In Cuzco, you get bombarded with all kinds of alternative Machu Picchu treks, from ziplining-white-water ‘jungle tours’ to epic multiday jaunts through glaciers and forests. We’d been seriously tempted by the Salkentay trek due to its varied scenery, and competition meaning you can get a trek for about $300-350 now, but we were turned off by the stress of options and agencies, and quite fancied the idea of going it alone.
Not only for the benefit of cost savings, which was HUGE (Sam will write more about this in a separate post!) but it felt really good to be doing it just us, with only a tiny backpack on, and the freedom to chop and change with no restrictions.
We started our journey by taking a walk to the rough part of Cuzco (past many butchers selling whole chickens, guinea pig carcasses, and bloody cow skins covering the ground) – to a local bus station where we caught a death-defying 5-hour bus to Santa Maria. The bus was pretty insane, winding around sheer hairpin mountain bends and balancing precariously along river boundaries only separated from us by a few half-arsed rocks placed in a vague path. But it was fun nonetheless, being the only tourists on there, and at our lunch stop we got to try some delicious streetside rocoto rellena (grilled peppers stuffed with veg and meat, deep fried in cheesy crust!), baked potatoes and some kind of sweet cakey-banana thing for desert.
Santa Maria itself is a tiny tropical jungle town with a small strip of hostels, a fruit market, and restaurants. Struck by the tropical heat, we hurriedly found a room above a shop to lay our hats, so we could strip down and cool off in a shower immediately! Keen to get an early start on the first day of our trek, we had an early dinner in a local polleria (chicken shop) where we seemed to be cracking up the locals (with our gringoness?) then we promptly bought some beers, bananas and retired to our double room where we had a tiny 80s TV that actually showed MTV! So naturally we stayed up watching ‘Justin Bieber’s Roast’ and South Park.
Sleepy, sweaty, Santa Maria
The first day of our hike was intense, but awesome. We started the day hiking along a dirt track, passed by ‘Jungle Trek’-kers doing a novelty hitchhike as part of their tour. Then after an hour or so of riverside walking, we left the road to climb up through the jungle, misty cloud forest on all sides, through local communities of people picking fruit off trees, and passing people’s lodges selling drinks and snacks to passing tour groups. It’s officially known as the ´ancient Inka Trail’, and is a route that locals use to get to Aguas Calientes now. We climbed ancient Inka steps, marveling at the view on the side of the mountainous jungle, and once thoroughly sweaty and puffed out, stopped at a mirador for our packed lunch of sandwiches and cookies. All the guides we passed were really sweet and wished us well with our solo trek, while the tour groups looked on bemused as to how the hell we’d got there!
As we climbed through the jungle, we came across sweet limes, passion fruits, pineapples and bananas growing in the trees- a couple of which we cracked open for a taste! We also met a really sweet old guy selling these mad rainbow-coloured bananas that we bought for sustenance and they were delish!
After the initial jungle-high, we were feeling pretty pleased with our trekking and our progress, but, inevitably, this pride was followed by a LITTLE bit of a fuck-up. There was part of our trek that we couldn’t find much research on, so we were kind of winging it, following a river all the way to the next town, Santa Teresa. We started trekking down to the river, and within 10 minutes of being in thick jungly woodland, we met some ferocious dogs that we had to run away from, and an anaconda. Admittedly, the anaconda was dead. But it was HUGE and I was TERRIFIED. Half an hour of trekking later, we encountered a landslide blocking our route down to the river, but we definitely weren’t turning back at this stage! We clambered around it, and started walking down the ‘trail’ by the river which included staggering over big juts of slate and wobbling over river tributaries! Eventually we got to the place where we were supposed to cross the river to the Santa Teresa Hot Springs (our finish point for Day 1, where we would catch a combi taxi to town).
BUT alas! Turns out Sam had misread the ‘bridge’ symbol on his map, and it was not a bridge, but a wooden pulley attached to a wire overhead! Over a MASSIVE river with, I’d say, class 2 rapids. After a lot of shouting, fear, and the beginning of a huge torrential downpour, we got in the damn pulley and crossed the river. And I have to say, it was REALLY exhilarating! The whole 7 hour hike made the beautiful soothing hot-springs so much more rewarding, and after a couple of hours soaking, we decided to walk on to Santa Teresa, challenging ourselves to do the whole thing on foot from now on….
