Machu Picchu is one of those tourist attractions that everyone, including their mother’s cousins’ long distance uncle, has heard of and is on their bucket list. It screams tourist trap. I’m not one for tourist traps, but there’s just something that draws even I to such a place. Millions of people can’t be wrong, right?
If there are thousands of lemmings jumping off the cliff, there’s got to something wrong with the one lemming that didn’t follow right? Probably against my better judgment, I decided why the hell not? I’ll be a lemming for a day!
I arrived in Cusco by bus from Arequipa. A couple of friends suggested I stay at the Wild Rover hostel. Now if the name has any indication as to what kind of hostel this was, it does, it’s a wild party hostel. I don’t know what it is, but my friends tend to always point to me to party places.
Danger, danger Will Roger we’re in Wild Rover
The Wild Rover is no exception and holds the reputation as the craziest party hostel in South America – this is further exacerbated by the fact that it’s their 25th anniversary. I went to my room where another guy was staying, and he warned me, that I would not be sleeping tonight.
This place is going to blow up, he said. He booked another hostel to escape the Wild Rover party and get some sleep. Well, sure enough after that night. A wild party is all that I can remember. Short flashes of memories of people dressed in togas or not dressed at all would sometimes flood my aching head, and I’ve got a migraine to go with it.
I remember little, but I remember twerking to a Miley Cyrus song on top of the bar with a bunch of other drunk people. Luckily I wasn’t twerking alone, or it would’ve been a much more embarrassing memory than it already was. There was only one good thing that occurred that night; I was able to secure an Inca Jungle Trek tour for the next day.
There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu. You can take one of the popular tours or hike solo to Aguas Calientes. I was going to skip the fancy tours and get there via bus and train and scribble it off the list. After mulling it over I decided it was best to take a tour, it would have cost almost the same as doing one of the popular tours (the train fare was something like $75 or more one way).
There are three types of tours to Machu Picchu. There’s the Inca Trek, Salkantay Trek, and the Jungle Trek. From research, the Inca trek is the most popular one and requires planning for permits and such. It’s also the most expensive and just seemed like it would be crawling with tourists, so I wasn’t an option for me.
The Salkantay trek caught my attention as it would take me to some of the coolest views high in the Andes. I was there during the rainy season, and most travelers have advised me it would be a very wet experience.
That only leaves the Jungle Trek. I’ve spoken to a lot of travelers who raved about this tour. It combines some exciting micro “adventures” into the standard hiking Inca Trek. It starts you off on a mountain bike downhill on a high elevation pass, white water rafting, hiking on the part of the Inca Trail, option to go zip-lining, and then hiking up to Machu Picchu via Agua Calientes. All that for around $250 and includes accommodation and meals.
Abra Malaga Pass to Santa Maria
The tour begins at 6:30 am in the morning, so I woke up at around 5:30 am giving me enough time to run to the closest ATM and get as much cash as I can. You would be wise to do the same thing because the smaller villages you’ll visit on this tour won’t have many ATMs.
I sorted out all my stuff to carry only the most minimal things and leave everything else for the $2 a day storage at the hostel. Travel Light, that’s a good motto to live by, shed the extra weight you don’t need. If you’re doing the Inca Jungle Trek, carry only two days change of clothes, a rain poncho (a must), headlamp, some toilettes, insect repellent, minimal camera gear, and a bottle to carry water.
It’s very wet and slippery out there, so I recommend (if you’re doing this trek) that you get a pair of quality hiking boots with excellent traction. You will be active in high up there, so I recommend you chew on coca leaves, they’re common in the villages, and you can even have them as tea. Don’t worry they’re legal and safe. It’s only dangerous if you turn them into the white powder and snort it.
Our tour guide, Leo, showed up at the hostel right on the clock. A hostel mate, Daniel who’s also doing the tour, and I followed Leo to meet with the rest of the group at the offices of the tour operators. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the location.
