I still remember the first time I found out about Machu Picchu.
It was 2007 and I had just started university. I was living on campus and making friends with my next-door neighbour, a science student like me named Hannah. I went into her room one day and saw a poster of the most amazing verdant green mountain surrounded by crumbling walls and dappled sunlight. It looked like something out of a fantasy movie.
“Wow,” I said. “Cool picture!”
“Thanks,” she replied. “It’s Machu Picchu, in Peru. I’m going to go there.”
Thinking back, I’ve realised now that that was a pivotal moment for me. It was the first time I had heard someone like me say so matter-of-factly that she’d heard about an epic, overseas place that looked almost unreal, and that she would go there. I knew people travelled, of course, but the way she just casually said “Oh yes, I’m going to that place in the poster on my wall,” just made the whole thing seem attainable in a way I’d never considered before.
Flash forward nine and a half years (wow, has it really been that long??) and I found myself in the Sacred Valley, Peru, at the end of a long journey around much of South America, ready to make the climb myself.
Into the poster, into the fantasy-scape, and proving to myself that you really can go anywhere.
Truth be told, I didn’t have the smoothest trip at that point in Peru. The way things had panned out, I was there for the start of the rainy season, which you can probably guess isn’t the best time of year for epic hikes. I sort of knew this going in, but it’s just the way it went.
To make matters (much) worse, I’d had a bit of a mishap the week before. I was mountain biking down the side of a volcano in Ecuador (I kind of love that sentence…) when my brakes failed and I took a pretty bad tumble. I gave myself an epic concussion, fainted, vomited up most of the volcano dust I swallowed, collected some rather spectacular bruises, and only managed not to break anything through sheer luck, I think. It’s one of the few times I’ve been really, truly grateful to be big – I’m quite sure that if a girl with a smaller, slimmer build and skinny bones had gotten tangled in the bike the way I did, she’d have broken a few things. As it was, a few days in a neck brace and few weeks feeling pretty sore and sorry for myself, and I was fine.
But the timing wasn’t great, and it pretty much put an end to my plans to do one of the classic multi-day hikes to reach Machu Picchu.
So instead I decided to go the DIY route.
How to travel DIY to Machu-Picchu
As you know from every photo you’ve ever seen of the place, Machu Picchu is at the top of a hill. At the bottom of that hill is the village of Aguas Calientes, the jumping-off point for nearly all visitors to the ancient ruins. (The exception is the people doing the Inca Trail, who arrive at the top of the hill through the Inca Gate. Everyone else comes through Aguas Calientes.) Aguas Calientes (sometimes called Machu Picchu village) is a pretty inaccessible place, and there are no roads that connect the village with the outside world. The two options to get there are train or walking. And the train is expensive.
After spending a few days exploring Cusco, I took my time getting to Aguas Calientes. There’s a lot to explore in the Sacred Valley – you could spend weeks wandering from village to village if you had the time. I picked Pisac and Ollantaytambo for my stops en-route and I highly recommend them both.
Pisac is a lovely little Incan village surrounded by imposing, jagged mountains crowned by whisps of low cloud. It’s famous for it’s market, which is absolutely wonderful and spreads throughout the winding laneways of the village centre. There’s not a lot to do in Pisac, and I think that’s more or less the point – there’s an energy there that’s at once peaceful and invigorating, and I can definitely see myself kicking back for a longer stay one day.
In the evening as I wandered through the main square and admired the market goods, trying not to get in the way of the bustle of the sellers packing up for the evening, my eyes were caught by the flower seller and her bright bunches. “Flowers!” she cried. I smiled. “One sol!” I paused, and did a double take. Wait, how much? At home, a really cheap bunch of flowers might set you back AU $10, maybe $5 at the end of the day. One sol is the equivalent of about AU $0.40. Forty cents for a gorgeous bunch of red and orange flowers. Ok, why not?!
With no idea what I was going to do with them, I bought the flowers and happily carried them around with me for the rest of the night. Some backpackers at my hostel found me an old water bottle and lent me a knife so I could turn it into a crude vase. And that was how I became that weird backpacker who hiked Machu Picchu with a bunch of flowers strapped to her backpack. Because why not?
