Aguas Calientes – City at the Foot of Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes is the closest town and the access point to the National Park of Machu Picchu. Even though the Peruvian government is working hard to rebrand the town as “Machu Picchu Pueblo” (Machu Picchu Town), the name of Aguas Calientes sticks because it’s been known thus for years, and the fact that its original name (meaning “Hot Waters” in Spanish) reflects the fact that at the back of the city, in a small nook of the mountain, you can find “thermal-medicinal waters” only further assists in maintaining the old moniker.

Photo: Fountain with Statue of Inca in Aguas Calientes
Photo: Fountain with Statue of Inca in Aguas Calientes

The government of Peru is deliberately ensuring that Aguas Calientes remains an island on the land, isolated from reasonable road access, so that the only way to reach the lost city of the Incas is by way of the train, which allows the government to brutally overcharge the tourists for the access (upward of $480 each way for a ride that the locals pay an equivalent of $3).

Aguas Calientes is for all intents and purposes a tourist town. It’s purpose of serving as the final rest stop for foreigners on their way to and from Machu Picchu seems so obvious, that if it weren’t for Machu Picchu, it would most probably not exist at all.

Photo: Beyond Its Poshy Facade, Aguas Calientes is Rather Ugly
Photo: Beyond Its Poshy Facade, Aguas Calientes is Rather Ugly

But because of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes receives thousands of people from all over the world every day.

As a matter of fact, according to the official statistics, the city has 3,400 residents and receives an average of 1,500 daily tourists. I was one of them suckers.

Because its primary purpose is to serve as the last stop for tourists heading to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes is replete with hotels and restaurants, as well as convenience shops selling heavily overprice goods, plus you would find there offices of banks with ATMs, the sales office of entrance tickets to the archaeological zone of Machu Picchu, police station, the IPerú office, post office, pharmacies, small medical center (Health Center), cybercafés, public telephones, shops of souvenirs and gifts, and adjacent to the train station a crafts market with handicrafts of dubious origin and quality.

Photo: Statue of Inca Warrior with Condor in Flight
Photo: Statue of Inca Warrior with Condor in Flight

All travelers from and to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu must pass through Aguas Calientes. The actual Machu Picchu archeological site is located 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) up the hill – about 1 hour 30 minutes walk if you decide to avoid shelling out $10 USA for the bus to take you up the windy road to the lost Inca city.

When I arrived, I was pretty sweaty from the 10km long walk in the mostly unshaded sun. As I was making my way deeper into the city in order to come across more economical accommodation option, I was being repeatedly approached by touts trying to lure me into a restaurant for a lunch, as well as women trying to lure me into a massage parlor to get a massage.

Photo: Selfie with Statue of Inca Woman in Traditional Dress
Photo: Selfie with Statue of Inca Woman in Traditional Dress

I was pretty adamant that first I need to secure myself with a room, leave my luggage there and take a shower before entertaining any of the offers, so I resolutely declined any and all approaches. As for the massages – I knew from Cusco that it makes no sense getting a massage in South America, and I was sure the prices would be even more aggressive in the entirely touristy Aguas Calientes.

Photo: Virgin del Carmen Church in Aguas Calientes
Photo: Virgin del Carmen Church in Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes has accommodation options for all pocket depths, but expectedly, the cheapest ones also provide the adequate quality. I initially got myself a room for 40 Soles (about $12 US), which had moldy walls and was overall very crummy and dark, but I was ready to suffer through it in order to avoid paying too much in a place like Aguas Calientes, but whereas the internet just didn’t work in said hotel, after a couple hours of frustration trying to get online, I had to resolutely cancel my stay there and look for a room elsewhere.

Photo: Mold on Walls in Hotel Where I Wanted to Stay in Aguas Calientes
Photo: Mold on Walls in Hotel Where I Wanted to Stay in Aguas Calientes

Eventually I got me a room for 50 Soles (about $15 US), which even though located in a really loud place, both internally and externally, was reasonably comfortable and came with a queen sized bed, and whereas the staff could care less about manning the reception properly, I sneaked in a Brazilian girl I met while getting lost looking for the Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu, and spent the night with her without anyone in the hotel noticing.

Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes – Scenic Walk Along Train Tracks

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.

Photo: Beginning of the Foot Trail at Hidroelectrica with Warning that Walking on Train Tracks Is Prohibited
Photo: Beginning of the Foot Trail at Hidroelectrica with Warning that Walking on Train Tracks Is Prohibited

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.

