If ever you have the chance to visit Peru do not leave the country without going to Machu Picchu! This wonder of the world will leave you with everlasting memories. It’s breathtaking and, although I do not like using this word lightly, truly awe-inspiring. However be aware that accessing it is not that easy and the gateway to Machu Picchu, the little town of Aguas Calientes is only reachable by train or walking.
One has basically 3 options to reach Machu Picchu :
1. An organized trek
Either the famous Inca trail which needs to be booked about 6 months ahead as admissions are limited, or the Salkantay trek which can be booked last minute. The latter is a 4N-5D trek and prices vary greatly. We heard prices from 170$ to 600$. The difference I believe is the quality of food, the way the company treats their guides and also the means of transportation you’ll use. Although it often happens that people in the same group pay extremely variable prices for exactly the same services. It is almost certain that you will pay higher prices if you book through internet so I would advice to shop around in Cusco and visit various travel agencies.
The Salkantay will generally include 2 nights in a tent, 2 nights in a hotel, 3 meals a day, return by train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambu and by bus from Ollantaytambu to Cusco. Our two Scottish friends did it and they truly enjoyed it.
2. The train
There are 2 train companies offering the service to Aguas Calientes. PeruRail leaves from Poroy, about 20 minutes from Cusco and from Ollantaytambu, about 1.5h from Cusco, and IncaRail leaves from Ollantaytambu only. There are different trains, among which a very luxurious one, the Hiram Bingham at 900$ 2 ways including live music, all you can eat and drink as well as a private tour of Machu Picchu. All in all, the train is a pretty pricey option as even the normal train is often around 150$ for a return ticket. Tickets can be purchased online.
3. Public buses and walking
This is the option we chose, we included 2 days in the Sacred Valley so our journey was broken down a little.
(Prices in Peruvian soles and per person; 1 USD =3 Soles)
As mentioned in my last post we were lucky enough to leave our luggage at our Airbnb host and took off with small backpacks. We started our journey in a collectivo going to Chinchero ( 6 soles). You can find all the collectivo going there (and then further to Ollantaytambu) in the Pavitos street in Cusco. The little vans leave once they’re full.
Our first stop was Chinchero a small town just North of Cusco. It host archeological ruins and is famous for its traditional Andean weaving workshops.
Walk towards the ruins and the church, you will be asked to produce your “boleto touristico” (or you can buy one there). The ruins consists of nicely renovated agricultural terraces with impressive views on the Sacred valley and some fortifications surrounding the ancient church. Basically the Catholic church has been built on top of an Inca temple. The church in itself is very impressive, it’s not big nor overly decorated on the outside but once you get in you’ll be amazed by the paintings covering every single surface. Really worth a visit (no photos allowed unfortunately).
Chinchero also hosts artisan workshops offering very good quality pieces of weaving at competitive prices . Our favourite one by far was one just when you turn left after the ticket control point, on the left side of the road. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name but you’ll find a picture of the entrance below. You go down some stairs with the colourful decoration and you’ll see the ladies working in the garden as well as an oven where they colour the fabrics and some guinea pigs for their personal consumption – see pictures below. We bought very nice pouches that we didn’t find anywhere else – we actually came back twice as the first time we had no space in our small packs, the 2nd time the shop was closed and nobody else was selling them so we had to come a 3rd time 😂. They are also numerous sellers on the plaza around the church but the quality was not as good and some pieces are clearing made in China. Another shop worth visiting if you have a higher budget is the “Centro de textiles tradicionales”, a co-operative and weaving learning school with exclusive and high quality pieces. Food-wise make sure you visit the Merienda restaurant to eat empanadas and homemade cookies – the best we had during our time in Peru!
From Chinchero you have the possibility to take a collectivo or taxi to Moray and the salt mine of Maras (taxi drivers will approach you), another great site included in your ticket. You should find a transfer at 10 soles.
After Chinchero we took another collectivo to Urubamba (3 soles) where we had a quick stop and lunch and from there another collectivo brought us to Ollantaytambu (1.5 soles). Although we were the only tourists on the various collectivos we took during this first day, the whole process was very smooth, locals and drivers were very helpful and told us when you get out and where to find the next collectivo.
