Selecting the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu as “Grand Finale” for my round-the-world trip worked perfectly. Reading books about the discovery of this site did put me in the right mood, as I was preparing the trip from the nearby city of Cusco. There are several ways for the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. The most famous one is the “Inca Trail” (or as the locals call it: “Gringo Trail”). But it seems that I have come here a couple of years too late: Peru has professionalized its tourism infrastructure and it is therefore not possible at all to hike this trail independently. Fares for organized hikes – including porters, cooks and already prepared tents on arrival – range from 300 to 700 US dollars for the four day hike (depending on the agency and the bargaining skills). More annoyingly, I would have needed to book this trek at least four to six weeks in advance.
Hiking under such prerequisites was not appealing to me at all. I might opt to go for a trek with porters and chefs when I’m retired – not being able to carry my own backpack, then. Even the slight variations of this trail – using mountain bikes or alternative routes – weren’t appealing at all to me. This solved a potential dilemma in choosing how to go to Machu Picchu, since there is also the option of taking a very scenic and famous railway to the “basecamp” town of Aguas Calientes.
Being a railway buff, I was more than happy to hop on the “Backpacker Train” (which is the official name of the service), leaving early in the morning from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. This route has five switchbacks (which are called “El Zig-Zag”). They enable the train to gain altitude shortly after leaving the train station in Cusco. Arriving on the hills surrounding the town, the train actually drives down the “Sacred Valley”.
However, there are not a lot of backpackers on the “Backpacker Train” and I found myself surrounded by tour groups and elderly people who complained that they could not travel sitting backwards. Each switchback they were playing musical chairs while moaning about how cumbersome this travel was.
Nevertheless, this great train ride was a fantastic experience and I did not regret having abandoned the thought of trekking to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, parts of the train services are off-limits to tourists and only available for Peruvians. Moreover, all tourist trains are ending in the town of Aguas Calientes, where the Peruvian government has a purpose-built, functional, ten year old modern train station building.
Actually, describing the location of the small town of Aguas Calientes could be misleading to some readers, since it is nested in a deep valley next to Machu Picchu, surrounded by high peaks of forest mountains – featuring a small mountain river that slices the settlement in two parts.
However, what sounds like a nice place to stay before or after visiting Machu Picchu is as ugly as one can imagine. It’s a chaotic mess of square concrete houses, that are mainly left in an unfinished building state since years. In fact, my hostel had a very nice building front and reception. When I went to the first floor, I realized that an entire wall of the building was missing – and I was able to have a panoramic view of the river banks. Being on the second floor, each time when I went out of my room to the “hall way”, I would find myself actually walking in broad daylight, since not only one side of the house – but also large parts of the roof – were missing. This is truly a typical view in “downtown” Aguas Calientes.
Nevertheless, I opted to stay two nights there, since the word was out in the backpacker community to catch the very first shuttle bus to Machu Picchu to avoid the crowds. This bus leaves at 5:30 in the morning, which implies an overnight stay in this ugly little town. What caught my suspicion, shortly after arrival, was the notice board in the hostel, which informs guests that breakfast is being served between 4:45 and 8:00 in the morning. Although I was pleased to learn that I could have breakfast before catching the very first bus, I did figure out that I probably wasn’t the only one having this stupid idea to leave ahead of the pack.
When I got up next day, at the earliest possible moment, the breakfast room was already full of people. I quickly slurped a coffee and skipped the bread. So I left at five to the bus station. While I was walking there, I passed two other hostels and saw – through their non-existing walls – the same scenes of very busy tourist crowds having breakfast, too. Arriving at the station, there were about thirty people queuing, with some locals selling coffee and snacks. I counted the people in front of and figured out that I would make it onto the bus. But there were a lot of bus company staff in uniforms hanging around as well. Soon, I realized that this is a regular scene every day here. Looking behind me, I saw the queue growing by the minute. As buses pulled into the parking space, I did estimate about two hundred people waiting in line. Some of them clearly being angry or put off, because they also thought that they would beat the crowd by doing the extra effort in getting up very early.
Nevertheless, having professionalized the tourism business, the Peruvians do a good job in managing to absorb such big tourist crowds. Because the “5:30 bus” is actually a series of buses, driving up to Machu Picchu in a convoy. Eight vehicles were needed to bring all tourists to the Inca site. You do the math (at 48 passengers per bus). Arriving at the ticket office on top of the mountain did require another short queuing. But at six o’clock, gates were opened and we were all let in. The historical site of Machu Picchu is big enough to hide well such a volume of people. To my surprise it didn’t feel crowded at all at that time – although I knew that I obviously wasn’t alone.
Visitor regulations, posted in various languages on information panels, on the admission ticket and leaflets, do forbid a number of things. On top of the usual one’s (no littering, no climbing of ruins, no smoking, etc.) – I did find the following rules a bit weird:
– no food allowed
– don’t use disposable containers or bottles
– no backpack more than 20 liters
– no walking sticks
There is actually no shop or kiosk beyond the entrance gate. Although I was carrying my water flask, I was a bit irritated by the fact, that an official entity would encourage dehydration – since most of the tourists these days are using disposable (aka “PET”) water bottles. However, it seems that no one really cares about these rules and I did spot many tourists drinking from their plastic bottles, eating – and some walking using sticks.
After a scenic day at Machu Picchu, I left Aguas Calientes for other Inca sites in the “Sacred Valley” near the towns of Ollantaytambo, Maras and Chinchero. Satisfied, but a bit saturated from all the historic sites, I returned to Cusco.
From there, I will catch a bus to Lima and fly back home to Switzerland. Yes, the round-the-world trip is over. Although I would have preferred to stay a while longer on the road, I got used to the idea of returning home. And I don’t expect a big culture shock upon arriving back in Switzerland.
However, I might need a vacation to recover from my round-the-world trip. Trekking through Ethiopia and Kenya is on the list of things to do in a few weeks time. But before that, I’ll be brushing up my Russian skills in Moscow. Sounds confusing? You then better stay tuned to this blog…