Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu: What the Guidebooks Don’t Tell You

We awoke before the alarm rang and hurriedly prepared our small daypack with food and clothes for the next couple of days. Our big packs would be left behind in Cusco for this adventure.

We were supposed to leave Cusco, Peru at 7 AM, to be followed by a six-hour bus ride to hydroelectrica. Our guide showed up around 7:30 AM then herded us up a few blocks where we stood for an hour as he attempted to arrange transportation from his cell phone. It was cold outside, and I was shivering.

A Six-hour Van Ride

When the van arrived, Trin and I grabbed the front row. We learned on our trip to the Santa Cruz Trek how brutal riding in the back seat could be.

The road was pretty good the first few hours and quite scenic. Then the pavement ended, and the road began to narrow and wind up the mountain. Just riding on these roads is an exercise in trying to stay in your seat.

Narrow road to the Machu Picchu hike
Vans squeezed by each other on the narrow road

The Hydroelectric Horde

When we arrived at the gate of Hydroelectrica around 3 PM in the pouring rain, everybody had to get off to sign a registry. After we all got back in the van, we drove a couple hundred meters to a mass of poncho-clad people wandering around. There were about thirty other tourist vans.

water over the road to the Machu Picchu Hike
In a few places, waterfalls rushed over the road. We drove thru this small river on our way to Hydroelectrica

Our driver honked his way through the crowd to find a place to park. After one shouting match with someone in the crowd and many bangs on the side of the van from strangers in the crowd, we finally stopped and opened the door to disembark. This was where the road ended. The rest of the way to Machu Picchu, we would walk.

Hydroelectrica the start of the Machu Picchu Hike
The parking lot at Hydroelectrica on our way home, thankfully it was not raining on the way back.

A man appeared at the door of our van and called out our names. His name was Willie.  He gave us directions on how to get to Aguas Calientes, the town near the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu rests, and told us to meet him there at the main plaza.

We put on our rain gear and pushed our way out of the crowd. All around us, guides were yelling the names of strangers they needed to gather for the return trip. It was wet; it was muddy; it was chaos.

Hydroelectrica is not a town, but the locals have set up food stalls and stores along the tracks. You can have a meal here, or buy snacks to eat on the trail.

Following the Tracks

Following the other hikers, we headed upriver along the train tracks. Soon we saw the muddy trail slide going up the mountain to our right. We climbed only about five minutes before reaching another railroad track that we would follow for the next three hours.

Waves of faster groups of hikers would pass us, sloshing and stumbling over the gravel railroad bed that was strewn with large rocks. One person fell, got up with a pained expression on his face and slugged on. At first, I tried to be polite, moving out of the way for others to pass, but after a while we just let them walk around us.  We passed other people as well, and we just had to walk around them.

Railroad bridge on the Machu Picchu Hike
Crossing a railroad bridge on the way to Aguas Calientes

It rained on and off during our hike. There were some spots that offered marvellous views of the mountains peeking through the mist. Once in a while, a train would pass by and everyone scampered out of the way.

Train Tunnel on the Machu Picchu Hike

There were two tunnel crossings which were short and not too bad. We thought they would be a temporary reprieve from the rain, but water dripped down from the tunnel ceiling. There is a parallel road that you could take if you want to avoid the tunnels. It begins just before the first tunnel.

I heard the slip, then a crash as yet another person fell in the gravel and mud.

Aguas Calientes in the Rain

The town of Aguas Calientes is now officially known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. The original name is a reference to the hot springs at the edge of the town.

Rock carvings in Aguas Caliente
Carving at the beginning of the town of Aguas Calientes

It was raining when we got to town. We made our way to the main plaza to find Willie. I sat on a bench that was barely under the eaves of one building and placed our pack under my rain poncho while Trin looked for Willie. The local man on the bench next to me pointed to the horde of people standing on the other side of the plaza and said that tourists should stand over there. I ignored him.

Rock Carving in Aguas Caliente
Carving in the rocks in Aguas Calientes

Eventually, we found Willie. We stood under the eaves as he got on his phone to talk to someone about our accommodations for the evening. He hung up and gave us the name of the hotel and the directions to get there. He also told us to meet him back at the plaza at 7:45 PM for dinner.

Hairless dog with Trin
A Peruvian hairless dog with his best friend standing next to Trin in the market at Aguas Calientes

I wondered why we could not have been told this information before leaving Cusco.  We could have avoided the wait in the plaza.  I’m guessing that the arrangements are fluid and they don’t know until we get there.

