Machu Picchu Without A Guide

Exhausted and drenched in sweat, I looked up the steep stairs and reluctantly accepted that this was the end. My backpack felt like it was made of lead, my legs of dead wood. I remembered the chicken I had had for lunch yesterday. I should have stuck with rice and vegetables.’ I thought to myself. I was angry with myself and that anger made me get back up on my feet. Tentatively, I took another dozen steps or so, before my legs gave way under me again. I crumpled down onto my knees, and thought; ‘Fuck! This isn’t fair’.

‘These guys are going to trek to Machu Picchu on their own!’ Said Nick, the Dutch lad I had been travelling with for two weeks now. ‘We should join them!’ He beamed excitedly. ‘When are you guys going?’ I asked the bearded, guitar-toting Spaniard to whom Nick had been talking.
‘Probably the day after tomorrow!’ He responded.
‘Okay. Yeah, why not. Let’s do it.’ I said. And as simple as that, we had found a way around doing an organised tour to that most famous of Incan cities.

Insider Tip: Missed out on booking your Inca Trail Tour? No need to panic. The Salkantay trek (5-days) and the Inca Jungle Trek (4-days) are two of the most popular alternative treks on offer. For the adventurous amongst you, both trails can be done independently. Our trek mirrored the Jungle Trek.

Two days later, we left Cusco early in the morning and caught a collectivo (a mini-van which fits 9-12 people) to Pisaq. Pisaq is famous for the Inca ruins located on top of a mountain nearby. You can either hike up or hop on one of the many taxis which frequent the route between the town and the ruins. The ruins themselves were interesting enough, but there were so many tourists around that if an alien race were watching us just then, they would mistake all the commotion for a human seasonal migration. From Pisaq, we caught a local bus to Urubamba and then a collectivo to Ollantaytambo. The road into Ollantaytambo was shut. Unperturbed, we shrugged our shoulders and stood waiting on the outskirts of town for the bus that would take us to our last destination of the day; Santa Maria. The bus was packed to the brim, and we had no choice but to squatter down on the bus aisle. Some guy’s shoes were touching my back. I detected a peculiar, sour odour down there; chicken soup? Old vomit? It was too dark and I was too tired to contemplate the smell for too long. But then I felt the sour odour becoming unbearable and I knew something wasn’t right. I had done this before; I had spent many hours down on the bus aisles putting up with various odours. Something just wasn’t right. And then it hit me; I was going to be sick. Another hairpin turn in the road, and I knew for certain that the chicken I had had for lunch would soon make a glorious reappearance.

I threw up on the bus. In Santa Maria, I had a plate of plain rice for dinner, and went straight to bed, feeling miserable and sorry for myself.

Machu Picchu 2
Me looking over the deep valleys on the way to Santa Teresa, Peru

We were told it was a 7-8 hours hike following an ancient Inca route From Santa Maria to Santa Teresa, where we intended to spend the night. But the locals had different ideas; a misinformed truck driver made us turn around and go back the way we had come only for us to find out later he had no idea what he was talking about, and an old lady warned us it was impossible to walk all the way to Santa Teresa. Amidst all these contradictory information, a kind shop owner decided to take matters into her own hands and led us to a narrow dirt track and told us to follow it all the way to where we wanted to go.

Insider tip: Download an offline mapping app (e.g MapsMe) and use it when in doubt. Listen to the local’s advice, but take it with a grain of salt as many would prefer to give you some information than to admit to their lack of knowledge.

Exhausted and drenched in sweat, I bent down, looked up the steep stairs and reluctantly accepted that this was the end. We had followed a well-used dirt road for two hours after leaving town before turning onto some stone stairs which led off the road and eventually became the Inca route. It was a hot, sunny day and although I hadn’t thrown up since the night before, I felt my stamina ebb away and my knees shudder under the weight of my very own expectations as the day progressed. The stairs were uneven and steep. I watched the others race ahead as I willed myself on. But eventually, I ran out of gas and collapsed.

‘You Okay man?’ Asked Mikel. He and Alex had returned to check on me, alarmed by my slow progress. ‘No. I feel like shit. I still have the shits’. I stammered as I tried to get back up. ‘Come on! There is a house just up there where you can rest. I’ll carry your backpack’. He said, helping me back onto my feet.

What makes travelling special? It is the people you meet that makes a place memorable, or is a place special regardless of what you do or who you meet? I have always found it difficult to answer that question. But what I do know is that my trek to Machu Picchu would have come to an end had it not been for my team that day. Alex carried my pack for the rest of that day, Danni, the British girl, assured me that we would stick together no matter what. And Nick performed some sort of pressure points therapy on my broken body. And all those gestures of camaraderie helped me as much with my physical state as with my morale. We trudged on for the rest of the day. We passed through the realm of the mortals and their farms and adobe huts. And we crossed the realm of Inca Gods, condors and high mountain passes. Late in the afternoon, we arrived at some steaming thermal pools surrounded by great hills of the most vivid green. It provided the perfect ending to a challenging, yet rewarding day.

