Peru: which way to Machu Picchu?

Since brought to the attention of the Western World by John Birmingham in 1911 – Machu Picchu has been a site of international pilgrimage and for many it is the highlight/climax/pinnacle of their South American adventure. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of 7 Modern Wonders of the World and one of the most famous Peruvian icons is visited every year by thousands upon thousands of people from all walks of life and there is no question why. It is magical. The site is breathtaking and incredible and if you are lucky enough to find a moment of solitude whilst up there you can take a deep breath in, close your eyes and imagine Incan mountain life in 1450 surrounded by Llamas and Alpacas and breathtaking (have I said that one already?) Pacha Mamma (mother nature).

Often, just getting to MP is half of the adventure. Not just arriving on the other side of the world, getting to Peru and making your way to Cusco then choosing how you will get to the site. Arriving without breaking the bank was our aim and ultimate challenge and writing this blog to share that there are alternative ways, the cheap way. The most popular way to arrive is by train (half American owned Peru Rail), whilst apparently being beautiful at $320 for two people return from Cusco (2 hours one way) was WAY!! out of the budget. Numero dos, the ‘ultimate adventure’ option is to trek. Inca Trail or not, these can set you back anywhere between $300-$500 – depending on number of days etc. having heard lots of people doing both options and have heard great feedback – except for the cost. So, if you are on a budget and are visiting the continent on a long haul trip – spending big chunks in one go isn’t what you want. Having met many people on just add water diets (packet noodles) we knew we weren’t the poorest people in Peru so surely, there had to be another way! After a little research the real backpacker option was found. Although it seemed a lot more outlaw, which was to be part of the excitement, we found out you could simply walk the train tracks right into the town. Not from Cusco, that would have taken days and probably quite dangerous but from a train station 3 hours walk from the town of Machu Picchu. To us this sounded very exciting and like a fantastic adventure movie – which is how I base most life decisions, so we decided to go for it! After catching up with a family friend who was volunteering an hour outside of Cusco in Urabamba (Hey Andrew!) we caught a bus to the town of Santa maria (4.5 hrs $14 for 2) then hopped into a collectivo taxi (1 hr $10 for two) and arrived at the Hydro Electrico Train Station and began our O brother Where Art Thou montage as we walked the tracks. We stopped frequently along the way to take photos and soak in the magnificent scenery and I loved every moment of it. Even waving to the passengers on the train as it chugged passed I never once thought ‘shit, we are poor’ but ‘hell yeah this is incredible! And it’s free!’. The whole walk we were surrouned by the jungle and imposing mountains with the remains of Incan buildings scattered on top. We walked past train workers, little shops set up along the tracks offering drinks and snacks to the walkers and ofcourse other backpackers and Peruvians. Because the reality is there is no way a Peruvian can afford Peru Rail – it’s simply for cashed up tourists which makes sense once you find out that PERU Rail is half owned by an American company. Shocker! Our only wish is that it was completely Peruvian, the ride would have cost a dollar and they would have squeezed hundreds on including Llamas and Alpacas which would have been amazing. A couple of hours later, feeling energised from our walk and quite happy with our budgeting selves, we arrived into town as it was getting dark and set off to pre buy our entry tickets for the next day. The town is a product of fast tourism: expensive ski type lodges to the front and food, drinks and hostels to the back. Our tickets were $50 each and only included Machu Picchu city and the mountain. We ended up bartering for a private room at a Hospedaje (a low budget hotel – $11 together) and scored cheap set menu for dinner (3 course $12 together). If I said ‘winning’ this would be an appropriate time to put that in! Simply choosing the long way round had save us over over $130 yay- look at us go Mumma – we are budgeting!

The next morning we caught the bus ($20 each – VERY steep but we were exhausted) up to the Mp entrance and spent a couple of hours wandering around. We didn’t opt for a guide as our time in the North had prepped us to self guide – ‘Yes so that must be where they put the sacrifices, that would have been for the high priest, that was farming terraces’ etc. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about this postcard perfect national geographic place? It is epic, just it’s size alone is wow plus the backdrop of surrounding mountains leaves you with an unforgettable and memorable experience. And also very surreal after thinking you were never really the type to head to Peru and now I was standing on top of Machu Picchu. It was a cool moment. After walking around for a couple of hours and exploring the adobe city maize, we skipped the bus back down to save money and walked to the bottom by way of 45minutes worth of steps. Knees. Calves. Yep, they were feeling it. Feeling a little pooped, we decided to check out trains back to Cusco that afternoon to see if we could maybe, possibly, somehow snatch a deal. No luck – one way tickets were going for $80 each – WHAT! So we booked another night in the Hospedaje (bartered an even lower price) and followed our same route by the train tracks the next day. That day was Trent’s 25th birthday and we spent it doing what he loves – on an adventure. A beautiful morning walk, collectivo, bus and 10 hours later we were back in Cusco. It was definitely an adventure!

At the end of the few days we had definitely put in the extra effort to save the extra pennies and it had paid off. Our journey to and from Machu Picchu was special and felt as if we had undergone our own little pilgrimage. It wasn’t the Inca Trail but it was the Jacqui and Trent trail and it felt special and magical. In terms of money, if we had taken the train it would have cost at least $320 for the both of us. Our way had ended up setting us back $45 return meaning we had saved $275! That’s a lotta empanadas!

To anyone that may be reading this I highly recommend walking the train tracks if you are looking for another option – choose your own adventure, it’s definitely worth it! X

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