South America Travel Tips

Cusco & Machu Picchu: my incredible 5-day DIY Inca adventure

Featuring: a 28km walk on the railway tracks… a dog bite… a crazy hike… beautiful Machu Picchu… and a taxi driver with a “Francesco” (Totti) tattoo.

My Machu Picchu adventure was just MAD!

Day 1: Cusco

I mean, it was a little longer than 1 day, but for writing purposes I will limit this to 24hrs 🙂 The main goal of staying in Cusco was to get used to the altitude (3400m up here, and would you believe Machu Picchu is lower than that?), get to visit the town a little, get some work done and get ready for my Sacred Valley adventure.

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th until the 16th century, when Spanish invaders arrived, destroyed, conquered and defeated the Incas. Nowadays, the city is possibly the most visited and most touristy place in Peru, which also serves as a base for the Machu Picchu tour.

Cusco is actually a nice city, pity about pollution, dirt and noise – but I guess these problems are pretty normal for a big town. If you ignore the people trying to sell you massages and private tours at every corner of the streets, it’s a lively and interesting place to visit.

Day 2: Cusco > Maras > Ollantaytambo

After another light sleep in my poor AirBnB, I woke up at 6am on Friday and got ready for my DIY tour. I had nothing booked in advance but the ticket entrance to Ma­chu Picchu on Sunday (ticket costs 200 soles & is not refundable).

My first planned stop was Maras, 60km from Cusco, at 3ooom of altitude. The we­ather wasn’t great, but I didn’t mind the rain – I’m used to it.

I got off the bus on the main road as this is where the bus to Ollantaytambo/Urubamba leaves you. The main reasons to be in Maras were 2: visit the salt pools, ingeniously built by the Incas to produce salt, and the Moray amphitheater, a pre-Inca agricultural structure that apparently is amazing – I say apparently because I didn’t actually make it to Moray at the end.

In fact, I decided to walk 8km throughout the countryside to reach the Maras salineras instead of getting a boring taxi. Landscapes were beautiful and I don’t re­gret this at all – however this left me with no time for Moray as I wanted to get to Ollantaytambo in the early afternoon.

After the beautiful downhill walk, I got to the salt pools entrance (10 soles, not included in the “boleto turistico” I previously purchased in Cusco). Despite the rain, these Inca salineras were spectacular.

A little man-made water ca­nal runs on top of the hill – it contains salt at 4% concentra­tion. From the little canal, smaller canals bring water to some pools underneath, while other smaller canals are blocked to allow the pools to dry and crystallize.

Salt was widely used by the Incas for preserving bodies, part of their incredible mummification process. Pods are still in use today and despite it’s a bit touristy with shops and all, this location is worth a visit.

As I had no intention whatsoever to hike back 8k uphill (I was running out of time as well), I waited half hour until I could share a taxi with some other tourists. I headed back to the main Cusco-Ollantaytambo road and got a minibus to Urubamba (2 soles), and then another to get to Ollantaytambo (4.5 soles).

Once arrived at my final destination of the day, I found a hostel (20 soles) and left immediately to go visiting the Inca ruins (included in the “boleto turistico” this time) – a very well preserved military, religious and agricultural fortress built on the side of a mountain. Ollantaytambo was also one of the few places that was able to defeat a Spanish expedition – still, the whole Inca empire was then conquered and so was this place.

Now, “Ollantay” (as they call it here, as the full name is evidently too difficult to pronounce) is a tourist attraction and is difficult to avoid the hundreds of street vendors, taxis, buses, restau­rants, shops and hotels. But whatever… this Inca citadel is just fant­astic, and while slaloming between tourists you really get to appreciate its great history.

I went back to the hostel to get a warm shower, then went out for coffee & cake and a bit of writing. I had dinner as well and went to bed early. In the morning, a last-minute challenge was waiting for me…

Day 3: Ollantaytambo > Aguas Calientes… by foot!

Spoiler alert.

Wow, as I’m writing this I feel quite exhausted. I just walked 28km. And I didn’t even planned it...

In fact, why getting a 4hrs bus plus walk 2hrs (or a 1hr expensive train) when you can walk the whole 28km to the base of Machu Picchu along the railway tra­cks in just 8 hrs?

This was the dilemma I had the night before, and I spent some ti­me researching this option. Appa­rently, walking from Ollantay to Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu Pueblo) is a free, crazy, adventurous, dangerous, secret alternative to the well known $500 Inca Trail… so, yes, I went for it. After all, it was free (the train to Aguas Calientes was over $120 – yes, 120 U.S. dollars).

