without a guide…a knowledgeable guide is the ONLY way to go…Sofia Barreda (firstname.lastname@example.org) arranged my tour guide”
- “Another way to see Machu Picchu is with a guide book…hire a guide directly at the entrance.”
- “I would highly recommend contacting Sofia Barreda”
- “We…never had a problem getting tours”
- “The specialized guides at MP have extensive training.”
Machu Picchu’s only 50 miles (80 kms) north-west of Cusco. I could bloody walk it myself, if only someone would point me the way.
The hostel had a tour desk – in fact Cusco is full of tour desks – but if you’re not willing to fork out hundreds (dollars, soles, pounds) and want to know the real cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu, it’s almost impossible to find any information on the ground.
Tip: learn as much Spanish as you can before you go.
Only around 200 tourists per day are allowed to trek the “official” Inca Trail – part of the old Inca road system – and traffic is only allowed to flow one way. (No-one hikes back, so I knew there must – of course – be another way to and from Machu Picchu.) All these rules and regulations aren’t my style. Plus the Inca Trail was booked out way in advance. There are other, marginally cheaper tours along other, “unofficial” trekking routes, and of course there was talk of cancellations, waiting lists…but I wasn’t one to wait around.
The train to Machupicchu pueblo (village) (formerly Aguas Calientes) is considerably cheaper, but when you remember that it’s only 50 miles, and that you’re in Peru, it’s absolute extortion – arguably the most expensive train (by mile) in the world – for all intents and purposes, a tourist train.
I could see, on the map, a road that goes almost to Machu Picchu, via Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. What I needed was a local bus. I said goodbye to Gregor and “Shrewsbury” and made my way to Cusco’s Terminal Terrestre bus station in the Santiago neighbourhood.
Make sure you ask for “Santa Maria” (not “Machu Picchu”) otherwise they might chuck you on a bus to Ollantaytambo, where it’s either train or end of the road. The bus to Santa Maria cost 15 soles and was going on to “Quillabamba“.
I read Travelling with Che Guevara while I waited. The toilets stank of piss and swarmed with flies.
On the bus I was lucky enough to get a window seat, until this little old woman – as bent and knarled as a walnut and almost as small – who evidently spoke only Quechua (the still actively spoken lingua franca of the Inca empire) – insisted on la ventana and squeezed in beside me with her blankets and parcels of corn. She must’ve been 100 years old and there was no evidence to suggest she’d ever taken a bath in all that time. She probably thought the same about me though, muttering away to herself as the mountain road (and the day) wound on.
Chicha – Peruvian cumbia – seemed to play constantly from someone-or-other’s phone. Where in England he would’ve been swiftly beaten, the Peruvians – as with many cultures around the world – seemed to really appreciate the gift of forced musical entertainment on public transport. There was also a constant chirping, which for hours I assumed was part of the genre (honestly, if you’ve heard chicha, it wouldn’t surprise you) until I realised the person on the seat behind me was actually carrying a box of live chicks.
It got dark. One by one everyone got off, until I was all alone on this ghost bus and even began to miss that little, old muttering Inca lady. I did a lot of thinking…
Then the bus began to fill up again. I noticed a couple of backpacker girls standing so I pretended to be a gentleman and gave up my seat. Another guy, whose name I don’t remember, was talking about how he was on a motorbike tour to Machu Picchu for $400.
Dropped in the dark streets of Santa Maria, I sought out the cheapest hospedaje, where I ran into the two girls from the bus – both called Anna; one Danish, one German; teaching in Urubamba and Cusco respectively. We got talking and decided to go in on a room together. They too had decided they didn’t want to see Machu Picchu “as a regular tourist” and had travelled by local bus.
Danish Anna, who had to be back in Urubamba by Monday morning, suddenly sat up in bed. “I just came to think of the tourist rule,” she said. Basically, all tourists need a ticket to enter Machu Picchu, but there’s only a set quota of these tickets each day, and the office opens first thing in the morning. (5 a.m.? 5.30?) With that in mind, we decided to see if we could get there tonight.
I mean, what do you say when two pretty girls invite you on a crazy adventure?
We went to a local, all-night restaurant and over a meal and some Inca-Kola began one of the craziest, most spontaneous nights of my life. It turned out you can get the train from la hidroelectrica – the hydroelectric dam that supplies power to the entire Cusco region. (This is the way the locals who work in Machupicchu get there.) The only problem? La hidroelectrica was still many, many miles away. Most people take a taxi to Santa Teresa (10 soles), where they catch another taxi or colectivo (shared taxi; minivan) to hidroelectrica (5 soles), but we knew, at this time of night, even if we did manage to get to Santa Teresa, we’d never find connecting transport.
Did I say “only problem”? There was also the little matter of the recent rains, which had caused a series of landslides that had all but destroyed the road, sweeping it away down the mountainside. Not to mention that just a week before a bus had driven off a cliff.
At around 2.30 a.m. we spoke to the hostel guy, who said “wait” and disappeared out into the night.