A Moldy Room

We went to the hotel and were shown to our room. There was mold on the wall and the bathroom smelled a little. The carpet was stained, but the bed had clean white sheets.

Eager to get out of our wet clothes and warm up, we took warm showers and put on some dry clothes.

Stone carving in Aguas Caliente
Stone carving in Aguas Calientes

At dinner, we met the other folks in our tour group, which was called Grupo Puma. There were several Argentinians and a couple of Peruvians. The meal was tasty. Beverages were not included and were about the price that we would normally pay for an entire dinner. We skipped the beverage.

After dinner, we walked around in the rain to see the town then turned in early as the next day would begin at 4 AM.

Early Rise for the Machu Picchu Hike

The next morning we were out the door by 4:20 AM, our day bag already packed with snacks and jackets. We headed out of town on a dirt road with no streetlights. There was no moon or stars, only a dripping sky. We walked down the dark road, our flashlights forgotten back in Cusco. Have I mentioned there were a lot of people? No flashlights needed. There was enough light from the flashlights of all the other people around us headed the same way.

the Machu Picchu Hike
Part of the path going up the mountain to Machu Picchu

After about a half an hour down the road, we saw a brightly lit gate. Behind it was a growing line of poncho-covered people. We got in line. Stray dogs wandering through the line suddenly broke out into a fight directly in front of us. People scattered. The fight was over quickly and the line reformed. The gates opened at five AM. Each of us passed through the checkpoint where they reviewed our tickets and passports.

Machu Picchu hike by 43BlueDoors
View on the trail to Machu Picchu

The Steep Ascent

The path from here to Machu Picchu heads straight up the mountain 390 meters (1,280 feet) ascending to an elevation of 2,430 meters (7,972 feet). Many of the steps were as high as my knee (though admittedly I do have very short legs). We made it to the top in just a little over an hour and found our guide, who waving a Puma flag, amongst the crowd that was steadily growing. Javier, our guide, instructed us to pass through the entrance to get our ticket stamped and then to wait for him while he gathered the rest of Grupo Puma.

People at the gate to Machu Picchu
Waiting at the gate to Machu Picchu for our guide,

We quickly started down a trail, attempting to keep up with Javier while maneuvering around other groups.

And then…

The Wonder Before us

As we turned the corner, my jaw dropped. The ancient city, as if appearing in a cloud, washed the negative thoughts of this trek and chilly rain out of my head. The sky was overcast and there was just a tiny patter of rain. I felt like this was the perfect atmosphere to enjoy this view.

Machu Picchu hike by 43BlueDoors

Massive stones were meticulously fit together, forming an ancient estate for an emperor. It was nestled on the peak of a mountain that reached straight up into the sky, catching the clouds as they rolled by.

Machu Picchu hike by 43BlueDoors

Since most visitors were with a guide, the crowds didn’t seem as bad once we were inside. Groups huddle into ancient homes or storehouses to listen to stories of history from their guides. This left many of the paths clear to wander.

Machu Picchu hike by 43BlueDoors

We leaned over one wall to see the Sun Temple below us. It was built to track the sun. When sunlight showed through a certain window each year the Incas would know to start planting, while other times would be for harvest.

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The Sun Gate

By 8:30 AM, Javier led us out to the entrance area and our tour was over. We were then free to wander around ourselves. After a quick snack, Trin and I hiked up to the sun gate to get a bird’s-eye view of this city, which was hidden for years. The Spanish Conquistadors never found the hidden city.

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The sun gate is located 340 meters (1,115 feet) higher than Machu Picchu and overlooks the ridge where the small city rests. At the top, we waited for the winds to blow away the clouds for a spectacular view of Machu Picchu. We were not disappointed.

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A view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

We slowly made our way back down from the sun gate, stopping at the ruins halfway down for more spectacular views, watching the view of the city the entire way.

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Trin standing in the Sun Gate

Exploring an Ancient City

Once we were back at the ancient city, we wandered around making sure we entered every building we could. I marveled at the architecture that lasted so many centuries and tried to imagine what it was like to live here. What would it be like to look out my window every morning to see this view?