Photo: You Need to Take This Detour from Main Trail at Hidroelectrica in Order to Get on Right Path to Aguas Calientes
Photo: You Need to Take This Detour from Main Trail at Hidroelectrica in Order to Get on Right Path 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.

Photo: This Is the Upper Trail That Actually leads to Aguas Calientes
Photo: This Is the Upper Trail That Actually leads to Aguas Calientes

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.

Photo: Railway Bridge Over the Vilcanota River with Footpath on the Right
Photo: Railway Bridge Over the Vilcanota River with Footpath on the Right

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.

Photo: Hiker to Aguas Calientes Will Have to Walk on Train Tracks Because of Passes Over Creeks Like This One
Photo: Hiker to Aguas Calientes Will Have to Walk on Train Tracks Because of Passes Over Creeks Like This One

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.

Photo: Hidroelectrica to Aguas Clientes Trail Offers Spectacular Views, But View of Machu Picchu Remains Hidden
Photo: Hidroelectrica to Aguas Clientes Trail Offers Spectacular Views, But View of Machu Picchu Remains Hidden

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.

Photo: Except in Beginning, the Trail to Aguas Calientes is on Flat Surface and Tracks the Vilcanota River
Photo: Except in Beginning, the Trail to Aguas Calientes is on Flat Surface and Tracks the Vilcanota River

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.

Photo: First Glimpse of Aguas Calientes from Trail After 10 Kilometers of Walking from Hidroelectrica
Photo: First Glimpse of Aguas Calientes from Trail After 10 Kilometers of Walking from Hidroelectrica

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.

Photo: Tourist Signage on Trail Between Hidroelectrica and Aguas Calientes
Photo: Tourist Signage on Trail Between Hidroelectrica and Aguas Calientes

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:

Trip from Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica – As Close As Car Can Get to Machu Picchu

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.

Photo: Hidroelectrica Is As Close to Machu Picchu As One Can Get by Car
Photo: Hidroelectrica Is As Close to Machu Picchu As One Can Get by Car

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.

Photo: Piles of Bagged Plastic Bottles Encountered at Hidroelectrica Station Before Machu Picchu
Photo: Piles of Bagged Plastic Bottles Encountered at Hidroelectrica Station Before Machu Picchu

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.

Photo: At Hidroelectrica the Drivable Road Ends and Tourists Have to Continue on Foot Along the Railway Tracks
Photo: At Hidroelectrica the Drivable Road Ends and Tourists Have to Continue on Foot Along the Railway Tracks

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.

Staying the Night in Santa Teresa on the Way to Machu Picchu

The road between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa is along a canyon and is incredibly scenic. The pavement ends in Santa Maria, so along other cheated tourists, from there onward we walked on rocky dirtroad.

We followed the canyon to where it narrowed a little and there was a bridge that got us across on the other side. Then it seemed like we literally backtracked along the same canyon, until the windy mountain pass lead us into the town of Santa Teresa.

Photo: Plaza de Armas in Santa Teresa at Night
Photo: Plaza de Armas in Santa Teresa at Night

We were losing daylight fast. Everyone from the group I walked with had a hotel booked in Aguas Calientes (ie Machu Picchu Pueblo). I was the only one who never books anything like that ahead of time. By the time we arrived in Santa Teresa, it was close to 6pm and the night began its relentless descent onto the area.

I separated myself from the group and having decided to stay the night in Santa Teresa, I popped into the nearest hostel to ask about the cost. Called Hospedaje Cajamarca and located on the corner of Plaza de Armas, the hostel had better rooms for 50 Soles upstairs, and cheaper ones without windows for 30 Soles downstairs. I was only there for the night, so I stayed in the more economical room.

Photo: Hospedaje Cajamarca on Plaza de Armas in Santa Teresa, Peru
Photo: Hospedaje Cajamarca on Plaza de Armas in Santa Teresa, Peru

Santa Teresa is small enough to cover on foot, and even though only a fraction of tourists heading for Machu Picchu seeks shelter there, it’s replete with hotels and hostels. And they’re pretty reasonably priced.

What’s not reasonably priced, is bottled water. Ever since I arrived in Peru I was baffled by the high cost of bottled water, and the fact that most of it is just purified tap water. I wouldn’t dare risk my health drinking right out of the tap in Peru, but the fact that that’s the water you pay top money for, with the sole promise that it’s free from pathogens likely present in the actual tap discharge, was mind boggling. Either way, I was dehydrated from the long walk because of the roadblocks, so I shelled out 5 Soles for a bottle of ozone treated tap water and went back to the hostel.

