By Noel Lau
“There’s no cheap way to get to Machu Picchu,” said the guide who was trying to sell me a tour. Seeing Machu Picchu had always been a dream of mine but I wasn’t going to join a tour. Getting to Machu Picchu can put a dent your pocket. I was at the end of my South American trip, so I couldn’t afford the expensive Inca trail nor did I want to cheapen my experience there by taking the train.
Arriving in Cuzco, I set out to find information about an alternative route I’d heard from other travelers. I found that it’s quite easy and straight forward; I could do Machu Picchu in two days. So that night, I went back to the hostel to pack a small bag and left my big one at the hostel. Most hostels allow you to do that without extra charge.
The Alternate Route
The next day I left quite early to catch the 7am bus from Cuzco’s Santiago bus station to Santa Maria. There are departures every 15-30 minutes. The bus ride usually takes around 6 hours and cost 15 soles ($5 US). However, since it had rained heavily two days earlier causing some landslides, my journey took eight hours. Besides two German travelers, most of the people on the bus were locals returning to their villages after doing their business in Cuzco. Women and men with gurney sacks and shopping bags squeezed their way into seats, while salesmen came on board and talked for hours selling all kind of medicines and goods.
At around 12pm the bus stopped at a small roadside village. We got off the bus to be greeted by local women and children selling cheap ($ 1-2 US) and delicious food on wheelbarrows. There were passengers from other buses and lorry drivers too. The whole road was blocked for us to have lunch. It soon became a market place with people standing, sitting and squatting in the middle of the road enjoying their meal.
I arrived in Santa Maria just after 3pm. It’s a tiny crossroad hamlet with a few shops and restaurants. There are combi (shared taxi) waiting to take people to the nearby villages. The one I took cost 8 soles ($3 US) and took 45 minutes to the village of Santa Teresa. As this alternate route becomes popular, drivers will charge foreigners more, so make sure you bargain and check with the locals if they are paying the same. The road to Santa Teresa is unpaved and there are many blind corners. My heart stopped every time the car turned a sharp corner or drove close to the edge to let on-coming cars through; it didn’t help that I was sitting at the window and could see the 200m drop to the ravine below.
When I got to Santa Teresa I took another combi to Hidroeléctrica (the hydroelectric plant and the last train station) for 4 soles ($1.50 US). Since there are not many people going there, it could be a long wait to fill up the combi. I was lucky to be with the two German guys and we found an old man going that way as well so we got to Hidroeléctrica in 30 minutes. If you don’t want to wait, you could walk there in two hours. And if your timing is right, you could hitch a ride with the lorry that takes workers to and from the plant. On my return trip, I hitched a ride this way from the plant to Santa Teresa.
From Hidroeléctrica, you could take the train for 18 soles ($6 US) and in 30 minutes you’ll be in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu village), but there are only 3-4 services a day. Or you could walk along the train tracks for 10km to get to Aguas Calientes. We decided to walk. We chatted, enjoyed the view and saw some small ruins. When it got dark, I was lamenting for missing out on seeing the scenery but then fireflies came out of nowhere and accompanied us all the way. I felt like I was in a fairy land. That really made my day.
Shoestring Accommodation and Food
We arrived in Aguas Calientes just after 7pm tired and dirty. We went straight to the Tourist Office to get the entrance ticket for Machu Picchu. It costs 126 soles ($45 US) for adult and 63 soles ($22 US) for students with ISIC card. At night Aguas Calientes is like a well-lit amusement park surrounded by dark imposing Andean Mountains. There are hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets, however finding something for shoestring budget proved to be a challenge. Finally we found a room for 12 soles ($4 US) each at Hotel No.1. There’s no street name, so to find it, go up the street where the Tourist Office is and take the 2nd right turn, you’ll see it at the end of the street on your left just before the river. But the hot water was out so after a freezing shower, we went out looking for food.
Not wanting to pay $10 for a meal, we decided to explore the little village. On the next street just behind the hotel, we crossed a bridge and found ourselves surrounded by locals, there were no tourists at all. We entered a simple but nice restaurant and had a set meal for 8 soles ($3 US); it was delicious and filling, just what we needed after a long day. As not many tourists venture to that part of town and it’s where the locals hang out, things in the supermarket are cheaper. We bought our snacks there for the climb to Machu Picchu the next day. You can’t bring food into the site, but bottled water and snacks are allowed in a small backpack.
Climb to the top
I woke up at 4am and had a small breakfast before setting out. The gate at Puente Ruinas only opens at 5am. From there it’s a steep climb to the top. It took me one huffing-and-puffing-hour. I stopped many times to catch my breath; even chewing coca leaves didn’t help.
Alternatively, you could catch a bus near Puente Ruinas for $7 (one way). The first one departs at 5:30am. There’s usually a queue so make sure you get there early. In high season, I was told that people start queuing at 4:30am.
Your Machu Picchu ticket also allows you to go to Huayna Picchu. But since they only allow 400 people to climb daily, it’s advisable to get there before the many bus loads of people. I was really happy to find out that I was among the first 400. Although it’s another hour of steep climbing from Machu Picchu, the view from up there was spectacular and make Machu Picchu look small and ant-like.
Machu Picchu far exceeded my expectations. I was so happy and smiled like a fool the whole time I was there. It literally took my breath away. I was there during low season and I was able to find moments and places to be alone to feel the mysteriousness of the place. After spending more than six hours drinking in the amazing sights, it was time for me to leave.
Getting down was much easier. I was back in Aguas Calientes in less than an hour. After a much needed lunch and before starting my return journey, I rested at the main square watching the goings and comings of the people. I saw a local woman combing her daughter’s hair outside her small restaurant as they waited for their first customer; I saw an old European couple, tired and dirty after conquering Machu Picchu, enter an overpriced western restaurant; I saw children in their school uniforms chasing each other without a care in the world; I saw two young Japanese ladies smiling as they looked at photos they had taken. It was hypnotizing. Reluctantly, I started my journey back; the same way I came.
However there is an alternate route: walking along the train track in the other direction, towards Cuzco, for 10 hours to Ollantaytambo. From there, you can take a shared taxi for 10 soles ($3.50 US) back to Cuzco. I was really tired and couldn’t imagine walking another 10 hours.
The going was slow and in Santa Maria, I had to wait four hours for the next bus. I was so exhausted I fell asleep on a bench next to a sleeping old man. I finally reached Cuzco at 2am. Lying in bed overwhelmed by fatigue, a sense of bliss and contentment washed over me. After fulfilling a dream, it was time to dream another.