Hidroelectrica, as the last place accessible by a car on the way to Machu Picchu, always has some locals hanging around trying to sell the hoards of tourists passing by stuff. There are also a few restaurants and shops selling fruits and water along the way, but they are all very overpriced. One restaurant I passed also had a sign that they exchanged money, so I asked what kind of rate they offered for US dollars, and the woman told me she’d give me 3 Soles for each Dollar. The official exchange rate at the time was 3.39 Soles for a Dollar, so like everything else, changing money at Hidroelectrica was not worth it.
From where you get dropped off, the foot trail follows a train track, but if you follow that one, you will soon hit a dead end. There is a rather inconspicuous turn heading steep up hill to the right after a couple minutes of walking, which looks like it’s a way to one of the restaurants. And it indeed is, but it also gets you to the other train tracks which are higher up. Those are the tracks that go around the hill all the way to Aguas Calientes.
So basically, if right at the beginning of your trek from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes you did not get your heart pumping by following a trail heading steeply up the hill to your right, you’re going the wrong way and will have to backtrack because the trail you are on leads nowhere. I did it too.
Once on the upper tracks, you’re good to go. Several minutes in and you will pass under a short tunnel, and a few more minutes later, you’ll hit a bridge over the Vilcanota River which has carved the canyon that forms the base for Machu Picchu.
There are several signs along the tracks informing you that it’s prohibited to cross the tracks, but at a number of locations, the tracks cross over creeks giving the hiker no option but to actually walk on the tracks. Besides, the trail that follows the tracks is at one point on the left, and at the other on the right, so like it or not, you will cross on the tracks several times.
Even though the trail is at the bottom of the canyon carved by the Vilcanota River and follows the hill housing Machu Picchu, you will not get any reasonable glimpse of the lost citadel from down there. Still, unless it rains on you, the walk is scenic and the nature as well as the surrounding hills spectacular. You may even get passed by one of the trains.
There are a few restaurants along the trail as well, but as with everything in this proximity, they are expensive. One fellow with a stall was selling young coconuts, but wanted way too much for them so I gave it a pass. It would have been nice to recharge with natural electrolytes, but not at 10 Soles a pop.
If you’re a fast walker and keep your foot steady on the rocky trail, you should get to Aguas Calientes in about an hour and a half from Hidroelectrica. Except for the short uphill steep hike at the beginning, the trail is flat, so it’s not that brutal on your cardio. It’s just a bit hard on the feet, because it’s rocky, so make sure you have good hiking boots on.
But then, once you get to Aguas Caliente, unless you’re cool staying in one of the priciest hotels at the beginning of the town, your trip will finish you off with forcing you to hike steep streets of the town to get to the more economical hostels. There is a tone of them in Aguas Calientes, as the town is as touristy as it gets. But if you’ve made it there, you’ve made it to the foot of Machu Picchu.
Other than in Aguas Calientes, the only way to stay any closer to Machu Picchu would be to book a room at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, where a night costs $1,000+. If you’re one of the poeple who can afford to shell out this much for a night in a hotel, then you will sleep outside the entrance to the Inca Citadel. For the rest of us, there is Aguas Calientes, or Mchu Picchu Pueblo, as the Peruvian government is trying to rebrand the town.
Here’s also a short video of a PeruRail train that passed me by about three quarters of the hike to Aguas Calientes. This seems to have been just a locomotive that didn’t have any couches transporting people hooked on:
There were no roadblocks between Santa Teresa and Hidroelectrica, which in my mind earned Santa Teresa my support in form of paying for the hotel and the supper, and buying the water and the fruits – something I refused to do in Santa Maria, where the services were also available, but the town resorted to road blockages to make the lives of tourists more difficult, and with it, the trip to Machu Picchu one of the worst experiences I’ve had.
I didn’t however intend on staying in Santa Teresa more than one night, so as soon as I got up in the morning, I checked out of the hostel and headed for the Mercado de Santa Teresa from where depart shared cabs for Hidroelectrica – the nearest spot to Machu Picchu where it’s possible get with a car.
The local transport cabs, called “colectivos“, leave when full. When I arrived, there was only one more person waiting to go to Hidroelectrica so I had to wait until two more showed up for the driver to depart. It took an hour before the car was full, but eventually we departed.
