If your travel style resembles mine in any way, you don’t do very well with planning ahead. This means that doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is tricky, as it books up months in advance. I’d love to go back and do the Inca Trail one day in the future when I’m rich (the most basic Inca Trail will set you back at least US$500), fit (those hills) and organised (I can dream).
The easiest and quickest option is the train to Aguas Calientes (AC), but this is also the most expensive way to do it. We’re talking about $60 (and ever rising) each way on the train, plus entry, plus accommodation in AC (people try and do it in a day but Machu Picchu is not something you want to rush, stay the night to make the journey worth it) and $12 each way for the bus from the village to the star attraction. All in all, a lot of dollars.
The best solution for those on a budget seems to be the 3 day/2 night road and foot tours that loads of companies offer in Cusco. We were told about it by our hostel (Atawkama- highly recommended!). We probably could have got it cheaper directly with an agent (it’s advertised all over the city), but we felt better about handing over the money to a hostel employee. We paid US$110 for return transport, lunch on the way, 2 nights of accommodation, dinner, entry to and a guided tour of Machu Picchu with a snack and breakfast. Considering that just your return train travel alone would cost you more if you did it that way, this trip seemed liked the deal of the century.
Read on for tales of my adventure, with a few top tips and a list of what to bring! (And more llama photos)
We were picked up from our hotel by a minibus at about 8am and hit the road, stopping for lunch on the way. It’s quite a distance as you have to go up the Sacred Valley and then around the back of the mountains which guarded the lost city for centuries. The final stretch takes the longest as the road turns into a single track (doesn’t stop the locals squeezing past) unsealed affair with some precipices reminiscent of Death Road. My advice is to sit on the right of the minibus on the way in if you’ve got a fear of heights, but on the left for the photo opportunities. After an hour or so on the edge of your seat you arrive at the drop off point, where the road (as of yet) goes no further.
Your guide meets you there and sends you off on your way to Aguas Calientes (AC). The c. 15km walk takes about 3 hours or more depending on your leg length and energy levels (take snacks!). There’s a bit of uphill at the beginning but once you get up to the railway lines it’s pretty flat from there to your home for the night. Yes, you will actually be walking along the railway lines. Don’t worry, the infrequent trains go slowly and make a lot of noise so you’ll have plenty of warning of their imminent arrival. The river that has carved out the incredibly steep valley around Machu Picchu is draw-droppingly powerful and you follow it the whole way, so there’s no getting lost. At one point you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of part of Machu Picchu set high above you at the top of a sheer rock face that plunges vertically down to the valley floor.
Arriving in AC you meet another guide who directs you to your hotel. Time to wash and change before heading for dinner (included), after which you will be briefed about the following day’s activities and given your snack to take with you. Whether you take the bus up the mountain or opt to walk, you’ll need to be up before dawn to join the queues. Buses start running after 5am, and the entrance checkpoint for the walking trail opens at the same time. Our guided tour was due to start at 6.15am and we got there just in time, having left the hotel at 4.30am and made the climb up. It’s a case of steps, steps and more steps and many of them are fairly steep. I’m fairly fit but I still struggled.
I arrived at the top absolutely bright red from the exertion to remarks of ‘Oh, so you walked up then?!’ from fellow group members who had taken the bus and were ensconced in layers and woolly hats. Was it that obvious?
There are plenty more steps involved during the tour, but my god are they worth it. There’s a hell of a lot to discover and the tour only scratches the surface of what is known about this once-lost Quechan city, abandoned unfinished when the conquistadors arrived. Once your tour is done, the Sun Gate and the Incan Bridge are more than worth a visit if your legs can handle the extra exercise. The views back from the Sun Gate over the city are to die for.
We spent all day wandering around the site, cheekily listening in on other people’s tours in places we hadn’t reached and making friends with a few llamas whilst dodging rain storms that came sweeping across the valley. I won’t attempt to describe Machu Picchu in any more detail, you’ll have to go and see it for yourself!
After the tour, you are on your own until the mini-bus back to Cusco the following day. We made the most of it and stayed up there till about 4pm when we started downhill. The unevenness of the steps makes the way down almost as challenging as the way up, so make sure you’ve got energy reserves. We were rewarded for our efforts by an incredible rainbow over Aguas Calientes.
Top tip: Soak your tired muscles in the hot springs in the evening. Right at the top of the touristy street in the town centre (yes, more hills) you’ll find a collection of swimming pools filled with the gorgeously warm water from the hot springs. The biggest challenge is getting out once you’ve got in, as the water is perfect and the night air is not quite so inviting.
For dinner in the evening you’re on your own. There are loads of restaurants and you can get a pretty good deal out of high season as they are all trying to compete with each other. Everywhere does 4×1 cocktails in a never ending happy hour. Just think of all the money you saved on transport and you’ll feel better about treating yourself.
On the third day you have to be back at the drop-off point early afternoon, so give yourself plenty of time to do the walk in reverse. There are people selling snacks and drinks at the pick-up point and you stop twice on the mini-bus ride back, so there are plenty of opportunities to refuel.
What will I need?
- Walking boots or sturdy trainers.
- 2 x spare tops
Chances of being soaked through with sweat (that’s a lot of steps) and rain alternately are pretty much 100%. Thinking I could recycle a t-shirt was not a great idea.
- 1 x spare bottoms
You’ll want something to change into in the evening. Flexible and quick-drying are essentials.
The nights are freezing.
- Warm under layers
The air might be chilly but the steps up to Machu Picchu will heat you up pretty quickly, and then you’ll get cold in the morning air once you’ve got there. The sun is also pretty strong up there so you’ll want to strip off again as the day goes on, so layers are key.
Did I mention it rains up there? Plastic ponchos are the best for covering your backpack as well as you.
- Hat, scarf and gloves
Honestly the nights are REALLY cold. An excuse to buy some alpaca wool souvenirs!
Nice breathable ones are preferable to alpaca wool in this case.
- Sun screen
Altitude = potentially ruined Machu Picchu pictures due to closely resembling a tomato.
- Basic toiletries
You’ll want a good wash but won’t want to be weighed down on the walk.
- Snacks and water
Food and water are super, super expensive up the mountain so anything you can fit in, bring from Cusco. If not, there’s plenty to buy at only semi-extortionate prices in AC.
- A torch
It’ll be dark when you start the trek up to Machu Picchu at an ungodly hour.
- Swimming costume, flip flops and towel/sarong for the hot springs.
- A capacious day pack into which you can squeeze all of the above.
Fully charged with an empty SD card for the best photo opportunities EVER. Llama photos a must.