One book that is an absolutely worthwhile read is Robert Pirsig's, "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". If you haven’t read it, do. You won’t regret it. If you have read it, then you will appreciate the means by which we got to Machu Picchu: by motorcycle.
Pirsig writes that there is no better way to see the world than to be submerged in it: the rain, the cold, the heat, the bugs. If you're behind a glass window, you don't appreciate the landscape nearly as much.
We fully agree.
That is why we set off on a newly rented motorbike to make an epic trek around the Sacred Valley, over a 3,256-meter pass, through the thick Peruvian jungle, and along precarious cliff-carved dirt roads, to get to the heart of Peruvian tourism: Machu Picchu.
But first, some background information.
One common misconception is that Machu Picchu is relatively difficult to get to. This is mostly due to the fact that no roads lead into Aguas Calientes - the small, touristy city at the base of famous ruins.
But in reality, you have more or less three routes to take to get there, all varying in cost and difficulty.
First, there is the standard, and horribly expensive, train that leaves the town of Cusco and zig-zags back and forth up the mountains, then descends into the Sacred Valley before following the Urubamba River downstream into Aguas Calientes.
The second option is to take a bus for approximately 5-6 hours from Cusco to a small town called Hidroelectrica, and then either catch the less expensive train from the station there or walk along the train tracks for approximately 11 kilometers (6 miles) to Aguas Calientes.
The third, and least traveled path, is on foot. There are plenty of trails that head towards Machu Picchu, among them the famous Inca Trail, which eventually drop you off at the Sun Gate on the edge of the ruins. There is also the Salkantay Trek: a multi-day backpacking trip that ends at Aguas Calientes (our friend did that and said it was indeed, epic).
Besides those two (The Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek, the most popular by far), we found other treks that started in Quillabamba, a hot jungle town near Santa Maria (off the main road), that definitely called to our adventurous spirit. If you have the time, we highly recommend hiking to Machu Picchu.
We didn't. So we took another approach to get there.
So, while we said there are three options to reach Machu Picchu, we decided to pick option four: motorcycle.
Here is our story.
It was raining when we suited up. The salesman at the motorcycle rental place, Peru by Bike, stood outside squinting up into the rain saying that lady luck wasn't with us today. I believe he stood outside with us, getting his jacket completely soaked through, out of pity - and perhaps a bit of guilt at letting us go out into the wretched weather.
Either way, we eventually took off from the town of Cusco at around 7 a.m. We had decided on a whim to buy rain pants the morning of the adventure, and after eventually finding them (one hour and two markets later), we had already lost a lot of our day. But they proved their weight in gold and we didn't regret the decision at all later on down the road.
The paved, twisty road to the town of Ollantaytambo was familiar to us: we had ventured out a week previously on another bike, just to do a bit of a "scouting" mission. The high altiplano landscape outside of Cusco has a certain dreary draw to it. Especially when the fog kisses around the low, green mountains on either side of the valley.
Eventually, thanks to the speed we were moving at, and the slightly chilled air, our exposed fingers started to freeze. Once Luke (who was driving) started to lose feeling, we would pull over and jam our hands deep into 3 layers of pants to warm up. Luke eventually did this too many times for us to call it a worthy enough problem, and in the next town we bought dish-washing gloves to help keep the water and wind out of the gloves thin fabric.
Soon enough, we rode into Ollantaytambo, near the end of the Sacred Valley. The beautiful small town is situated precariously between multiple steep mountains. Most impressively, today - thanks to those creative and insanely adaptive Incans - those mountainsides are either terraced or covered in beautiful ruins. Waterways run through the town and its narrow cobblestone roads give the feeling of you being 300 years back in time. The main square, even though it’s surrounded by countless pizza and tourist restaurants, still holds its pride and Incan heritage with metal and woodwork of the famous Incan triage of animals: the Anaconda, the Cougar, and the Condor.
Setting off after a tasty lunch, we began the first difficult leg of our journey: we needed to climb out of the Sacred Valley and over a pass named Abra de Malaga, which sits well above treeline. But, the road there is tough. It winds back and forth up the valley walls, giving you blind turn after blind turn; all while it slowly gets colder and colder as you reach higher and higher elevations. By this time in the day, it still had not stopped raining, and everything was absolutely soaking wet. From the soles of our feet to the hair under our helmets. But the landscape was absolutely beautiful (remember “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” yeah this was our own type of “zen”).
Even through the pounding rain (and somewhat thanks to it), we could see waterfall after waterfall in the valley - many of which would have been dry otherwise. The cascades toppled off mountains and merged into each other, before finally reaching the rivers below. It was a beautiful sight: the white rapids against the wet green earth.
The pass eventually came into view and we were ecstatic...and cold. Very cold. Once at the top, we hopped off of our iron steed and stepped into the only building there: an old church. We quickly stripped off our gloves and helmets and warmed our fingers over the candles people had brought for prayers. People filtered in, all leaving prayers of safe travel through the rain and thick fog that waited for them below. We never caught a sideways glance warming our fingers though, the people in the church seemed to understand our dilemma.
