To most, Machu Picchu is a bucket list destination, right up there with the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Giza. It is a destination that defines an entire continent. But what often comes with such a designation are the precise things one tries to avoid when traveling: crowds, inauthenticity and price gouging. If Jill and I were going to do this, and of course we were, we were going to have to get creative. This was nothing new to us. We were used to dealing with a bit of discomfort in order to stay on budget while visiting major tourist destinations. The tricky part, however, is that we would no longer be alone. My father would be joining us for two weeks as we made our way from Cuzco to Arequipa. While we were thrilled to have the company, our tight timeline and budget in South America meant we agreed to the visit under one condition: that we would continue to travel in the exact manner we would if it were just the two of us. And although his resources provided new options, we would continue to be frugal travelers, cutting corners wherever possible. We wanted to visit Machu Picchu on a shoestring, avoiding the tourism super highway. Or at least as much as that is possible.
As we’ve learned before on this trip, approaching any tourist destination on a budget comes with unexpected perks. Entering Machu Picchu through the backdoor was no exception. While the typical traveler takes a very expensive train ride from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (there are no roads leading there), we opted to drive the long way around through the Sacred Valley. The drive would end where the road did, in the small town of Santa Teresa, from which we’d have a short combi ride followed by half a days walk to Aguas Calientes.
We had expected and prepared for 4 hours of bumpy dirt roads but were pleasantly surprised to find out that not only was it paved almost the entire way but the road took us up and over absolutely stunning mountain passes. Having the luxury to take our time, we made stop after stop, as every turn of the road revealed an even more spectacular landscape just screaming to have its picture taken.
We arrived in Santa Teresa at the end of the first day. There wasn’t much happening there, aside from a bit of tourism feeding off our fellow budget travelers, the backpackers. We found a campground on the outskirts of town and decided to settle in for the night. In preparation for the trip, Dad had bought a brand new ultra light tent that would provide him shelter while we slept in the van. Under normal conditions, the tent would be more than adequate to keep him protected from the elements. But it was rainy season in the Peruvian highlands and the weather our first night in Santa Teresa put the structural limits of the tent to the test. The rain began at midnight and continued to gain strength throughout the night. By two am, the wind was howling and the rain was coming down so hard that Jill and I had trouble sleeping through it in the van. An hour later we heard a tapping on the van window – Dad was throwing in the towel. He had been battling an ever growing intrusion of water into his tent and finally, soaking wet, had decided to seek shelter. He spent the rest of his night sleeping uncomfortably in the front passenger seat.
A miserable night such as this, especially on the first night of “vacation”, would be a setback to most, causing them to question just what the hell it was they had signed up for. But my Dad showed no signs of giving up. By the time we woke up the next morning, he had already laid all his gear out to dry and was preparing for our hike into Aguas Calientes later that day.
Ahh…Aguas Calientes. It’s hard to say too many nice things about the small little town. Simply put, it is the epitome of a tourist trap. They handle massive crowds of travelers passing through to Machu Picchu every day, few of whom stay for more than one night. Realizing that repeat business is the exception, restaurants invest all their effort into hooking patrons in without actually needing to ensure a pleasurable experience once they’ve sat down. Walking down the main strip, each restaurant has an employee aggressively trying to push their menu or rope you in with some kind of deal. Few things annoy me more. However, I take pleasure in knowing that someday this will end. As websites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp become more common travelers will be able to provide a reason for restaurants to produce higher quality food and service. Until then the options will remain limited.
The one luxury we opted for was the bus ride from downtown to the entrance gates of Machu Picchu, a good 2,000 feet higher. There are stairs that bring you from the valley floor up the the ruins but we decided to save our energy for exploring the grounds. We reached the top just after sunrise and were once again reminded that we were in the thick of rainy season. As soon as we entered the gates what had started as a light drizzle turned into a steady downfall. Although our sight of the ruins and the surrounding landscape was initially obscured, by midday the sun was out in full force and blue skies stretched across the horizon.
The location of Machu Picchu, perched on a knife’s edge surrounded by dramatic peaks, was just as spectacular as we had imagined. But what surprised me was just how well preserved the ruins themselves actually were. We have seen a number of different Incan ruins throughout Peru, all of which were spectacular in their own right. But walking around the different structures within Machu Picchu it doesn’t take a strong imagination to envision the city in its prime over 500 years ago.
We returned to our van later that afternoon and drove down the road to some hot springs on the outskirts of Santa Teresa. Over some beers on the shores of the same river that fed down from the center of Aguas Calientes, we relaxed and talked about the day. It was a day we had researched, thought about and, in some ways, dreaded for so long. But we all agreed that, as with many “bucket list” items, the hassle of getting there, the crowds, the expense, were all worth it. That said, I was relieved to be back on our own, able to travel on our own terms.