My new flatmate and I got chatting yesterday and discovered that we both have a mutual love for Peru. Unfortunately he didn’t go to Machu Picchu and I realized a lot of travelers, I’ve met actually forgo the Machu Picchu leg of their Peruvian journey. And that only goes to show that Peru is not all about the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. However it IS still a big part of it.
You know you’ve hit the tourist hood as soon as you land at Cuzco. Suddenly everyone speaks English and there’s a Starbucks in the town plaza! I met up with a friend again whom I was supposed to do the Machu Picchu(MP) with. Unfortunately her doing of MP was getting the tour bus organized by the hotel that left at 7am in the morning and returned back to Cuzco by 7pm at night. Something you should know is that MP is not in Cuzco itself. Its actually 4 hours away and it takes you a combination of road, rail and transfer bus up the hill to reach the entrance gates of MP. So if you were to take the day tour from Cuzco, you would spend roughly around 2 hours at MP (which is actually quite enough of time if all you want to do is tick it off your box.) So of course, it’s a perfectly good and tried out option to go by a tour and by all means take that if you’re limited on time. However I didn’t want to go in a tour and be shooed in a limited period. I wanted to take my time to slowly walk and take in this magnificent piece of history.
The cheapest way to MP from Cuzco is on a ‘colectivo’. (The Peruvian version of a Viti Mini!) I have never actually been on a Viti Mini so this was real adventure. Bottom line one leaves every 15 minutes from the colectivo stand. Flat fare of 10 sols. As soon as you reach the stand, all you need to say is where you’re going. Your bags will be lifted and thrown on top of the van(you can forget about it. Your travel insurance won’t cover that!) and you’ll be shown your seat. As soon as the last spot gets filled, you’re off. (Its as painless as that!) So you’ll be wanting to go to Ollantaytambo which is a small sleepy town yet this is where you catch your train to Aguas Calientes, another small yet very touristy town high up in the mountains. You will need to purchase your train tickets from Cuzco itself and at the time of my travel it was not possible to purchase your tickets that the station. Also you might want to book your tickets (beware they are not cheap) soon as possible because there are only 2 or 3 trains that go up and they get filled up pretty quickly so you’d want that ticket otherwise there is no other way to Aguas Calientes and MP unless you’re trekking the Inca Trail or one of the other trails. I took Perurail which happens to be a really fancy train but also it was the only one that I could take my luggage on. Collectivo takes about 2 – 2 1/2 hours to reach Ollantaytambo and the train ride approx. 2 hours to Aguas Calientas. Despite the tourist vibe. I fell in love with this town. It was up in the mountains, on the edge on a huge river, beautiful paved streets lined with tiny shops…real romantic stuff.
I stayed in a hostel which was right ON the train track and if I just happened to fall out of my room window, I would fall 100 meters down into the river never to be found again! The experience of sleeping next to such a huge monster of a river is exhilarating as you hear millions of liters of water just gush through. I arrived late into the afternoon and went straight to the ticket office which is in the centre of the town. The ticket (which is not cheap either is entrance to MP and includes the bus transfer to the gate) note office closes at 5pm. Aguas Calientes is also famous for its hot springs. Yes, its always a little strange to get into a pool full of happy chatting people by yourself. However within 10 minutes of me getting into the pools, I quickly met 4 other solo travelers who were also trying very hard to look the part!
No place like MP to try the famous Alpaca meat though food was quite expensive. It was early to bed because the plan was to get up at 5am to beat the crowds and be up at MP to see the sunrise. Ahh Dear Murphy, woke up to pouring rain (not unusual.) Hence had to wait around till 8am for it to clear. With no such luck, I invested in a 3 sols plastic poncho (which I brought with myself all the way back to Fiji!) and ventured on. I chose not to have guide simply because I just didn’t want to pay the money. For me to describe the experience in words will just be a fail and here’s some of my shots.
After spending a good 4 hours there, I took the bus back down to my hostel, drank a coca tea and headed back to the train station to catch my train. I was cold, wet and exhausted from the walk (and the height) but when I was drinking my tea at the hostel after making it down, it was one of the best moments of my life..
Make sure when you reach Ollantaytambo station to keep walking towards the plaza. There’s usually a lot of taxis etc. at the gate and its more expensive. The colectivos are normally parked behind all the tourist pick buses. Pay up your 10 sols and you will be back in Cuzco in 2 hours!
ps. The cost of doing it by yourself will relatively equal up or be a bit more on the higher side compared to a day tour. However if you have the time, I recommend you stay in Aguas Calientas for a night for a much better experience.
Machu Picchu 8/1/12!