The way to Hidroelectrica, much as the path to Santa Teresa from Santa Maria, is along a scenic canyon carved by the Vilcanota River and it’s not paved. The dusty roads are narrow and the drivers don’t appear to mind the hundreds meters long drops when two vehicles going the opposite way meet on it. With mere inches separating the beat up cars from deadly plummets, the experience of taking a colectivo to Hidroelectrica is an adrenaline filled, hair raising, and butt cheeks squeezing one. Good luck if you suffer from vertigo…
Even though the majority of tourists I encountered on the way between Santa Teresa and Hidroelectrica walked the trail on the steep canyon walls on foot, after a long walk the day earlier, I chose to pay for the cab to take me to Hidroelectrica the easy way – except for about a half a dozen of heart attack inducing passes that the driver took.
At Hidroelectrica, the drivable road ends and what continues on is a narrow rocky footpath alongside the railway tracks. The Peruvian government could easily pave a road all the way to Machu Picchu, and could have easily done that a long time ago, but by doing that they would permit the tourists to arrive at Machu Picchu without getting ripped off on the unbelievably overpriced trains, which are promoted as the sole means of access to Machu Picchu that doesn’t require strenuous walking.
The train ride, which costs the locals 10 Soles (less than $3 US), would cost a foreigner up ro $485 one way. That’s why the Peruvian government laid down the railway tracks, but refuses to lay down a road. Without road access, a tourist has but two options – shell out the insane cost for the train, or face a gruelling and complicated road with the mandatory hour and a half long hike on foot on a rocky trail.
Somehow, even though there are many much cooler and worthwhile places all over the world, the Peruvian government succeeded in pimping Machu Picchu as that super iconic place, and tricked the whole world into falling for it, thus generating massive profits for itself while ripping tourists off by refusing to create a road access to the place.
When I was charged for the full journey of being taken from Ollantaytambo all the way to Hidroelectrica, the roadblocks along the way that halted the traffic mid way through have been in place for a whole week.
During that entire week, the same travel agencies have been charging tourists for the full lengths of the journey, while lying them into their faces that they will be taken all the way to Hidroelectrica, despite being fully aware that none of the tourists who had bought that trip anytime within the week proceeding my trip got to the destination.
Similarly, the same vans have been taking tourists mid way, knowing full well that none of them will be taken all the way to Hidroelectrica, but lied to every single one through their teeth that they are getting to Hidroelectrica, even though they knew full well that the road blocks remain in place and none of the previous trips during the week have delivered tourists to the destination.
Had I been hinted by either the travel agency or the van operators that there have been road blocks for a week on the way to Machu Picchu, and there is pretty much no chance a vehicle can get to Hidroelectrica (the place nearest Machu Picchu that’s accessible by a motor vehicle), I could have easily postponed my trip until the protests have ended and the road become drivable again. But I guess it’s outlandish to expect honesty from Peruvians when they smell the dough.
Peruvians Hate Tourist, But Love Tourists’ Money
Peruvians love milking tourists on every step with entrance fees to every little corner that garners any kind of interest. But at the same time hate the tourists enough to make their life difficult simply for coming to Peru to spend money they earned abroad on the local economy.
Such was the case of roadblocks on the way to Machu Picchu. Knowing the road passing through their villages is the only access road to Machu Picchu, the communities of Amaybamba, Huyro, Huayopata, Santa Maria and San Pablo set up roadblocks in order to make access to Hidroelectrica by car impossible.
Hundreds of tourists who refuse to support the rip off practices of the Peruvian government who charges foreigners upward of $480 dollars for a train trip to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of Machu Picchu) for which the locals pay 10 Soles (about $3), opt to hire a vehicle to Hidroelectrica, from where it is a little over an hour on foot to Aguas Calientes, as the more economical, albeit more tiring option
of reaching Machu Picchu.
Even though the economy of every single one of these villages immensely benefits from the fact that they did nothing to deserve it, but are geographically close to Machu Picchu so the hoards of passing tourists often stop to buy a drink, a snack or cooked food from a restaurant, or stay a night in hotels where available, they are still ungrateful for it and their way to protest when they wish to demand something from the government is by making life difficult for said tourists.
Were their locations not so close to Machu Picchu, there would be nothing to attract so many tourists through their villages, so any kind of a road block would not have an impact. But hey – since they are close to Machu Picchu, who not make life for the economy supporting tourists difficult?
Can you think of a more unworthy people to spend your hard earned money on while traveling?
