Santa Maria to Carrizales. Biking in Peru.
16th till 22nd June 2019.
We wonder why people make a bucket list, why lists of wonders of the world are adjusted during the years, why most of us want to see the same highlights. Why is it when we are in a country we feel obliged to not miss out on these highlights? Is it marketing which is driving people to discover new sights, is it human nature wanting to see, feel and smell the same others have seen? I have to say that our urge and FOMO has cooled down and we are more happy to travel in the non-touristic areas, where the other (real?) life is happening, but of course there are a few things we wouldn’t want to have missed!
Machu Picchu and hiking the Inka trail has been on our bucket list for a long time, for me even longer than hiking in Patagonia. Now getting closer to this world wonder, but on our bikes, we are wondering how and in which mode to visit.
Machu Picchu is one of the new (2001) “7 wonders of the world”, can you name some others?
Due to travelling by bike it is challenging to arrange THE hiking trip, the 4-5 day Inka trail from Ollantaytambo, in advance. The 500 visitors per day permit for the Inka trail hike should be arranged weeks/months in advance. We already noticed a few weeks ago that for the week we expect to arrive all permits are gone for the rest of the month (for the Inka trail and Inka mountain).
Goin’ in the backdoor.
As we approach from the North we decide to take the backdoor to Machu Picchu via Santa Teressa. In the past mainly used by backpackers, now also used by a lot of touring companies or people who want to arrange their own hike/train trip to Machu Picchu at a lower cost.
An amazingly beautiful rainy misty ride following Rio Urubamba brings us to the uncharacteristic town of Santa Teresa. From Santa Maria to Santa Teresa is only a 24 km ride but with amazing tight switch backs, on gravel and 800 vertical meters uphill. We listened and adjusted to on and up coming traffic. Traffic is mainly small tour buses but they still drive crazy. Enjoyed our self catered lunch at a beautiful spot.
In Santa Teresa there are plenty of basic, cheap opportunities, also a few real camping sites and a few up-scale possibilities. You can also opt for a hostal at the beginning or along the rail tracks and leave your bike there. No biking/bikes allowed along the tracks or in Aguas Calientes.
After all the basic lodging we wanted to stay at a lodge, which is beautifully located in a stunning surrounding. But when we discover that construction work starts at 7:00 we decide to stay in the village center. Happy we did as we now could stay 2 ½ nights for the price of 1 night in the lodge. Having a perfect bed, beautiful view, access to several different restaurants, grocery stores and laundry, we can’t complain. Finally we kept our room at hotel Monte Villa for 5 nights (we got a really good deal).
First day in Santa Teresa we used to try to arrange Machu Picchu tickets, with no luck as you can not buy them in this village. If you buy tickets on-line and you have not printed them (which you have to), the tourist center at the village center can print them. As we only tried to buy them the day before we planned to visit, we found the on-line service could not warrant sending the tickets within 24 hours. You can check availability on this site https://www.ticketmachupicchu.com/. Note a mark-up is applicable if you buy on-line.
We decided to try our luck and take the first train (7:50) from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. We scored tickets for an afternoon and a morning session in Aguas Calientes and checked-in in our hotel, followed by a bus ride up the mountain. Our afternoon visit started at 12:00. Train ride was fun as this is the train which is also used to transfer passengers from and to Cusco, the train with the panoramic viewing possibilities. For us was a bit easier than starting with a 11 km hike when we still wanted to visit MP that day.
View from the hill.
Arriving at Machu Picchu where they check your passport and tickets again. We entered at the peak of the day with a lot of people leaving and entering. You hike a tiny bit and then suddenly you see Machu Picchu up-close.
It was emotional, but for me not immediately as mind blowing as I had expected. I have to say that for me Machu Picchu had to grow on me. I was more flabbergasted after we had walked 8 hours around the site during two days and did a hike during day 3, to really understand and appreciate what the Inka’s had constructed. We were super happy we ensured enough time!
It is almost a pity that everything is so well kept and cleanly restored. Positive is the well thought through tourist flow, but the whole thing feels a bit like a Walt Disney orchestrated site. There are other sites in Peru which breathe more the desolate, abandoned, but rich culture. You can consider to skip MP and only visit other sites, but having seen several others, beautiful as they are, there is not one which has this dramatic view of being nestled as a falcon’s nest.
For our afternoon visit we decided to first walk away from the main site to get away from the crowds. First to the Sun Gate to have an bird’s eye impression (and walk a tiny part of the Inka Trail).
Followed by visiting the Inka Bridge (perfect light in the early afternoon). If you look at the tiny footpath glued to the mountain and the Inka Bridge which could be destroyed to fence of intruders, it is amazing!
We still had time to discover part of the main complex in filtered afternoon light.
