Visiting Machu Picchu
The memorable journey to the lost city of the Incas.
I tried to leave Cuzco on morning of the 2nd, but like some kind of mobster movie, the city wouldn't let me go. I'd have to hang around town until mid-evening to catch a night-bus heading past a tiny grease spot of a town called Santa María. This town represented the entrance to my backdoor passage into Machu Picchu.
My bus arrived in Santa María at 2:00 in the morning. Even though I asked the driver and his cash-collecting sidekick to tell me when to get off, I decided to forgo an attempt at sleep, as I'm often nervous about missing the quick 20-second stops made as the bus passes by tiny, unknown villages. Besides, the roads are so bad it'd be like trying to sleep on top of a pulsing jackhammer.
After arriving successfully, I waited for a little over an hour by the road for the waiting minibus to fill up—with quite conversation, the occasional passing bus, and the movement of river water somewhere below me as the only sounds in the temperate, late night air. My 2 & 1/2 hour journey would take me up into the deep reaches of the surrounding mountains on a dirt road, preciously cut into the hillside. We passed through streams spilling over the road as the moonlight pushed through sporadic cloud cover—the silhouetted view, amazing… but did I really need to see that shear drop only a few inches from the wheels?
Dawn was breaking as I arrived in Santa Teresa. The infrastructural pride of this tiny village of 1,000 is the 40-meter strip of concrete road recently built in the center of town. It was too late in the morning to bother with accommodations, and I had some time to kill before I could move on—I sat, smoked my pipe, drank tea, and chatted with a Peruvian fellow as the sun rose over snowcapped mountains in the distance.
My Mini-Inca Trail
My objective for the day was to make it to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu (and with weather and time permitting, actually go up to the ruins). Crossing the Rio Urubamba was my next obstacle.
I made the mistake of walking down the wrong path to the river, and ended up almost a kilometer away from where I wanted to be. The descent on the road was steep enough to keep me from turning back, so I wandered over thousands of smooth stones and boulders, along a very rough footpath near the rivers edge for a good half an hour.
Crossing the Urubamba River is done in the most interesting of ways. I looked at this device—called la Uroya in Spanish—with intimidation. I don't know what the translation is in English, but I wouldn't be surprised if it meant you've got to be kidding me.
A small steel platform is suspended above the raging river, attached to a cable of significant gauge. A slight change in elevation allows someone with enough momentum (and experience) to zoom over to the opposite side like a zip-line, but only when crossing the river away from town. A pair of memorial crosses have been erected under one of the stations—a reminder that this crossing has already taken at least two lives.
After the jolt of adrenaline from the river crossing, I jumped into the back of a large truck and headed towards a hydroelectric power plant. When these construction trucks aren't hauling sand and stone, they're used (for a small fee) to transport people and cargo back and forth along the gravel and dirt road. The vistas during the 25-minute journey were fantastic, and the sensation of riding in the back of a large truck pleasantly reminded me of hitching rides onto friendly banana trucks on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.
The railway that stretches down into Cuzco (and beyond) terminates at the hydroelectric power plant. It's from this point that I started walking along the rails towards Aguas Calientes—hobo-style.
It was awkward (and often painful) walking on the jagged pieces of stone that surrounded the tracks—I was just wearing a pair thin-soled Diesel shoes, the only footwear I had available to me. Not taking insect repellant with me was a mistake that the dozens of unsightly and itchy bites on my arms are a testament to.
I was traveling light and moving at a brisk pace. This was the first time I've ever left my main backpack in another location while I've done multi-day travel. On my back was a tiny day-bag containing just the essentials—some toiletries and first aid, a towel, an extra shirt (for the bus back to Cuzco), bread and cheese, water, and my fleece and rain jacket (strapped to the outside). I would be wearing the same clothes for the duration of the trip. On hindsight I would have taken an extra pair of socks.
My first time walking some distance along a railway—it was neat. Completely alone, I was engulfed by the wonderful scenic and natural surroundings. Babbling streams allowed me to periodically dunk my head in their refreshing waters, butterflies danced at my feet. Save for the occasional banana tree, I could have been walking along the rails in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
After over half a dozen kilometers along the rails I arrived in Aguas Calientes, around 11:00. The walk only took me about two hours, far less than the 4–6 hours others were telling me.
Inca Love & Stickin' It To The Man
It was just after noon, and the weather was cloudy but fair—I figured it was as good a time as any to go up to Machu Picchu.
I had second-hand information (a traveler told a friend who told me) about a hidden path that you can take through the jungle and exit at the base of the ruins, where you can enter—sneaking in, free of charge. I had absolutely no intention of paying the outrageous US$40 to enter the site, so I set my mind on finding this hidden treasure.
A friendly, chatty Peruvian guy set off on the foot-trail ascent about the same time as I did. He wanted a walking partner, but seeing has he already had paid for his ticket, I just wanted him to let me be so I could search for the proper entrance onto the forbidden path. I finally just sat down on a rock longer than he wanted to linger and proceeded, unhindered by his company.
I actually didn't have too much trouble finding the path, and proceeded into bush without much reservation. I must admit, the act of trespassing through off-limits ruins and sneaking into Machu Picchu was honestly one of the best parts of the journey. Surrounded by tourists, all I wanted to do was gloat about the adventure, but I bit my tongue.
I was honestly shocked with how much I enjoyed the site. The massive complex of ruins were very impressive, I can see why Machu Picchu is Peru's showpiece tourist attraction. They keep llamas on the grounds, and I snapped plenty of photos—I love those furry guys! Peru needs a llama on the flag.
It only took me a little over two hours for me to have my fill of the site (and posing in photos with teenage girls), and as I descended the traditional trail back to into town it started to rain. I'm sure I looked like a wet cat when I got into my hotel room, but I'll never know (as there was no mirror in the bathroom).
I was exhausted. I took a hot shower, drank three bottles of Poweraid, and climbed into bed at five o'clock. I awoke 14 hours later, much to my surprise.
Another Long Day
With stiff legs and sore feet I packed up and did the reverse of my path back to Santa Teresa. Three hours later, at 11:00 AM, I was back in town, waiting for a minibus to shuttle back to Santa María. I entertained the idea of staying a night in the village, enjoying a trip to the thermal hot springs 20-minutes outside of town, but decided against it (the temperature was way too warm for such things) and jumped on the transport.
On the way back to Cuzco a pair of rockslides blocked the road. One in front of us, and another fell behind us. In the most amazing demonstration of Latin American effort I've witnessed, people actually got off the bus, and in the headlights of the vehicle, began trying to clear the road of the torso-sized rocks. I watched.
It wasn't long though before the hoard of people began fleeing back towards the bus in a panic, like pedestrians in a Godzilla movie—the rocks were still falling onto the road with lethal speed. We would have to wait.
I settled in, figuring that we'd be spending the night in the bus, but a handful of hours later an emergency response crew showed up and moved enough debris out of the way for us (and many vehicles lined up behind this bus) to proceed. The 6-hour bus ride from Santa María to Cuzco ended up taking about 11 hours.
My total journey from Cuzco up to Machu Picchu and back cost me less than US$16 (excluding food). Now that's impressive.
Now I'm back in Hostel Loki, where I've been waiting to reunite with a Mario, an Aussie that I met in Colombia. I'll catch up with him and then take off for the border with Bolivia in two or three days.
The adventure continues.