When deciding how to get to Machu Picchu you have a few options, so it’s important to shop around when you get to Cusco to decide which option will suit you best. You can shop around online if you are going during peak season but you’re sure to get a better deal when you actually get to Cusco as there are many tour companies not online and the agents with an online presence are a lot more expensive. What the tour companies won’t tell you though, is that you can actually make your own way there, without paying the earth and without walking for days. Here’s how we did it.
We went during the shoulder season in April, this is when the rains are starting to clear but it’s not crazy busy like it is from June so we had all options open to us. We’d already decided Machu Picchu was the main event for us, so we weren’t keen on walking for days ending up exhausted when we finally got to the top. So that counted out the traditional and most popular Inca Trail as well as the Salkantay Mountain trek. The other trail option is the “jungle trek” which includes hiking, mountain biking and zip lining and sounded more fun, but it cost 750 soles ($370aud) which is pricey. So after a bit of research we decided to go it alone. I’d read that it was not only possible but it was easy, we were also really lucky to have had 2 great friends from Cusco who were keen to come along, and they confirmed we could take the route I had in mind. Luciano and Chino were the perfect companions for our self-guided jungle trek.
Day one: Cusco to Santa Teresa
It’s super easy to book a bus from Cusco to your 1st stop Santa Maria which will only cost you around 30 soles and from there your are deep into the Sacred Valley, and well on your way to Machu Picchu. We were already in Ollantaytambo so Luciano and Chino booked a private taxi from Cusco then we just jumped in along the way, between the 4 of us it still only cost 120 soles ($60AUD Cusco to Santa Maria). The driver had a need for speed and the roads up, and back down into the valley, are really winding so unfortunately we all felt a bit car sick by the time we got to Santa Maria. If you like the sound of mountain biking part of the way instead of driving, you can actually organise bikes from Ollantaytambo and ride 30kms downhill to Santa Maria (which is exactly the route they take on the jungle trek). I found a place on the square in Ollyantay that will take you one way, and bring the bikes back for 120 soles each. Unfortunately I found this out on the morning we were leaving so it was too late, but the drive was thrilling enough!
When you get to Santa Maria it’s another 10 soles each to Santa Teresa in a shared taxi, or 15 soles if you’d like to go straight to the hot pools. We stopped for lunch at a cheap menu place in Santa Teresa then walked down to the pools which was a lovely stroll 20 minutes downhill along the river.
The pools are warm and clean and look out over the river, it really feels as though you’re in the heart of the Sacred Valley, it’s a lot greener than the parts we’d seen on our journey so far, and had a real jungle feel to it. Me and Steve were relaxing, soaking up the tranquillity when Luciano and Chino came back, they’d been up to check out the accommodation above the pools which was only 15 soles each for a basic room overlooking the river, no electricity and no hot shower but a killer view from the room.
Now we didn’t have far to go we could chill here as long as we wanted. The only downside to the pools is that it’s one of the stops on the jungle trail, which means loads of tourists, and tourist prices for snacks and beverages. Beers were double the normal price but hey, we’d saved a bit by not taking the tour so we indulged in a couple with our dinner. They also have a small pop up style restaurant so we ordered the traditional lomo saltado (stir fried beef with tomatoes and hot chips, which was a fair price at 15 soles) and after an afternoon in the pool it tasted great!
Day 2: Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
We walked back up from the hot Pools to Santa Teresa in the morning, had a delicious breakfast at the local market which was chicken schnitzel (malenesa de pollo) rice and salad with a coffee for 15 soles, then took a colectivo to hidroeléctrica for 10 soles each. hidroélectrica is one of the train stops on the way to Aguas Calientes (the last stop before Machu Picchu), but is as close you can get by car.
From here you hit the tracks on foot, it’s about 10kms and is a really nice walk. I can imagine if you’ve just completed the Salkantay Mountain trek this part of the walk would be a bitch (they take this route as well, so do the jungle trek people) but for us we were fresh and rested and totally enjoyed it. As we came into Aguas Calientes I was really presently surprised, it’s very touristy but very pretty! We managed to score a nice room with great cable channels for only 50 soles so the decision to stay 2 nights to enable us to take our time up at Machu Picchu the next day was an easy one.