Photo: Main Church of Santa Teresa
Photo: Main Church of Santa Teresa

Other than that, Santa Teresa had a pleasantly laid back feel to it. It’s small so it’s not overrun neither with tourist nor the locals, but has all the conveniences you may need to enjoy a peaceful rest if you opt to drop in for a stay.

Road Blockages to Prevent Tourists from Getting to Machu Picchu

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.

Photo: Rocks and Trees Used as Road Blocks to Prevent Tourists from Reaching Machu Picchu
Photo: Rocks and Trees Used as Road Blocks to Prevent Tourists from Reaching Machu Picchu

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.

Photo: Line of Cars Stuck at Road Block as Hostile Locals Watch
Photo: Line of Cars Stuck at Road Block as Hostile Locals Watch

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.

More Lies

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.

Photo: Fell Tree Used as Road Block on Dirt Road Between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa - Drivers Tried to Remove It with an Axe
Photo: Fell Tree Used as Road Block on Dirt Road Between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa – Drivers Tried to Remove It with an Axe

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.

Trip to Machu Picchu – The Worst Experience in Peru

After I’ve concluded the exploration of Inca ruins in Ollantaytambo with the walk to the remnants of the Inca bridge and the nearby pyramid, I returned to Plaza de Armas to find out about the means to advance on my way to Machu Picchu.

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.

Photo: Beautiful Mountainous Scenery Encountered on the Way to Hidroelectrica from Ollantaytambo
Photo: Beautiful Mountainous Scenery Encountered on the Way to Hidroelectrica from Ollantaytambo

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.

Photo: Freely Roaming Alpacas Can Be Encountered on the Way Up the Canyon
Photo: Freely Roaming Alpacas Can Be Encountered on the Way Up the Canyon

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.

Photo: Canyon Separating Ollantaytambo from Machu Picchu Is Covered in Lush Forest
Photo: Canyon Separating Ollantaytambo from Machu Picchu Is Covered in Lush Forest

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.

Photo: Road Up the Scenic Mountain
Photo: Road Up the Scenic Mountain

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.

Had I not conquered 5,000 meters two days earlier at the Rainbow Mountain, this would have been the highest above sea level I have ever been. Although in this case it would have been highly undeserved, as I was taken to the elevation by car.

Photo: The Sign Warns Drivers That They Are Entering an Area Fogged Up with Clouds
Photo: The Sign Warns Drivers That They Are Entering an Area Fogged Up with Clouds

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.

Photo: Rest Stop for Drivers Between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu
Photo: Rest Stop for Drivers Between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu

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.

Photo: Cloud Veil on Hills with Road
Photo: Cloud Veil on Hills with Road

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.

Photo: Tight Bends Were the Only Way to Drive Up the Mountain Pass
Photo: Tight Bends Were the Only Way to Drive Up the Mountain Pass

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.

Ollantaytambo Off the Beaten Path – Inca Bridge and the Pyramid

Having arrived from Cusco, gotten a room, explored the ruins on the Pinkuylluna Mountain, and filled my belly with fried trout, I felt like I’ve seized the day pretty well, but whereas I still had an hour until the sunset, I decide to get off the beaten path in Ollantaytambo and explored its least visited areas.

Photo: Pedestrian Uses Suspension Bridge to Walk Toward the Pyramid
Photo: Pedestrian Uses Suspension Bridge to Walk Toward the Pyramid

I found out while messing around the town’s main square of Plaza de Armas that just outside of the town boundaries on Ollantaytambo’s south-east side, can be encountered the ruins of an ancient Inca bridge, and that near said bridge lay also the ruins of an Inca pyramid. I hit it off to check those out.

Getting to the Inca Bridge

I started the walk from the south-eastern corner of Plaza de Armas and followed the road due east, passing the small market with incredibly overpriced fruits (Peru is expensive to begin with, but it’s even worse as you get closer to Machu Picchu – Ollantaytambo was second only to Aguas Calientes, which is at the foot of Machu Picchu), and onward down the road, until I reached a T intersection. There I turned left and after a few meters immediately right to carry on due east.

On that road I passed Inka Paradise hotel and some kind of a school, after which there was a narrow pedestrian dirt road through a field. That road leads to the bridge. Except at the end of it, there’s a cliff that needs to be descended so if you didn’t take the stroll in your hiking boots, you will only get to enjoy the bird’s eye view of the bridge, and no pyramid.

