November 22, 2017
On Sunday we packed up our things and checked out of the Grasshopper to begin our pilgrimage to one of the tourist Meccas of the world: Machu Picchu.
At this point, I should make a note that this is my second trip to Peru, and my second attempt to see Machu Picchu. In 2010, my friend Josue and I planned a trip to Peru, but due to heavy rains and flooding Machu Picchu was closed. Long story short(er), Josue and I made an effort with some other travelers to sneak in past the hydroelectric plant at night, got caught, slept in a guard hut on a dirt floor, and in the morning we were threatened with a machete before being diplomatically turned away. So for me, Machu Picchu had attained a sort of mythical unattainable Holy Grail status. I kind of didn’t believe we would actually make it there.
Now, the “normal” way to get to Machu Picchu is to take a train, which is stupid expensive, starting at $52 for a one way ticket, and soaring quickly into the hundreds (do you want high tea on your way to Machu Picchu? $438! one way). The equally touristy, but more time consuming and even more expensive method is to hire a guide and hike the Inca Trail. Note, in this link Lonely Planet calls the hike a “must-do” *cough* bullshit *cough*. Not that it’s not cool or worth doing, but a must? Hard pass.). When people admonish you to reserve early, it’s the Inca Trail they’re talking about.
But there is another (cheaper) way to get there: colectivos. Colectivos are a common method of transport in Latin America; you just pile into a van or car going to your destination, and wait until it fills up, then when it fills up, you go. They’re the way locals get around, and they’re very economical. The route we ended up taking was colectivo from Cusco (A) to Santa Maria (B), then colectivo from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa (C), where we spent the night. The next morning we took a final colectivo to Hidroelectrica (D), and from there the final walk to Aguas Calientes (spoilers!).
We got directions at the Grasshopper to where we could catch a colectivo in the right direction. It wasn’t a proper station, but it was in short walking distance. We found a colectivo to Santa Maria and bargained our way down from S/ 25 to S/ 20 per person, a 4.5 hour ride from Cusco.
One of the fun things about transit via colectivo is the stops for food. The van pulls over, and there a people selling all kinds of things through the windows: peaches, pop corn, bread, you name it. We bought a very Peruvian food item: choclo con queso. This is a large-kerneled Andean corn, with a slice of queso fresco. Peruvian queso fresco has a special taste to it, and little more tart and earthy than what I’ve had in other countries. We also made a bathroom and restaurant stop, with gorgeous views of the mountains.
Once we arrived to Santa Maria we took a stretch break and bought some snacks. While waiting for our next colectivo to Santa Teresa to fill up, I tried to work out the rest of the details about how to get to Machu Picchu. And I learned something: there is no road to Aguas Calientes (the adjacent city and launch point for Machu Picchu). You either have to walk or take a train between the Hydroelectric Plant and Aguas Calientes. Someone said that the train was so expensive, it was worth walking the 2.5 hours, but then someone else said that guy had been drinking, and then a third guy said the second guy was crazy. So I wasn’t quite certain what to believe. We got on the road after a 30 minute wait, and the ride to Santa Teresa was about an hour and cost S/ 10 per person. We didn’t make an effort to bargain on this, I think it’s a pretty fixed rate.
Where we were dropped off in Santa Maria
After the long windy road carved into the side of a very steep mountain to Santa Teresa, we got a room at Hospedaje Puriq, where we bargained down from S/ 50 to S/ 45 for the room with a private bath. The ladies at reception were very helpful and confirmed what I had learned in Santa Maria: you’ve got to walk or take the train to get to Aguas Calientes. You start walking from the train station at the Hydroelectric Plant (Hidroelectrica) and they said it would take 2 to 2.5 hours, but that to get to Hidroelectrica by colectivo for S/ 5 per person we would need to leave between 6 and 6:30 am, later in the day all you could take were taxis for a S/ 30 fare.
We took a walk around town, went to buy snacks for the trek in the morning, and managed to snag a dinner for S/ 10 with a little bargaining, then hit the hay early so we could catch a colectivo in the morning.
You’ll notice there’s a lot of talk of bargaining going on here, yes? This is part of Peruvian culture. I think it happens between locals as well, but its especially important for tourists, who will often be quoted higher prices simply because they are visitors and are assumed to a) have a lot of money, b) not know better, or c) both. It is very common, so much so that I have to assume it is considered culturally acceptable, to quote inflated prices to tourists. This is often accompanied by a tell-tale pause when the price is asked. And it applies not just to colectivos, but restaurants and shops as well.
It wears on you after a while, because not everyone does it, so you’re always wondering if you’re being quoted the real price or not. I developed the habit of asking the price for an item (stuff is simply not labeled most places), and then responding with “Would it be possible to buy it for [some value less than quoted]?” which I have had pretty good success with, though not every time. In the US, because negotiating price is not a part of our culture for the most part, people will mostly just laugh at you or say no if you ask for a lower price, but in Peru it seems like there’s a sense of social obligation to engage in the bartering process.
