Keeping it real while traveling in and around what is probably the single top site in South America seemed like a challenge. Truth is, things came together rather naturally. A good sign I’m getting into a nice travel rhythm.
My new travel mate, Radina, and I set off from Cusco on the local buses for Pisac. A taxi to the top and a hike down brought us through a spectacular Incan fortress perched on a mountain spur. Agricultural terracing swept across the hillside with a ceremonial center at the top. After, our “Sacred Valley” tour continued by local bus to Ollantaytambo. Darkness had set just before our arrival and, without a reservation, we started rambling our way through the high walled old cobbled streets. Continuously inhabited since the 13th century, the town is the best preserved in the valley.
In the morning, I snapped off a few shots of daybreak activity from our balcony overlooking the Plaza de Armas then ventured up to the ruins. These are known for their steep terraced fields topped off by another ceremonial center. The complex makes up a fortress, which is one of the few places where the Inca racked up a battle win over Pizarro.
Ollantaytambo is the tourist’s busy Machu Picchu thoroughfair. Thousands pass through each day for a brief stopover before moving on by train to Aguas Calientes. Radina and I had a different plan.
We killed the afternoon shopping in the nearby food market and hanging out in the, now almost tourist free, square. This is one of my favorite things with independent travel. Sure the historic sites are great to knock off, but the experiences the random down time gives you is a real gem; shopping in the market as a local would and watching the locals go about their daily business. And the bus we soon boarded brought us on a more exhilarating ride than we ever imagined. Switchback after switchback followed a river torn gorge through dense jungle up over the 4,350 m Abra Malaga pass to the off-the-beaten-path town of Santa Maria. (for those reading to take it on yourself: 15 soles, 5 hrs, depart main plaza between 2 and 4pm). Onward to Santa Teresa by collectivo (60 soles / 4, 1 hr).
We found a great little campground just south of town where we cooked up our produce bought earlier in the market and camped under banana and avocado trees. They gave us the rest of the beta on getting to Machu Picchu; three hour walk to Hidroelectrico, then follow the train tracks through the jungle for two more hours to Aguas Calientes. The jungle is prestine and makes for pleasant walking. A word of caution: when following the tracks there is no need to pass through the longer tunnel near AC, descend the steps at the switch station and walk the dirt road to town. The entire way has a safe and pleasant trail.
The campground, Butterfly Wilderness (5 soles pp), at the base of Machu Picchu was beautiful and there were no more than two other tents present. It all makes me wonder why more don’t take advantage. I imagine people just get caught up in the spectacle of getting there and don’t even notice it. And, it is the closest place to the park entrance. Dinner in Aguas Calientes showed me just how fancy the site had become since my last visit. The town was more commercialized and had shifted upscale.
Up early for the big day, we opted for the stairmaster workout (40 minutes for me) means to the top. Machu Picchu had all the beauty I remembered. By 1pm, exhausted, we hiked back down to our camp, which we had eyed from high above throughout the day.
We looked over train schedules and fairs – most were sold out, remember to book ahead – for a bit then opted for retracing our route to Santa Maria. It was a long day, but the familiarity helped it to cruise by. Leaving Santa Maria, the 8am bus soon arrived, at 11 (never did sort that ambiguous achedule out). And when I say arrived, I mean something more like passed through; our packs quickly tossed into the storage bay and a running jump into the already moving bus, one hand on the rail and the other stretching back for Radina speeding up behind. The bus went direct through Quillabamba to Cusco, avoiding the “death road” – a name tour guides generously apply to those sorts of trips – over the high pass (15 soles, 6 hrs).
P.s. The April 2013 Lonely Planet Peru covers aditional things to do around Santa Teresa and Santa Maria.