Two Little-Known Options that Could Affect Your Trek to Machu Picchu

Dramatic photo of the ruins at Machu Picchu with Waynapicchu mountain shrouded in fog in the background

Magical and mystical

I had three priorities regarding my trip through South America before leaving the US; to sail from Panama to Cartagena through the San Blas Islands, to visit Machu Picchu and to be somewhere in Brazil for Carnival. I completed the sail trip last month and as of yesterday I can check Machu Picchu off my list as well. Shrouded in fog and mystery Machu Picchu excites the imagination, leaving you in awe with its elegant beauty and master craftsmanship. It is the product of years of Inca intellectual, societal and engineering development. It’s obviously the beneficiary of a very well thought out architectural plan, although its original use is still unclear.

Machu Picchu was “discovered” in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University. The area was previously owned by both German and Argentine individuals, who stripped the site of all precious items. Bingham took most remaining artifacts to Yale University. Peru still demands that they be returned.

For Peru, Machu Picchu is big business. 1500 people per day visit the site, year round. There are multiple ways to experience getting to Machu Picchu, from taking an $850 luxury train ride from Cusco to the base of the mountain, where you can catch a bus to the top, to trekking for 4 days along the renowned Inca trail, arriving at Machu Picchu exhausted yet feeling truly accomplished.

My initial plan one month ago was to take a bus/train combo to Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of the mountain and bus it to the top for the easy shortcut. After speaking with a few fellow travelers I realized that I couldn’t take the train/bus shortcut for this trip unless I was old and decrepit. I began to realize that similar to the jungle trek in Colombia, there is much value to be gained from the journey, and that I would regret not taking advantage of this opportunity. There is only one problem- the Peruvian government highly regulates the Inca trail trek, allowing 500 people per day on the trail. The wait list is 2 months long. I don’t like to plan anything that far in advance, so luckily for me there are optional treks available, leaving daily.

The thing about the Inca trail, the reason it is so popular, is simply that it is the most talked about trek to Machu Picchu. It is the classic trek, probably the most difficult of all the options, therefore also the most rewarding and most exhausting. The most difficult day, day 2, has you hiking over 5000 feet in elevation to an ultimate height of 13,800 feet. Planes must pressurize above 10,000 feet so you can imagine the strain on your respiratory system. Most people complete this trek in three 8-hour days of hiking, spending the fourth day exploring Machu Picchu. The record for completing this trek is 3 hours 26 minutes by an ultra marathoner in 1998.

Considering I could not participate in the proper Inca Trail due to my lack of planning I researched my options at the hostel once I arrived in Cusco. Hostel Loki in Cusco has a very helpful in-house tour organization offering basically the same package as most tour companies in town, although beware this hostel is more of a colonial themed bar with room for 300 attached. Besides the Inca Trail (which happened to have 95 spots open 10 days from the day I inquired) Hostel Loki also offers the Salcantay Trek and what they call the Inca Jungle trek. The Salcantay is a three-day trek along an alternate route, not along the Inca trail but up and around Salcantay glacier, and back down to Aguas Calientes and on to Machu Picchu. There are some similarities to the Inca Jungle trek, for example both treks visit the very nice hot springs in Santa Teresa. However, the Inca Jungle trek, which I ended up choosing, is far different.

The jungle trek is an adventure experience. The tour company picks you up on your day of departure around 6:30 am, at which point you pile into a small bus for an hour and a half ride up to Salcantay peak, near the point where the Salcantay trekkers pass. At this peak the company supplies you with downhill mountain biking gear, including shin/knee pads, a full shoulder/chest/back protector, a colorful high visibility jacket, helmet, gloves and a downhill mountain bike of mediocre quality. The bike has disc brakes and stiff suspension. It’s nothing to write home about if you ride downhill mountain bikes at home, but it gets the job done on your 3 hour paved road decent. The scenery is the most dangerous part of the ride aside from the on oncoming traffic, as the soaring peaks and deep valleys will mesmerize you. If you manage to avoid slamming into the construction traffic or slipping through one of the water crossings you are rewarded with lunch and your next activity: white water rafting on one of the tributaries of the Amazon. The rapids are class 3 to 3+, and the scenery is amazing. We only had one (girl) go overboard in the rapids but she managed to hang on to her paddle and grab the safety rope lining the outside of the raft, so we could pull her in and continue on. Her comment one minute after getting thrown out: “can I get thrown out again?!”

