Machu Piccu may be more accessibe than it was back in the days the Incas built it, but let me assure you it is still a difficult place to get to. Even if you have the time and/or funds to make advance reservations for the PeruRail tourist train that goes all the way to the gateway town of Aguas Caliente from Cusco, you still have to make your way to Cusco (assuming you fly into Lima like most of us) which is either an extra flight from Lima or a 24 hour bus drive winding through the mountains.
We did not take this train. We took the “budget back way” which has been around for awhile but has been made a bit more popular and convenient by a budget traveller’s best friend and worst enemy, Lonely Planet. In this case, the publicity Lonely Planet brought to this alternative back way seems to be a good thing. Now, instead of trying to find a bus that will take you all the way to a specific crossroads, and then finding a way to Santa maria, you can simply go to the bus station and allow a swarm of people commissioned by collectivo’s to collect passengers bombard you with their offers.
When we arrived at the bus station, I couldn’t even tell there was a bus station anywhere. No sooner had the taxi driver pulled over then we were completely surrounded by people with offers shouting “Santa Maria! Trente! Trente-sinco! Santa Maria!” I got out of the crowd as soon as possible, making it my husband’s job to get a good price from the shouting crowd. Moments later he accepted a 25 soles price from a short and determined woman and the crowd immediately dispersed while she led us to the big white passenger van we were to share with a dozen others.
Initially, the van wouldn’t start. A few strong-looking fellows out on the street gave us a push-start and from that moment on I don’t think the van was really turned off until we arrived in Santa Maria hours (and mountains) later. This may be an exaggeration, but the driver was certainly determined to keep us going at a good pace. The van was full but not necessarily uncomfortable. At least not until our stomachs began to churn this way and that from the constant weaving in and out along steep mountain passes. At last we were given a break a few hours in when the brakes began to smoke and we pulled over for the driver to let the brakes cool.
At last we arrived in Santa Maria just as the sun was beginning to set. Santa maria is, as far as I could tell, made up of a few buildings but little else. We were immediately confronted by a taxi driver who seemed to know better than we did what our next step should be. So we hopped into his little car and tore down a mountain pass to Santa Teresa. If I hadn’t already experienced a few hours of cliff-side driving that day, I think I may have been terrified by this drive. Our taxi driver was a young, confident man who was clearly used to and maybe even bored of the mountain pass. He honked his horn to warn of his arrival each time he tore around a cliff. The road was only really big enough for one and a half vehicles at a time after all, or two vehicles paying very close attention to where their tires are in relation to the cliff edge.
In Santa Teresa we collapsed in our beds with plans to wake by 7 a.m. to catch a taxi to the hydro-electric water-plant where we’d heard you can follow the train-tracks to the hiking entrance of Machu Pichu.
The next morning we got as far as the hydro-electric plant before a kind Spanish couple translated the train-station worker’s warning that you could NOT (as we had thought) buy tickets at the Machu Piccu entrance. You could only buy them either back in Cusco or at Aguas Caliente. Well, lucky for us a train was about to leave for Aguas Caliente: a cheap, half hour train ride not entirely intended for tourists, but accommodating all the same.
Unlucky for us, we showed up at the train depot just as it was pulling away.
Lucky for us, the train tracks ALSO lead to Aguas Caliente if you walk slightly past the point where we would have hiked up to Machu Piccu.
(Does this remind you of that kids book “that’s good! no that’s bad! ?)
So a walk along the train tracks was our option. The walk was actually quite beautiful showing beautiful tropical scenes of the green mountains and even a few glimpses of green parrots chattering above us. As we walked we picked out the legendary face that the Machu Piccu peaks seems to create. We twisted around it on our easy two hour walk, glancing up to meet the face in a new piece of sky as we wound around the mountains.
At last we reached Aguas Caliente at about 10:30 in the morning and from there, it was just a brief bus ride up to Machu Piccu.
Of course, Machu Piccu itself deserves a post of its own…as does the journey back to Cusco…