Pretty MAD!

So I got up at 5.30am, got ready, and walked to the main square in Ollantay, where a minibus took me to
“Kilometro 82”. This is the furthest driveable place along the railway, and to avoid being questioned by the Railway Security you have to walk over a hill to bypass the train station.

People liv­ing there was very friendly and helped us find the little trail to descend to the railroad tracks (not easy to see). I say “us” because, thankfully, I met 2 chicas Argentinas on the minibus who had the same exact plan – so we spent the 28km together 🙂

We finally got down to the railroad tra­cks, and started our adventure. The girls knew there was another checkpoint at km88, but we had to walk 6km first anyway!

The Urubamba Valley (also known as Sacred Valley) is beautiful. Simi­lar to Colca Canyon, the surrounding mountains (one of which is Machu Picchu, only visible at the very end) are extremely high, green and spectacular. Rio Urubamba is an angry, noisy river, and you can hear it from everywhere you are, and sometimes you can’t even hear the upcoming train… oh, I almost forgot, we actually had to walk 28km beside (and sometimes over) the railroad tracks – and get the hell out of there when a train would arrive 🙂

The first train had us totally unprepared. Bloggers say trains go so slow you have enough time to step out
and find a safe location. Well, not sure about that!

The first train was so fast (maybe 70kmh) that it scared the hell out of me… I moved out of the way just before hearing the final warning horn from the train driver.

Needless to say, from that moment on we became much more careful with choosing the right side of the
tracks (where we had enough space to avoid getting hit) and with choosing the right time to cross the tracks when needed.

After the first train, here was the first tunnel. Bloggers su­ggest to run “as fast as you can” inside the tunnel as you don’t have much time to reali­se if a train is coming. Howeve­r, many tunnels had enough room beside the tracks and also were very short, 10-50m. No pro­blem there, thankfully!

Rio Urubamba has an incredible speed, and sometime­s it bursts into white rapids and high splashes. Then, here co­mes km88 – and in fairness I thought this was going to get pretty bad.

The Security guard was there, as forecasted, quietly sitting down on the side of the tracks waiting for the first tourists of the day.

He told us we had to stop walking on the tracks as there were 3 upcoming tunnels in a row – and because it’s illegal to walk on the tracks, imagine under the tunnels…

I was starting to regret all this 28km madness, but then we actually understood he was not sending us back thankfully! All he suggested was to leave the tracks and bypass the 3 tunnels by hiking the hill just before tunnel 1, and then getting back down to the railroad after tunnel 3.

A no-brainer, really, but the 2 Argentinians didn’t care, and started walking under the tunnel despite the Security guy threatened to call the “police” – he actually did call someone, describing the 2 girls with the backpack, but I believe he was actually talking to the driver of the upcoming train.

I followed the suggestion of the Security guard and walked up the hill, so I thought I was not going to see the girls again. To my surprise, here they were at the end of tunnel 3, it was only a 10 minutes diversion after all.

No other checkpoint was meant to happen. Now, we were sure we could walk the entire 28km to reach our final destination, Aguas Calientes.

At km97, we stopped for a bit of lunch. A few minutes and we were on the road again, as we didn’t want to lose the pace.

We had another 13 long kilometers to walk, and we were starting to get tired.

We had a bit of rain, more trains, more tunnels, beautiful landscapes and – unfortunately – a bad
thing happened as well approx at km106.

I read about this potential danger, yet I didn’t really take it seriously; on the other hand, the girls were well prepared and probably knew this too.

At km106, one of the dogs that bark at you along the way (there are a few houses beside the tracks), and specifically a brown female, ran down to the tracks from its owner’s house and bit the girl who was walking ahead of me. It happened so fast neither of us had time to sense the danger and use a stone or a kick to send the dog away.

I was so upset (and the poor girl was even more upset). This could have happened to me, alone, with another 4k to walk.

The girls took their first aid kit and cleaned the wound as much as possible; the girl wasn’t walking properly after that and in fairness I hope she went to the doctor the day after. I offered to swap bags with
the injured chica as her backpack was 4 times heavier than mine. Needle­ss to say, this incident with 24km done and 4km to go somewhat ruined the magic of the whole ad­venture, so the last 4km we­re mostly to check out if the girl was doing ok, and there was not much talking or pictures. Pity.

After 28 long kilometers we entered Aguas Calientes, our final destination, and starting point of the Machu Picchu hike scheduled for the early morning.

