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Machu Picchu On a Budget, a Potentially Costly Adventure
Kelli was off to explore the Amazon and after, to hike along the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu with her mom. I was camped in the hills above Cusco, exploring the Incan ruins and making friends with some other vanabonds who had been camped out there for a few weeks.
After a couple of days, I got restless and decided I would drive to Machu Picchu solo and hike to the ancient Incan citadel myself. I wanted to discover if it was possible to see Macchu Picchu solo, and how my experience would stack compared to Kelli’s all-inclusive hiking package.
It seemed relatively straightforward. Drive six hours from Cusco to Santa Theresa. Hike to the tourist town of Agua Calientes. Purchase an entry ticket to Machu Picchu for about $50. Lastly, hike up to the famous Incan ruins. I went to bed that evening certain that this would make a great weekend hike and resolved to set off at a reasonable hour the next morning.
Over the course of the weekend I discovered is that:
- It is absolutely possible to get to Machu Picchu solo.
- It is absolutely worth doing Machu Picchu on a budget
- I managed to do EVERYTHING wrong on my Machu Picchu solo trip.
While getting to Machu Picchu solo is well-trodden ground on the internet, my experiences have left me with some lessons, and 6 not so obvious tips for visiting Machu Picchu solo.
Tip #1 Do Not Eat at the San Pedro Market Before Undertaking a Journey to Machu Picchu Solo
In fact, do not eat at the San Pedro Market in Cusco anytime. This is apparently a well-known fact amongst locals, in the know expats, and careful travelers. But I didn’t get the memo.
On the Friday before I embarked on my drive to Machu Picchu I found the cheapest fried chicken dinner of my life in the bustling Mercardo San Pedro in central Cusco. I took a seat next to another couple of oblivious gringos.
Sometime during the night, I awoke, shivering uncontrollably, my stomach churning angrily. The cheap fried chicken in the San Pedro Market had, predictably, betrayed me. I vomited the entirety of my dinner onto the floor beside me. After a hasty cleanup, I spent the rest of the night shivering and sweating my way through a horrible fever.
By 8:00 am I was awake. My stomach had settled but the fever had not broken and I was weak and muddled. I slowly packed up the van and forced down some eggs and coffee. If I was going to be sick, I might as well be sick on the drive to one of the new seven wonders of the world. I didn’t set off until 10:00 am. By midday, I was too sick to drive any further and crawled into the back of the van to sleep.
I woke a couple of hours later and pressed on. The fever hadn’t broken yet. I continued on, unable to eat or drink for my extreme lack of appetite. Eventually reaching the cordillera, little Pablo Van Go took me up to 4000m. I began to feel lightheaded and delirious as the fever, combined with the altitude and the fact that I hadn’t eaten or drank enough during the day started to affect me. After a couple of hours, the winding road began to descend again. As I dropped I began to feel a little better and finally the fever began to recede.
Tip #2 Do Not Drive Through the Road Block of a Protest in Peru
A little ways up the road, as the sun disappeared behind the encompassing mountain range and the night began to settle, several cars had banked up. It seemed a large tree had fallen over the road. After 30 minutes, some locals cleared the way and we continued on.
With my late start, the break I had taken to rest, and this latest hold up, it was around 6:00 pm. I thought I could still make it to the Hidroelectrica outside Santa Theresa (the closest you can get by road to Machu Picchu) by 8:00 pm, walk to Agua Calientes by 11:00 pm, get a bed in a hostel and be up at 4:00 am to climb Machu Picchu for sunrise.
Thirty minutes up the way and another traffic backlog again. It started to dawn on me that this was not another tree coincidentally fallen on the road, but a protest demonstration, the favored method of political discourse in the region, that would likely go on for many more miles. After waiting 40 minutes for this one to clear with no evidence that it would and feeling sick, I crawled into the back of the van and immediately fell asleep. I woke to the sound of traffic going past at about 11:00 pm and clambered into the front. I certainly wouldn’t make Agua Calientes tonight, but I could at least get as close to the start of the trail as I could.
It was slow going as I hit two more protests and plenty more obstacles that had been dragged onto the road. At 3:00 am, past Santa Maria, but still half an hour outside Santa Teresa I pulled off the road and fell asleep once more, exhausted.
I had unwittingly forced my vehicle down a one-way road as a series of makeshift blockades and angry protestors closed it off behind me. I didn’t realize at the time what a serious mistake this would be. A prolonged strike by local farmers over coca prices would escalate into protests and blockades that would cut off access to Santa Teresa for two weeks.