The other side of the mountain was foretold to be warmer, it was the boundary of the Amazon Rainforest after all. So we kept pushing to try and break the now suffocatingly thick white fog that hung around us, soaking our whole bodies, and making the hairpin turns more terrifying than they already were. But we hardly broke it. Except once, when the beautiful snow-capped mountains surrounding us showed themselves for the tiniest amount of time before veiling themselves once again.
Our second warming stop brought us to a small restaurant nestled along a seemingly middle of nowhere stretch of road. Inside, the hostess gladly showed us to the backside of the cooking fire and brought us steaming cups of coffee. Feeling slowly returned to our fingers and toes. Besides us, the only other customers were two cops sitting at a nearby table finishing up their plates of food.
Through broken Spanish and a lot of hand charades, we learned that the road was washed out about 3 kilometers ahead and we couldn't pass for another 3 hours. But we were skeptical. So we headed out to check for ourselves. But after seeing the traffic, and the massive rushing river blocking the road - and not just with water but with large boulders, some the size of bicycle tires, we had to admit that our trip might take a bit longer than we originally thought.
We waited with the already long line of cars, talking to fellow drivers who told us this was completely normal and happened often, especially in the rainy season.
Eventually, even though the water still had not started to recede, a few gutsy (and impatient!) buses decided to take a run at it. Other cars backed out of their way, giving them plenty of room to take on the mighty flow. Everyone on either side of the bank seemed to hold their breath. We took this as our cue to take an early dinner back at the warm restaurant.
After eating our food and drying our shoes, we set back off towards the river. Now there was no more traffic, all having crossed previously, but the water was still uncomfortably high for a motorcycle to cross (especially driven by two newbies). But lady fortune seemed to be changing sides.
We got lucky in there being a local man with his pickup truck parked across the river, and after seeing us mentally go back and forth on whether it was worth crossing or waiting, drove back across and loaded our bike into his truck. His truck crossed easily - though we were still a bit nervous. We profusely thanked him and his son for taking pity on us - they simply smiled and motioned it wasn’t a problem. After that, we continued on down the road - and into the humid jungle.
The whole river incident had cost us three hours.
The road crossed ten more streams. Some were shallow ankle soakers, and others were nerve-wracking rivers (though luckily none had rocks in them). We started to feel the rising of the temperature… and the rising of the humidity. Soon enough we were stripping off our underlayers and breathing in the warm, dense air.
We drove through a couple of small villages, practically empty besides a few barking dogs and a few men sitting on front steps here and there. By now it was past dusk. But we knew we still had a ways to go.
Eventually, we got to the town of Santa Maria. Here we left the nicely paved road behind and started down a rough, rocky dirt track that looped through even smaller villages. By now it was completely dark - all we could make out were a couple of dim lights off in the distance and the sound of the roaring Urubamba River right next to the road. We tried to remain calm. But this was practically our first big off-roading motorcycle experience - and we were doing it in the dark, on a road we knew nothing about, next to a river that sounded like a stampede of a thousand horses. By now, the fun had started to wear off.
That dirt road took us at least an hour to conquer. The whole time, we sat there with white knuckles, trying to stay positive, trying not to think about how awful it would be to topple over into the river below. But, right as we started to worry we had somehow gone the wrong way, we saw the glowing orange lights of Hidroelectrica, the official end of the road and the start of the 11-kilometer hike to Aguas Calientes.
We parked our bike, locked our helmets nearby, and grabbed our two backpacks. It was nearing midnight and the rain had started to fall once again (I guess lady luck had switched sides once more). No surprise, we were the only people around. It was eerily quiet - as if the place had been abandoned years ago.
The only soul we saw was a little furball that came trotting over to us. He was the size of a Jack Russell Terrier, though brown in color with longer fur. Once we located the well-trodden trail along the railroad tracks, he began to lead the way. It quickly became clear that he knew the area a lot better than us.
Beneath soaking rain jackets, we made our way along, Madalyne stopping before every railroad bridge to help Teddy (which we quickly named our four-legged companion) cross. Teddy trotted ahead of us, stopping and waiting for us to catch up before meandering on. We were about two-thirds the way when out of nowhere we saw a super bright light appear in front of us. We stopped in our tracks and watched, our tired minds moving at 3 miles per hour to try to figure out what it was.
Oh yes, we are on a train track, that must be a train.
We grabbed Teddy and ducked behind some bushes, why? We don’t know. Maybe we just didn’t want to be questioned on why we were out in the middle of the night on a trail (it was about 1:30 a.m. by now).
The train slowly moved on, and so did we. Half an hour later we finally came along the outskirts of Aguas Calientes. First, the train depot, where the wealthy tourists first get their sights of the town that reminded us both strongly of a Pirates and the Caribbean set. Then the first couple of guesthouses and small cafes.
