Tuomas: Machu Picchu – A budget way of seeing the world heritage site
Urubamba Province, Peru
"Gravity has brought you to the center of the world - welcome to Machu Picchu"
These were the words spoken by our guide Yawar at the world heritage site just before we began our tour. I wanted to start with the quote although my obsessive compulsive disorder forces me to double right back and explain all about how we made it there and so on. Bear with me here, I'll go over our experience at the site in due time. Or skip to the appointed section, whichever you like…
Getting the tickets
First of all, when we were planning our great around the world trip we decided not to go see the famed Machu Picchu. We'd heard that not only is it so packed with tourists that you have to walk in lines to see anything, but it's also extremely expensive. Eventually we had a change of heart, mostly because we read in our guidebook and other places as well that the price isn't really that bad. Most importantly, they accepted ISIC student cards to get half off the entrance fee, dropping the price for a regular ticket from S/130 to just S/65. To tell you the truth, even the full price wasn't that bad. We also read that if you get there early enough the crowds are virtually nonexistent, most come in later in the day.
So we decided to get the tickets after all. We'd made our way all the way to Cusco, which was a good thing because making the arrangements from somewhere else would probably include paying extra. Initially we wanted to take the train to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu and actually officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo. According to the tourist information center there isn't much of a difference in the prices of the two train companies doing this route, called Peru Rail and Inca Train. We asked about the prices at Peru Rail office and were shocked to find out that just the train trip there and back would put us back USD157 per person. And that was the cheapest option. Later we were told at a travel agency that they could arrange us the tickets for USD140 per person, but that still wasn't too helpful. Also, the train would depart half an hour drive away from Cusco, forcing us to pay for a taxi to get there.
Buying just the train tickets seemed to be out of the question. As we arrived in Cusco a taxi driver told us he could fix us a two days-one night tour including transport, tickets to Machu Picchu, a guide at the site, one night's accommodation and three meals for USD220 per person (USD240 without ISIC-card). Furthermore, transport included the taxi to the train station in addition to the train tickets. One travel agent could do the same for USD215, but the best price came from our hostel, Recidencial Panorama, that charged USD195 for the package. It still seemed a little too expensive for us. Luckily our hostess presented us with a second option, one that would cost us only USD95 per person for the exact same thing, but with minor adjustments to the transport-part. There are no roads leading all the way to Aguas Calientes, but we could still skip the expensive train and take a minivan to the nearest point, a place called Hidroeléctrica, and walk the remainder of the way. This sounded like a superb idea because we're not afraid to walk longer distances and our hostess also offered to store most of our things during our trip so we only needed to pack the bare essentials. We accepted the offer but modified it somewhat to include two nights' accommodation, making it a three days-two nights trip, and by requesting that our tickets to Machu Picchu would also include admission to Machu Picchu Mountain. With the additions the price ended up being USD111 (S/350) per person, which we thought was acceptable.
As a comparison: we ended up talking to a couple of Swiss travelers on the bus ride and they told us that they had arranged the whole trip themselves and were in fact doing pretty much the same thing as we were for just USD100 per person. However, this didn't include meals or the guide at Machu Picchu and let's face it, we had it pretty easy doing things our way. We arranged the whole thing with one conversation at our hostel's lobby!
The way to Aguas Calientes
The prearranged minibus picked us up at 8.15 a.m. from our hostel and started heading towards its destination. We were the last ones of thirteen people to get on board and had to sit separately, but luckily that meant more legroom for me. Note to anyone with longer legs: pick the individual seat closest to the sliding door, there was no seat in front of me and I had actually more room than I needed. We drove through the mountainous area surrounding Cusco on a road that was in a surprisingly good condition. Sure, there are a lot of turns so motion sickness is a possibility, but it wasn't scary like some bus rides we had in Nepal. We stopped after about two hours of driving for a quick break at a place where they had food and toilets available. After that we rushed on, passing some impressive looking Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo without stopping. Our next stop was only after many hours of driving when we passed a signs saying that our elevation was over 4300 meters above sea level. It was the highest point of the road leading from Cusco (3400 meters) to Aguas Calientes (less than 2000 meters). We took some pictures of the scenery and moved on.