Long Walk to Santa Teresa
The van that promised to deliver us to Hidroelectrica dropped us off somewhere outside of Amaybamba. The driver simply told us this was the end of the trip for us, and we needed to get off his van and if we didn’t like it, we’ll have to bring it up with a travel agency that sold us the trip and sort it out with them.
The worst thing was, that whole area around Machu Picchu is infested with biting midgets. We got thrown out of the van and instantly got swarmed and attacked by these tiny, quarter of a fruit fly sized insects that rip a hole into your skin with their razor sharp jaws to lap blood as it oozes out. Unlike actual mosquitoes, these super-tiny insects are near invisible so you could be getting bitten by three dozen of them at the same time and never notice until it’s too late and your legs itch like mad.
Unfortunately, the van driver didn’t even offer us an option to return to Ollantaytambo. He just dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, none of us knowing where we were, and told us to help ourselves any way we could.
Another bad thing was that the locals not only demanded concessions from the government by making life difficult for tourists, but were also openly hostile toward tourists who had no other option but put their backpack on and cover the second half of the 4 hour long vehicle trip on foot.
I have never before visited Machu Picchu, and was thus under the disillusion that the place was worth it, but one way or the other I didn’t really have many other option, so I joined the rest of the confused tourists, and put my backpack on to keep moving forward on foot.
The slight positive at the time was the fact that the road from where we were, at least as far as Santa Maria, the first village on the way big enough to have hotels, was downhill. That was however only of relief for the day, because it came with the understanding that if the road blocks were not removed by the time I need to go back, then I will be walking the same distance up hill.
There were in fact many tourists we came across who walked the opposite way. Some of them got to Aguas Calientes before the roadblocks were set up, so they only had to do the extra walk returning, but even so, the return trip was vastly up hill which made it very strenuous.
What kept most of us alive at the time, was the deliberately misleading information that the roadblocks are only as far as Santa Maria, and that from Santa Maria we’ll be able to catch a colectivo (a taxi that serves as a local transport which leaves when full) to Santa Teresa, and then from Santa Teresa another colectivo to Hidroelectrica.
Of course, that would be an additional expense to get ourselves to Hidroelectrica even though we each have already paid for the trip all the way to Hidroelectrica, but hey… this is Peru.
Needless to say, finally arriving in Santa Maria after more than 2 hours on hiking with backpacks on on an open road without a shade as the intense sun kept blasting on us felt amazing. But the feeling was short lived.
There were no colectivos out of Santa Maria for Santa Teresa, because the road between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa was also blocked.
At that moment, I finally realized what I should have realized a long time ago – Machu Picchu is simply not worth it. I should have turned on my heel when the van dropped us off and somehow hitchhiked my way back to Ollantaytambo.
But by the time I arrived in Santa Maria, I was already way too invested in the trip to turn around and track back uphill.
In Santa Maria, the paved road ended, so the rest of the walk was on a dirt road covered with rocks. There was a fell tree used as a roadblock about a quarter way through.
That day, I was mentally prepared for an hour long walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. Had everything gone the way it should have, I would have arrived in Aguas Calientes in mid afternoon, which would have given me enough time to find a room before dark.
But after arriving in Santa Maria, it became clear that I will not make it to Aguas Calientes by daylight. Luckily, unlike most other tourists stranded in the same way, I did not have a room booked beforehand in Aguas Calientes, so for me the option existed to either stay in Santa Maria or Santa Teresa.
When it all hit me about how unworthy Machu Picchu is, I played with the idea of staying the night in Santa Maria, and doing the 3 hour uphill walk back to the last road block to hitch a ride to Ollantaytambo with someone, but somehow got influenced by a disillusion that perhaps in the end, Machu Picchu will be worth it. So I carried on to Santa Teresa.
But whereas by the time we got to Santa Teresa it was already getting dark, if I were to make it to Aguas Calientes the same day, I would have to hike through the unlit forest trail at night, I made a decision to spend the night in Santa Teresa, recover a bit from the unplanned strain in the sun and do the hike to Aguas Calientes during daytime the following day. All other tourists from the group with which I walked however already had their rooms in Aguas Calientes pre-booked, so all of them carried on.
I ended up buying a van ticket from Ollantaytambo to Hidroelectrica for the following day. Hidroelectrica (hydroelectric power station) is as close to Machu Picchu as it’s possible to get by car. From there, one must walk around 6 kilometers down a rocky path along the railway tracks to get to the town of Aguas Calientes – a town set up at the foot of the mountain housing Machu Picchu for the purpose of accommodating the trows of tourists visiting the Lost City of the Incas.