Some tour operators advertise they can pick you up from your hotel/hostel, but ours had legal reasons why they couldn’t pick us up from Wild Rover. Our group comprised of 2 recent college graduates (Remco and Nouredyn), an Irish couple (Dave and S), Daniel, and I.
The Inca Jungle trek begins with a 3-4 hour drive to the peak of the spectacular Abra Malaga Pass (4,316m). The drive leads north outside of Cusco (3,400m) and goes through the town of Chinchero just before descending into the Sacred Valley where we got our initial view of the very impressive Cordillera Urubamba.
The plan was to traverse the Urabamba River into the town of the same name and then proceed to Ollantaytambo (2,792m). We did a quick pit stop for breakfast and bought snacks and drinks before continuing driving upwards a spectacular and winding road all the way to the top of the Abra Malaga Pass making this is the ultimate point on the trek (4,316m), and it offers incredible vistas down into the highlands.
We disembarked at the top of the Pass and geared up for one of the greatest exciting bicycle rides of my life. You descend from Malaga Pass going downhill – 4,316m to 1,196m descent for almost 60 kilometers. The road is going downhill most of the time but strenuous. It was cold with freezing winds and a street full of potholes with maniacal drivers.
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There was a section midway down trek where you go through a rainforest, and it was raining. Our rental bikes sucked too. One group member’s bike fell apart on her midway through the ride. It could have been fatal if it failed near one of the deep ravines.
Make sure your tour provider provide high visibility vests, dependable mountain bikes and safety gear like a full face helmet and body armor. There is a backup vehicle in front of you in case you get tired and wish to quit. Even with all that insanity, nobody got hurt or injured. Everyone made it to Santa Maria (1,196m) where lunch was waiting.
There’s an optional activity of white water rafting and not part of the package ($50). I figured, why not live it up! I don’t know if I’m ever going to get back to this place again. It turned out to be an outrageous decision and a decision I regret to this day (read why below).
Damn the mosquitoes
I was wearing convertible hiking pants, and I took the lower half off because it was getting hot. As soon as I did that the sand flies came out in full force! These gnats are gnarly and nasty! I had a severe allergic reaction that would haunt me for weeks on my whole South America trip! Just look at my legs after they’re done below.
After the bicycle ride and white water rafting, we winded our way to Santa Maria where we had dinner with our crew at a restaurant picked by the tour company. There happened to be a local festival in town, and some of us decided to partake in the lively libations, ignoring the rigors of the next day. If you’re doing this tour, you can stick around or just lay low and rest up for the next day – recommended. You’ll have a chance to do laundry here; you can hang your clothes out overnight and hope it doesn’t rain.
Santa Maria to Santa Theresa
After getting battered near to death by a swarm of sand flies, I woke up refreshed the next day. No hangover. Thank god. Our tour guide arranged breakfast at some restaurant that served mediocre coffee. About that. Didn’t coffee, originate in Peru? It’s so abundant in the countryside. It practically grows like weeds on their backyards but yet here they are using nasty Instant Coffee! Why is it that coffee sucks in South America?
But enough about the crappy coffee, the adventure continues.
After breakfast, we begin on a steep and strenuous hike up a dense sub-tropical rainforest. It’s warm, it’s wet, and it’s green. I had my poncho on the whole time, but due to it being warm and humid, I ended up swimming in my sweat. Our tour guide, Leo was very knowledgeable about the flora. Soon I’m able to spot the Coca plant amongst weeds and thickets of greens. Mangos were also in season. We’d come by a tree full of ripe fruits, and either Daniel climbs on one to get the fruits, or we throw rocks at it.
We ended up in a village or a hut high on the ridgeline for a little break. I think it’s a hostel/snack bar and the owner had some exotic pets. There was a spider monkey of sorts and a big giant rodent you couldn’t help but pet it. There are also various traditional Inca costumes you can play with.
They also had Peruvian vodka (or so its called) that was stored in a bottle with a snake and some herbs marinating in the fluid. There served homemade cocoa and maracuja juice which was heavenly. They also had homemade coffee, and for once it was amazing! It was a welcome departure from all the nasty instant coffee they served in these parts.