I got myself a basic accommodation (25 soles, while the girls found a double in another hostel). I got a deserved hot shower and asked the hostel lady for bakery recommendations 🙂 I therefore dived into a piece of yummy French cake and recharged with a nice cappu­ccino.

Day 4: Aguas Calientes > Machu Picchu > Santa Teresa

I had a sleepless night in my hostel. It was really noisy all night long, so I got up more tired than when I went to sleep.

Unfortunately, it was also raining. I had a quick breakfast with 1 banana and some water (everything was closed at 6.30am) and hoped for the best…I only had one chance to see Machu Picchu, imagine if it was going to be raining all day and the clouds were not going to allow me to see the ruins… grrrrr!

Anyway, I optimisticly walked to the base of the Machu Picchu hike in 20 minutes. I could have taken a bus to Machu Picchu – but by now you know I don’t like “easy” solutions. So, I hiked Machu Picchu in the rain.

It’s absolutely incredible how you can’t see anything from below. There is a reason why Machu Picchu stayed almost intact until now – no one knew it even existed!

It could have been the lack of sleep, or maybe the rain. Or even the previous day 28km. But I was totally wrecked.

And going up the mountain was really hard. There are hundreds of steps/rocks that constantly go up, without giving you a break. You really have to earn this bloody Machu Picchu!

In fairness, it only lasted over 1hr. But it felt like forever!

Then, you hear some voices. And see the first mini-shops. Finally, the main entrance.

My happiness level skyrocketed.

Once there you feel you’ve made it… but I forgot Machu Pichu itself was not my final destination. I completely forgot I had to hike Montaña as well, the mountain ABOVE Machu Picchu, at an altitude of 3,060m. Yes, more steps, and this time going up even more vertically. Dammit, I was so tired!

I took a couple of Machu pictures, but didn’t want to lose my pace.

I made friends with a Canadian guy and we “supported” each other verbally until the very top. It was the toughest hike of my life, considering the previous efforts and the lack of sleep.

We hiked for a good 1.5hrs, including many breaks to catch our breath. I was exhausted.

However, we bot made it to the top. And the view was incredible. All the mountains that surround Machu Picchu make it even more beautiful.

I enjoyed my sandwiches (it was only 10am but I was starving), a full packet of wafers, took some amazing pictures, just on time before the clouds arrived. The place turned mystical – even better. I was on top of the clouds, overlooking Machu Picchu, aware to be in a very special location.

Now that the clouds were really thick, we decided to go back down. Literally, it was all white!

I was so tired, yet very happy. I just took amazing pictures. Then, I took a break and finally visited the citadel. Awesome.

Thankfully there weren’t many tourists and tours: low season, rainy morning, perfect for me! At around 2pm, the warm sun came out, and I knew it was time to leave. Machu Picchu was fantastic, but in fairness 2hrs are sufficient to see the ruins.

Besides, I still had some kilometers to walk, of course I was not going to get the bus 🙂

I descended Machu Picchu and this time turned left to reach Hidroelectrica, a train station on the other side of the valley, where I could get a taxi to my hostel in Santa Teresa. Yes, you got me, another few kilometers on the railroad tracks!

Needless to say I was so tired when I eventually got to Hidroelectrica that I took the first taxi available. 10 soles and a nice chat with a taxi driver, whose son is called “Francesco” (and not Francisco, Spanish) as he loves Francesco Totti! He had a giant “Francesco” tattoo on his arm as well… lol.

I arrived in Santa Teresa, found a single room for 20 soles, had dinner and had a wonderful sleep despite the heavy night rain. My Machu Picchu adventure was almost over.

Day 5: Santa Teresa > Cusco > Tipon > Cusco

From Santa Teresa I took a minibus for Cusco. After the heavy rain, the road was in terrible conditions, and I unreligiously prayed for the whole 4.5 hours. There were landslides, where the driver had to get out of the van, take the shovel and even the road surface… rockslides, where the driver had to slalom between rocks… and literally rivers crossing the road that I was afraid the minibus was going to slide into them. All at an altitude of 3,000 meters, with just one lane, no asphalt and no guardrail of course 🙂

Well, thankfully, I survived and arrived safely in Cusco after an exhausting trip. I found a hostel and went to bed straight away.

With no rain, I would have loved to go visiting Tipon, 45 minutes outside Cusco, another genius Inca water engineering site.

I did it the day after anyway, so here are a few pictures!–/?taken-by=rmelogli