Tip #3 Don’t Underestimate the Hike into Agua Calientes and up to Machu Picchu
I awoke about 9:00 am, drenched in sweat. My appetite hadn’t returned in the slightest, but I choked down some cereal and over-chlorinated water. It was going to be a long day. I had to continue driving to the Hidroeléctrica at Santa Theresa.
From the Hidroeléctrica I walked 13km to Agua Calientes along train tracks. It is a relatively simple and beautiful walk in the shadow of the Montaña Machu Picchu but it felt like a slog in my weakened condition. In Agua Calientes, I purchased the ticket to Machu Picchu for 152 Sols (about $45 USD) and took a break for lunch.
The walking hadn’t coaxed my appetite or thirst back but I forced down some overpriced pizza and lemonade. At 2:30 pm I backtracked to the base of the Machu Picchu Mountain, pizza and lemonade now seemed like a poor choice. The ascent took about an hour, draining the last of my energy.
At the top, as I entered the site I felt revitalized, the wonder was incredible and I was able to get a sense of the magnitude and magnificence of the original citadel amongst the mountain despite the hoards of tourists and preened llamas scurrying over the crumbling ruins.
At about 4:45 pm I began to the descend the mountain, and I was back on the train tracks leading me back to the van at Hidroelectrica just after 5:00 pm. As the sun began to set and the last of the stragglers past me by in the opposite direction on their way to Agua Calientes, I felt both lucky and stupid.
Exhausted from, sickness, not enough sleep, not eating or drinking, and yet without the slightest appetite or thirst I cursed myself for putting myself in this position. I had to work at 4:00 am the next morning and a 2-hour walk in the dark still ahead of me. Still, as the sun set, and the full moon rose, filtering through the clouds to throw up stark silhouettes of the mighty Urubamba Valley towering above me, and with just the fireflies to guide me along the train tracks home, I felt like I was experiencing something very special.
Tip #4 No Seriously, Do Not Drive Through the Road Block of a Protest in Peru
I arrived back at the van, drove back into Santa Theresa to find a camp. I fell asleep exhausted but secure in the knowledge that my difficulties had come to an end and tomorrow I would drive back to Cusco and await Kelli and Tracy, checking into a comfortable Airbnb two days later on Wednesday when they arrived. As it turned out, this wasn’t to be.
I awoke the next morning at 4:00 am to set the van up to teach English online for classes between 5:00 am and 8:00 am. Still reeling from the weekend I struggled through the lessons.
The small amount of food I had consumed over the last 48 hours was doing summersaults in my contracted stomach. Finally during my last lesson, my bowels informed me they would be passing gas…but that was a lie. I soiled myself. I decided it would be easier to finish up my lesson then explain the situation and I silently thanked god for both the miracles and the limitations of technology that allowed me to sit here teaching in my own excrement.
After the longest 15 minutes of my life had finally ticked by I was able to clean myself and some affected belongings up and begin the 6 hour trip home. I completed the perilous 1 hour trip back toward Santa Maria, this time forced to keep to the side closest to the sheer cliff face the road hugs. Luckily (or so it seemed at the time) there were very few cars coming the other way. When I got into Santa Maria, my heart sunk.
The isolated protests I had encountered on my drive here had escalated. Hundreds of farmers had amassed in town to shut down the roads out of Santa Maria. Exploring all three roads out of town, I found nothing but jeering, angry protesters, hitting my car and yelling angrily. Despite my limited Spanish, one thing was clear, no pasaje!
This was very upsetting. The locals I spoke to were unable to give any estimate of how long protests might go on. Some thinking days, some shrieking excitedly that it could be a month or more. I was shattered.
I decided that there must be another way, and after careful scrutiny of the map decided it might be possible to drive out of the valley on a dirt trail labeled 109. I spent the entire day ferreting out my way, over some of the worst roads I have ever seen. I was taken high on mountain ridges and dropped right back down to the river again. Ticme and time again roads and off shoots turned into dead ends or goat tracks.
After a full day of exploration in which I managed to shake every single thing that wasn’t tied down loose from the van, I returned to Santa Theresa, utterly defeated and dejected. There was no way out for me and my little van. Tuesday passed with the limited information filtering through Peruvian news services that the situation was not improving. I was restless and bored and fed up with the whole scenario. On Tuesday evening I was able to talk to Kelli who had arrived in Agua Calientes and now had reception. We decided to wait until the following morning before deciding on a course of action.
On Wednesday, I heard back from iPeru national tourism agency and the Australian consulate both of whom suggested that the situation with the protesters had not abated and there was no way of knowing how long it might continue, the only way out was by taking the train. I decided to bite the bullet and buy a $70 USD train ticket to Cusco and abandon poor Pablo-Van-Go, promising I would return for him when the situation had settled.
