In the first part of our journey, we discovered that while recovering from hip surgery, Camille would not yet be able to complete the multi-day trek into Machu Picchu. This meant that we had to find another way to secure tickets to the famous ruins, just days before our arrival. And they were sold out online. But thanks to Wanderluck, our taxi driver led us to an office that held a few tickets aside for travelers who came seeking in person. We were on our way, but there were many more steps to get there, and we feared our last minute change of plans would mean we wouldn’t get to see Machu Picchu.
The second step, after booking tickets to the ruins themselves, is getting yourself to the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, also known as Aguas Calientes. This is the quaint town at the foothills of the route to the actual site of Machu Picchu. It is geographically isolated, and there are no roads into town. When I was researching about how to get to the town, I found many articles and blogs about taking the train, or backpacking with a guided tour group through the mountains, but I misunderstood and thought these were simply the least economical, but most fun options for arriving in town. In truth, these are the only reliable and safe options.
Since we could no longer hike in, I looked up tickets for the train. There are two main companies that operate trains to Machu Picchu (Peru Rail and Inca Rail. We have heard of MachuPicchu Rail but cannot find a website for them, and didn’t come across the company on our travels. If you want to splurge, book Belmond: Hiram Bingham) All trains were sold out. Frantically I turned to the internet, scouring blogs hoping for an answer. We had to get to Machu Picchu! The tickets were booked for June 10th, so that gave us one day to get ourselves there.
On the morning of June 9th, I did some more research. We paired down our belongings and each left one bag, locked away with the fantastic staff at La Morada Suites. Our plan was to use the only option we had left to get to Machu Picchu: hike alongside the active train tracks that led into Aguas Calientes. We weren’t exactly comfortable with this option, but we had come across blogs by backpackers who had done it.
We decided to see if we could find a taxi that would take us to Hydroelectrica, where the Hydro-electric power station is, at the end of the road. After haggling with three drivers, we found a man who was willing to take us that far for a reasonable price. Once negotiations were over, he warmed to us and began talking with us about Machu Picchu. When we told him our plan to walk along the tracks, he became agitated and seemed to choose his words carefully as he told us that he didn’t want us to think the Peruvian people were bad, but there were bad people who waited in the jungle along the tracks with machetes to rob backpackers. Especially at night. Since the train had been our original plan, and we’d only found out about the option to walk the tracks that morning, we had gotten a later start, and the sun was setting while we rode in the taxi.
If there were any chance that he was just trying to get a higher fare out of us by taking us further, we might have dismissed his words as a fear tactic, but he’d already agreed to take us to the end of the road. His words mixed with our doubt about the plan and we decided this was one of those times when one should defer to the knowledge of a local. We told him that the train was sold out, but he insisted that we should check in person at the station in Ollantaytambo.
We were certain that at 4 pm, with only two trains left, there was no way that we would be able to get a seat. However, we had learned from our recent good fortune booking Machu Picchu tickets that Peru often rewarded us for doing things in person. We came to appreciate the charm of a country still doing things the old way-face to face. At the Ollantaytambo station, we thanked our driver for his help and honesty and paid him the agreed upon rate even though we were miles from our destination. With no other explanation than the traveller’s magic of Wanderluck, the woman working the ticket booth informed us there were only two tickets left, on the last train.
Now that we had a train to our destination, I realised we had no idea where we were going to stay! After all, we were starting to believe we would never make it! We found a restaurant with wifi so we could search for a room in Aguas Calientes, but unsurprisingly, nearly every hotel was booked. We finally found a room at Waynapata Hostal and boarded our train. After everything we’d been through, it felt surreal that we were going to make it to Machu Picchu!