The road conditions had been great for most of the way until we reached a town called Santa Maria where we took a turn to a dirt road following the side of a mountain. This is where things finally got a little scary. For the most part the dusty dirt road was too narrow for two cars to pass side by side, but luckily there wasn't too much traffic. There was, however, a vertical drop of about a hundred meters or so to the left of us. The driver was going as fast as drivers in these kinds of situations usually do, which didn't really help our anxiety. Equally unhelpful was the fact that there were multiple streams crossing the road at points, digging their way into the dirt and creating somewhat deep pools of moving water that the minibus had to cross. But the worst part by far was a narrow wooden bridge that the car hurdled itself over. I could hardly believe the my eyes when I saw the structure, seemingly made quickly out of planks to let the cars pass a turn in the road where a stream had dug its way a little too deep. When we came back the same way we could finally see that the construction was in fact a little sturdier than we had originally thought, but I still wouldn't drive a truck over it. Actually, I would hardly ride a bicycle over it, but it wasn't for me to decide…
The scary part lasted only about 40 minutes, after which we arrived at a surprisingly big town of Santa Teresa, where we stopped for one of our included meals (a lunch menu including a soup and a choice of either Pollo Milanesa or Spaghetti Napolitana). At this point I found the jokes of our Swiss comrades more than a bit unnerving. "At least we won't die hungry" he said after paying S/10 for his meal. Luckily the rest of the way was a little less frightening and we made it to Hidroeléctica in about half an hour after a total of six hours on the road. At Hidroeléctica we met with our guide, a small man with good English skills and the difficult-to-remember Quechua name Yawar. He advised us to continue our journey by following the train tracks for the remainder of the way to Aguas Calientes, about eight kilometers away. There was also the option of taking a short train ride, but that would of course cost extra. We had left most of our things at the hostel in Cusco and were carrying only our daypacks, so walking wasn't a problem for us. We were told that it would take between two and a half and three hours but we made it in just two. At the beginning the route took us up a steep path that allowed us to skip the couple of serpentine loops the tracks made, but from there on we followed the tracks almost all the way to Aguas Calientes. For the most part there was a narrow foot path next to the rails but sometimes we had to walk on the rough rocks for a minute or two. My advice: wear proper hiking boots. We also crossed a few streams on short bridges where we had to step carefully on the wooden blocks under the rails. The train passed us only once during the walk, but one should still be careful there since it's quite a bit wider than the tracks. Luckily it makes a lot of noise, but that still hadn't stopped it from killing a dog on the tracks… The last part of the walk was done on a dirt road where the tracks could no longer be seen, but the direction was always the same so there wasn't really any chance of getting lost.
Figuring out the details
Our guide had instructed us to wait for him at the main square where he would meet us later to explain some things. After arriving in Aguas Calientes we found a map of the town and figured that "main square" was probably the only square they had there. We waited for the guide for about 45 minutes before he arrived on schedule, we had been early. Normally tickets to Machu Picchu would be handed to us on a tour like this but apparently our student cards needed to be checked personally, so next we walked to the ticket office where Yawar handed us the needed S/144 for two tickets including Montaña Machu Picchu. After getting the tickets we followed him to our accommodation, which we had assumed was going to be very basic. It turned out to be quite nice actually, Vista Machupicchu Inn offered us a clean double room with ensuite bathroom and towels folded like kissing swans. There was hot water in the shower, but one had to request the reception to turn the heat on a few minutes before getting in. A semi-large store just around the corner sold basic supplies for a little inflated prices, a 2.5 liter bottle of water was S/4.5 as opposed to S/2.4 in Cusco, but otherwise it was OK.