We will not go in-depth into the history of Machu Picchu, but it is still amazing they found this location, cleared the top by burning all vegetation and used all boulders available to build this amazing estate for (probably) the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), the elite and 700-800 people. More to read at Wikipedia .
How must it have been to live here? As one of the priests? As one of the workers?
You can tell whether a member of the elite or someone from a lower class was living in a house: for the elite the stones would have no spaces between them. Nowadays people still can’t copy the stone work the Inka were able to create. Built without mortar and no iron tools!
Leaving the site we discover they don’t check you out, don’t check if you overstay your 4 hour time slot.
Evening is spend in Aguas Calientes, it is relatively quiet as most people are staying in Cusco for the festivity week before 24th of June. Aguas Calientes is a tourist village with no nice history buildings, pricey but there is always a positive side. We enjoyed pancakes with ice cream when we arrived and a gourmet dinner at Tree House. Recommended!
What a difference the next day. As the 6:00 am slot was sold out, we took the first bus up at 6:30 so we could enter at 7:00. We were queuing to get to the first sight. What a difference to yesterday. Just be patient.
Hiking downhill and following the train tracks to Santa Teresa resulted in slightly sour legs the next day. Hiking is different from biking indeed.
On the trail.
As we also wanted to hike at least a little part of an Inka Trail we decided to start at Lucmabamba. This is day 3 or 4 of the Salkantay trail which leads to Hidroelectrica. Taxi to here over a very bad road is 25 sol. Starting the hike with a slow filtered organic coffee harvested on site. Hike to 2,800 meter over old Inka trails, discovering why they are called rain forests. Even if you see it is a often used path we have it all to ourselves!
We took a slight detour to a campsite at the top as we should be able to see Machu Picchu, but everything was covered in clouds.
First cherry on the cake is the archaeological site of Llactapata, which is partly renovated, but also still shows how nature took over constructions. Hiram Bingham first found the site in 1912 and found evidence that some Inca chieftain had built his home here and had included in the plan ten or a dozen buildings. Bingham did not investigate the ruins thoroughly however, and they were not studied again for another 70 years.
Second cherry? How lucky we were when we walk 10 minutes downhill and stopped for a coffee at this camp/lodge site: the sky breaks open and shows Machu Picchu high over the Urubamba canyon. Should we have hiked this trail before we visited Machu Picchu? We could have but you cannot make out details from this distance, unless you have been there first.
I have to say that hiking the full loop and camping on this a site must be impressive. Still, we biked + 23,000 km to get here and we are happy with the order in which we did things; train, visit, hike.
After an spectacular visit to Machu Picchu and this hike we decide to leave the next day and bike back over a sunny road to Santa Maria and follow PE28B till Carrizales, where we camp next to a restaurant at the road side as there were no other possibilities. Who says we make it too easy for ourselves ?
Are there other impressive archaeological sites on our way South? Find out in next week blog.
Practical info/fun facts for visiting Machu Picchu via Santa Teresa:
- You are NOT allowed to bike (or bring your bike) along the rail road tracks.
- If you purchased on-line tickets: print them in advance, especially if you hike up-hill from Aqua Calientes to Machu Picchu, we have seen people struggling to get through and we have not seen anybody at the main gate using a digital ticket.
- Machu Picchu tickets: if buying in Aqua Calientes you can buy them only with cash. A map of the area you can get next doors. You also get a map at the main gate.
- Bus tickets: at another location. Credit Card (mark up!) or cash. 12$ p/p one way. Return bus tickets can still be purchased at the top. If you decide to walk back and you have purchased a return ticket you will not be refunded.
- They check your entry time (you can’t enter earlier than planned but you can enter later). They don’t check if you stay longer than the allowed 4 hours.
- How do they “control” the 4 hours: there are NO toilets in Machu Picchu, only before the entrance, where the bus stops. Also everywhere are guards or people so they expect people to leave when the urge is too high.
- Check closing time as when we were there the site already closed at 17:00 (if you buy the 14:00 entry you only have a meager 3 hours)
- We pre-booked a hotel through Booking.com which was easy, saved time but was almost twice as expensive as when you would have time to walk around and find your own room. Looking for a bargain: I would only do this if you see on Booking.com that there is still enough availability in the village.
If you want to reduce cost you can skip the train (39$ per person is a real rip off for 11 km but a lot of fun), you can skip staying in Aguas Calientes if you only do a midday visit, and you can skip using the bus (12$, one way, one person…I know).
We tried to take the bikes in the train from Santa Teressa to Ollantaytambo but they would not allow us to travel with our bikes. Our bikes would ship with the local train, we would be obliged to travel with the tourist train as we are no locals and we cannot travel for 5 sol, but must pay $40 for this trip. As we don’t want to let the bikes go alone and not be there when they unload, we decided on biking back to Santa Maria and continuing our trip from there.