Machu Picchu hike by 43BlueDoors
Looking out an ancient window

Machu Picchu is some 450 years old. The ancient walls are a marvel. Part of the reason this city has survived so long is the Inca’s understanding of the natural environment. Before they built the walls they already understood water supply and rainfall. Their architects designed a channel system from a local spring to supply water in the form of fountains to both the emperor and then to his staff. Some say up to 750 lived in this city at one time. These channels still function today.

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Drainage was also extremely important. They built the dwellings on a steep slope of almost 50% with an average rainfall of 30 inches a year. Rainfall may have been even greater during the time of the Incas due to a larger glacier nearby.

The Incas built the agricultural terraces for optimal drainage with layers of gravel underneath. These terraces not only provided a perfect place to plant and harvest but also helped to stop erosion, which then preserved the dwellings.

Machu Picchu hike by 43BlueDoors

Drainage under the living and storage areas were in place before the walls went up, helping to preserve the city.


Going back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes took us over an hour and a half. I’m still struggling with my knees even though my surgery in Panama was over eight months ago, especially on descents. I was thankful to have my knee brace. It really seems to help.

My knees were killing me by the time we reached the town, but I was still on a high from our experience at the top.

Filled with Beauty

The clouds descended, filling the valley with mist, watering the lush green mountains. The same rain that made me miserable before now gave me peace. I believe that nature was made for us to enjoy and fill us with its beauty. It makes my half-empty cup overflow with gratitude.

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We spent the evening and next morning wandering around Aguas Calientes. It is very much a touristy town, but also worth walking around. The only vehicles in town are the eco buses that shuttle the people back and forth to Machu Picchu. We highly recommend staying two nights in Aguas Calientes so that you don’t need to rush out of Machu Picchu and will also have time to explore this little town.

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Llamas walk around Machu Picchu freely

By mid-morning, we headed back down the railroad track to Hydroelectrica. Soon the rains came. Droves of poncho-clad people appeared again. I smiled as I splashed forward, content with the memory of Machu Picchu, a memory of a lifetime.

The other way to do Machu Picchu

So you don’t want to follow plastic-clad people down the railroad tracks or climb steep terrain? You can still visit Machu Picchu.

Train: There is a train to Aguas Calientes that will enable you to skip the van ride over adventurous roads and the slog down the tracks. It costs from $65 USD to $300 USD. A beautifully paved sidewalk will be ready to greet you and capture your first footfalls in Aguas Calientes.

Accommodations: Don’t want a moldy room? The SUMAQ is avail for $330 a night with all or maybe even more of the comforts of home. There is a wide range of lodging in between our $18 a night (almost twice what we normally pay) and the SUMAQ, so happy shopping.

Bus: Don’t want to trek up 1,500 feet to the top of the Machu Picchu mountain? No worries, a bus can take you to and from the summit. Ticket prices are currently $24 USD round trip for one foreign adult.

Park Entrance is currently $44 USD each

Machu Picchu hike by 43BlueDoors
No one avoids the crowds at the top

On the high-end, that’s over $1,000 for transportation, two nights, and park entry.  Food not yet included.

We spent $110 each

This included our van ride from Cusco, two nights’ stay in Aguas Calientes, meals for three days, and entrance into the park.

Machu Picchu Dinosaur
We do not know why this guy was dressed like a dinosaur at the top of Machu Picchu. He yelled at the others, who took a picture. He didn’t catch me.

You can do Machu Picchu in luxury, semi-luxury, or the backpacker style. The view at the top is the same for all. You choose your path. That is the beauty of freedom. I’m happy we chose the route we did. It somehow makes the summit that much sweeter for us.

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16 thoughts on “Machu Picchu: What the Guidebooks Don’t Tell You”

  1. Great read on a bucket list item for us. I have always thought that the hike, even with modern equipment, would help give a sense of what a worker would go through each time they needed to come or go from the city. I really loved the photos. Even without much sun, they are super.

    1. Thank you Michael. We are thinking of coming back during the dry season to do the four day trek in. The scenery in this area is amazing

  2. Wow! This was a fantastic read. The pictures were awesome! Interesting seeing how other people live and seeing the beauty of another country.

  3. This was such an amazing read! The gritty reality of traveling! My friend’s always been obsessed with Machu Picchu so this was super interesting for me, Love the narrative style you’ve taken here!

    1. Thanks! Feel free to contact me with any questions you have. Email, Facebook, Twitter any are fine with me

  4. Pingback: Kakadu or Kakadon't with 2WD - 43BlueDoors

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