For most travellers, a trip to South America wouldn’t be complete without visiting Machu Picchu. If you’ve been to Peru it’s almost a given that you’ve been to Machu Picchu too. For us it was a bit more of a consideration because taking the train, staying a night at Machu Picchu pueblo, riding the bus up to the entrance and the entrance fee itself is almost a months budget spent in just two days. We were so close to saying that we wouldn’t bother, how great can it be anyway? But after spending a day in Juliaca researching, budgeting and figuring out a way to do it as cheap as possible we decided (like everyone else) that it had to be done. In terms of doing it cheaply I think we succeeded.
The journey to and from Machu Picchu was an adventure in itself as we took a public minibus, naturally we were the only tourists in it. Cusco is pretty high up, at 3400 masl and as we descended into the Sacred Valley the temperature became noticeably more tropical. We started seeing banana trees, the air felt thick and muggy – a bit like breathing soup – and there were suddenly biting flies, something we’ve not had to deal with since Uruguay and Brasil. The drive was through some stunning scenery, from the towering peaks outside Cusco to the rainforest like vegetation of the Lower valley. We made good time for 3/4 of the drive. Unfortunately for us that very same day four different villages had blocked the road as part of a political protest, sadly preventing us driving the last 20km to Santa Maria where we needed to change buses. We spent an hour at a standstill with many other locals, lorries and tourist buses wondering when we would be let though. We spoke to our driver but he didn’t think it was moving any time soon.
When we saw the first group of tourists walk across the picket line and continue along the road we realised that that would be the only way we were going to make it to Machu Picchu the next day. (The ticket for the ruins itself has to be bought days in advance for £35 each, is either for the morning 6am-12pm or the afternoon 12-5.30pm and is non-transferable, so it was vital we made it there that night. No stress!)
We started walking along the deserted road with the other groups of tourists, it was like a scene out of The Walking Dead. After about half a kilometre a driver from the village, this side of the roadblock, slowly made his way past us. He was an enterprising local taxi driver, ferrying people from one road block to the next and with two seats free we jumped right in. He halved the amount of distance we had to walk in the sweltering heat and without this lucky chance encounter I’m not sure we would have made it to Machu Picchu pueblo (village) much before midnight.
We asked the old lady next to us in the car about the road blocks and why they were protesting, so she explained to us in very rapido Spanish but we understood the gist of it. The local coca and coffee growers (and other agricultural producers in the area) are only paid a tiny percentage of what their product is sold for elsewhere, meaning they are living in poverty and with local mayoral elections coming up its a good time for them to highlight their plight. We thought it’s also convenient that it disrupts transport to the most touristy place in the world which generates billions a year and will probably reach the ears of the government.
After an hours walk from where the taxi dropped us off we reached Santa Maria, where our first minibus should have arrived over two hours earlier. Again we got lucky, a mini bus was waiting almost half full to drive the next leg up to Hidroeléctrica. This is as far as the road goes and from there the only access to Machu Picchu pueblo is on foot or by very expensive train. We were soon on our way and felt so relieved, at least we would be walking before dark and Steph was glad the drive along the narrow dirt road with a sheer 500m drop was in the light. It would be even more terrifying had it been a couple of hours later!
At least waking along the train lines was enjoyable, we were really excited about where we were going and felt very fortunate that we were some of the lucky ones to be arriving at a reasonable time. It did rain and get dark but with armed with head torches and rain jackets it wasn’t an issue.
Arriving into Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, at 7pm was such a shock. It looked so out of place after walking for over an hour in the dark, hearing nothing but rain and the ocasional bird. There were fancy hotels and touristy restaurants everywhere. We found a cheap (but really nice) hotel, went out for a really tasty chicken dinner with the locals and went to bed at 11pm, knackered but happy to have arrived, albeit later than planned.
The next morning – 4am: Steph is wide awake and like at Silverstone MotoGP the year before was raring to go. We stepped out of the hotel door and it was almost like we hadn’t gone to sleep. Shops were open, restaurants were serving breakfast and there were dozens of people in every direction. We should have expected it really with how big of a tourist trap this place was but it’s been a while since we’ve been anywhere like this (Iguazu falls back in May probably) so I think we’d forgotten what it’s like. We walked out of town, past the queue of about 500 people waiting for the bus up to te ruins and joined the much smaller queue of people waiting to begin the hike up the hundreds of steep stairs to the site entrance. Although we had to wait in line for 20 minutes we more than made up that time in the amount of people we passed up the stairs, reaching the top in only 35 minutes. Way to go cycling fitness and living at altitude for 4 months! We didn’t know it could be so hot at 5:55am but being at lower altitudes of around 2000 masl makes such a difference.
