Often referred to as the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu is the most iconic image of the Inca Empire. Located in the Sacred Valley only 45 miles away from Cusco, there are several ways to get to and from Machu Picchu. Most people take the train because it’s the easiest option. There are also people who go with a tour company and embark on a multi-day hike through the valley to get there. Neither of these options really suited us and I was convinced we could come up with a better route. We had some major planning to do!
I was determined to make our journey both special and exciting, so we spent a lot of time over the course of many days in Cusco talking to travelers and agencies prior to making arrangements. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to visit such an incredible place!
The plan I concocted was multi-modal: we took taxis, a bus, several minivans, a tuk-tuk and a train. Plus we walked six miles and climbed 2,000 stairs made by the Incas. In order for everything to fall into place we needed good timing and a little bit of luck.
Our 4-Day Journey to Machu Picchu
On Wednesday morning we grabbed a taxi from our hostel to the bus station. We took a local minivan two hours into the Sacred Valley to a junction in the road. From there Harry bargained with a taxi driver to take us to see Moray and Salinas, two more archaeological sites in the valley.
It was a beautiful sunny day. Here you can see a red field of quinoa growing in the foothills of the Andes.
Moray: Farming Terraces
Our first stop was to see the amphitheater-like terracing of Moray. The Incas used the terraces for farming with each layer having its own micro-climate. Some say that this location was a laboratory for crops including potatoes. This successful experimentation is part of the reason there are more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes native to Peru. Note: I’m pretty sure this is the first, and only, selfie that Harry’s ever taken of us.
Salinas: Salt Factory
We approached Salinas from a high mountain road, driving down to the salt factory located at a mere 11,000 feet. Nestled into the mountains, the salt pans are fed by a hyper-saline hot spring and curated by locals. The end products are cattle licks and the ever-popular Peruvian pink salt. This was a spectacular place to visit! And I’m not just saying that because I love salt.
After we visited Moray and Salinas our taxi driver dropped us back onto the main road. We flagged down a local bus to Urubamba, where we switched into another minivan heading to Ollantaytambo (Ollanta). We arrived in Ollanta in the middle of the afternoon with enough sunlight left to hike up and explore the major ruins above the town. We experienced our first tuk-tuk ride in Ollanta and ate a delicious lunch in the square. We fell in love with this cute little place and were happy to spend the night.
In the morning we boarded another minivan for a five-hour ride through the mountains down to Hydroelectrica. The road was incredibly steep and windy, with hairpin turns about every 30 seconds. Within a half-hour many of us were feeling ill because the driver was crazy, taking the tight turns a million miles per hour as though he were racing Daytona. I took a Dramamine and prayed I wouldn’t get sick. Three other girls weren’t so lucky and one actually threw up four times (with her head hanging out the window). Although everyone was yelling at the driver to slow down he carried on like the lunatic he was. The final hour was off-road which added relentless bumps to go along with the curves. It was the worst five hours of my life and I swore to Harry I would never do it again. Luckily the scenery was phenomenal. But still.
Everyone was so happy to finally get out of that minivan! The best part of the day was about to begin and we couldn’t wait to get moving. Next up: hiking six miles to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We hiked with Cole, who was from California, and a young Peruvian couple. The trail followed along the train tracks, next to a river, in the humid rainforest. It was a fantastic day to hike!
We spent the night in Aguas Calientes and woke up at 4:00 AM. A half hour later we were walking in the dark of night along a gravel road. Using only the light of our headlamps to guide us, we could barely see three feet in front of us. Our senses were alive and we could hear the river, jungle insects and birds and the quiet steps of other people walking around us. The air was already warm and humid. We arrived at the bridge and stood in line with approximately 300 other walkers, waiting for the gate to open.
5:00 AM quickly arrived and we walked across the bridge, still in total darkness, excited to start walking up the Inca stairs to Machu Picchu.
Immediately we began walking up the old Incan staircase. Up and up we climbed the seemingly endless stairs.The steps were awkward because they weren’t a uniform height and depth so we really had to concentrate. Harry found energy and pushed on ahead of me. Soon the crowd thinned out and I found myself walking alone in the dark, again using my headlamp to guide my steps. I loved the peace and quiet and enjoyed the solitude.
2,000 steps (woohoo!) and 50 minutes later I arrived at the top, red-faced, sweaty and really happy! Harry finished 10 minutes before I did so he was already relaxing by the time we reconnected. He’s amazing, don’t you think?
While we waited for Machu Picchu to open at 6:00 AM we watched the big buses pull up loaded with lots of non-sweaty tourists. We were really happy that we’d made the effort to walk up to the top, even though my quads wouldn’t stop shaking.
Surrounded by fog, we entered the gates and walked up (more stairs!) to the Gatekeeper’s Hut. We could tell the sun was rising in the sky yet the pea soup was still too thick to see through. While we stood listening to our guide a magical thing happened! The fog began to dance around the mountains and we were able to peek at the view in front of us. It was truly a special moment.
We stayed at Machu Picchu all day. At times we walked around and at other times we just sat and enjoyed the magnificent scenery around us. I loved all the llamas that roamed around like they owned the place.
We left Machu Picchu knowing that we were saying good-bye to a very special place. We had a wonderfully perfect day and as we took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes we sat in silence, reflecting. And then I’m pretty sure I fell asleep.
Return Trip Back to Cusco
Remember that horrible five-hour bus ride down to Hydroelectrica that I vowed never to take again? True to my word, I made Harry throw away our return tickets via minivan (which he happily did) and we bought train tickets.
The next day we took the two hour train ride through the beautiful canyon back to Ollantaytambo, our favorite little town in Peru. Our legs were happy for the rest and it was fun to look out the windows and see where we had hiked two days prior.
Ollantaytambo Earth Day
We only had a few hours back in Ollan, just long enough to eat a delicious lunch and to enjoy the Earth Day celebration in the square. The local schools had a parade and all the kids were dressed up in clothing made from recycled materials. I just couldn’t get enough!
We caught one final minivan back to Cusco and three hours later we were back in our hostel. We had an incredible 4-day adventure and while it certainly was a lot of effort to coordinate, we were glad we did it our way. Gracias, Machu Picchu!