Can I tell you, it was actually really awesome travelling with a bunch of flowers, in ways I would never have thought of. Local women who are often shy of foreigners would laugh when they caught sight of me, and smile, and start a conversation. They would ask why I was travelling with flowers. I’d just respond because they are pretty and I like them! They’d laugh more at this and agree. It was a really lovely conversation starter, and made me feel more welcome in a community that sees so, so many tourists.
I spent the next night in Ollantaytambo – hard to say, but definitely worth the trip! (Hint – the “ll” is pronounced like “y” so it’s more like o-yan-tay-TAM-bo.) The wonderful thing about Ollantaytambo is how intact the original Incan design of the village is – very little has changed there in the last 800 years or more. There’s a neat bit of design that re-routes a stream through the village so that water runs down a channel at the edge of every street, and the whole village sounds like water. There are spectacular ruins up the hills on two sides, and the views are just wonderful.
I found myself a neat little guest house and arranged to leave my big backpack there for the next day. In the square, I found a lady with a shop who arranged a place on a mini-bus up to Santa Teresa the next day. At this point, I’d be joining a tourist bus rather than sticking with the local buses I’d been taking to that point. The local bus would have taken 8-10 hours rather than 4, and as I already had my Machu Picchu ticket for the day after, it was time I didn’t have to spare. And at 30 sols, the tourist bus just wasn’t that expensive. (The local bus would have cost around 20 sols all up, with several connections.)
That night, a massive storm hit – loads of lightning and thunder that shook the building. The guest house owner came to check on me – lucky it was a nice solid building and everything was fine, no leaks. I was very, very happy I had made the decision to DIY – I couldn’t imagine being in a tent somewhere on the trail during that storm! Definitely a dry-season activity I think.
The bus trip from Ollantaytanbo to Santa Teresa was nothing short of spectacular. I was somehow lucky enough to score the front seat of the mini bus and as we climbed up over 4500m the views were breathtaking. Being at the start of the rainy season was great at this point – once I counted 11 waterfalls that I could see without even turning my head! We encountered some thick fog at the top, and having to reverse so a truck we could barely see could make a three point turn to get around a tight corner was a bit nerve wracking, but our driver seemed to know what he was doing.
Just two of us jumped out at Santa Teresa – everyone else was heading straight to Hidroelectrica to start the walk to Aguas Calientes, but myself and Julia, a German girl I met in Ollantaytambo, decided that the famed hot springs at Santa Teresa were calling us. It was a good decision – the springs were lovely, some of the best I’ve been to and with gorgeous views of the mountains around.
My plan was to walk all the way from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes, which would add another 11km to the walk that most people do, but by that stage it was already after 3pm and I was only going to have daylight until around 6:30pm. So instead I spent another 10 sols on a shared taxi to Hidroelectrica – lucky me, there was one leaving direct from the hot springs, so the timing was perfect.
The walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes is really very easy – you just follow the train tracks. I was happy to be there towards the end of the day and being doing the walk on my own in that stunning jungle setting rather than with a big group. It’s perfectly safe, as long as you keep an ear out and jump off the tracks as the train approaches. The path is rocky which makes footing tricky and there’s a slight uphill gradient the whole way so you might walk slower than you expected to – I did, taking nearly 3 hours to complete the 10km walk. But the walk is absolutely lovely – there’s a beautiful river at the base of the steep-sided valley and lush tropical flowers all around. There are also cafes and restaurants along the trail. They were closed by the time I went past, but it would be great earlier in the day.
Even the light rain didn’t dampen my spirit – it just made everything really pretty.
However the slower-than-expected going did get tricky towards the end. There are a few tunnels which were pretty dark and definitely not un-scary – very glad I had my headlight. (I hadn’t even thought to bring it, it just happened to be in my backpack – thank you, past Martina!) It was quite dark and properly raining by the time I finally arrived at Aguas Calientes.
I was met on the train tracks by a lone tout who suggested I come to his hotel. I followed him, because why not? I was pretty tired by this point. I knew the big backpackers hostel in town was 47 sols for the night, and was hoping to find something cheaper. After a bit of negotiation, I was offered a bed in a shared room for 30 sols. I think it was just supposed to be a family room but he offered it to me when I didn’t want the windowless private room. I had the room to myself, except for the moment when a group came in to look at the room, then went elsewhere.