We trudge on past the hut after our break. We wound up and down over precipitous cliffs with stunning views of a valley shrouded in clouds. There are more spots here to pad your Instagram account than you can swing your selfie stick at! Our guide Pedro had us take a little break in a hut above the valley where he gave us some narratives about the time of the Incas, revealing secrets of the ancient culture.
If you’re doing this trek, keep an eye out for local fruits which you can pick and eat along the way. Up here the temperature is much colder, and you’ll have to deal with it while descending into Quellomayo where your group will stop for lunch and have time to relax in hammocks. After lunch, the trek will continue along the surging Urubamba river, where you will be crossing it in a cart and pulley (safe but thrilling!).
Our day of trekking (around 16km) concluded with a visit to the immaculate Santa Theresa hot springs. Here you can sink into the warm water and let the aches of the trail melt away. Dinner and a comfortable hostel in Santa Theresa complete the day.
Towards the end of this trek, there’s zip lined bridge where you cross from one side to the other. When I did this crossing, there was a kid on the other team who couldn’t be more than 12 years old, selling beer and other refreshments. The bridge was $2 bucks. There’s always something that you must pay for the tour does not cover that so bring a lot of cash! Whatever you paid for the trip, be prepared to double it while on tour.
On the trail you will see coca plants, coffee, and various fruit tree plantations – everything grows in the Jungle! You’ll have a little lunch break in a pension and proceed for another 6-7 hour trekking towards Cocalmayo, an area known for its hot springs. Most trekkers stop here for a dip, bring your bathing suit! From the hot springs, the walk to the hostel at Santa Theresa (1,550m) is only 30 minutes.
Santa Theresa to Hydroelectric Station to Aguas Calientes
This day has another optional activity; zip-lining which will run you another $40. Some tours include this activity but double check; I had to pay an extra $40. I’ve never ziplined before, so I thought it was worth it. If you decide on this option (which I highly recommend), you can pretend to be Superman as you’re zipping across at manageable speeds or you can spin around like drunken money barreling down the line hoping not to land the wrong way.
You get about five zips/hops above rivers and jungles and from online to the next and the tops off by traversing a shoddy rope bridge with your group. I thought this was the highlight of the activity; the trick is to be the first one so you can shake the bridge at the other end while your mates are screaming hail to all Mary from the fear of falling off to their deaths. I’m not saying I did it or suggesting you should either, I’m just saying it would be “funny.”
After zip-lining, you can trek all the way to the Hydro-Electric station or cheat like we did and paid the van drivers $5 to take us to the Hydro-Electric Station. It’s not an exciting trail anyways. We were walking on a dirt road getting passed and dusted by cars while dodging cow poop or whatever poops are on the way.
We had a lunch break at the Hydro-Electric upon arrival. There are various restaurants in the area, but our tour outfit has already prepaid our lunch at one of the restaurants. After lunch, we continued up a steep path that led past the train tracks and into a Jungle with some ancient Inca Ruins.
We continued this traverse towards a river for a mile before reaching a metal bridge. We were greeted by some locals selling refreshments on the other side which was a bit strange. Random peddlers in the middle of nowhere rainforest selling cold Coke and Pepsi? Okay!
(Day 4) – Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu back to Cusco
The day started early at 4 am at our hostel in Aguas Calientes, and you began our trek with a trickle of rain. I am still reeling from the sand fly attacks and the cold I got during my Torres Del Paine trek. My adventure mates Daniel, Remco, Nouredyn, Dave & Fay look all fresh and ready to tackle the trail. We stood by at the gates under the pouring rain with a bunch of other people waiting for it to open. After about an hour it opened, and we started our way to the final leg of the tour, Machu Picchu.
Hint: You don’t have hike up to the top. You can take the bus to Machu Picchu by paying the exuberant fees. But, it’s the journey, not the destination!
