There are many options for visiting Machu Picchu. The easiest and least satisfying is to get the train to Aguas Calientes and then the bus up to the ticket station in the morning. But there are plenty of treks, typically lasting 3 to 5 days, which make the journey more exciting and rewarding.
The official Inca trail is a challenging but beautiful walk following a paved pathway laid down by the Incas. It culminates in a stunning view of the lost city of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, just as daylight arrives and the mist that fills the valley begins to lift.
I decided not to do the Inca Trail for a number of reasons. First of all, I didn’t have the foggiest idea when my South America trip would bring me to Cusco, and the Inca Trail has to be booked many months in advance. It’s also one of the more pricey options, and there’s no guarantee that you will get a clear view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate when you arrive. I’ve also heard the path can get crowded at times. On top of all that, I’ve done a hell of a lot of walking already in South America, and I felt like a change…something more fun!
When I heard about the jungle trail to Machu Picchu – a 4-day journey through parts of the Sacred Valley incorporating mountain biking, white water rafting, zip lining, and of course, a little bit of hiking, I knew it was the option for me. And at $170 all inclusive (after a bit of bargaining!), plus an extra S/30 each for rafting and zip lining (no idea why they confuse the currencies!), the Jungle Trail was also one of the best deals around.
Things you need to know:
- For many agencies, the train back from Aguas Calientes is not included. This costs around $45 and possibly a lot more if you leave it to the last minute. Check it’s included and what time it leaves. A train around 7pm gives you plenty of time to see Machu Picchu and have dinner back in Aguas Calientes, but still gets you home to Cusco at around 11pm.
- If you want to climb Huaynapicchu, you need to get a ticket in advance. It only costs an extra $10 and provides some great views and a different perspective.
- Bring a head torch or flash light. We were recommended not to by our agency, but it’s handy for that 4:30 am start on the final day, as well as dysfunctional bulbs in the hostels along the way.
- You don’t need much warm clothing for the journey to Machu Picchu. One jumper and a waterproof should suffice. But the train/minibus back from Aguas Calientes was pretty cold, so bring extra layers for that.
- The insects are the meanest I’ve come across. Wear a lot of deet and keep re-applying the whole time. Even though you’ll be hot, it might even be a good idea to wear trousers on the trail to prevent days of itchy torture after the trip.
- If you do get bitten, Chico Menthol (from Ecuador), a kind of deep heat, works a treat at relieving the symptoms.
- Wear or bring swimwear every day, as there are lots of opportunities for swimming in rivers and thermal baths.
- Prepare yourself for 4 days of tasteless soup, mounds of rice and potatoes. And don’t get excited when they say ‘hamburger’. They don’t mean ‘in a bun with fries’. They mean ‘fried to buggery, without a bun, and accompanied by more rice and beans!’
The Jungle Trail to Machu Picchu
At 7:30am, my friend Christina and I were picked up from our Cusco hostel. We’d bought breakfast snacks in advance, and we munched on fruit and cereal bars as the tour guides piled mountain bikes on the roof of our minibus.
Our guide, Yoel, gave us the group name ‘pumas’ and called us this for the duration of the trip. Also in our group were a Dutch couple, Meta and Florian, an Aussie guy, Henry, and another couple from Argentina who were doing a 3-day option and would leave us the same day. For those who hadn’t brought breakfast, there was a 15-minute stop over at a ‘service station’ that randomly played the exact same songs from Christina’s very eclectic iPod track list. Bit disconcerting to say the least…
After a few hours’ driving up into the mountains, we pulled up into a small car park at the top of the pass and they handed out padding and helmets. The bikes were all placed in a line and they told us to pick one. In the mad scramble, during which I had no idea what constituted a good bike, I managed to claim a rickety old model with slow-reacting breaks and gears that responded 10 minutes after I’d changed them.
The bends were pretty hairy, and it was unnerving to see the occasional cross in the road, marking the point where someone had shot over the edge and plummeted into the valley. To begin with, I took it slowly and fell to the back of the group, before peer pressure and confidence made me a little more adventurous.
There were a number of river crossings, which, although shallow, still splashed right up onto our seats. By the time we arrived at the bottom of the valley, we were splattered with mud and our bums were bruised from the bumpy road. Even my pain-relieving technique of sitting side-saddle did little to help the bruising!
The minibus took us to a little restaurant for soup/rice/meat (which became a staple diet for the trip) and we dumped our bags in one large, mixed dorm room before heading straight back out for the rafting.
It was cold and raining and there were a lot of insects, so we weren’t too excited about going rafting, but most of us had paid in advance and we didn’t want to miss out.
A small car with a massive raft attached to its roof turned up at the hostel to pick us up. We met up with other tour groups by the river and they sorted us into groups of 6 or 7 in each of three rafts. After a brief lesson in how to react to the commands ‘Get down!’ and ‘Left side forward’, etc, we were on our way in the cold rapids.
There was a lot of rivalry between the groups, and the water fights led to a lot of screaming. It wasn’t too difficult though. At least I managed to stay in the boat this time, which is more than I can say for my first experience of rafting, in Costa Rica!