In the morning we got lucky when a colectivo already loaded with two passengers found us, and we hopped in for our ~20 minute ride to Hidroelectrica. The other passengers turned out to be Mexican Jehovah’s witnesses, who after a stint in the jungle, were doing some touristy stuff before heading home. And they disabused us of a famous Machu Picchu myth: that you have to make reservations far in advance. They hadn’t bought tickets yet, and they were planning to walk up to Aguas Calientes, buy tickets, see the ruins, and walk back to Hidroelectrica all that same day. And evidently that’s not unusual, our driver certainly didn’t think so.
Drop off a Hidroelectrica
First steps of the walk to Aguas Calientes
Since Dan and I were planning to stay the night in Aguas Calientes, and we wanted the flexibility, we kept our bags with us. Most people just leave their bags at a hostel in Santa Teresa (or Cusco) and take a day pack with them to Machu Picchu, as our Mexican friends did. We were also not especially well informed about the distance from Hidroelectrica; we were told ~7 km, and it turned out to be almost 12 km. This, with 45 lb bags, was a haul, and took us over four hours (not to mention that Dan was a bit under the weather as well).
Finally we arrived in Aguas Calientes and checked into Casa Machu Picchu where we had made an advance reservation. We curled up for a nap for a few hours after that. Realizing that a visit to Machu Picchu plus the Huayna Picchu hike the next day would not pair well with the hike back to Hidroelectrica, we determined that we should plan to stay a second night in Aguas Calientes. However, Casa Machu Picchu was full, so I went wandering about town in search of groceries and accommodation for the next evening.
Aguas Calientes is a small town, and an incredibly touristy one at that. It was kind of surreal, after hiking along 12 km of isolated train tracks to come upon roads and buses and all various other indicators of civilization (Pisco Sour Happy Hour 3 x 1!). But it is still possible to get off the beaten path for lower prices, this just scales proportionately to the size of the town, and so “off the beaten path” turned out to be a block off the main strip, where I found Hospedaje Choquequirao, where Veronica cut me a deal and let us have a private en suite room for S/ 50, where that normally would have gotten us two beds in the dorm (S/ 25). As far as I can tell, Hospedaje Choquequirao in Aguas Calientes has zero web presence.
Dan unfortunately was down for the count for the rest of the day, and ultimately had to resort to the Cipro in order to make sure he would be in a condition to see Machu Picchu the next day. This left me to wander the town alone, and I elected to pay the hot springs (after which Aguas Calientes is named, I believe, being translated “Hot Waters”) a visit. Local prices for the baths is S/ 10, but us foreigners have to pay S/ 20. The baths are located in a valley by a river, but ultimately it was crowded with muddy looking water that wasn’t all that hot anyways. They do serve booze bath-side though, so you can order drinks. Overall though, I didn’t think it would be worth a second visit.
In the morning we got up to partake of the free breakfast offered by Casa Machu Picchu, which like most of our Peruvian hostel breakfasts consisted only of bread, butter, marmalade and tea. Ultimately the view from the breakfast area, and the kitchen, were the best things about it. The dorm we were in was rather crowded, and the trains, oh God the trains. Remember how I said that’s the usual way to get there? Well, the city is basically formed around the train tracks, and the whistles are LOUD, you can’t escape them anywhere in the city, but the hostel is literally on the street where the tracks run, and the trains run late. Not very conducive of sleep.
We slept a little late in order to give Dan some slack, but we got checked out and left our bags at the front desk by about 8:30 am. From there we walked down to the main drag and where we bought two bus tickets to the ruins. Dan and I had been planning to make the hike up to the ruins for free, but given his condition and that we were planning to do the Huayna Picchu hike, we decided to begrudgingly cough up the $12 USD per ticket for the bus up the mountain. That price is just outrageous. Remember, it cost us S/ 20 for a 4+ hour drive from Cusco to Santa Maria. This is a S/ 40 fare for a 20 min ride up a mountain. However, in the end it was worth it. We did the hike out at the end of the day, and we were exhausted. If we had tacked on an additional steep 90 minute hike at the beginning of the day, we would have been down right miserable on the way out. As it was we were pretty beat.
So, then, finally, the moment we have all been waiting for: we arrived at Machu Picchu at about 9 am. There were already a fair amount of tourists about, and it was foggy, but the fog was clearly gradually as the day warmed up. We got incredibly lucky with the weather: it didn’t rain all day, during rainy season. We walked around a bit and had some nice photo ops before we headed to the Huayna Picchu entrance.
Huayna Picchu is the greater of the two nearby mountains you always see in the background of the classic Machu Picchu photos (see above!). It is a haul up that mountain, with lots of stairs, but the view is pretty spectacular.
And there’s an additional hike around the backside of the mountain that is beautiful. It goes past the Temple of the Moon, which honestly, isn’t worth the hike in and of itself, but if you just want a pretty hike, then its not a bad bonus. And if you want to do the longer hike, don’t be a slack. They close the Huayna Picchu main peak at 12-12:15, and they close the trail for the longer hike at 11:15 am. We had a 10-11 am entry for Huayna Picchu, and if we had waited until 11 am to enter, there was no way we could reach the trail head at the main peak for the longer hike before it closed. As it was, we had to beg/argue our way onto the trail at 11:30ish.