Honestly? I should have gone with the hostel. Everything is so expensive at Aguas Calientes and a few apples and a packet of biscuits I bought for breakfast the next morning set me back about 15 sols. The more expensive hostel included breakfast making the price difference negligible, and it just seemed way more professionally run.
That was also when I discovered that my rain cover for my backpack was a bit less waterproof than I had expected. The rain had gone from light to steady as I arrived at the village, and everything was drenched. I pulled all my belongings out, panicked over my laptop for a moment then decided that it’s cover had protected it partially and that it would be ok (and it was, I’m writing this on it now). I lay out all my clothes, and started turning pages in my guide book to stop them sticking together, resigned to the fact that I’d be spending the next few days wet. Yay. I found some cheap Chinese food (a Peruvian staple, actually) and bought my bus ticket for the morning, then got an early night.
Machu Picchu opens at 6am, and it really is worth being there early.
From Aguas Calientes, there’s a bus that will take you up the hill, or you can walk – it’s a few kilometres, and fairly steep. Like most others, I elected to take the bus this time, for US $12. As I said, getting there first is absolutely worth it, so to get on one of the first buses, you need to get in line early. Some backpackers I spoke to who were there in high season told me they joined the queue at 3am and got the second bus up. I decided since it was low season I could sleep in a bit – I joined the queue at 4:45am, and found myself on the third bus when they started heading up the hill at 5:30am. There’s lots of buses and they get people moving pretty well, so I don’t think you need to be on the first bus – as long as you’re on the 10th or 15th bus at least, I think you’ll be fine to get up there by 6am.
At the top of the hill, you join another line to get your ticket checked (which you MUST have ahead of time, by the way, it’s not possible to buy at the gate – buy it in Cusco or Aguas Calientes). Finally, you’re through the crowd, through the gate, and walking along the pathway to Machu Picchu.
And suddenly, there it is.
It looks like every photo you’ve ever seen of Machu Picchu. In fact, it’s actually hard to take a photo that doesn’t look like that.
It looks just like the poster on Hannah’s wall in 2007.
Getting there early means getting to enjoy this magical place with very few other people around. While the buses did feel crowded, the place is huge and people spread out very fast so you can feel the gentle magic of the place. That feeling is much harder to find later in the day when thousands of package tourists rock up with their selfie sticks and obnoxious attitudes. But as dawn gently peeks over the edge of the valley and this ancient place is bathed in yellow-hued light, it’s easy to feel magic.
The thing that I found weird about Machu Picchu was actually how plain the ruins themselves are. After visiting a number of intricately carved Mayan cities in Central America and wonderfully painted pre-Incan cities in the Peruvian desert, I was surprised to find that the walls of Machu Picchu are plain, seemingly prioritising practicality and simplicity over decoration. It’s the setting that makes these ruins so intoxicating, and the intactness of them.
Ok, so see that big hill in the middle of all the photos? That’s Wayna Picchu (aka Huayna Picchu), and you can climb it. You need an extra ticket because they only let 400 people per day go up. It’s pretty steep, definitely a challenge even when you’re not covered in bruises from falling down a volcano like I was. But worth it? Oh yes.
The path is an original Incan one, with a few extra hand-holds and things added more recently. I can’t imagine the people who had to lug those stones up there in the first place. No one knows what Machu Picchu was – a city, a temple, a palace – but I can tell you, whoever lived in Wayna Picchu liked their alone time. There’s just a few buildings up the top there, with the most astounding views. It would be ideal for meditation or something spiritual.
After descending the hill, I spent a few more hours wandering the grounds, watching the llamas who roam freely, and taking it all in. With the sky threatening rain, I made my way back down to the village around lunch time, walking this time through a gorgeous path running alongside the road the buses take.
For me, Machu Picchu is always going to be that place from that poster that didn’t look real, that I was amazed to find out is actually a real place that you really can go to. That I went to.
Going there, for me, really is a bit of a “you can go ANYWHERE” feeling. It’s inspiring, and it’s made my wanderlust that much more insatiable.
Want any tips or suggestions on getting to Machu Picchu? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to help you out.