Machu Picchu 3
Walking along the tracks on the way to Aguas Calientes, Peru

We spent the night in Santa Teresa. A beat-up taxi took us to the small settlement of Hydroelectricas the next morning, from where we planned to walk 7 kilometres along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Without a guide to set a timeline for us, we were free to explore. We spotted a natural pool, walled-in by enormous slabs of smooth stones and hidden from view by dense vegetation. We climbed down to the pool. The sky was a shimmering blue, the sun a magnificent gold. As we sat there in awe, I heard a group of hikers walking past on the path above, following hastily in the steps of their guide. They did not stop, missing or ignoring the pool completely. And I wondered how many times had I missed out on a stunning spot because I had been too busy keeping my eyes on a set goal.

Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) is a remarkable town. Located at the bottom of a deep valley, it is dwarfed by the mountains standing beside it. Initially founded by a few farming families in 1901, it exploded into prominence following the construction of the railway system that to this date brings many of the wealthier tourists into town. Yet, despite the noisy trains and the hustle and bustle of the town, I found it charming. It reminded me of the movie Jurassic Park. As if it too, would sooner or later encounter the fate that had befallen that imaginary amusement park, or the ancient town of Machu Picchu itself.

Insider Tip: Purchase the Machu Picchu tickets from Aguas Calientes instead of Cusco to save yourself some cash. The ‘Machu Picchu’ and ‘Machu Picchu+Machu Picchu Mountain combo’ tickets cost 128 and 142 soles each respectively. The Mountain addition allows you to climb for an hour starting from Machu Picchu to an altitude of 3,082 meters (10,111 feet).

Climb a stair. Climb another. Breathe, breathe deeper. Remember; pain is temporary! I could hear the other climber’s murmurs, their heavy breathing, but could not see them in the humid darkness. To reach the gates of Machu Picchu, one must walk 3 kilometres from Aguas Calientes to a small office, where Peruvian officials check one’s tickets. Then come more than 1700 steep steps up to the main gates. We had left at 5 a.m. hoping to catch the sunrise at the top of the mountain. But our hopes were shattered when we reached the top; it was as if the entire world was submerged in an ocean of clouds and mist, with not even the mountain peaks managing to break through the surface. We wondered if we would get a clear glimpse of the abandoned city at all. We nothing else to do; we poured ourselves shots of rum, and followed it up by our bottle of wine and settled in on the benches outside the main gate, awaiting a change in weather.

Machu Picchu 1
Waiting for the rain to stop. Outside the main gates of Machu Picchu

By mid-morning, the rain had stopped and we decided to venture in. I cannot tell if it was because of the mist or immensity of the occasion, but I felt like I was stepping into the garden of Eden. Founded some 600 years ago, it is believed that the construction of Machu Picchu was interrupted and the city subsequently abandoned, as news of the Spanish Conquistadors invasion spread through the Inca empire. Today, no one knows exactly what role the city played in that ancient culture; a royal residence, religious site of sacrifice and devotion, or perhaps the ancient equivalent of a lab for agricultural experiments? Its mysteries were forever buried as the citadel’s native inhabitants disappeared into the surrounding valleys, entrusting one of their most dazzling architectural achievements into the forgetful hands of history.

This distinct lack of solid facts only added to the site’s enigma and allure as we sat on a narrow ridge near the Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) and watched the ancient wonder emerge out of the mist and dissipate back into them moments later.

Machu Picchu 4
The ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, and the attention-seeking llamas

And yet, what gave meaning to that moment was not only the ruins, but the people I was with. In a sense, they were as much the reason behind me being there as Machu Picchu itself. Perhaps I could never answer the traveller’s dilemma. But as the mist caressed my face, I knew none would truly be the same without the other.

Insider Tip: How much did it all cost?

Day 1
Cusco to Pisaq by collectivo:                                     3 soles per person
Pisaq to Inca Ruins by taxi:                                       12 soles per person return trip
Pisaq to Urubamba by bus:                                       4 soles per person
Urubamba to Ollantaytambo by collective:         20 soles per person
Ollantaytambo to Santa Maria by bus:                 20 soles per person
JK Hostel in Santa Maria:                                         20 soles per night, twin share

Day 2
Zip-line across river on the way to thermals:    10 soles
Thermals pools entry fee:                                         5 soles per person
Thermals to Santa Teresa by collective:               3 soles per person
Hotel in Santa Teresa:                                                41 soles per person, twin share

Santa Teresa to Hydroelectrica by taxi:               5 soles per person
Macchu picchu plus Montana ticket:                    142 soles per person
Hostel Casa Machu Picchu:                                      31 soles per person, dorm-room bed

Day 4
Tour guide at Machu Picchu:                                   15 soles per person

Day 5
Walk back from Aguas Calientes to Hydroelectrica
Hydroelectrica to Santa Maria by collectivo:     15 soles per person
Santa Maria to Cusco by collective:                       18 soles per person

So, we did the entire thing by ourselves at a cost of 285 ($85USD) Peruvian Soles. If you add in the cost of the food and other little extras, it would still be far cheaper than the $200 USD you’d normally cough up at an agency. 

Have you been to Machu Picchu? What did you think of it?

Please let me know in the comment section 🙂

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