On the evening before our departure our couchsurfing host and potential guide unfortunately had to pull out of our expedition to try to see Machu Picchu. He had been conducting enquiries with officials throughout the day to try to get the latest information, and had been told that the whole area is closed to tourists. Furthermore, any guide now bringing tourists into the area against official regulations may be subject to arrest, and potentially lose their guiding permit. We fully understood Ronnie’s decision not to take us, but decided that we would still make the journey ourselves, and see how far we could get.
As an overview, this diagram shows the lie of the land around the Cusco and Machu Picchu area. It is not to scale, or cartographically accurate, but is a fairly good guide:-
There are only three ways to get to Machu Picchu: by train via the railway from Ollantaytambo, on foot via the railway line from Hidro Electrica, both options leading to Aguas Calientes, the town from which you would be able to climb up to Machu Pichu. The only other option is by foot via the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail has been closed since two people died in a mudslide in the recent downpours. The railway line from Ollantaytambo was destroyed by the swollen river, and so it appeared that our best option was to try to get to Hidro and walk in from there.
So armed with as much information as Ronnie could give us, Val and I were up early, and took a taxi in the rainy dawn to the northern bus station, and eventually got a ride in a combi-shared-minibus to Santa Maria. The journey took around five hours, over the most incredibly steep, twisting, turning mountain roads. It rained most of the way, and the road was crumbling away in some places, and huge streams washed over it in others. The drop-off over the edge was dizzying. It was quite a white-knuckle ride!
The tarmac changed to rutted gravel roads as we descended into the jungle once more, and eventually we arrived at Santa Maria, a tiny town hidden in a valley seemingly miles from anywhere. We had some lunch, and got talking to an Argentinian guy who had tried a couple of days before to get to Aguas Calientes, and had run into many problems even getting up to Hidro. His Peruvian guide suggested an alternative route to us, which we made note of.
We found a taxi prepared to take us over the next mountain, along with a couple of locals too, but we had to wait for about an hour or so while graders worked way up on the hillside trying to unblock the road, which had been buried under a huge mudslide earlier in the day. Our taxi driver eventually gave up, and we took a much longer alternate route.
On the way we ran into a mudslide across our road, but with the minimum of fuss, or driver and occupants from a following minibus set-to with picks, and before long our driver had his car up and over the road blockage.
The minibus didn’t fare so well, and got well and truly stuck, taking around an hour to get him back down off the top of the muddy slope. The amazing can-do attitude of everyone involved was wonderful to be part of. However, as the minibus couldn’t climb the obstacle, we had to leave them to return to Santa Maria, and our little group pressed on to Santa Teresa.
There we found a little hostel, and dropped our bags off before wandering around the town, and going to see the huge muddy-brown fast-flowing river.
I somehow managed to get chatting to the local police, and in broken Spanish managed to explain what we were trying to do, and where we wanted to go. “No chance!” was my understanding of their friendly, but firm response. I asked about the alternate route that the Argentinian guy had suggested, and one of the policemen made a phone call. Again, in no uncertain terms he told us that it was very dangerous, that there had been many mudslides in the area, and that the bridge at the end of our planned alternate route was no longer there. At least I think that’s what he told me!
At dinner in a small restaurant in town we chatted to a couple of locals who had just walked out of Aguas Calientes that afternoon, and said that both the railway, and the alternate route to Hidro were fine, and quite safe to walk.
Encouraged by local knowledge, we decided to press ahead with our plan, ignoring police advice, and got an early night.
Rising early, we managed to avoid being spotted by the police as our taxi driver took us out of town, and an hour or so later he dropped us at a place called Lucmabamba, little more than a couple of shacks in the middle of the jungle, and pointed us to the start of an alternate part of the Inca Trail.
Our idea was to trek over the top of the mountain, passing an Inca site called Llactapata, from which if the weather was clear, it would be possible to see Machu Picchu. We had decided that this was the option that gave us the greatest possibility of actually seeing Machu Picchu, even if eventually we couldn’t get there.
We climbed steeply uphill on a pretty decent path for a couple of hours, and eventually crossed to the other side of the mountain, and started down, reasonably confident that we were on the right path, but worried that we may not see anything because of low cloud cover.