Later we heard the crunch of a car outside. At 4 a.m. his hermano would take us to hidroelectrica…or at least, he would try.
That gave us just under two hours to try to catch some sleep. In bed, too excited to sleep, a strange calm came over me as I realised, no matter what happened, everything will always work out okay.
I was just drifting off when Hermano arrived and we set off in the pitch black of night on what would come to be known as “death-ride”. It was raining and we bounced and splashed through the mud and loose rubble and mountain bends. We forded rivers, passed through waterfalls, rushed blind down steep downhills, skidded around tight bends, and then came the fog… Hermano kept talking about “rumbas” – or was it “retumbas“? – as we ploughed around rock-slides, under overhanging rocks, rocks in the road, through the thin gaps between them, rats’ eyes sparkling in the wet, dripping banana trees, limbs of trees – some cut back, some reaching suddenly out of the darkness to push us off the narrow, uneven, steep-drop-cliff-edge road into the dark abyss that passed by just inches from my passenger door – just blackness – I couldn’t see it, but that’s how I knew it was there.
The Annas were silent in the back – the thought of being swept down the mountainside as we struggled through a stream probably ever present in their minds – but there was nothing for it but to trust in Hermano. He seemed to know the road; seemed to know what he was doing…most of the time.
The things people will do for money!
Spoiler alert: in the end we didn’t die. We emerged at the surreal, floodlit hydroelectric dam. Thundering waterfalls plummeted into unseen depths and brief windows in the spray and fog offered views of black, mist-shrouded mountains. We tried to take photos, but of course it was too dark for a camera. It would be hours before the first photo of the day would come out, so one of the most incredible parts of my journey was committed to a memory alone.
The train wouldn’t be departing until 7 a.m. so we decided to walk. Hermano told us it was possible – only a few miles – and indicated that if we walked in a certain direction we would eventually hit the railroad track.
We left the bright lights behind us, took a piss and disappeared into the darkness of the Peruvian jungle, climbing up an increasingly steep gradient, making our own path through the cloud forest. Are there leeches in Peru?
What was probably only a few minutes felt like a lifetime in the dark until we finally stumbled into the clearing that was the train-track and set off along it towards Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
Beside the railroad ran the raging Urubamba River, which becomes the Ucayali, which eventually goes on to become a little river you might have heard of called the Amazon. We were walking the Sacred Valley!
The noise was almost deafening in the darkness. We couldn’t see the river, but we knew if we stepped into it we were gone.
What an adventure! The adventure of a lifetime!
The light leaked slowly like bleach into the inky sky. Everything dripped with life. The plants! Bugs! Bird? Bat? Butterfly? Ancient, stained mountain ridges wreathed in green amidst the gathering clouds. The smell of giant flowers in the mist. And all the time we followed the tracks, crossing train bridges over troubled water.
Dawn came, and with it rain. We met one other person coming the other way.
The sun came up, the train came and went, it got hot, we started to sweat, my backpack started to cut into my back, and Aguas Calientes never appeared. If I’m honest, we were all beginning to doubt whether we’d made the right decision by walking. We took a rest, then another, then another, increasingly frequent, until finally we began to see little country homes and arrived on the outskirts of town, where we were lucky enough to stumble right up to the Machu Picchu ticket office, and immediately stood in line to get our tickets. 126 soles.
More walking was no longer an option, so we got bus tickets too. Chances are you won’t have the short time-frame that we had so you’ll be able to get Machu Picchu tickets for the next day, stay the night in Aguas Calientes and then hike up to Machu Picchu yourself (free) in time to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu (pretty much 7 a.m. year-round) and get in line for Huayna Picchu.
Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters) recently reverted to the name Machupicchu and is a kind of frontier railroad town cum tourist resort whose sole purpose seems to be to ruin the Inca Trail experience for everyone.
You can also buy Machu Picchu tickets in advance in Cusco, if that’s your style.
According to some scribbled diary notes I had a “pizza breakfast” and we got a hostel for 25 soles, where we stowed our bags before jumping on the bus, which climbed up and up a series of steep, switchback hairpin bends until it soon become clear that we’d definitely made the right choice. You can walk it – and many backpackers were – I would’ve done – but it’ll take you about two to four hours.
The bus broke through into the sunshine. I almost fell asleep in the warmth.
At the top you queue for a while – don’t forget your ticket and your passport – then, Machu Picchu! The “Lost City of the Incas”! (Actually it never was really a city, apparently. More an “estate”.)
The short-lived Inca empire built Machu Picchu around 1450, and lost their last settlement to the Spanish in 1572.
However, they abandoned Machu Picchu before the Spanish could get to it, so, although known locally, the Spanish (and the rest of the outside world) never found it…until 1911 when Hiram Bingham “rediscovered” it, and at which point a bunch of other explorers and such jumped up and said, “Oh, that old place? Yeah, I’ve been there tons of times.”
