After our first night in Cusco, we set off on the first leg of the multi-faceted journey to the famous ruins at Machu Picchu. This first leg took the form of a 6-hour minibus journey to a place called Hidroelectrica, little more than a car park and train station and named for the 90MW hydroelectric power plant there.
From Hidroelectrica we began the 11km walk along a set of train tracks, electing not to catch the train that runs along them due to its exorbitant cost. Your surprise that I was not willing to throw money at an 11km walk to make it go away should be tempered by the fact that it’s extremely flat.*
Alongside the other people that had booked with the same tour company as us, we tackled this stroll in under 2 ½ hours, enjoying the fine river and jungle views along the way, as well as successfully dodging the one train that crawled past us, horn a-blaring.
The walk (or train, if you’re a high roller) leads to a small, but lively settlement named Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), after the local hot springs. We didn’t expect much of anything to be here, but that assumption had failed to take into account the years of tourist money that has been pumping into the town just below Machu Picchu, and instead we found buzzing bars, packed restaurants and swanky hotels.
Opting for an expensive but well deserved beer on the main square with our companions, we then checked into our hostel and headed out for dinner, both of which came as part of our tour. Murmurings of a nightcap were quickly silenced by thoughts of our early start the next day, and the whole troupe bedded down.
3.45am was the wake up shake the next morning, in order to be either joining the queue for the buses that head up to the ruins, or starting the 1 hour ascent of the staircase in the same direction. Ben had decided to brave the walk, whist I spent a lavish $7 on getting the bus up, intending to walk back down.** Lots of people get in gear this early for two reasons; to see the sun rise over the ruins, and to avoid the crowds that envelope them after the mid-morning train arrives from Cusco.
Immediately after entrance to the site, we waved hasta luego to the bi-lingual guide that was included with our tour, because he wanted to take us down into the belly of the ruins first, instead of heading upwards to see the views over them whilst they were still largely empty. As the entire site is a one-way system, it would have involved heading around the entire thing once, before getting to the views that everyone is there for, such as these…
Heading immediately up to the viewpoints on arrival comes highly recommended, not only because you get beautiful shots of a low, rising sun over a nearly-empty site, but also because the resident llamas have yet to become bored of being pestered for selfies, and are as friendly as anything whilst enjoying their breakfast.
The ruins themselves were jaw-dropping. We’ve had many stops and sights on this trip so far that have been hyped up, that we’ve been excited for, but perhaps none as much so as Machu Picchu. Regularly listed among the wonders of the world, they really do have to be seen to be believed.***
Instead of waffling on about how amazing the ruins are, I thought I’d provide an idea of how we organised our trip here, in case this is being read by people heading through Peru in the near or distant future.
Firstly it’s pretty much essential to start in Cusco. Whether you’re splashing the cash on the train or looking for the bargain basement option, both will have to be sorted from Cusco, unless you have your own car. Booked the day before we left, we paid $85 (270 Peruvian Soles or PEN) for return transport to and from Hidroelectrica, a night in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, our entry ticket to the ruins, a bi-lingual guide at the site and three meals (lunch and dinner on the first day, and a packed breakfast for the second).
We were quoted prices as high as $120 for exactly the same elements, and to be honest, as all the transport and guides are fairly standardised, the only thing that paying more will improve will be the quality of your accommodation. As you’ll be departing it nearly three hours before dawn, however, paying more for a swankier hostel/hotel or more comfortable bed is a bit of a false enterprise.
Now, it is possible to get prices for only return transportation to and from Hidroelectrica, then organise your own meals, site entry, guide and food. However, the entrance to Machu Picchu is 150PEN, meaning you’d have to get that transport (two six-hour journeys), your accommodation in Aguas Calientes, those three meals and your guide at the top for around 110PEN. We didn’t just think this would be difficult, we didn’t think it would be possible at all.
Since we’ve been travelling together, Ben and I have rarely opted for the more expensive but more convenient option, instead relying on stubbornness, his Spanish-speaking talents and our relatively low standards**** in order to pay less. In this case however, the organised trip is absolutely worth it. Keep asking around travel agents in Cusco until you get an offer of $85 for a 2 day/1 night tour, because you won’t have to do it in the knowledge that you’ve been overcharged for convenience.
We headed all the way back to Cusco the same day, which did turn out to be pretty exhausting. We walked back down from the site to Aguas Calientes, back along the 11km of train tracks and suffered an uncomfortable minibus for the 6 hours back to our hostel. By that time I was thoroughly ready for bed.
We stayed a couple more nights in Cusco, mostly staying in the hostel but heading out on the last day to examine the handsome main square and stock up on Peru’s most famous export; alpaca wool jumpers.
From Cusco, it was time for yet another country – Bolivia. We took an overnight bus straight to the city of La Paz, which if it is considered the capital*****, is the highest capital city in the world, at roughly 3,650m above sea level. Walking up a flights of stairs at this altitude is tough, hangovers are devastating.
On one of our first nights in La Paz, we headed to the highest FIFA-recognised stadium in the world, Estadio Hernando Siles, to watch the most popular and successful club in the country, Bolivar, take on a Colombian side, Deportes Tolima, in the South American equivalent of the Europa League – Copa Sudamericana. With the help of extremely sweet coffee and the lively atmosphere, we survived the cold to cheer the home team on to an extremely un-barnstorming 1-0 win.
The next day we rolled out of bed early to head off on one of La Paz’s, if not South America’s most notorious tourist activities; mountain biking 40 miles down a road that the locals have nicknamed ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ or ‘The Death Road’.
After being bussed up to the start at roughly 4,700m, you initially descend quickly down a paved road through stunning valleys, before beginning the unpaved, unprotected stretch that gives this length of road its famous name. The tour stopped at various points to take photos on precarious ledges, negotiated rivers and waterfalls, and eventually deposited us all, unscathed, 3,500m lower.
We paid 410 Bolivianos (about $60) for our trip, including entrance to the national park. This is slightly more than its possible to pay, but we didn’t want to go with the cheapest option when safety was, for once, actually going to be quite important. In retrospect, having examined a lot of the other bikes on the road from other companies, there’s not really much difference, and saving some money wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference.
In terms of actual danger, it’s minimal, and it’s probably more dangerous to drive a car or bus down this road than it is to cycle. The only people who did themselves damage admitted to either becoming a bit too cocky, or popping wheelies. Danger of going over the edge is practically non-existent if you’re careful and concentrating.
There’s not a lot to report from our two days and nights in La Paz after our ‘Death Road’ adventure, mainly because they were spent drinking then recovering, having come here to reunite with some fantastic people that we met all the way back in Nicaragua. Two nights ago we all took an overnight bus to Sucre, the other contender for Bolivia’s capital. It’s been largely R&R and big group meals in the hostel kitchen so far, and having been working on this entry for a good few hours now, I’ll leave you with pictures of last night’s sunset and head into the cocina to see if there’s any help I can provide to the chefs of tonight’s curry.
*Read on to see an example of throwing money at a walk to make it go away.
**I know I’m lazy, but in my defence, Ben was more sweat than man when we re-convened at the top.
***Clichéd, apologies, but true.
****Hey, only in terms of accommodation and food. About many other things we are extremely discerning.
*****La Paz = seat of governement, Sucre = constitutional capital