Once the gates opened trekkers like us flood the trail, excited about what lays ahead. It’s only about 9 kilometers to the top of the ruins, but it meanders through stairs with very little flat hiking in between. So imagine 7 kilometers of climbing up stairs, that’s what this part of the trek is all about. It’s about an hour ascent to the top, and it’s physically demanding, at least for me.
The steps go through a dense jungle so you can’t see much of anything until you get closer to the top. If you’re going to do this hike, it can get cold, so I suggest you bring layers of clothing. Carry a liter of water, snacks, insect repellent, and hiking poles if you have any (your knees will thank you!). You don’t have to pay any fees for the trek, but you will need to pay to enter the Machu Picchu.
Once you reach the top, you will be rewarded with amazing views of one of the most amazing ruins in human history. You might have to fight through swarms of crowds or sandflies, but it’s well worth it. You have the option here to climb Huayna Picchu for a small fee. My mate Daniel climbed it, but he told me later that he couldn’t even see the Machu Picchu ruins because of the dense fog. The climb is steep and strenuous and will take the average trekker about another hour to reach the summit. Know that there are only 400 climbing permits allowed a day, so it’s smart to book it in advance.
At Machu Picchu, we said our goodbyes and part ways with our tour guide Pedro, who was an excellent guide. After taking a bunch of touristy photos of Machu Picchu, we walked back down to Aguas Calientes and waited for a train back to Ollantaytambo and from there called it a day and took the bus back to Cusco.
MACHU PICCHU HIKE DO IT YOURSELF
When to do it?
There are two seasons in the sub-tropical Peruvian Andes. There’s the dry season that runs from May through to September and a wet season that runs from October to April. I was unfortunate enough to have done in December, and it was wet! It will be busier during the dry season, but it’s going the best time to do this trek. Temperatures are consistent all year round, with warmer days reaching into the high 20s (Celsius).
The nights and mornings get cold, high in the mountains. Bring plenty of layers made for trekking so you can accommodate the fluctuations in temperature. Rain is always a possibility all year round and all day long, so you need to bring a basic poncho.
While we’re talking about layers, bring only what you need. The trek is riddled with difficult and strenuous sections with massive descents and ascents in elevation. Besides that, there are sections of the tour where you can send part of your gear to the next destination but you to leave the unnecessary heavy stuff back in Cusco to be retrieved after the tour. I left most of my equipment at the hostel which I paid a $2 a day storage fee.
What do you need to bring?
I went lightweight for this trek. Aside from my camera gear I only brought two days’ worth of clothing (there’s laundry at the hostels), some toiletries, a microfiber towel, a water-proof poncho, and a water bottle. That’s it. You can read all about the other guides on what to bring, but I think it’s overkill.
I will write this here in caps lock so you will take it seriously: BRING INSECT REPELLENT!
This is the single most important item you’ll need on this trek. Just read about why on my second day of this tour.
Where to buy the Tour?
Several operators are offering the tour all over Cusco. I didn’t do any shopping; I went with the tour company that had kiosk inside Wild Rover. There are better ones if you shop around and haggle around Cusco. It’s not regulated, so use your best judgment when booking the tour. Some will cut corners, and a faulty cheap bike in Abra Malaga pass is a disaster waiting to happen!
If you want a trusted tour operator, go with GAdentures!
Prices for the Inca Jungle trek can range from the U.S. $250 with the cheapest operators to the U.S. $700 from the best operators. Again do your shopping. Make sure the tour includes transport throughout the trek, hostels on the trek and hostel accommodation in Aguas Calientes, conventional cycling equipment, the Machu Picchu entrance ticket and a train ticket back to Cusco. The prices rarely include additional activities like river rafting, zip-lining, and climbing Huayna Picchu.
You can trek from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu all season. During the wet season (November – April) there is a higher chance of heavy rainfall and the trails can become slippery and more difficult to traverse. The region has sub-tropical weather throughout the year with average daily temperatures of 18 °C (64 °F). The dry season has humidity around 40 – 45%, going up to 60 – 65% during the wet season. Morning trekking offers cooler temperatures and better shade from the sun.