Photo: Bird's Eye View of Suspension Bridge Built Over Old Inca Bridge
Photo: Bird’s Eye View of Suspension Bridge Built Over Old Inca Bridge

An alternative is to go around town by following the road back to Cusco, but that road is narrow with no sidewalks to safely walk on and the drivers don’t pay much respect to pedestrians.

Inca Bridge

There isn’t a whole lot left of the ancient Inca Bridge. Just the support column erected in the middle of the Vilcanota river still holds the original stones used for its constructions. Nowadays, a newly built suspension bridge connects that banks of the river, still utilizing the remnants of the old Inca structure.

Photo: Rocks in the Middle of the River Are Remains of the Old Inca Bridge
Photo: Rocks in the Middle of the River Are Remains of the Old Inca Bridge

Along the Ollantaytambo side of the river there are railway tracks leading to Aguas Calientes, but no road so tourists don’t have the means to get themselves near Machu Picchu, and are stuck having to use the train for which they are charged more than 100 times the cost of the locals. It is a major and blatantly deliberate rip off which I refused to support.

Photo: PeruRail Train Passed By While I Was on the Inca Bridge in Ollantaytambo
Photo: PeruRail Train Passed By While I Was on the Inca Bridge in Ollantaytambo

While I was at the bridge, a train with ripped off tourists returning from Machu Picchu back into Cusco passed bay.

Ollantaytambo Inca Pyramid

On the other side of the tracks from the bridge is the pyramid. It is a cascading stone structure build into the slope. I didn’t come across any reasonable kind of backinfo about the pyramid, except that it’s there, near the bridge next to the tracks.

Photo: Ollantaytambo Inca Pyramid Seen from the Opposite Side of the River
Photo: Ollantaytambo Inca Pyramid Seen from the Opposite Side of the River

Te pyramid had a set of protruding stones built into the outer wall, to serve as steps for ascend. Despite dodgy looking purpose, those steps are solid and absolutely safe to walk on, having withstood the test of time – centuries after being built, they are still there in their original form after affording countless people the way up on the pyramid.

Photo: Rock Steps Built Into the Outer Wall of Ollantaytambo Pyramid
Photo: Rock Steps Built Into the Outer Wall of Ollantaytambo Pyramid

Because the way I came to the area involved a descend down a very steep cliff including a near 2 meter jump, going the same way back was not an option, so I walked around town down the paved road from Cusco.

The vast majority of people who come to Ollantaytambo will only visit the fortress – having shelled out some $43 for the entrance to the archeological sites within the Sacred Valley of the Incas. They come on buses as part of organized tours which only take them to the fortress and nowhere else. So whereas the fortress is overrun with hundreds of tourists every single day, the nearby Pinkuylluna Mountain, which is free to visit receives very few visitors, but when it comes to the Inca Bridge and the Pyramid on the opposite side of the river, your chances of spotting another tourist around them are next to none.

Dining at Apu Veronica Restaurant in Ollantaytambo

Upon descending the Pinkuylluna Mountain, I met a middle-aged American couple who asked me if where I came out of was the entrance to the hill with the ruins. I ended up having an interesting conversation with them right there on the narrow, cobblestone covered street of the old Inca part of Ollantaytambo.

At one point they mentioned they had dined at Apu Veronica Restaurant located across the bridge heading out of town, and recommended the restaurant to me for some of the best food in town. So I made a point of heading out there and satiating my digestive system after the uphill climb.

Apu Veronica is, exactly as the Americans told me, across the bridge heading toward the fortress. It is located on the second floor of a building, but is well marked to make it easy to find.

Photo: Apu Veronica Restaurant Is Located on the Second Floor
Photo: Apu Veronica Restaurant Is Located on the Second Floor

I walked up and seated myself in the smallish restaurant currently catering to just a couple of people eating there. However despite being noticed by the staff, I was totally ignored for the longest time.

I proceeded to walk up to the counter and grabbed a menu out of there myself, thinking this would get the message across and a waiter would come to ask what I wished to order. That never happened.

The menu suggested heavily overpriced dishes, but whereas one of the dining patrons was a local, I knew they also had locally priced options. I found those on an individual sheet on the counter.

Photo: Apu Veronica Restaurant in Ollantaytambo, Peru
Photo: Apu Veronica Restaurant in Ollantaytambo, Peru

Called “Daily Menu“, this option offered a selection of a few pre-made dishes for 15 Soles which included a small plate of soup and a glass of Chicha Morada (traditional Peruvian non-alcoholic, sugar sweetened beverage of deep purple color made from dried dark corn). Compared to the dishes listed in the menu, which sell for upward of 70 Soles (over $21 US) per plate, these three course meals are hell of a better deal, but as a foreigner, you’re not supposed to know about them. That’s if anyone bothers to serve you in the first place.