We’d already bought our tickets from the office in Cusco but there is also a place in Aguas Calientes you can grab them if you’re concerned about the weather. Unfortunately for us the two extra mountains you can climb (Wayna Picchu and Montaña) were both unavailable, but we only bought our tickets the day we headed into the Sacred Valley so that was a risk we took. You can order tickets online but unless you have a Peruvian credit card you’ll have to pay for them at the office in Cusco.
That night we ventured up to try out the hot pools in Aguas Calientes, we paid 20 soles each to get in only to discover the place was packed. It reminded me of the pictures you see from the pools in China where it’s standing room only and people are still squeezing in. We thought we’d wait in the bar for a few people to leave but the drinks there were FOUR times the price of a normal drink. So, we marched out and I asked for our money back. The man at the ticket counter shushed me as there was a line of people still waiting to get in, but he sold our tickets to the next poor fools and gave me our money back (after pointing out the sign that says no refunds of course).
Day 3: Machu Picchu!!
We planned to walk up from Aguas Callientes at 4.45am reaching the bridge at the bottom of the hike up just as they opened the 1st ticket check point at 5.30am. Unfortunately when we went to get the others it was raining pretty hard. Team decision, we’d wait for the rain to stop. I was hoping to stay up there for the day so I didn’t want to kick off a very long day wet and cold, and stuck in the cloud with zero visibility of the main event. By 8am it was still raining so we decided to go and grab a market breakfast, then we could take the bus up to give us some more time.
Breakfast was amazing, and only 12 soles including a coffee! It looked like we’d made the best call (even though the bus ride was extortionate 40 soles each one way!) because by the time we got up there the rain had stopped and we were refreshed and raring to go.
There were hoards of people but I was totally expecting that. Luciano showed us around and told us so many interesting things! Here’s our day in photos:
I think for me, the thing that makes Machu Picchu feel magical is the mystery. As with the other ruins we have visited in the Sacred Valley no one is sure what this picture perfect citadel, high up in the amazonian basin was actually used for, exactly when it was built, who really built it and most importantly how the heck did they get the materials up there to do it. The main story told by the guides is that it was built by the Inca’s about 1450 and was used as a fortress for the elite. There were probably only about 1000 residents living here and they lived in semi luxury. It was interesting speaking to Luciano about it, he comes from Inca heritage and his father is a lecturer at the university. He told us that the city was probably an escape for Inca Emperor Pachacuti (earth shaker) and the permanent residents were probably the workers who maintained the grounds. Most of the human remains found at Machu Picchu were small framed and their bones showed no evidence of hard labor, the evidence in their teeth showed they had diets high in corn which was the sacred food and reserved for the Incan high society or royalty.
I would highly recommend staying put until the late afternoon, by about 3pm we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It’s all the more enchanting when it’s a bit quieter 🙂
After we were done we decided to walk back to Aguas down the stairs we’d originally planned to walk up that morning. It’s about 7kms but it’s super steep! It took us about an hour to get down but I’d leave twice as long to get up, my knees were feeling it by the bottom so I can only imagine how many breaks I would’ve needed on the way up!
Day 4: Aguas Calientes to Urubamba
We made it to Machu Picchu, but we still had to get back… Instead of taking the super expensive tourist train we opted to walk back along the tracks towards Ollantaytambo. 30kms until the nearest town accessible by car it was a long day!
We really enjoyed wandering along the tracks through the jungle alongside the river, because you’re on the opposite side of the river to the original Inca Trail you still see ruins and evidence of where the Inca once walked. About halfway through the day the landscape changes from lush rainforesty jungle to green farmland. You can also judge how far you’ve come by looking at the numbered signs along the way.
We were aiming to get to Piscacaucho (which is sometimes referred to as stop 82 because there are still 82kms to go until Cusco) and in hindsight we would’ve left much earlier. By leaving at 9.30am it was almost dark by the time we got there and the colectivos had almost stopped running! Luckily the driver took pity on us and dropped us at the main road where we waited for another colectivo to take us to Ollyantambo where we could take a 3rd to Urubamba.
By this stage it was very dark, and we were cold and tired. I was happy to be back in that 1st room we stayed in, in Urubamba, with the super clean white sheets. They smelt so comforting after our huge day! From there it was easy to get back to Cusco, we could’ve gone all the way that night but I wanted to visit a friend in Pisac before leaving for Bolivia.