But we were incredibly lucky, and the clouds parted, and through a clearing there it was – Machu Picchu clearly visible across the valley. It was a wonderful moment, as despite all claims that it was impossible to do, all suggestions that we would be better trekking elsewhere, and all of the dire warnings from the police, we had managed to do the seemingly impossible! And we hadn’t seen another soul since leaving Lucmabamba! We may have been the only people to see Machu Picchu this day!
The path down was muddy and slippy, but there were no signs of the huge mudslides the police had warned us of, and in the valley the footbridge was in fine condition. Either I had mis-understood the police, or they had been somewhat untruthful to try to discourage us. I suspect the latter to be the case.
We followed the trail along to Hidro Electrica, and wandering past two security guards without a hitch, thinking all was going to be well, and we only had two more hours along the track to go!
But around the next corner we came upon a checkpoint manned by three policemen, who were very clear that we could go no further! They were soon backed up by two more armed National Policia, who were friendly, but very firm. We chatted with them for an hour or so, trying in my best Spanish to convince them that we had a friend in Aguas Calientes to stay with, and that I was a reporter. Nothing worked, even the offer of a backhander in US Dollars!!
Eventually we had to give up, and joined a group of four locals who were heading down to Santa Teresa. We were somewhat mystified when our group turned off and crossed the river, heading up a tiny trail into the jungle, instead of following the main road down. However, all became clear half an hour later as we rounded a bend in the river, and on the other side could see that the road had simply collapsed into the river and been washed away. It would have been impossible to pass the devastated area.
The route through the jungle took about two hours, and were amazed to find that the crossing back to the other side was in a tiny cart suspended on a cable high above the raging river. What a thrilling end to our journey! Once at the rough road we all piled into a taxi, and headed down once again to Santa Teresa.
This is how the rickety wire bridge looked:-
From there we discovered that the road to Santa Maria was blocked again, and took a minibus taxi to Quillabamba, in the opposite direction to where we needed to go, but at least on clear roads.
Quillabamba turned out to be an amazing place when we got there. Hidden away in the jungle, it seemed to be a busy, thriving city, teeming with people, and filled with trendy shops selling fashion clothing and expensive electrical items. How did such a place come to be there, seemingly in the middle of nowhere?
We decided to stay overnight, and went out around the town to eat, and for a couple of beers. For two days we hadn’t seen a single other tourist or traveller, and in the bar we were quizzed by many of the curious and friendly locals as to what we were doing and where we had been.
The last day of our adventure was a long, six hour minibus journey back to Cusco, highlighted by the fact that the bridge at Ollantaytambo was now being washed away, and no vehicles were able to pass. We had to walk across the rather precarious bridge to get into another minibus at the other side, while his passengers heading the opposite way did the same.
All in all, it has been the most fantastic three days, and was exactly what Val and I had wanted, more of an expedition than a tour. We were both disappointed that we hadn’t managed to get to Aguas Calientes, and ultimately to Machu Picchu, but were both extremely proud to have actually managed to see the place, which looks incredible. This way, I have managed to achieve the goal of seeing Machu Picchu, and yet have the opportunity to return one day and do the whole Inca Trail, and see the place again in a different manner, hopefully under much more favourable circumstances.
My thanks to Val for being my travelling partner on this journey, and for his incredibly positive attitude about the whole adventure. I would have been much further outside my comfort zone if I had been alone.
Also huge thanks to Ronnie and his brother Willy for kindly providing accomodation and much-needed local information and advice.
Thanks also to our lunchtime Argentinian contact, Marco, and his guide Julio, without whom we wouldn’t have known about the Llactapata trail, and to Percy and his friend, who convinced us that the Llactapata trail would be fine to take.
Also I must mention all of the local Peruvians we met along the way, taxi drivers, fellow passengers, hostel owners, and friendly people in bars that made the trip so special too. Everyone is so incredibly friendly, helpful and welcoming, even the gun-toting policemen! And equally remarkable is the amazingly positive attitude of everyone in the face of all sorts of obstacles and difficulties.
Peru, what a fantastic and fascinating country. I hope to be back soon!