Our guide had surprised us by telling us that we were going to have another included meal on the same day as he would explain the details of visiting Machu Picchu over dinner at 7.45 p.m.. The whole group consisted of about twenty individuals who were to be divided into an English speaking group and a Spanish speaking group. The dinner was similar to lunch, a soup followed by a choice of main courses, followed by a bilingual talk about the next day's details. We could either take a bus to Machu Picchu for USD12 one-way (no student prices or discounts for the ride back), or walk the 450 meters up for free. We of course chose to walk and save USD48. The guide told us to be at the bridge leading to the ascent at 5 a.m. when it opened up, which meant that we should leave at about 4.30 a.m.. The group would meet at 6.15 outside of the main gate and again at 6.30 just inside of it. He advised us to take plenty of water since a 600 ml bottle would cost S/8 up there, and plenty of snacks. To our confusion different sources disagree on this but one can take food inside of Machu Picchu in a small backpack (big ones have to be left outside in lockers), but one has to consume them outside. Also, there are no bathrooms at the ruins so one has to use the ones outside of the gates for a fee of S/1. Every ticket allows for three entries on the same day, which is helpful, but one can't venture outside indefinitely.
Our hostel's breakfast was served at 4-7 a.m. and we woke up to have it as early as possible. We found the downstairs surprisingly packed, apparently we weren't the only ones planning for an early start. We started walking back towards Hidroeléctrica at 4.38 and got to the bridge at exactly 5 a.m., only to find a long line of people waiting there. The complete darkness surrounding us hadn't stopped at least a hundred people to get there before we did. Slowly the line started to move as the singular person responsible of checking the tickets (and passports, take yours with you!) began his laboring. It took half an hour for us to get through, which was frustrating since the climb was supposed to take 45 minutes to an hour for sporty people and up to three for out of shape ones. We had planned to have 75 minutes to meet our guide outside of the gates, but were left with just 45. Needless to say, we decided to gun it. The 1748 meters long trail took us through countless stairs and past dozens of people as we made our way up the mountain, ascending about 450 meters along the way. In the end, with considerable effort, we made it in forty-four minutes!
Some tips for future travelers here: first of all, one should get to the bridge earlier than 5 a.m. to avoid the long line. Secondly, if you see that there are people behind you who look like they want to pass, let them. It was infuriating to find ourselves behind a line of a dozen people looking like they could go faster but the one puffing up front wouldn't let them. In these situations I put in a new gear and marched past the entire line, collecting people in my wake as I did. Keep your eyes open for the rough terrain also, the stairs are made of natural stones and are all different heights. It started to be light enough to see without a torch at about 5.45 but before that one has to have some source of light, preferably stronger than the screen of a smartphone. We had proper hiking boots and were glad of them, but any good walking shoes would probably be fine. Our long pants were a little warm for the climb but not too much so and we had been glad of them during the wait at the bridge.
After the climb we met our guide at the top of the hill and got through the gates where they wanted to see our ISIC cards as well as our tickets. Once inside the group gathered some distance away from the gate to wait for the sun to rise above the mountains, which didn't happen until about 7.20. Then we could finally see the entire site bask in the golden light of the morning which I have to admit was spectacular. After all the trouble we had gone through to get there and all the doubts we had had, the trip ended up being totally worth it. There were a lot of people there already that early in the morning, but the site is so big that it seemed to swallow them completely. Most of our pictures from the morning have only a few people in them, when I had assumed that I would have to settle for pics with hundreds of tourists following their guides in long lines. I had my doubts about having a guide there, because we usually opt for going without, but Yawar was splendid and was able to share a ton of interesting information that we couldn't have found in our guidebook. He took us through the most important sights on a tour that lasted about two and a half hours, telling us about the history of the Quechua people who once lived there. He also told us that they were in fact Quechua and not Inca, with the latter word actually meaning just the god like leader of the empire. We learned about their society, their building techniques, their religion and their demise. Theories suggest that Machu Picchu was abandoned because an epidemic of smallpox brought by the Europeans. After being lost for hundreds of years it was later rediscovered in the early 1900s, buried under vegetation. A hundred years and massive restorations later it is now one of the world's best known archeological sites and a UNESCO world heritage site with 80% original structures.