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Arriving at the station in Aguas Calientes is a part of the Machu Picchu experience. It reminded me of how it might feel to arrive at Hogwarts. People from different cultures, who have travelled from all over the world get off the same train with the very same, unique destination in common. The whole town turns their attention to the arriving train, with all the hotels sending representatives to guide the guests up the small, cobbled streets to their warm beds. The town is nestled in the mountains, and even though it was night, you could feel the presence of the mountains. The surroundings were pitch black, the starry skies we had enjoyed in Cusco blocked by the towering mountains. Only a small patch of stars was visible directly overhead. We were all tightly packed on the platform, but it was quieter than we expected as if we were all united in quiet reverence, with the mountains tucking us in.
I assumed that since we had booked a hostel only hours before, we weren’t looking for anyone with our names on a sign. We politely pushed our way through the crowd, when suddenly, something caught in my peripheral. A smiling man was holding a whiteboard with my last name on it and the name of our hostel! Our host was so kind and welcoming, and when we arrived at the hostel, we met his delightful kids, and wife. He checked us in and asked if we were headed to Machu Picchu the next day. When we told him that we planned to wake up at 4:00 am to do the hike up the mountain, he told us that his wife would have a packed breakfast waiting for us in the morning!
Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) itself is such a cool little destination which it nearly distracted me from our actual destination. But there is one last step to get to the famous ruins. Most people choose to buy tickets for the bus ride up the windy mountain road to the entrance gate. You have likely already heard that Machu Picchu is overrun by tourists, and it is. But it is still very much worth the visit! The best way to avoid the crowd is to hike to the top. Since I was so disappointed that we couldn’t do the epic multi-day trek, this shorter hike gave me a way to get there within my current abilities and still have the feeling that I earned the experience.
Hikers are allowed in before the buses even begin driving up to the gate. The bridge opens to the hikers at 5 am, so it is best to have left your hotel around 4:00 am and walk the twenty minutes from town to the gate and get in line with the other hikers.
It is about a 1.5 to 2-hour hike depending on your fitness level. What makes it the most challenging is the fact that it’s mostly comprised of very irregular stone steps that feel inorganic to your normal gait. If you’ve ever complained about switch-backs on a hike before, you never will again after this straight-up, no switchbacks challenge. Bring plenty of water and a snack to fuel your pulse-pounding, calorie-demolishing hike.
Once you get to the gate, there will be a line, perhaps comprised of the hikers that got there before you and one or two buses of tourists. You can’t beat all the buses, but you do get a good head start. The hiking path crosses the dirt road that the bus takes, so do be careful, as the buses don’t yield to hikers.
The last bit of practical information is this: There is a cafe on site outside of the gate. It is likely that once you enter the actual Machu Picchu ruins you will not want to leave until you are ready to go back to your lodging. The only restrooms are located outside of the gate. Food is not technically allowed, but it’s impossible to see the whole place in between your early morning breakfast and getting hungry again. So, we recommend bringing protein snack bars, water and packing our your trash. Don’t be that traveller…you know, the one who trashes the beauty of the place they flew around the world to visit!
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Final step? Enjoy! After all of the challenges, emotional peaks and valleys and hard work to get there, we would do it all again! It was incredibly worth it once we hiked up to a vantage point above the main ruins and watched as the warmth of the sun peaked over the mountains, washing the valley in a warm golden glow, illuminating the fog and the tip of the iconic Huayna Picchu.
Everyone around us was so kind because we were all connected in our awe, and aware that each of us, in our way, had worked hard and travelled so far to get to this very moment in our lives. People offered to take photos for strangers and kindly moved out of view so that everyone could capture that perfect sunrise photo to take home and share with their loved ones who couldn’t make the trip. The kindness of strangers-people from all cultures and walks of life-was certainly alive and well in Peru.
Machu Picchu is one of the more challenging must-see destinations in the world and requires significant planning and coordinating, but it truly is an unforgettable and unparalleled experience and one that we will always treasure. We’re so glad that we chose it as one of our first destinations on the part of our round-the-world-honeymoon!
If you didn’t already, check out the first part of their Wanderluck story here. If you want to read more about the adventures of Camille and Niels, you can check out their Story of my World profile or take a look on their blog: www.CoupleaWanderers.com or follow their Instagram for more crazy travel photos!