Budget travelers and Machu Picchu are perhaps not a match made in heaven, but as a family of four trying to travel for a year with limited funds but a burning desire to conquer this, the most famous of the Incan sites, we were struggling to make it work.
After several hours riding in a mini bus stuffed over capacity on the most ridiculous one lane dirt road on earth, dodging landslides, waterfalls, precarious makeshift plank bridges and a driver with a death wish, we arrived at the halfway point between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Now the REAL fun was about to begin as we set out to walk the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes (the entrance town and staging area for visitors to Machu Picchu).
To my surprise, as we exited our mini bus and stretched out our stiff, shaky legs, most of the other passengers walked over to a bench next to a waiting train and sat down. As it turned out, all of the Peruvians from our little group qualified for extremely cheap rates on the trains headed to Machu Picchu. This particular train which ran the relatively short distance from the hydroelectric dam (at the end of the last road into this portion of the Andes) to Aguas Calientes was super cheap for residents of the country, but for us, even this short jaunt was going to cost over $100.
At that particular moment in time after that bus ride from hell, I was seriously considering that it might be worth it. But our fellow (non-Peruvian) traveler Jesus, a grandpa of five from a little town in Mexico, declared that it was definitely out of his budget. Because we had bonded with him on our bus adventure and I also felt that I wouldn’t want my dad walking alone on this trail, we decided to stick to our original plan and walk with him. (As it turned out – we weren’t doing him any favors. This grandpa, even while smoking his cigarettes could walk far quicker than our little family and he spent the next couple of hours kindly pretending that he needed to stop and rest multiple times so that he could wait for us slow pokes to catch up.)
This trek along the train tracks was the portion of the journey that I had been dreading the most. I had been concerned that it would be too difficult for our little ones, or that we would be so slow that it might get dark before we could get off of this unlit trail and into the little town of Aguas Calientes for the night. And unfortunately – both of those worries were quite justified. A major landslide on the road during our bus trip had put us seriously behind schedule, and the picture that the travel agent had showed me of the lush green field with smiling people strolling casually in the sweet sunshine next to the tracks never actually appeared. Instead, there were dangerous railroad trestle bridges, dirt trails up jungly hillsides, and narrow rock covered paths next to the tracks. And of course we also had two young kids and a backpack full of all of our clothes for three days (which my husband gallantly carried most of the way because of my bad back).
We started off at a pretty rapid pace, but since we had to alternate between carrying the very heavy two year old and holding his hand while he walked (and skipped and climbed and explored and thoroughly enjoyed himself way more than the rest of us were doing), pretty quickly all of the other backpackers that happened to be walking on the trail at the same time as us passed us by. As time went by and the sun continued its slow descent behind the Andes we began to get a little concerned. I really, really didn’t want to spend the night next to these tracks, or try to navigate this already treacherous path next to the river in the dark.
So we hustled, and I won’t lie – it really sucked. For a family that walks constantly absolutely everywhere, this 6 mile walk up the mountains was still proving to be a huge challenge. We thought we had thoroughly adjusted to the altitude after months living at 10,000 feet in Quito and another two weeks in Cusco at 11,500 feet (both higher than Machu Picchu’s 8000 feet), but we were really hurting. We pushed on through the sweat and the breathlessness, the blisters and the two year old’s whining. We kept moving as fast as possible because we were honestly getting really nervous. There was absolutely no one left walking behind us and Aguas Calientes was still no where in sight.
Finally, after over two hours of furious power walking we came across a couple of backpackers perched on a rock overlooking a beautiful valley. They were casually watching the sun set and seemed relaxed and happy. Obviously they hadn’t just walked six miles with a two year old and an increasing sense of dread and panic. They told us (to our great relief) that Aguas Calientes was only about another 1/2 mile ahead, and then offered to take a picture of us because of course we looked absolutely beautiful at this point.
We were so happy when we finally spotted the lights of Aguas Calientes peeking through the massive wall of mountain in front of us. The sun was nearly down at that point, and we chased its last light during that last painful 1/2 mile that seemed straight uphill. We made it!
But the night wasn’t over yet. After showering and resisting the urge to collapse in our little, simple hotel room, we set out into Aguas Calientes to locate our Machu Picchu guide, eat dinner and make the rest of our arrangements for Machu Picchu the next day.
Aguas Calientes was a quirky, interesting little place. We dreaded spending two nights there because we had read some absolutely terrible reviews about it on Tripadvisor and knew that it was completely inaccessible (or escapable) except by train or on foot – sort of like being on an island (but in the middle of the mountains). People, who obviously hadn’t travelled to many other places in South America complained about poor service, bad food, dirty bathrooms, and everything else under the sun. Although it was very touristy we found it to be filled with some genuinely nice people (and even one of the best Italian restaurants we had been to in months). The next day after we explored Machu Picchu, we walked around Aguas Calientes and found the residents to be mostly just regular people (all employed in the service/tourist industry in some way) that were surprisingly approachable and helpful. The prices were somewhat inflated, but not nearly as much as they could have been. (Mancora could definitely take some lessons from this place.)