The ancient site in Ollantaytambu is definitely worth a visit and a nice warm up for the highlight on the next day ;). It consists of the remains of a military fortress. Back in the days it was insuring the security of the transports in the Sacred valley on the road to Machu Picchu. Nowadays Ollantaytambu is the main etap before reaching Aguas Calientes.
After the visit of the ruins ( also included in the ‘boleto turistico’) we decided to spend the night here. The town in itself is a rather cute and offers a wide range of accommodations and eateries.
The next morning we wanted to catch the public transport to ‘Hydroelectrico’ from where you walk to Aguas Calientes. After having asked to several people we found out that it’s rather difficult from Ollantaytambu – we’d have to go back to Urubamba, from there to Santa Maria and then Santa Theresa and then another collectivo to Hydroelectrico. However a lady approached us and proposed the transport to Hydroelectrico for 40 soles. Knowing that this is the price usually from Cusco (35-40 soles) we refused and managed to negotiate 30. I advise you not to eat too much and eventually take motion sickness pills as the ride is long (2h-3h) very curvy and our driver, like most of them, was definitely driving like a maniac.
In Santa Theresa you’ll change to a smaller car for the dirt road and then register yourself at the Hydroelectrico. The Hydroelectrico is basically just a power plant at the end of the practicable road.
From there you walk along the rails, you’ll see a lot of other groups as the people doing the Salkantay trek take this road too. We actually bumped into our Scottish friends again and it was great walking the 12km together.
Once arrived in Aguas Calientes we had some Pisco sour and booked a place for the night. Prices can be high there and we ended up booking a bit nicer place as we were craving a nice breakfast buffet ^^
The breakfast buffet and some advices from the hotel staff were the reason why we cancelled our plans of hiking up Machu Picchu at 4am to catch the sunrise. Apparently most of organized tour groups do this or try to catch the 1st bus at 5h30 (first come first serve, 22$ per way) and most of the time the sunrise is not really visible due to the clouds.
Therefore we ended up enjoying our buffet, sneaking some stuff for our lunch and headed to the famous mountain around 7am. The entrance to Machu Picchu only is 152 soles per person. You can pay add 48 soles if you want to hike whether Huayna Picchu or Montana Picchu which are two peaks overlooking the vally and the main site. We went for the Montana (further 90min hike) and its amazing views.
The tickets need to be purchased in advance online or at the ticket office in Cusco.
The hike from Aguas Caliente to the top is about 90 minutes, 1500 steps!! I believe the feeling once you’re in front of this majestic site is even more surreal if you tackled the ascend before! I was so much looking forward to this, a long dream of mine and my highlight of South America – it didn’t disappoint! It is breath taking standing in front of these ancient ruins and realizing that finally you are at a place you only know from pictures…obviously this happened quite a lot during this year but I guess the fact that I always dreamed of Peru and Machu Picchu enhanced it all.
As mentioned we added the entrance to the Montana Picchu mountain, another 1.5/2h, 3000 steps hike. Access to the Montana is regulated to avoid overcrowding, it’s limited to 400 people per day and access is from 7-8am or 9-10 am. Everybody has to leave the top by noon.
As we started quite late and added the Montana hike we knew that we won’t be able to hike back the same day to Hydroelectrico, therefore we booked another night in Aguas Caliente and took our time at Machu Picchu. Which is, I think the best option to fully enjoy this unique site. In the afternoon the site is almost deserted as most of the visitors come early AND leave early to catch the bus, train or walk back to Ollantaytambu/ Cusco. So we took our time, shoot some more pictures, enjoyed the sun and the views and walk all the way down to Aguas Calientes and our nice hotel and treated ourselves with a well deserved tasty burger at the Palate Bistro.
The next day we hiked back the 12km along the train racks but soon realised that we were too early – the buses only go back as from 2pm! We paid 35 soles for our van back to Cusco, the journey took us about 6h.
The treks (Inca or Salkantay) for sure are nice experiences but we were not too keen to spend 4 days walking and we don’t regret one bit having done this trip on our own, we stopped in small villages, interacted with locals, took local transports, spread the money to local businesses and with help of locals it was never really difficult to find our way around.
I will see you soon for a delicious post on Lima 😉