We got to the temple of the moon pretty quickly, it’s all down hill, and enjoyed the simple lunch we had packed before making the return journey. The hike back was pretty damn grueling, though the altitude definitely played a role in that. We ended up being the last people out of Huayna Picchu that day.
It was then that we discovered a strange quirk of Machu Picchu: it’s a one way loop and you cannot go backwards. We had skipped over some things in order to go the Huayna Picchu entrance, and we were not allowed to back track. This caused some stress and annoyance, but it worked out alright in the end. You are actually permitted two entrances to the park, marked by stamps on your ticket. So to see the things we had missed, we had to finish the loop, exit the park, and then re-enter. There are two main circuits through the park, and it seems like its probably not a coincidence with the double entry. Another thing to note: if you forgot to print your ticket in advance, the ticket office will do so for free.
So finally, after our second circuit through the park after about six hours wandering the ruins, it was time for us to head back. We hiked the 3.5 km down the mountain and the final stretch back to town where we checked in to Hospedaje Choquequirao. After dinner and showers, we settled in early to nap, relax. I knocked back a few Cusqueñas, having bargained the pair of them down from S/ 5 a piece to S/ 9 for the pair (stuff is pricey in AC). Then we hit the hay early.
We took our time organizing ourselves in the morning, and got something to eat at the central market before starting our hike back to Hidroelectrica. I had a fish stew for S/ 7.
This time, knowing the distance, we broke up it up rests every 3 km. The weather was sunnier that day, no rain, and we made a little bit better time than on the way in. When we got back to Hidroelectrica, we were surprised to discover it filled with people and vehicles, with options for transit directly back to Cusco being offered. But rather than hop on a six hour drive back to Cusco, we paid our S/ 5 apiece to get back to Santa Teresa.
This time we stayed at Hospedaje Imperio where we stayed for S/ 50 in a private room with the offer to use the kitchen. Only that turned out to be really weird because it was the restaurant’s kitchen, so while I was cooking my own simple meal, I was trying not to get underfoot of the cook who was serving actual paying customers.
In the morning we went for breakfast at the central market, where we got meals for S/ 7 a piece, which was pretty tasty. It came with something called “Arroz Turco” or Turkish rice, which is cooked with noodles and vegetables. Dan and I love collecting these kinds of dishes, reinterpretations or outright fabrications of another culture’s food. Kind of like American Chinese food.
Afterwards, we headed down to the Aguas Termales de Colcamayo (more hot springs!). We walked out there, only to conclude that given the distance and muddy conditions of the road, the S/ 3 fare was well worth it. These baths however, did not disappoint. The baths were expansive, with clear blue-green water and great views of the valley. Entry fee for foreigners was still twice that of locals, but here is was S/ 10 and S/ 5, much more reasonable.
Here though I should mention the bugs. The deceptively innocent looking gnat-like flies that are actually the heart of desperate blood sucking evil with no fear of death or the sense of decency that normal mosquito possess. These creatures are called mosquitos by the locals, though they bear little resemblance to what I think of as such, and they had attacked us earlier on the trip, but at the springs you were taking your life in your hands getting out of the water (in they left you alone, even with your head above water). I had gotten attacked earlier in the week (you can see the results), and I had it easy compared to some of the other tourists we saw. I asked one of the locals and evidently they are seasonal, hanging around for about four months of the year, but my apologies dear reader, I can’t recall which four, only for certain November is one of them. It’s possibly a rainy season issue. So, remember bug spray and long sleeves.
We caught a ride back to town when we were done, and thus began the cluster f*ck that was our journey back to Cusco. We were offered a ride on a direct van to Cusco for S/ 35 which we bargained down to S/ 30 (per person). It was 2:15 and the van was departing at 3 pm , so we settled into wait. We waited until 3 pm, then 3:30 pm, and finally at 4:15 pm we asked for our money back. The van had evidently had a trouble with its tires, but it wasn’t resolving, and with a reservation at the Grasshopper that night back in Cusco, we didn’t want to get trapped.
We got into a colectivo that took a while to fill up, but we were finally on our way back to Santa Maria a little after 5 pm (S/ 10 per person). Back in Santa Maria there was a colectivo waiting to fill up, telling us that the fare back to Cusco was S/ 30, and wasn’t willing to lower the price (ah, leverage). However, just then another colectivo, with only two seats available came cruising past, and we clambered aboard, on our way to Cusco at last. It was cramped, the woman next to me smelled something awful, fell asleep on my shoulder often enough that I worried she might drop her baby, which I was waiting in horror for the moment when it pooped itself, but really, I didn’t care; I was happy to just be on the way.
Finally, at about 10:30 pm we arrived in Cusco. Only now the driver wanted S/ 30 from us for the fare, after we had each of us (Dan and I) had definitely asked if we could ride for S/ 20 a person. An argument ensued, and ultimately, we ended up paying him S/ 25 per person to be done with it.
A short walk later, we were back at the Grasshopper, with its now-familiar cozy beds and free tea awaiting us. The staff even knew my name when we walked in the door. That felt wonderful. And after the ordeal of the afternoon and evening, it’s important to remember kids: home is where you already have the WiFi password.