The queuing system to get into Machu Picchu itself was a free for all, funnelling hundreds of people into only four lanes was ridiculous and so unorganised. It was no Alton Towers queue that’s for true. We made it in not long after the gates opened at 6am and as we hadn’t walked far enough that day already we decided to start from the farthest away point first, the Sun Gate. It’s also the place where the inca trail hikers arrive to watch the sunrise so it must be good.. and it truly was. Beginning the walk up there in thick cloud, before the sun had risen, we debated whether the view would actually be any good or not. Arriving at the top all our doubts disappeared when the clouds parted and we watched the sun slowly move across the mountains to the east and spread across the ruins. It was fantastic.
The picture postcard view of Machu Picchu with the mountain in the background and the ruins on the saddle point in front is world recognisable, so it came as no surprise. But the reality of seeing it first hand is still spectacular. It is almost impossible to take it all in, almost like being in another world and yet we were the lucky ones by being there. We spent three hours exploring the ruins and terraces at the top of the site taking our time, eating some snacks and getting told off for jumping for photos! (Geoseismic activity or some such nonsense.)
The Inca bridge was an interesting side visit too. Not only does it beg the question of where does it lead to, it also makes you wonder how they built it and why. It is built into the sheer vertical cliff side and must have served a purpose which is lost to us now, but like all things from the Incan times it makes you curious. The basic wooden bridge itself isn’t overly impressive, but it’s location is precarious at best and as with everything at Machu Picchu it blows your mind thinking about how it was made.
The lower part of Machu Picchu, the bit that you see in everybody’s selfies, is where most of the Incan buildings are. There are lots of small structures which would have been houses or workshops, then there are more grand buildings around the main plaza, which is grass and kept in immaculate condition. The best example of Incan stonework is around the sacred plaza and the stones fit together so perfectly you wouldn’t even be able to fit a credit card between them!
We explored the lower section of the ruins for another few hours, looking around all of the different buildings and imagining what they could be. There are no signs and without a guide you have to do your own research, but after we saw guides rushing people along or telling people where to line up to take a photo, we were so glad we were our own guides! By the time you are here though, you are already being funnelled towards the exit. The way that it is patrolled and fenced means that you have to walk in one direction, not going back to see anything again, and it felt very much like one minute you’re in the ruins and the next you’re outside the main entrance. It was a bit of an anticlimax really. Admittedly we were feeling pretty tired and felt like we had seen everything we wanted to see but if we had been allowed to stay longer, we would have done too.
The walk back down was a retracing of our steps – back down the steep stairs and along the train tracks to where we got the mini bus back to Santa Maria. Annoyingly the shenanigans with the road blocks were still in place meaning a long wait in traffic before trying to take an alternative route through the mountains. This didn’t work either as the protesters had cut down lots of trees to stop anyone from trying to take the backroads. But after roping in some locals to cut up and move the downed trees we managed to skirt around the blockades and get a ride back to Cusco. Lots of others had the same idea, so the one minibus we found ended up having 13 people crammed into space for 10. The ride was a super uncomfortable 4 hours, but totally worth it to get out of that area. It was a pretty stressful afternoon/evening as you could tell tensions were running high in that part of the Sacred Valley.
Thankfully we arrived back in the city at 12:30am and we were so glad we had Bethany’s place to go back to. She’d left us a key out as she was staying with a friend and when we arrived her two little dogs, Charlie and Luna were so happy to see us. We had a couple of rest days and then had to decide whether we get back on the bikes or do an alternative Incan ruins trek that is way off the tourist trail. We decided on the latter as we had the opportunity to borrow hiking backpacks from Bethany (something we don’t have with us on the bikes) and we had a base in Cusco to leave the bikes so it would be our best chance to do the trek.
The Choquequirao Trek is a four day round trip to some lesser known Incan ruins, only about 40% of which are uncovered, but they cover an area as large as Machu Picchu. There is even a trek that joins the two sites, but after walking to Choquequirao and experiencing how hard that was, we’d have to think carefully about doing the big one all the way to Machu Picchu. The Choquequirao ruins are set to be the next big thing with a cable car being planned to get tourists up there, another reason why we decided to go when we had the chance, before it gets as busy as MP.
Luckily for us the transport logistics were easier for this one with a four hour bus linking up to an hours taxi ride all the way to the trail head for under £10 for the two of us. The trek though, that was really hard. Whilst the distance is a fairly short 20km each way, the steep, loose and rocky terrain makes this a really difficult walk. Essentially you descend 1500m into the valley and then climb back up the other side, also 1500m. Steep really was the order of business. It was also really hot with loads of annoying sandflies hovering around. Despite the physical challenge, the scenery was amazing and it was nice to be out in the mountains doing something different.