Taking the plunge on the death-defying pulley….!
By the time we arrived in town, we were a complete state. We’d sweated through our clothes, dried a bit, then been drenched in showers, and were still drying off from the springs. A sweet lady with a brand-new renovated double room kindly agreed to let us stay there for next to nothing (about a fiver) and even let us semi-dry our clothes on her washing line. After a bargainous local dinner of burgers, chips and lomo montado (egg steak mountain) we hit the hay for a long deep sleep.
A well-earned relax in the Santa Teresa hot springs
Our second day of hiking was (thankfully!) less varied, and involved walking around the back of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu. We trekked a couple of hours by riversides and mountains, then arrived at Hydroelectrica, a tiny hamlet on some railway tracks. After fueling up with a cheap local lunch, we walked along the railway tracks for 3 hours or so, with Machu Picchu and some beautiful surrounding mountains looming large. It was a pretty samey walk along the tracks, but the views were cool, and occasionally the posho trains would come steaming passed us, which was quite a spectacle! There was a lot of rain/sun interchange en route, and by the end we were definitely happy to be at our Day 2 finish point, Aguas Calientes.
Super tourismo Aguas Calientes is where pretty much everyone stays before their trek, and there’s even an overpriced tourist tat market called ‘Machu Picchu Pueblo’ for tourists to buy a souvenir to prove they’ve been to Peru! But touristy-ness aside, we were pleasantly surprised by Aguas Calientes, and managed to find a nice double room and a good meal for affordable prices (not the mad prices we’d been warned about). After some good Peruvian grub, we treated ourselves to a haul of beer and crisps to celebrate our trek thus far (and to fill us up, as we were constantly starving from all the trekking!). Then, an early night before the BIG DAY….!
You can easily get a bus up to Machu Picchu, and it’s not even that pricey (maybe 7 quid each way?) but by this point we were really bloody-minded about doing the whole trek on foot. So we woke up at 4.45 and started our trek to try and get to the top before the hoards. This involves walking 1.5hrs, 1 hour of which is ALL UPHILL ON STEPS. Really tricky, uneven, rocky steps, we were sweating balls and wondering why the fuck we didn’t take the bus. En route the scenery is pretty awesome though, especially if you go first-thing, when the mist is still clearing and the sun is rising over the mountains… An hour of sweating and swearing later, we made it to the top and it was (of course) all worth it!
Staggering into the site, sweaty and blinded by the early morning sun, we made our way to a lookout near the top of the site, just by the Guard’s Hut (where the site would be watched over in Inka times). After being told off by over-zealous guides for sitting down in the middle of the site, we found a spot to the side that was more secluded, and just stared. And stared. We must have sat for about 2 hours just watching the site and taking it in – so much more beautiful than you can expect, and weirdly familiar, it’s like something just clicks inside you and you just want to watch it. Utterly beautiful. This was amazing while it lasted, but soon we were found by a lairy Brazilian tour group, who’s squeals and constant selfies kind of killed our buzz….
We reluctantly made our way down to the ruins, exchanging sounds of awe with other tourists, and photo favours, trying to get a good photo with both of us in it (people are surprisingly bad at framing photos!) We then spent a good few hours exploring the ruins themselves, paying more attention to the interesting bits like where the torture, imprisonment or star gazing used to happen. We weaved our way in and out of English speaking tours to pick up the odd bit of info, but most of it is just historical conjecture, so we took it with a pinch of salt, and just tried to take in the beauty of the site and the structural ingenuity of the Inkas, from the perfect, long-standing walls to the clever agricultural system built into the land.
After about 6 sunny hours at the site, it started to really piss it down, so we headed back down the steps and retraced our route back to Santa Maria (this time using a combi van after the rail tracks… a luxury to be in a vehicle after so much walking!) And once there, we had an early dinner, some local street food and hit the hay. Turns out the street food didn’t quite agree with me and I was up most of the night on the toilet… the first time in Peru! Better post-hike than during though huh?!
Then the next day we took the death-defying bus back to Cuzco, exhausted but utterly satisfied by our Machu Picchu experience. And all for 45 quid all-in (buses, combi taxis, accommodation, entry, hot springs, food and drink…)
Not bad huh?!