Finally, we made it to Machu Picchu, the travel destination in South America. This is the place that many travelers wait their whole lives to see. When we got to Peru we figured that we would do Machu Picchu right away, but after realizing the outrageous expense that the site entails we knew we were going to have to wait and find a more affordable way.
It turns out that there are quite a few different ways to see the ancient Inca site. The first is by train. This is the most popular and, at $250 per person round trip, is the most expensive option. We could also hike the Inca trail, but a 4 day, 3 night trek with 3 kids did not sound like fun. A third and lesser known way is to take a shared van to the end of the road and hike the rest of the way. At $10 per person, this was finally an affordable option! In the end, we decided to try a bit of everything.
So, Sunday morning we woke up bright and early to catch our shared van. The ride took about five hours with a rest stop and a break for lunch. We snaked our way up to 4800 m then we wove our way back down the other side of the mountain in the same nausea-inducing way. Judah and I were in our own private hell, each of us trying to keep our breakfast in our stomachs. Sleep brought some relief to Judah, and I tried to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, but that’s hard to do while concentrating on not being sick. We arrived at the town of Santa Teresa at lunchtime and all poured out of the van and breathed in the fresh air. Since eating didn’t seem very appealing, we ordered just two lunches to split between the five of us. I found some ginger ale in town and was able to settle my stomach. After our stop, we had just an hour’s drive down a bumpy, dusty, dirt road that thankfully had few twists and turns.
Our van dropped us off at the hydroelectric station which is the very end of the road. From there we had to hike the last 10 km on foot. The town of Aguascalientes is like an island in the middle of the jungle, the only way to reach it is by train or foot. It was an easy hike along the railroad tracks and almost impossible to get lost. Due to the lower altitude, the vegetation and weather are markedly different than what we have gotten used to in the Sacred Valley. We were reveling in the warmth and humidity during our hike. Supposedly the hike just takes an hour, but it was more like 2.5 for us. There were plenty of hikers that passed us along the way. Many enterprising local families set up snack stands along the side of the railroad tracks or offered camping on their property.
We arrived in Aguascalientes just as it began to get dark. The town was much prettier than I had imagined, and it reminded me a bit of Baños, Ecuador. It’s tucked in between the mountains with a river running through it. Aguascalientes is a bizarre place that doesn’t feel like Peru at all. The only thing the town of Aguascalientes exists for is to house and feed tourists going to Machu Picchu, so it has a very weird vibe. The streets are all pedestrian avenues since the only vehicles there are the buses that take the tourists up the mountain to Machu Picchu. There are hundreds of hotels of all price ranges and we were able to find a room in an affordable hostel with 4 beds and private bathroom for about $25. That was the only affordable part to the town. Everything else there was at least 2x the price that we’re used to in the Sacred Valley. A breakfast consisting of toast, juice, and coffee was a soul-crushing $6!
There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu from the town of Aguascalientes, you can take the bus which costs a shocking $25 per person for the 20-minute ride up the mountain, or you can walk. Which option do you think we chose? I could not fathom spending $100 for us to ride up the mountain, so of course, we walked. They told us it would take about an hour, but of course, it took us more than two. It took about 20 minutes for us to walk from town to get to the trail, and the rest of the time was spent climbing the stone stairs that went straight up the mountain. To say it was exhausting is an understatement. But it was a beautiful climb that was well shaded by the lush vegetation. Jovani was a champ and climbed the whole way without complaint or seeming effort. Joaquin, of course, climbed in his custom hiking flip flops, and Judah rode half way up on Israel’s shoulders.
We heard the crowd at the top of the mountain a full 10 minutes before we saw them. The entrance was jam-packed with people and was reminiscent of a theme park rather than ancient Incan ruins. We had decided beforehand that we would prefer to spend some money for a guide to help us understand the history, architecture, and engineering of the site. Since none of the Peruvian ruins have any type of helpful signage, a guide is a must if we wanted to understand any of what we were seeing.
I always have a preconceived notion of how a place is going to look in real life as opposed to the pictures I have seen. Machu Picchu didn’t really look the way I thought it would. It is certainly picturesque, but it was just a bit different than I thought. The views were gorgeous and we were able to see in all directions. We even got to see the trail to the hydroelectric station that we had walked the previous day. The site is extensive and really interesting. It’s truly amazing to think that it was built and inhabited for only 100 years. The engineering that went into it was brilliant, there was water flowing in canals designed to use gravity to bring fresh water to the city. They knew not to build any buildings or agricultural terraces along a fault line that runs through the mountain. They were agricultural scientists that constantly experimented with growing different crops at different altitudes. There were clear delineations between the sacred areas and the living ones. The guide informed us that the people who lived there were probably the educated intellectuals including mathematicians, astronomers, engineers, and architects.
We had the guide’s services for two hours and afterward, we exited the site to grab a bite to eat at the snack bar. The boys were famished after the morning’s activity. Joaquin and Judah had no interest in seeing anymore, so we left them at the restaurant and went back in with Jovani to explore some more. We were exhausted but wanted to enjoy every moment we could at this monumental site. Jovani showed genuine interest and asked us and our tour guide really great questions. He seemed to understand the importance of this site and that it is a bit different than all the others that we have seen.
We had to leave promptly at 2:00 so that we could make our 4:00 train. You would think the way down would be much easier than the way back up, but although it doesn’t take your breath away like the way up, the way down is no less tiring. Going down is killer on the knees and toes. I thought to count the steps on the way down, estimating there would be between 500-1000, but I was wrong, there were 1400 steps!!
The next part of our journey was a reward for all our hard work. The train ride is insanely expensive, but not something we could skip with young boys. The only train they had ever been on was Thomas the train, and they have been excited to take this trip since we came to Peru. So we shelled out the $100 per person for the 1.5 hour ride back to Ollantaytambo. The train had huge picture windows and skylights to provide the rider with the best views. Since the railroad tracks follow the river we didn’t have to weave our way up and down the mountains again, it was a steady ride back up to the valley.
I loved the fact that we got to see the different perspectives by taking both the van and the train. Although we didn’t hike the famous Inca trail, I felt we really were able to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and we could imagine the way the Incas traveled from place to place. The climb up reminded us of just how hard it must have been for Hiram Bingham to find the fabled Inca city.
Being a tourist in Peru is not cheap, and Machu Picchu is definitely the most expensive attraction in the country. But there was no way we could leave this place without visiting. I’m glad we found a more affordable way that also showed us such the natural beauty of Peru.