Having figured out what I wanted, and having demonstrated to the staff that I’m indeed present in the restaurant and ready to place an order, I expected a waiter to finally show up after some 15 minutes of ignoring me in the restaurant with hardly any people to keep them busy. It never happened, so I stood myself up, walked up to the counter again, and called up a waiter to place an order there.

I ordered fried trout, but asked if instead of standard rice as an accompaniment, I could get a portion of fresh salad made from whatever veggies they had in the kitchen. The waiter said it shouldn’t be a problem, so I went to sit myself down at my table again.

Photo: Fried Trout with Fresh Salad and Chicha Morada at Apu Veronica Restaurant
Photo: Fried Trout with Fresh Salad and Chicha Morada at Apu Veronica Restaurant

As per the speed of previously demonstrated service, it took forever to finally bring me my order, but nevertheless, I got the trout exactly as I asked for. Compared to what I got in nearby Puno for half the price, this was a miserable portion of fish, but I was in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, so I took it as it was.

I went to Apu Vernica after descending the Pinkuylluna Mountain so I did feel like unwinding after the heart pumping uphill trek, which is probably the only reason why I stuck around. The terrible service with no reason to justify the insanely long waiting times was otherwise inexcusable. The food however, I have to admit, was tasty and the cook prepared it for me the way I wanted, so I feel like my review is at the draw as far as recommending or not recommending the restaurant.

Photo: Other Dining Options in Ollantaytambo Sometimes Put a Smile on My Face
Photo: Other Dining Options in Ollantaytambo Sometimes Put a Smile on My Face

Furthermore, unless you get sucked into ordering one of the hard core overpriced options from the foreigners’ menu, the value for money in Apu Veronica is decent. The food was safe and didn’t make me ill, so I’ll leave it at just that – Apu Veronica is probably a decent choice for dining in Ollantaytambo, but not if you don’t have whole day to wait for service, or are really hungry.

Hike Up Pinkuylluna Mountain to Ruins of Inca Storehouses in Ollantaytambo

While Ruins of Ollantaytambo are the main archeological attraction in the town of Ollantaytambo, I left them out of my itinerary, as I did many other major archeological sites in and around Cusco, because the entrance fee to those is 140 Soles ($42 US). I simply refuse to support the rip off practices of this magnitude, unless it’s something I could not, for the life of me, afford to miss out on.

Photo: Inside Pinkuylluna Warehouse Ruins
Photo: Inside Pinkuylluna Warehouse Ruins

Good thing about Ollantaytambo is that on the opposite side of the town from the main archeological site, is steeply towering Pinkuylluna Mountain, on which there are multiple smaller ruins of Inca storehouses and access to those is entirely free. The only challenge is that one must climb on foot the steel slopes of Pinkuylluna Hill in order to access them. But that’s an adventure in its own right that would be worth while even if there were no ruins on Pinkuylluna. Hell yes I was up for it.

And I wasted no time. As soon as I checked in the Inka Wasi Hostal, I put on Shea Butter which I use as purely natural sun screen, and headed out to hit the slopes.

Face of Viracocha

One quickly observable feature of the Pinkuylluna Mountain is the Profile of the Inca (Perfil del Inca). Said to represent the face of Viracocha – the supreme god of the Incas, the father of all other Inca gods and the creator of the earth.

Photo: Face of the Inca Carved Into Rock Next to Storehouse on Pinkuylluna Mountain
Photo: Face of the Inca Carved Into Rock Next to Storehouse on Pinkuylluna Mountain

I was told by a local that the face on the side of the mountain is not an orographic whim, but it was sculpted in the rock, and it fulfills an astronomical function related to the seasons – the cultivation cycles – illuminating itself in the solstices in a certain way.

Access to Pinkuylluna Mountain

From Plaza de Armas, enter the old town of Ollantaytambo by way of the street the nearest to the hill (rightmost when facing the old town from Plaza de Armas). Follow the narrow, cobblestone street until you come across a gate on the right hand side.

Photo: Pinkuylluna Hill Entrance Gate
Photo: Pinkuylluna Hill Entrance Gate

The steep rock steps begin right on the other side of the gate. On the left side of the gate there is a sign informing you that you are at the entrance to the Pinkuylluna Mountain.

