Jan
18
2010
3

Machu Picchu and other Incan sites

I was lucky enough to see Machu Picchu just a week before the terrible floods of late January resulted in the closing of the site for several months. Ironically, the site itself is absolutely fine – those Incans certainly knew how to build for the ages – but the routes to get there are all washed out.

There are two main ways of getting to Machu Picchu and one lesser-used route. Most people take the train to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town that serves as the base for the site. No roads exist to Aguas Calientes, which makes it a somewhat unique town. The only vehicles in town are the buses that shuttle tourists between the town and the site itself, up a series of switchback roads. People say Aguas Calientes is a terribly ugly town of unplanned construction, but I actually found it pleasant – with no cars, two rivers running through it, and nestled in a valley between misty mountains, it’s quite romantic.

The other main way of getting to Machu Picchu is by hiking the famous Inca Trail. It takes between two to five days, depending on where you start the trek. Although the scenery sounds spectacular, I was put off from doing the trek for other reasons. One, I’m a wimp – and all reports say that it’s freezing cold and frequently pouring rain this time of year. No fun. Secondly, it’s absurdly expensive and crowded. Because it’s one of the most popular treks in the world, authorities have restricted it to 500 people per day (including guides and porters). In the high tourist season (June – Aug), you have to book six months in advance! Although I love hiking, this is not my idea of communing with nature.

The third and hardly known method of getting to Machu Picchu is by taking a series of local buses until one finally ends up in Santa Teresa, a tiny town downriver from Aguas Calientes. It sounds arduous and trying, and there are hardly any tourist services in Santa Teresa. But that’s all about to change – with the flooding wiping out the train line to Aguas Calientes and a prediction of three months to repair it (which really means at least four months), Santa Teresa is about to get a boom in tourism.. just as soon as those roads are repaired and the tourist companies readjust to offer direct service from Cusco to Santa Teresa instead of the crazy series of connections one currently has to make.

I chose to take the cheap but convenient route: going by bus as far as I could into the Sacred Valley to the town of Ollantaytambo, where the road ends, then take the train the remaining distance to Aguas Calientes. The rail company is owned and run by the same folks who run the Orient Express; so the service is excellent, safe, and reliable, but unfortunately the prices are equivalently high. It’s cheapest to take the train the least distance necessary, rather than all the way from Cusco.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

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