Five years ago I set foot in Machu Picchu for the first time. I still remember how marveled I was as I saw the sunrise hit the ancient ceremonial city with first dim rays of light.
It’s a moment I will never forget.
This year, I returned to Peru and its ancient Incan capital, Cusco. I was traveling with a marvelous group of friends visiting Peru for the first time, and obviously, they wanted to see Machu Picchu.
For a while, I debated visiting the ruins again, but I got easily convinced by my friends to go with them. In truth, I wanted to see the ruins again to relive the experience. But, there was one condition. It had to be a cheap trip!
To my surprise, visiting Machu Picchu on a budget was easier than I thought, especially since I had the bargaining power of traveling with seven other people at the time.
Unlike what many people think, Machu Picchu is not that close to Cusco, even though the city is the main hub for hikers and people interested in visiting the ruins. In fact, the ruins are at least 6 hours away by bus and train.
We considered a few options, including taking the train (too expensive), and doing it all on our own (cheap, but there was some transportation hassle). In the end, we decided to take one of the typical 2-days/1-night tours offered in Cusco.
It ended costing us $85 (266 Peruvian Soles) and it included round-trip transportation by bus, accommodation, one lunch, one dinner, a breakfast snack, and the entrance to Machu Picchu.
Considering that the entrance ticket is already $42 (128 Soles), it made sense to take the tour. But, that tour came with an interesting twist. There would be a lot of hiking!
We began the first day with a 7:00 am pick-up to take us through the long and winding road that leads to Aguas Calientes – the base town right below Machu Picchu, also known as Machu Picchu Town.
It was seven hours of beautiful Andean landscapes, passing through some high snow-capped ridges, raging rivers, and unavoidably, some dangerous one-lane roads with nothing between you and a precipice. You should have seen our faces at every turn the driver came so close to the edge. We survived it, though.
The Hike to Aguas Calientes
The bus stopped at the end of the road, but we were not yet in Aguas Calientes. We had two options, either pay $24 to take the train (a ride that lasts no more than 30 minutes) or go along with the plan and hike for three hours along the train tracks. We decided to go with the plan.
Our guide instructed us, “follow the tracks and the signs, and once you see a pile of trash, turn to the right. DO NOT go into the tunnel. Understood?”
We all nodded and started our pleasant yet somehow visually boring hike. Yes, apart from a few interesting scenes, most of the hike was adorned with rocky walls, forest trees, and lots of train track gravel.
Luckily, we were all hiking together, so we had each other for entertainment, talk, or to compete by figuring out who could walk the longest along a single rail without falling – let alone who could do a 360-degree turn while walking and not falling from the rail. I did it!!
We arrived at the pile of trash and somehow missed the turn. We moved forward and eventually saw a local man walking along the tracks. We asked him if Aguas Calientes was ahead, to which he replied, “Si, en 10 minutos.”
According to him, we were just 10 minutes away from town, but we had discovered already that Peruvian time is never accurate. We had more to walk.
When we looked ahead, we noticed that we indeed reached the tunnel. So we asked him if it was safe to cross it, considering we were advised not to. He said it was though there was a train coming in just a few minutes.
Jessica, Alby, Henry, and I decided to wait for the train to pass and then go through the tunnel; while Tiffany and Tom decided to backtrack and turn right by the trash. Once Tom and Tiff heard the train horn in the distance, they did the funniest chicken run to get off the tracks in time.
The rest simply stood to the side and waited patiently for the train –which traveled slightly faster than our walking pace– to pass through the tunnel.
Once it was all clear, we passed through and lived to tell our survival of the forbidden tunnel. *That was sarcasm*
Once in Aguas Calientes, we all had our dinner and went to bed early as we were supposed to wake up a 4:30 am to start hiking to the ancient ceremonial city of Machu Picchu.
Our Hike up to Machu Picchu
The first 30 minutes of the hike was cold, yet easy and flat, but once we crossed the bridge over to the mountainside, it was hell!
From that point on, the hike was all a steep uphill. We spent about one hour zigzagging up 1.7 km (1.1 miles) of winding trails or going through some steep, rocky stairs.
The morning was cold, but we were so agitated with that climb that our bodies produced enough warmth and sweat to keep us going strong. In fact, we were glad we hiked before sunrise; otherwise, we would have baked under the harsh Andean sun.
Oh, did I mention people threw up on the way up? Yup, that’s how exhausting it is! Luckily it wasn’t one of us, but we were then faced with an awkward moment when the guy who threw up asked Jess for a sip of water.
She agreed to help but didn’t expect to see the guy sticking his dirty mouth on the bottle. Um, you’re welcome? We were hiking as a group, so we didn’t mind sharing our “clean” water with our charitable Jess.
In a way, this morning hike reminded me of the last day on the Inca Trail. We woke up in the middle of the night to hike for a few hours and see the sunrise from Intipunku – the Sun Gate. This time though, there would be no sunrise for us in Machu Picchu.
Only Inca Trail hikers get to enjoy that unique sunrise spot. Besides, Machu Picchu opens at 6:00 am, so by the time we made the queue to enter the ruins, sunrise was long gone.
Revisiting Machu Picchu
Still, after going through the effort of hiking and sweating every step, once I entered Machu Picchu for the second time, I felt the same joy and appreciation I felt the first time after I finished the Inca Trail.
I admit I wished for a sunny morning, like the one I had during my first visit. But, that wasn’t the case this time. For most of the morning, Machu Picchu remained covered under a thick layer of fog and clouds that gave an eerie sense to the place. To my surprise, I loved that sense!
I guess that no matter how many times you visit Machu Picchu, it will always impress you with its grand scale, its artistic details, and its mysteries.
The rest of the day was all about walking around every space in the ruins, absorbing every view, enjoying the landscape, and playing with the llamas – of course! Well, I had to kiss one too! Now, every time I see this picture below I just sing, “I kissed a llama and I liked it” to the tunes of Katy Perry’s famous song.
After spending the entire morning exploring the ruins, it was time to go back. We had a long day ahead backtracking our steps from the day before – a hike down the mountain, a three-hour hike back to the hydroelectric, and a 7 hours bus ride back to Cusco.
It’s an exhausting trip, but it is worth every step, every penny, and every minute in transit.