The most scary part of the trip came on the journey home. A road block on the side of the river they normally used meant that they picked us up on the other side. We all had to pick our way over rocks and through deep, thick mud to get to the bank. I felt especially sorry for the guys who’d been asked to help carry the rafts. They came back thigh-deep in mud.
Then, on the drive back to the hostel, we reached a landslide. We all had to get out of the car and climb a steep hill, where there was one thin log over a massive canyon. There was no way we were going back that way! They decided the less dangerous way was to paddle across the destroyed road through a muddy river that was part of the landslide. It moved as we walked, but we made it without a glitch.
There was another hairy moment when the driver hadn’t revved our car enough to get up the hill. It was sliding all over the place towards the cliff, so he backed up, revved again and took it really fast. I closed my eyes and prayed as we swerved again on the loose gravel.
Back at the hostel, we had very cold showers (one of them was even pitch black because the bulb had blown), ate another soupy/ricey meal and went out for a quick drink, a game of pool and a round of Uno in ‘The Only Bar’.
We got up bright and early for the trekking day. Breakfast was a very salty omelette. They charged us S/3 to transport our spare bags, but it seemed worth it. It was a warm morning and hiking wasn’t easy uphill. Be careful where you tread – Christina stood one foot in a big pool of mud almost immediately.
At the first break, half-way up the mountain, there was a pet monkey tied to a doorway. I sat near it and it stole my sunglasses from my head before attempting to bite me. Luckily it didn’t break the skin, or I might have had to abandon the trek for a post-phylactic rabies jab. It also stole Henry’s sun cream and proceeded to drink it, before humping a destroyed-looking teddy bear.
Towards the top of the slope, we had a second break at a small guest house. The locals who owned it sold us cold, fresh fruit juice and bottles of water. Christina and I had a go at playing the pan pipes and flutes. It was difficult to even get a sound out, but by the time we left, the theme tune from Titanic was just barely recognisable.
Yoel, gave a presentation on the local fruits and we got to try some home-grown cocoa and coffee. Before we left, they painted our faces using natural orange dye from a seed. With all the humid hiking for the rest of the afternoon, it was difficult to keep these intact and we finished up with orange smears across our faces.
The walk soon joined a trail used by the Incas – although it wasn’t the official Machu Picchu hike. Yoel told us about the history of the trail – how there were two routes all the way from Santiago in Chile to Quito in Ecuador, with Machu Picchu as its focal point. He handed out coca leaves, which we placed in a gap in the rocks as an offering to Pachamama. Some of us chewed more leaves to combat the effect of altitude. I’m not sure how well it achieved that function, but it made my mouth go numb!
After lunch in a small restaurant and a quick nap in some hammocks, we continued along the valley, passing over wobbly bridges. At one point, we had to pay S/1 to a guy who used a pulley system to drag us across the gorge two at a time in a tiny, dangling seat.
By 4 pm, we finally arrived at some thermal baths. It was a bargain at S/5 entry and we had a full 2 hours to enjoy it. I bumped into some girls I’d been cycling with in Ecuador and a group of us passed the time with a competition to see who could find and pick up the biggest rock with their feet. My persistence paid off and I’m proud to be able to add this to my growing list of useless talents.
We got a minibus to the town because it was dark and we had no choice. This cost us S/8 each. The showers at the hostel were cold again and we wished we’d carried soap to the thermal baths. Our group had three new ‘pumas’ – all from Germany – who we got to know over dinner. The zip lining company showed us a video and our guide, who, by the way, was now high from smoking weed in the back room, gave us a rundown of the plan for day three.
At 10 pm, Yoel walked us around the corner to a very empty night club and we danced to a mix of Spanish RnB and 80s American rap before calling it a night.
We woke early and went for fruit salad breakfast at the same restaurant as the night before. Then it was time for a quick lesson in zip lining. We hiked up a steep hill and did 6 lines. I’ve done zip lining before in Costa Rica and Ecuador, so I thought I’d be a pro at it, but there was something about the height and the baron canyon landscape that made this time much more scary.
On one of the lines, I built up the courage to let go and spun so much that I panicked! As I tried to bring myself back up again, my arms got caught up in the wire and I slowed myself down so effectively I came to a stop half way. I had to walk backwards hand over hand until I reached the platform, all the while having a lot of time to appreciate the massive drop below me.
It turned out Christina had also had a few problems on the line and had burned her arm pretty badly on one cable. In general though, it was pretty safe if you paid attention to the instructions.
After the zip lining, a minibus took us to the bottom of the valley. We drove past a hydroelectric plant and stopped in a small restaurant shack by the railway line.
After lunch it was just a 3 hour walk along the railway tracks to Aguas Calientes. This stretch of path beside the river is very scenic and there’s a chance to take a refreshing dip in the river along the way. But be aware of the trains. Sometimes there’s only a path on one side and you have to be ready to jump out of the way!
I was so exhausted by the time we got to Aguas Calientes that I fell asleep immediately and missed dinner. This was fine by me. I couldn’t handle any more rice and potatoes anyway.
…Except that I found out later that the others had finally been given an extensive menu of really good meals to choose from! On the plus side, I got in a bit more sleep than they did before the 4 am alarm told us it was time for the piece de resistance..Machu Picchu!