The Hobo Guide to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is the mecca of South America’s tourism industry. It by far the most visited place on the continent, with 4000-5000 people coming to check it out daily. It is so tramped into the tourist trail they’ve started paving.
As a result, this megalith of Peru’s ancient history has developed a few tourist myths (traps) of its own. Here is the hobo truth and a guide for travellers with a little less gold than the Incas.
- The Inca trail is the only way to truly experience Machu Picchu.
Um, no. By being at Machu Picchu, you are experiencing Machu Picchu. You don’t need to climb stairs for an exorbitant fee for five days to have a more profound Incan experience. In fact, you will probably be tired, and experience less because you will be daydreaming about your first real shower in almost a week.
- You must do a trek to see the sunrise at Machu Picchu.
If you want to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, get up before the sun does. If you want to walk there and “earn” your Incan experience, the staircase opens at 4am and takes one to two hours to climb. The first bus leaves 5.30am, and if you want to pay $10 for a 20-minute zigzag up a hill, that’s cool too. After all the effort, you’ll learn that sunrise at Machu Picchu is generally experienced while engulfed in a cloud. Said cloud eventually evaporates to reveal the sunshine when the sky is clear and blue, at least an hour after the sun actually rises. You could have been in bed.
- It’s cheaper to book in advance.
Travel agencies, the internet and other overseas sales outlets have a captured, misguided audience they can sell inflated tours to. There is no on-ground race-to-the bottom, agency competition, bartering or hobo persuasion to grab yourself a bargain. My friend Jack paid $600 for his Salkantay trek in Australia; not really hobo budget when compared to the $230 my friend Marie and I paid the day before setting off. You need to spend at least three days accumulating to Cusco’s high altitude – why not shop around then? Advance planning may buy you peace of mind but you’ll be paying double for it, sometimes more than double.
- The train is the only way to get to Aguas Calientes.
This doesn’t mean the “cheaper” private car transport that will only set you back $100 is the next-best offer either. People trek to Machu Picchu all the time, every single day in fact, and the route to Aguas Calientes is open, beautiful and free. Forget spending $84 one-way to catch a train through the jungle; you can walk the tracks instead.
From Cusco, all you need to do is take a micro (local bus) headed to Quillabamba, getting off in Santa Marta. From Santa Marta, take another micro to Santa Teresa. From Santa Teresa, you need to get to the Hidro Electrico (hydro-electricity plant) which is about 12 km from the town centre. All the “official” treks come through here, so it’s impossible to get lost; there are signs everywhere and locals know Santa Teresa isn’t your final destination. You can walk, or flag down a collectivo semi-associated with Santa Teresa’s tourism, which charge 5 soles (2AUD) for the lift.
The Hidro Electrico is where Peru Rail’s train tracks begin, as well as a 12km camino that runs alongside it. Despite the “do not walk along the track” signage, the camino is so officially unofficial the tourism industry sponsors its upkeep and all the registered treks use it. There are maps and “you are here” notices the entire way. The walk takes about three hours of jungle strolling, and you’ll even glimpse Machu Picchu. Even better, you’ll have saved at least $84 by the time you arrive in Aguas Calientes.
- You need to pay a guide to get the real Machu Picchu story.
You do not need to pay a guide to listen to a guide at Machu Picchu. Inevitably, you will shuffle around a circular, roped off route like tourist cattle. Chose a language and shuffle next to middle-aged speakers of said language; your close proximity will make sure you get all the extra information you desire with no fee.
- You need to get a selfie with a llama.
Make sure you do it whilst wearing runners and an alpaca knit jumper for the full embarrassing tourist effect. (Peru’s native animal is an alpaca, not a llama. They release llamas every morning for fauna-confused tourists to photograph and probably so no one has to mow the grass).
- You must visit Machu Picchu whilst you’re in South America.
You don’t have to.
But you probably should.