Although there are no roads into Aguas Calientes from anywhere down the mountain, there is a road from there to Machu Picchu. Unless you are in amazing shape, or you just really enjoy strenuous workouts right before sightseeing, I suggest taking the shuttle bus ($20) as the trail up the hill is literally straight up, stair master style. If you take the first shuttle to be on the site at sunrise, you will have to line up at about 5 am in Aguas Calientes (it leaves at 5:30). There are vendors selling coffee near the line, so its not as bad as it sounds. You have to buy your tickets in advance though and I would suggest doing that the night before. Its also a good idea to arrange for some sort of food before you leave such as a bagged breakfast or lunch. There is a restaurant at Machu Picchu (outside the site), but it is predictably expensive and quite busy.
In fairly short order that first night we managed to buy tickets for the next morning, eat dinner, get our disgusting, sweaty clothes washed, order some packed lunches to take with us the next day, and find an internet cafe to print out copies of my husband’s passport that he had left in Cusco (turns out you need a copy to get into the site).
On the shuttle in the morning I managed to get a seat next to a Machu Picchu guide who happily pointed out various points along the trail where there are still stairs and walls and things built by the Incas six hundred years ago. (In fact, the whole trip towards Machu Picchu from Cusco you will often see random ruins left by the Incas. These people were absolutely amazingly skilled and prolific builders.) As we rode on the shuttle bus through all of the switchbacks to get up this very steep part of the mountain, we could see the sweaty and determined hikers popping out from the trees. I was glad that for a change I was not one of them.
We got to the site in short order and lined up Disneyland style to get in.
It was cloudy and beautiful, and if you could close your eyes and ignore the crowds it was breathtaking to imagine being on this mountain in the 15th century when it was busy and full of vacationing Inca families enjoying a holiday from Cusco.
I had been a lithe hesitant about the benefits of getting up so early with the kids to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, but the image of the clouds over the site will be with me to my dying day and I am so grateful that we decided to do that.
We made it inside and ditched our tour guide pretty quickly. He was friendly but we had read tons of books, seen documentaries and visited museums about Machu Picchu and he really wasn’t telling us anything we hadn’t already learned. Plus the kids were bored. You can walk all around the site on your own and if you are the independent traveler type I would recommend bringing a helpful guide book (with pictures and maps), getting there early, and exploring. The kids were over the moon excited climbing up the ancient steps on their own and locating the temples and landmarks from our book. In particular, our eight year old daughter was in her element. She carried a little notebook with her to keep track of the parts that she found most interesting. This is definitely a magical place to bring your kids!
For the next many hours we played with llamas, identified ancient temples, frolicked in ruins, climbed up overlooks and just generally had the best time of our entire South American trip. The terror of that heinous bus ride and the struggle of that six mile walk up the mountain melted away and we savored the joy of exploring and discovering a place that we had always wanted to visit.
We enjoyed every single moment of that entire day. If you have an opportunity to visit Machu Picchu – go. Bring your kids. We are proof that you don’t have to have a ton of money to make it there, and if you still are hesitating, just think of that humble grandpa of five from a little town in Mexico with nothing but his backpack and some cigarettes hiking up the Andes, determined to see this place. It is truly, absolutely that amazing.
If you are wondering if the next day we hiked back along those train tracks six miles to get back on the bus from hell, let me put your mind at ease. We enjoyed a quiet night in Aguas Calientes hanging out in the plaza playing with the kids. We ate some good food and drank a nice bottle of wine. Then we went to the train station, broke out the credit card that we absolutely try to never use and bought some tickets to Ollantaytambo. It was the cheapest train option, but it still cost us $400. That was painful, but we weren’t willing to put the kids (or us) at any further risk.
The train trip the next day was lovely (as it should be for that price). My kids were thrilled and my husband and I were relaxed. We drank our free coffee and looked out the window at all of the beautiful people and mountains, chatting with our fellow train travelers, and enjoying the rare moment where we weren’t on the budget bus.
We caught a few glimpses of adventurous types hiking the long and challenging Incan Trail. Because of my back problems, that particular journey won’t ever be an option for me and I had a brief moment of jealousy watching them hunched over as they made their way up the mountains.
We had also witnessed the day before a large group of hikers celebrating their long awaited arrival just outside the gates of Machu Picchu. There was even a kid about 8, and an older lady who must have been in her 70s and they were all dirty and sweaty and jubilant! I can only imagine how wonderful that must feel as I had felt pretty elated after our relatively piddly 6 mile hike!
We caught a comfortable collectivo bus in Ollantaytambo for a few dollars. It was a quick drive from there back to Cusco on an actual paved road that didn’t hang off the side of a mountain. There were no plank bridges or landslides. I highly recommend this route to and from Aguas Calientes if you can’t afford the fancy train from outside Cusco.
Machu Picchu will cost a bit, and even the cheaper options for budget travelers will put a serious dent in your bank account, but some things are worth paying for.
Just please take my advice and skip the cheap bus.