Sneaking into Machu Picchu
Aguas Calientes, Peru
A traveler's reference for how to sneak into Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu, the famed lost city of the Incas, is a massive money maker. Privatized by the government some years ago, adult admission into the site doubled from US$20 to an outrageously absurd US$40 in August, 2006. Thousands visit the complex every day, generating truck-loads of money.
Don't feel like encouraging the INC corporation by contributing to their scandalous behavior? Neither did I. Passively protest (and save a bunch of money in the process) by following in my footsteps and sneak into Machu Picchu.
Before The Ascent
You don't need to bring much in the way of gear—I hiked up in a pair of Diesel shoes (the only non-sandal footwear I had available). What you do need is…
- Breathable, inconspicuous clothing, preferably in Earth-tones such as brown and green (avoid bright, visible colors such as red, white, and yellow);
- Pants (not a skirt or shorts);
- A long sleeve shirt is suggested;
- A bandana—you're going to sweat—a lot;
- A bottle or two of water;
- A sweatshirt and/or rain jacket (the weather can change quickly);
- A flashlight (for a possible trail descent at dusk); and
- Bribe money—just in case (a small wad of 10 soles notes makes the most impact for your dollar).
Ready? Let's do it!
If you're skipping the expensive multi-day trek and going up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, this is the most rewarding way to do it. Scoff at the folks taking the bus and smirk at those who climbed up all those jagged rock and dirt stairs—half of your exciting ascent will be illegal and done in the jungle.
A little over a kilometer from Aguas Calientes, a well worn tourist trail will lead you to the riverside base of Machu Picchu. Hoards of people zoom up and down the mountain in buses (US$6 each way), running along a dirt road that switchback up the hillside like beige-colored snake. The hiker trail is much more vertical in nature, but crosses the road a few times on the way up.
You will take a very rough path through the bush that leads to a series of off-limits Incan terraces, below the primary ruins. From the terraces you will use commando-tactics to make your way to the main site, emerge from the jungle (avoiding the security lookouts), and blend in with the tourists around you.
The journey can be somewhat difficult and dangerous at times, but hey, if it was otherwise everyone would be doing it.
Finding the entrance is the first challenge. Count the number of times your shoes touch/cross the road (the buses use) as you ascend. When you emerge from the vegetation and you're touching the road for the sixth time, look to the right. You should see a curve 10-meters from your position (one of several U-turns the buses must traverse). Herein lays the entrance to the forbidden path. It will probably take you 40–50-minutes to reach this point.
This section of the traditional hiker's ascent also marks the only part of the trail where you actually have to walk completely around the curve in the road to continue. The climb is uninterrupted by the road after this point—that is to say, it's the last time you will encounter the road until you reach the top.
The quick jumps across the road are fairly regular. If you haven't had a bus kick dirt up in your face in a while—you've gone too far.
Wait until no one's around, push your ethics and morals aside, and enter the bush. Don't expect a groomed trail, this is an animal path, made by animals on tight budgets. Welcome to the herd.
A meter or two from the road you will notice a crude wall of trees and logs placed as an obstruction to the trail—your next indicator that you're at the correct place. Bypass them and continue along your way.
Don't worry about the noise level at this point, you're still a good distance from the site and protected by the density of the jungle. Focus on trying to find and follow the rough footpath through the bush (and avoiding animal/insect attacks).
A good natured soul has randomly tied scraps of white plastic bags to trees in an attempt to help guide/aid others—you will encounter these plastic breadcrumbs occasionally (perhaps half a dozen over the course of the trail).
After 10-minutes of pushing your way through the jungle you should arrive at your first waypoint: The base of the off-limit Inca terraces. That was the easy part.
If you've ever wanted to experience commando life, this is a great opportunity. The next 30-minutes will be spent juggling stealth and speed in an attempt to avoid detection.
The terrace is one of the most difficult parts of the undertaking. There is no discernible trail for you to follow, the terrain isn't friendly to climb around, and the area is openly exposed and visible from every conceivable direction (the road, the riverside base camp, the conventional footpath, and part of the complex at the entrance)—your presence will be noticed if you're not careful. Security is on the lookout for trespassers.
Waypoint #2, the continuation of the path to the top, is at the upper-left of the ruins (slightly diagonal to where you begin. Move/climb fast—catch your breath behind the occasional wall outcropping that allows for cover. The altitude will make sustained sprints challenging. Snap a photo of the ruins few get a chance to see up close.
The initial part of the trail that leads away from the terraces is just as exposed—watch out for buses that can report your presence to security. Stay low, crouch, and shuffle along the rock.
The trail is noticeably more worn here, presumably from the occasional naughty ticket-paying tourist who ventured down to take a peek at the off-limit terraces. There isn't as much dead leaf debris on this part of trail to make noise, but keep the decibel level in check. Proceed slowly, as your movement may be visible through the vegetation at some points.
15–20-Minutes after navigating the terraces and following the trail, you'll arrive at the base of the Machu Picchu complex. The trail will dump you out just below a series small hut-like buildings on a very large terrace, noted as structures for storage on a map of the site.
Watch out for guards! Periodically a guard will stand and monitor for tourists descending into the off-limits zone.
When the coast is clear speed-walk out of the jungle and make your way into the site as quickly as possible—loose yourself in the crowd/complex. Soon enough you'll just be another tourist, gawking at the amazing ruins.
What if you're caught emerging from the jungle?
You've got two options: Lie or bribe.
The best lie that I could come up with is to tell the guard that you've got diarrhea, had to jump into the brush to relieve yourself, and used your ticket to wipe. There are no bathrooms in the complex, and evidence of restroom activity was present not far down the trail.
Alternatively, if you've got to discreetly use the wad of notes in your pocket, remember, a ticket into Machu Picchu costs at least S$118.50—anything less than that spent on hush-money is a savings (and a story).
Time of Day
The time to avoid sneaking into Machu Picchu is in the early morning. Security guards are on full alert for people trying to enter into the site for sunrise. There needs to be plenty of tourists on the premises for this to be a successful incursion, so I would suggest an attempt any time after 10 or 11:00.
What You'll Miss
Because of your lack of ticket, entry into the popular Huayna Picchu hiking trail will be prohibited. Only 400 people are allowed on the trail per day, with names and ticket numbers recorded at a control point.
Judging by the condition of the trails, I'd say three or four people make the attempt each week.
The illegal hike into the complex was easily one the highlights of Machu Picchu for me, and I wish the same rush of excitement for you! If after your journey you find that any of the above is incorrect, please, let me know and I'll adjust.