Climbing the Pinkuylluna Mountain

The trail up the Pinkuylluna Mountain will get your heart pumping right off the bat. Climbing the hill is basically one major cardio exercise, so by taking the hill on, you’ll get the combination of good heart workout, the best views of the town as well as the main ruins, and the ability to get up close and personal with the storehouse ruins without shelling out a dime.

Photo: Pinkuylluna Mountain Storehouses with Uneven Rock Trail
Photo: Pinkuylluna Mountain Storehouses with Uneven Rock Trail

There were moments during my climb when the gusts of wind were super strong, so not only did I have to hold on to my hat, I had to carefully watch my footing on the narrow rocky trail with deep abyss on its side. If you’re a thrill seeker, you’re gonna love walking the cliff edges of the hill.

Storehouses

The Pinkuylluna storehouses, or mountain granaries, are rectangular structures perched on various parts of the Pinkuylluna Mountain.

Photo: Selfie in Front of Storehouse Ruins on Pinkuylluna Hill
Photo: Selfie in Front of Storehouse Ruins on Pinkuylluna Hill

Although the placement of these warehouses on top of the hill may seems strange, the fact that at that height the air is cooler and it moves faster, would help in preserving the food and keeping it ventilated. I also tend to doubt the exhausting hike needed in order to reach the storehouses would attract many would be thieves.

Photo: Main Ollantaytambo Ruins Are Better Visible from Pinkuylluna Mountain
Photo: Main Ollantaytambo Ruins Are Better Visible from Pinkuylluna Mountain

Overall, even though challenging, I found the hike up the Pinkuylluna Mountain, and the exploring the storehouses to be a rewarding experience that was totally worth the effort.

Moreover, with the amazing views of the main Inca fortress, I was happy to be on the hill where there were hardly any other people around, and not within the overcrowded main ruins overrun with thousands of tourists.

Photo: Pinkuylluna Ruins with Town of Ollantaytambo in the Background
Photo: Pinkuylluna Ruins with Town of Ollantaytambo in the Background

If you continue all the way to the top, the ever fainter trail will take you around the hill where you will find a small cave. Few people, including locals, even know about the cave.

Photo: Cave in the Back of Pinkuylluna Mountain
Photo: Cave in the Back of Pinkuylluna Mountain

If you’re easily spooked, or suffer from vertigo, a climb up the Pinkuylluna Mountain may be hazardous, but in every other case I would certainly recommend it as an alternative to the overpriced and overcrowded main ruins of Ollantaytambo.

Photo: Bird's Eye View of Ollantaytambo Town with Section of Storehouse Ruins on Pinkuylluna Mountain
Photo: Bird’s Eye View of Ollantaytambo Town with Section of Storehouse Ruins on Pinkuylluna Mountain

Here’s a video of bits and pieces I filmed while hiking the Pinkuylluna Mountain. At times the wind gusts were extremely strong:

Inka Wasi Hostal in Ollantaytambo

Upon arriving in Ollantaytambo from Cusco, I proceeded to look for a room to stay in. I liked the idea of staying within the stone streets of the original Inca town, so I wandered around there and asked in a few places that had a Hotel or Hostal sign.

Photo: Inka Wasi Hostal Sign As Seen from the Street
Photo: Inka Wasi Hostal Sign As Seen from the Street

The van from Cusco dropped me off at Ollantaytambo’s Plaza de Armas, and whereas it was obvious that all traffic passing through the small town passes through Plaza de Armas, I decided to stay in Inka Wasi Hostal, which is located near Plaza de Armas to provide near instant access to the downtown area, but is not directly on it so as not to pay too much for a room.

Photo: Room in Inka Wasi Hostel in Ollantaytambo
Photo: Room in Inka Wasi Hostel in Ollantaytambo

Inka Wasi had nice and clean looking rooms, but the windows faced the hostal’s courtyard where local children played and yelled whole day and late into the night. People living in the adjacent houses used the courtyard to conduct their overly loud phonecalls. Needless to say, there were few opportunities for a restful sleep.

Photo: Inka Wasi Hostal Courtyard with Living Quarters in the Background
Photo: Inka Wasi Hostal Courtyard with Living Quarters in the Background

The bed was however comfortable, there was hot water in the shower, and the internet worked reasonably well. The location would be probably the establishment’s biggest selling point, and at the cost of 50 Soles per night (a touch over $15 US), the value for money was nothing to write home about as far as Latin America is involved, but it wasn’t overly pricey either.

Overall, I would stay at Inka Wasi again, if I made a return trip to Ollantaytambo.