I bought the ticket to Hidroelectrica from a woman with a small child in an agency with the office located just off the north-west corner of Plaza de Armas for 40 Soles (just over $12 US). I asked about all the various options they had on offer, and chose the one for 40 Soles because I was assured that this is the only option that will get me as close to Aguas Calientes as a car can get. All other options only went to the towns of Santa Maria or Santa Teresa, which were options for those who wished to explore said towns before continuing onward to Machu Picchu.
The van was scheduled to leave at 8am in the morning, so I headed back to the room in Inka Wasi in order to prepare for the morning departure from Ollantaytambo.
10 minutes before the scheduled departure I showed up in the agency as per the instructions I was given, only to find out that the woman who sold me the ticket was not there, and the guy who was, was too busy dealing with his own clients to pay me any kind of attention.
By the time 8am arrived, I was pretty nervous, but then the single mother showed up, along with her kid, and escorted me to the van. There were dozens of unmarked vans parked along the eastern side of Plaza de Armas. Each appeared to be full to the last seat. The last one in the line had one seat available. The single mother talked to the driver and told me to take my seat.
Everything about the situation seemed way too chaotic and disorganized, so before boarding the unmarked van, I very sternly insisted that the driver confirms to me that this van does goes all the way to Hidroelectrica. He assured me that I’m in the right van, and that we are definitely going all the way to Hidroelectrica.
The not so spacious van was stuffed with foreigners and their luggage. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride and it was to last 4 to 4.5 hours, according to what the single mother told me.
Ride to Hidroelectrica
Despite not being very comfortable, shortly after leaving Ollantaytambo the van ride became incredibly scenic. For the first hour, the road was winding up the side of a mountain. We kept gaining so much elevation, I kept my eye out for a sign mentioning the altitude.
Just before we hit the highest point of the mountain pass, there was a sign on the side of the road informing us that we are entering a cloud zone. As we kept moving upward, we finally reached Abra Malaga, where the sign said we were at the altitude of 4,330 meters above sea level.
From Abra Malaga, we started a descend, and had our first break at La Convencion, where there are a number of restaurants on the side of the road for passing travelers. Owing to its proximity to Machu Picchu, the prices for everything that was on offer were ridiculously overvalued.
After the 30 minutes long break, we got shoved back in the van and continued with our trip to Hidroelectrica, and eventually, Machu Picchu. Or so we thought.
The Worst Experience in Peru
After two hours of the estimated four to four and a half hour ride to Hidroelectrica, the van pulled over at a gas station and told everyone to get off and continue onward on foot.
We were all in shock, myself included. I paid for the ride all the way to Hidroelectrica, but was only taken half way there. The driver washed his hands clean off all the responsibility, and simply told everyone that we each will have to call our respective agency in order to sort it out with them, if we’re unhappy.
What pissed me off about this the most was the fact that I specifically asked for clarification if this van takes me all the way to Hidroelectrica twice – once when I was buying the ticket from the woman who sold it to me, and the second time when I asked the driver before I boarded the van.
Turned out, the locals from the villages on the way to Machu Picchu had a pet peeve with the government, and their way to gain requested concessions was by making the life difficult for foreigners who bring money they work hard for abroad to support the local economies of the protesters, even though none of the locals did anything to deserve it.
At the time of my trip, the road blocks were in place for a week, and both the drivers as well as the agencies selling the tickets knew about it, but lied through their teeth to everyone who paid for the trip that they would get us all the way to Hidroelectrica, while also charging for the whole trip all the way to Hidroelectrica.
And without a shred of remorse, they’d drop us off in the middle of nowhere, fully aware that this is exactly what would happen, and leave us there stranded and without options. Many of the tourists had their accommodation paid for up front (I never do that, so I was lucky not to be one of them), so for them not reaching Aguas Calientes on the day of the trip would represent significant loss. Especially if you consider how overpriced everything in Aguas Calientes is.
The trip to Machu Picchu was without a doubt the worst experience I’ve had in Peru, if not the worst overall in 10 years of traveling. In hindsight, I wish I would have turned around and given up on machu Picchu, because no part of it was worth the absolute crap I as well as all other tourists had to put up with because locals do not appreciate the support tourists provide to the area.
Unfortunately, I made the decision on the spot to walk the rest of the way, tricking myself into falling for the unworthy delusion that is Machu Picchu.