After rafting it’s a short bus ride followed by an hour-long vertical hike up to the first camp where you’ll get an adequate dinner and in my opinion the most comfortable bed of the trip. A good thing about this trek is it supports the local community of farmers that are generally neglected by their local government. Next day it’s 7am wake up, breakfast, cold shower, play with the guinea pigs, and leave by 8am to enjoy the morning light as you conquer a six hour hike along part of a newly discovered and renovated portion of the Inca trail. In the middle of the day there is some time to swim in a creek, followed by a rustic cable car river crossing, topped off by a dip in some natural hot springs.

That night the group of us, 18 in all, decided to go out for some bonding time in the next town. The boys pounded Cusquena beer and local rum while most of the girls looked on with the words “6am wakeup” scrolling across their eyes like a movie marquee. It’s always a crap shoot when you join a group like this as an individual traveller because you could end up in a very cliquey, “we’re already friends and you’re not one of us,” kind of group, but we got lucky with our group, having a good mix of guys and girls from Holland, USA, Denmark, Germany, England and Italy, accompanied by our two Peruvian Guides. We partied together that night and everyone made the 6am wake up for zip lining.

At the zip lines we joined a second group, now totaling about 30 in all. After a brief safety talk and a 20 minute hike to the first cable we were treated to an exhilarating zip lining experience – six lines in all, zig-zagging across an Andean valley. Nobody died or lost a finger, so by all accounts it was a success.

After the zip line a combination of a short bus ride and a long, easy walk along some rail tracks brought us to Aguas Calientes, the small city at the base of Machu Picchu Mountain used as a base of operations for access to the ruins. Aguas Calientes is your typical tourist trap, with $3 waters, overpriced food and luxury hotel accommodations. Enjoying a 12 soles ($5 USD) cappuccino we noticed the hotel across the street was priced at 750 soles for a single room – a stark contrast to the 30 soles per night most backpackers pay for a dorm room in Cusco. The town is a mix of smelly trekkers that haven’t showered for days and squeaky-clean vacationers that opted for the luxury experience.

The next day we got up at 4am for a 4:30am departure to Machu Picchu. Our group was first to the gate after a 2300 step climb up to the ruins. This afforded us the advantage of entering the site first in order to enjoy the ruins alone for a few minutes. By the middle of the day the place is crawling with tourists and deserted pictures of Machu Picchu are hard to come by. Most in our group opted to take a second hike to Waynapicchu, which awards you with the classic postcard image of Machu Picchu ruins with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background. It was an amazing experience to be there – I felt on top of the world, surrounded by such natural beauty and such unfathomable human ingenuity. But I couldn’t help feeling unfulfilled by the experience, wanting more. I wanted to know how the Incas built the ruins, what exactly it was used for, when it was built, who lived there, what artifacts were used to decorate the site and so on. Although I was viewing one of the seven new wonders of the world, the Incas had no written language, so context for the site is missing from our historical record. Unlike a site such as the Taj Mahal where we know exactly who built it, when it was constructed, who it was constructed for, how the art of the time influenced the design, and myriad other details, such information is glaringly missing from the history of Machu Picchu. For some, this not knowing adds to the mystical experience of the ruins. But I want to know.

However, the overall experience was absolutely amazing and I would recommend anyone with any interest in visiting this site to start planning now. You don’t have to take the classic Inca Trail, which typically costs double the other options (I paid $274 USD for my trek, which includes all food, accommodations, the guides, transport to and from Cusco, and the two optional activities white water rafting and zip lining.) You can arrive in Cusco and ask around about available treks – just look for the exhausted, smelly, sunburned, mosquito bitten travelers and inquire about their experience. Or ask me!