Machu Picchu, better when you’ve earned it

The lost Inca city of Machi Picchu is one the world’s wonders. The fact that it wasn’t discovered until 1911 speaks to its spectacular setting. To explore it, hordes of tourist take a train plus bus from Cuzco every day… But it’s still possible to reach Machu Pichhu emulating the experience of the ancient Incas, who walked kms and kms through the Urubamba Valley to their sacred city.

The so-called Inca Trail offers numerous alternative routes nowadays. From the classic (and probably over-exploited) one to the “jungle trail” I chose. Every tourism agency in Cuzco sells this tours, and travelers then get grouped and handed over to a handful of guides. The main challenge is actually to get a train ticket to return to Cuzco after hiking to and visiting Machu Picchu, as the only direct railway (, controlled by a Chilean company to the locals’ frustration) tends to be sold out during high season. Alternatively, you can take the train back to Ollantaytambo (, this one a Peruvian concession), and then a bus. I’d recommend booking your own return train ticket online before getting to Cuzco and negotiating your Inca Trail package. Agencies are not allowed to buy tickets upfront and will simply take you (or your passport) to the booking office. If you bring your own ticket, they’ll simply discount that from the price.

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Our excursion began with a full day of mountain biking, mostly downhill, from the pass of Abra la Raya (at 4300 m) to the village of Santa María (at 1800 m). It was fun and exhausting, especially for my arms, due to the wild conditions of the “road”. The second day, we hiked for 8 hours on the side of the mountains (the narrow line you see in the picture was our trail), over the Urubamaba river, to reach Santa Teresa. We crossed hanging bridges, waterfalls, and daunting outlooks, and took a regenerating bath in some hot springs at the end. Both in Santa María and Santa Teresa we stayed in local guest houses, humble but enough for our needs. And we ate what the families served us, mainly soup, chicken and bananas, and drank chicha morada, a sweet purple corn beverage, maybe my new favorite juice. The towns are quite developed, due to their location, but still preserve some much-appreciated authenticity. In Santa Teresa, we even ventured into a local “club”. My group, the kind of heterogeneous backpacker gang you could expect in this situation, proved to be fun and interesting. On the third day, we completed the easy hike on the train rails from the hydroelectric central to Aguas Calientes.

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On day four, we woke up at 4 am to reach the archaeological site right before 6 am, when the gates opened. I think those few kms of steep incline were one of the toughest hikes of my life. Luckily, they were compensated by the pleasure of wandering around the ruins nearly alone, while the sun rose and the fog dissipated (and lazy tourist started arriving in the first buses). There is something magic about this place. It’s hard to explain, you have to experience it for yourself; and it feels better when you know you’ve earned it along the way 🙂 My only lament is that I didn’t get to hike Wayna Picchu for the very best views. Even though I got one of the 400 spots assigned per day (another reason to walk up early and not wait for the buses), my assigned start time wouldn’t have allowed me to catch the train out of Aguas Calientes (another reason to book in advance). On the long way back, I was quiet, trying to hold to the feelings of the last days for as long as possible. [Update: It is possible now to buy tickets to Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu on]

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Oh, almost forgot to mention that Cuzco is worth spending time at. The Plaza de Armas is a perfect representation of colonial architecture, and the 12 angle stone a symbol of the talented Inca culture. The city is very easy to explore on foot, with its cobblestone streets, and there are lots of local markets and eateries. Cuzco is also a great center to explore surrounding towns and ruins. My favorite was Ollantaytambo, which I visited on a day-trip on public bus (~1.5 hours each way). After wandering around the center and grabbing some food, I paid a local to give me a ride up the hill where the ruins are located. I got off before the gate and hiked cross-country to avoid the entrance fee (my funds where rather low after traveling for months). Perfect agricultural terraces cover the side of the hill, with storehouses and a temple further up. The Cuzco area is a great introduction to Inca history, before heading to Machu Picchu.

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5 thoughts on “Machu Picchu, better when you’ve earned it

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