Unlike Alberto and the “Che”, we had to share the place with hundreds of tourists, but at least the tiredness helped render everything in a surreal, almost magical light.
Black bugs everywhere. Llamas grazed for effect. We took the obligatory Machu Picchu photos.
A lot of the buildings have quite obviously been “reconstructed” so tourists can see what some other people think it once looked like. An army of workers cleaned the moss from the grouting in what must be a never-ending job.
Of the 2500 people who are allowed into Machu Picchu each day, the first lucky 400 are allowed to ascend Huayna Picchu – the tall mountain in the backdrop of every good Machu Picchu photo – in two batches, at 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. By the time we got there, there was a massive queue – we’d missed it, never to know what goes on up there – though my guess is some kind of goat-slaughter-related orgy.
There’s even a “Temple of the Sun”. Yes, the Incas worshipped the sun, which, to be fair, makes a lot more sense than worshipping a big fairy man in the sky as many of us do today.
It started to rain again and the hoards of tourists donned their usual technicolour array of ponchos and macs. We left, glad we’d made the right decision to come straight up. Back in Aguas Calientes, after Machu Pichu and over 30 hours without sleep, we all blacked out.
When we came to, we took it in turns to take a much needed shower (somewhere along the line, I’d lost my washbag) then for some reason went to a sushi restaurant. Our sense of time screwed, we bought train tickets and roamed the covered market like vampires. (The train follows the Sacred Valley from Hidroelectrica to Machupicchu, then all the way to Ollantaytambo, on the other side of which it splits; one route terminating on the outskirts of Urubamba while the other goes, via Poroy, to Cusco. But, knowing we could do – and had done – it for a tiny fraction of the price, we just couldn’t justify it, and decided to go back the way we’d come.)
I thought I heard an alarm.
It was beyond black in the windowless room. I didn’t have a watch or phone.
Did they sleep through the alarm? Did they leave without me?
Eventually, I turned the light on. The Annas were still asleep. 6.05 a.m. “10 mins!” I pulled on the same clothes. 5 minutes…
Somehow we made the train, sweating and on the road again. We bought sweet breads and apples from local vendors. Same train-track; completely different atmosphere.
As soon as the doors opened at Hidroelectrica, like London commuters rushing for the underground, we overtook the procession of locals and jumped into a crammed colectivo bound for Santa Teresa.
Unfortunately, while we’d been at Machu Picchu, the latest rain had destroyed parts of the road we’d come in on. Either the road had fallen away or trees and rocks had fallen into it. The van got stuck in the thick, clay-like mud, and even walking on it was almost impossible. We came to an impassable landslide.
We were able to move a tree just enough for the motorbikes, at least, to take the risk. Then, after waiting for over an hour, we were able to climb over the rubble and switch places with passengers of a cab on the other side.
At the next rockslide the wait was even longer. Our driver went and perched contently up on the bank, whittling sticks or smoking a pipe or whatever it is that Peruvian men do for fun, and there was nothing to do but sit in the relative shade of the car, listening to the repetitive rhythm of chicha, and wait it out. It didn’t matter though. There are worse places to be stranded.
Finally it became clear what we’d been waiting for, and why everyone had been so calm and casual about it. A bulldozer made its way slowly around the bend, carving a new road out of the mountainside as it went. It seems this is a yearly process in these parts of Peru.
We all followed the bulldozer in an unlikely convoy, until the road was clear and we could pass it. Once again we splashed through deep ruts, crossed precarious mountain bridges, forded streams, only this time I could see everything! I felt like I was riding my motorbike, leaning halfway out of the window, hanging over the valley below – the views incredible! The sun shining, the sky blue, fresh, green vegetation – life – everywhere! The Urubamba Valley as beautiful by day as it had been by the light of the stars.
“To this day I am not quite sure if it was Machu Picchu or the journey to get there and back again that made it such a memorable weekend.”
- Anna Casse
Back in Santa Maria, our arrival coincided perfectly with the bus back to reality. We bought our tickets, went for a parting Inca-Kola and said our farewells. We’d only known each other a couple of days, but after what we’d been through, it felt like forever.
To prove it’s not just us who’ve done this, here are a couple of others who’ve made their own way to Machu Picchu since, using more or less this same route:
Anyway, after Machu Picchu I spent a lot of time on buses staring out at clouds that hung at eye-height between the broccoli green mountains of the Peruvian Andes, along the winding road to Lima – where I saw the latest Hollywood movie in Miraflores, strolled the Malecón and had coffee with two random Peruvian women who saw me walking on the other side of the road and told me about The Secret by Rhonda Byrne – only I couldn’t understand what the hell she was talking about at the time and god knows what they got out of the whole thing.
Then a month in Montañita, Ecuador, living out my very own Rum Diary, which it’s only a matter of time before I write about, because it doesn’t get much more “drinking traveller” than that.
Watch this space.
(P.S. This from Wikipedia: “Hiking along the train tracks is prohibited.”)