The weather was perfect with a clear blue sky above us and the sun climbing slowly above the surrounding mountains. It was the perfect day to see the famed ruins for another reason as well, since it happened to be our third wedding anniversary. It just happened to go that way, we hadn't really planned it. After the guided tour ended we walked around the site by ourselves for hours more and ended up spending about six hours there altogether. I can't say that we had the place to ourselves, but for the most part we didn't feel like we were inside one of the most touristy destinations in the world. As the day went further more and more people made their way through the gates but still we could find places that were completely abandoned simply by walking a few meters away from the most important sights. We just loved the fact that we had had the guide for the first couple of hours, after which we could go wherever we wanted. We could constantly hear people complaining about how crowded it was, but those were always the ones still following their guide. A guide will tell you to take a picture from a specific spot, like the one next to the "Guardian's Hut" where all those pictures that everyone associates with Machu Picchu are taken. So people crowd themselves on that same small ledge and push each other around to get the pic, while we were free to use our selfie stick just a dozen meters away without anyone being in our way. I have to admit that around noon the situation started to change and there really were a little too much people there, but we'd had hours there before that.
We saw pretty much all the sights in the main part of the ruins and also walked to the small Inca Bridge, but after that we were pretty much spent. We had bought the tickets that included the entrance to the Machu Picchu Mountain for S/7 more but we decided to skip it. The top of the mountain is 600 meters above the ruins and the climb would take over an hour. We also skipped Intipunku, a gate through which the people doing the famous Inca Trail enter Machu Picchu. Originally we had planned to do the Inca Trail but decided not to, mostly for the price and the inconvenience. Also, I had been skeptical about the whole thing with the porters carrying most of the trekkers' equipment. According to multiple sources some companies offering the trek treat their porters poorly and one should always double check that this isn't so on their own trip. Additionally, our guidebook actually seems to prefer "more reliable companies (that) use portable toilets, thereby avoiding the facilities at the campsites". Portable toilets? Seriously?! We saw some porters on our walk from Hidroeléctrica to Aguas Calientes. Most were carrying ridiculous loads with poorly built backpacks and half a dozen or so were actually running. I'm not sure what kind of a setup they have for the portable toilets but a few at least were carrying things like large foldable chairs. It's impossible to get the whole picture without actually being on one of those treks, but still it seems that there is some truth to the talk about the mistreatment of porters.
Back to civilization
After exhausting ourselves at the ruins we returned to Aguas Calientes the same way we came. The stairs took us forty minutes to descend and after that it was only a short walk back to our accommodation. We were extremely glad we had done the trip in this manner, spending two nights in Aguas Calientes instead of just one. The people who were returning to Cusco after visiting Machu Picchu had to leave the ruins at 11.20 at the latest to walk straight back to Hidroeléctrica, which also meant that they couldn't leave their things at the accommodation. We could return to our comfortable bed and relax for the rest of the day.
We didn't leave until the next morning when we walked back to the minibus in a leisurely pace. The narrow and steep parts of the road didn't seem so scary anymore as we passed them for the second time. There were no included meals on the way back, which started at about 2.30 p.m.. We only stopped once and arrived to Cusco in total darkness after 8 p.m.. Luckily we spotted our hostel and were able to ask the driver to drop us there. Another great idea was to return to the same place where we left from, checking in was a breeze since they knew us already and after we'd left most of our things there settling in was similarly quick and easy.
All in all we felt like we'd managed to arrange a perfect trip to Machu Picchu with a price we could live with and enough freedom to make us feel like we were in control of things. We deeply enjoyed the walking parts and would definitely recommend them for anyone planning to go there, as long as they feel like they are physically fit enough. That being said, even the climb up to the ruins wouldn't have been as strenuous if we hadn't had such a short time to pull it off in. Having run to the top means that we are not likely to forget this trip. And as a wedding anniversary it's going to be a tough one to beat!