Of course, when I went to buy the train ticket online I realized I had lost my wallet but after turning the van upside down, I could not fathom where. Either it had fallen somewhere deep out of sight within the van or someone had nicked it. I cursed, loudly, at my luck. Weeks later I would later recover the wallet from the very secure place I had hidden it for safekeeping.
Thankfully Kelli was able to buy a ticket online and email it to me. I stuffed what I could into my pack and set off once more for Agua Calientes and the train that would deliver me from this nightmare.
Tip #5 If You Have the Opportunity, (or You are Left with No Other Option) the Train from Agua Calientes to Cusco is Lovely!
I met up with Kelli and Tracy in Agua Calientes before they hopped on the train before mine.
It could have been the hellish days that preceded it but the train ride back to Cusco was a wonderful experience. The train may be expensive by Peruvian standards but it is an awesome trip through the striking valleys with panoramic views, onboard dining (sandwiches), and even a dance performance inspired by Andes culture.
I met up again with Kelli and Tracy at their Airbnb and was soon falling asleep on an incredibly soft pillow, incredulous at the string of bad luck that had befallen me the moment Kelli had left my side… the Worlds Worst Traveller (TM) had been back in full flight for 5 days but I would be glad close that chapter for the time being.
Tip #6 I Cannot Stress This Enough, Do Not Drive Through the Road Block of a Protest in Peru
In the epilogue, Kelli and I spent two weeks at an Airbnb in Cusco, waiting for the news that the protests cutting us off from our car had ended. Finally, we got the word and were able to catch a collectivo from Cusco to Santa Maria. From here a short (but terrifying) ride skirting the narrow cliffs along the valley to Santa Teresa once more, only this time, our lives were in the hands of the taxi driver.
Parked nearby the Hidroelectrica. We found our car leaning sadly to one side. Two flat tires from multiple punctures. It seemed that during my brief run-in with the mob of protesters blocking traffic from leaving Santa Maria two weeks prior, they had put several small punctures in two of my tires.
We put our spare tire on the front and pumped our rear flat as much as we could. And drove back into Santa Teresa to find the local mechanic. Patching up the tires would of course be another ordeal in and of itself and just the start of an adventurous trip down the mountains to Lima on the coast via the infamous Ruta 28b. But that’s another story…
Practical Tips for Machu Picchu Solo
How to do Machu Picchu solo (and on a budget):
As at September 2018, Machu Picchu is still very much accessible without a guide or arranged tour for less than $100.
- Drive from Cusco to the Central Hydroelectrica outside Santa Theresa. It takes about 6 hours if you don’t hit any roadblocks or accidents on these notorious roads. Alternatively you can catch a local bus or ‘colectivo’ from Calle Inca, Cusco to Santa Maria, another bus on to Santa Theresa and finally a taxi to the Hidroelectrica. All up less then $15 USD.
- From the Hidroelectrica you will need to walk 3 hours to Agua Calientes. Hostels in Agua Calientes start from about $10 USD per night.
- Purchase a Machu Picchu Ticket ($45 USD) from the cultural centre in town.
- Access Machu Picchu by hiking up the mountain or take the bus ($19 USD one way or $29 USD return).
You can Camp Amongst Incan Ruins Above Cusco for Free!
Camping here above Cusco was beautiful, peaceful and I was able to spend my days trekking amongst Incan ruins, waterfalls, and caves for free and without hordes of tourists. Aquaducts presumably remnants from ancient architecture still carry freshwater (filter or purify before drinking) from the head of the valley. I met some other overlanders here and together we visited the local farms for fresh dairy and explored the local countryside.
Avoid the San Pedro Market
San Pedro Market is a great place for fruit, veg, grains, flours, bric-a-brac and souvenirs but avoid buying meat from markets in general and from my own personal hellish experience (and later from many other reports) avoid the food court here.
About Protests and Road Blocks in Peru
Like many places in South America, much of Peru’s political discourse between government and governed takes place through protest. Protests can take the form of marches, strikes, and commonly roadblocks which can happen without notice and last indefinitely. Be prepared for anything and if you do see roads getting closed down it may be better to turn back before you get trapped as I did. Never try to cross roadblocks without permission and monitor local news agencies, local tourism agencies and providers and reach out to your consulate if in trouble.
Do you have a question about tackling Machu Picchu solo? Or perhaps your own weird tips on doing Machu Picchu solo. Let us know in the comments below!
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Looking for more experiences in Peru? Check out some of our other articles here.