Although the Choquequirao trek isn’t walked by many people each day there are six different campsites along the route which are all cheap and provide snacks and hot food, meaning we didn’t need to take our stove or carry huge amounts of food. We still had reasonably heavy packs as we were carrying our sleeping stuff, tent, a few clothes and some dried food, but they were much lighter than our packs for Torres Del Paine last year.
We arrived at the entrance to the ruins on our second day after 9 hours of challenging and exhausting walking. Thankfullly once you have bought your entrance ticket you can camp there for free. The campsite at the ruins was basic but the opportunity to spend the night on ancient Incan terraces is not something you get to do every day and the views weren’t half bad either. The hummingbirds were fun to watch too but eluded all attempts at being photographed (as usual).
The ruins officially open at 7am (though it is not guarded) so we got up early to make sure we were there to see the first light on the ruins. Walking on to the terraces at 6:50am we were struck by how huge they were and that we had the place to ourselves. It was even more surreal as we entered the main plaza and saw the buildings for the first time, it must have been how the first explorers felt when they uncovered a lost treasure. For over an hour we wandered around all by ourselves and revelled in the tranquility of the place, something which is impossible to do at Machu Picchu as there are just too many people around. Even when other people did arrive at the ruins we saw only eight others all morning.
The buildings at Choquequirao are built on many different levels so there was a lot to explore and it was all really well preserved. This is because the dense cloud forest grows really fast and had covered these buildings for centuries until they were rediscovered in the early 1900s, though now “ladar” technology is being used to find more stonework beneath the layers of jungle. No doubt there is so much more to be uncovered but the scale of that project is enormous due to the location, even removing all the debris would have to be done on foot or by mule.
One recent discovery was the “Llama terraces” which are Incan terraces, usually used for farming, but these particular ones have twenty one llamas built into them using a different colour stone. This is quite unique to Choquequirao and it’s so impressive, particularly with how steep the terraces were.
It was an absolutely brutal walk back down. Steph had a blister on her heel, Ben had some bites around his ankle that had swollen up, we both have no grip left on the soles of our year-old, badly-abused shoes and we were already exhausted after 2 and a half strenuous days. As the whole walk back was downhill it was so hard on the legs, but the bamboo sticks that the ranger gave us at the start of the trek were worth their weight in gold (he was obviously familiar with unprepared tourists). It took us all afternoon, and nearly broke Steph, but we made it back down to the river by dark. Shuffling over the bridge on legs now made entirely of jelly we stumbled into the campsite where we set up the tent and bought a hot dinner. In a state of deplorable fatigue finally getting into bed was a huge relief.
Day 4 was an early start. Determined to get back to Cusco that day we were up before sunrise (4am) and started the fully uphill section of the walk back, which actually felt easier than yesterday’s way down. We both struggled on with the help of painkillers and antihistamines. Our estimates were that we would be at the top by midday and we made it with time to spare. Luck was on our side because there was a mini bus waiting with two other passengers. It was 40 Soles (£5) each to the main road which is a bit steep, but we were willing to pay anything to get home at this point. Turns out the bus didn’t stop on the main road and went all the way to Cusco instead. A huge stroke of luck. We felt so relived and happy to be back home.
We spent another night with Bethany but she had to leave at 3am for a flight to Brazil so she left us the house key and told us to lock up when we left the next day. Another gesture of enormous trust in us from our incredible host that made our recovery so much easier – having a home and a lie in (and dogs). We felt so exhausted after the trek, I think we underestimated it but also realised that it’s a four day hike from the start of the trail, not from Cusco so actually we did it in three. We would not recommend doing it this way! Knowing what we know now we would take it much easier and slower if doing it again.
We moved to a hostel in town for a few days R&R but during this time Steph got ill (not sure what caused it but seemed like a water or food related bug coupled with exhaustion from the trek) and she spent the next few days in bed. In typical fashion the day before she got sick we had booked a bus to take us to Ayacucho where we would start riding from again (there was no way we were riding any more main roads with how bad Peruvian drivers are and how much they love to beep at anything and everything). But this relentlessly twisting and turning bus ride really didn’t help Steph’s stomach so after arriving in Ayacucho we took almost a week off whilst she recovered. Thankfully Ayacucho is a pleasant city and we found a really nice yet cheap hotel (as seems to be the way in Peru) and caught up on lots of TV!
Now we are both healthy and rested, we’ve cycled 200km to a small city in the middle of Peru where we are about to join the Peru Divide, a popular dirt road cycle touring route through Peru’s central highlands. Expect some riding photos next time.
Steph and Ben