We didn’t have a reservation - that takes planning and that is something we just don’t do. So we stopped at the first one and knocked, thinking the chance of someone being up at 2 a.m. was highly unlikely but worth a shot anyway. We were right. No answer.
The same thing happened at the second and third guesthouse. By now we were planning on just sleeping outside, we would only have a couple of hours of sleep anyhow before we could start up to the ruins (we had morning tickets for Machu Picchu, hence the crazy drive through the night). But then on our fourth try a sleepy older Peruvian woman opened up her warm building and gave us a single, simple room to rest our heads - if only for a bit.
Four hours later we were up and putting on our still wet clothes, grabbing two strong coffees and a couple of croissants (for waaaay too much money we might add) before loading onto one of the multiple buses that make the daily drive up the mountain and to the ruins. Once we got to the top we saw for ourselves the madness that is Machu Picchu. Think Disneyland crowds in one of the prettiest places in the world.
We, along with a couple hundred other souls, shuffled slowly inside the gates. From there you either went your own way or followed your brightly colored and overly loud tour leader. We quickly huffed our way up to the start of the trail for Montana Machu Picchu (which you have to get an extra ticket for). From there, we started to ascend to maybe the best viewpoint of our lives: the ruins shrouded in clouds below, tall glowing green mountains surrounding us, with even taller, white-capped peaks peeking out behind them. It was jaw-dropping to say the least.
We were absolutely mesmerized and 100% glad we had made the long journey the day before. At that moment we knew that the cold, wet, tiring, and terrifying miles we had conquered were completely and totally worth it.
Machu Picchu is incredible. It is expensive and crowded, but worth every penny and every trouble. The ruins themselves are beautifully maintained, and the loop that tourists walk through is awe-inspiring. We had no guide, but we picked up information here and there from passing groups, every detail catapulting us deeper into the mysticism and ingenuity of the Incan people.
After a couple of hours, we were ready to head back to town. We decided to hike down the grand stairway trail back to Aguas Calientes instead of riding the bus. Once back in town, we found a restaurant selling "cheap" pizza. We sat down to a large glass of water and mediocre food and watched the local kids spray each other with foam and water (it was Carnival). It was a beautiful town, but disgustingly touristy. It is a town to stay the night in, but not a town to visit. We found only one worthwhile coffee shop, Cafe de Paris, which sold plenty of pastries, cakes, coffee, and sandwiches for a very reasonable price. All of which we decidedly stocked up on before we hit the trail back to our bike.
We had arrived in Aguas Calientes approximately 14 hours before. Rather long for our taste. As soon as we could, we headed back down the train tracks in good spirits. We passed many travelers making their own voyage up to the town and ruins beyond. It seems inappropriate to assume, but we couldn't help but think that we had appreciated Machu Picchu much more than they would after the struggle it took us to get there. Who can say though? Each traveler has their own experience.
Before long, we made it back to the bike, quickly packed up, and headed back out on the dirt road (much less terrifying in the light) towards the town of Santa Teresa.
While Santa Teresa is not huge, we had heard it had some legendary hot springs. And after the last 48 hours, we couldn't resist the urge to go and soak our sore, wet feet in some deliciously warm water.
Once in town we quickly found a hostel, stored our bags, and then headed for the springs. They were a cheap 10 soles to get in. The hot springs consisted of three pools, all wonderfully warm, all with amazing views of the surrounding valley. It was absolutely amazing and safe to say, we enjoyed ourselves tremendously.
After a couple of hours of soaking, we headed back to town to get dinner at a restaurant we had been recommended by the hostel owners. Luckily, we got there right in time for happy hour, and for 30 soles we got four of the best mojitos we’d ever had. After a filling dinner, and a bit too much alcohol, we headed to bed, where we slept like logs.
We awoke early the next day, worried about the rain (we did not want to get stuck on the wrong side of that river again). By the time the sun was rising, we were already bidding Santa Teresa goodbye.
The trip back was quite easy, with the exception of that once again freezing mountain pass. The river turned out to be nice and low, and it even wasn't raining. In the end, we made such good time back to Cusco that we decided to take a pit stop at the Moray salt mines near Urubamba, which were incredibly cool (we highly recommend checking them out if ever in the Cusco area).
After the quick stop at the salt mines, we made the final trek into Cusco. The weather held for us, even though a storm brooded and threatened to pour most of the trip. Back in the Incan capital, we returned our bike and found ourselves a nice hostel for the night. We hung out our wet jackets, pants, socks, and bags, toweled off our bodies and fell asleep for a wonderful night after one epic trip.
A couple things to note: Getting to Machu Picchu is entirely up to how much time and money you have. You can go the most common way, by bus or van, or you can go the expensive, but luxurious way, the train. But we have always found ourselves drawn to more difficult modes of transportation. And because we didn't have the time to do one of the epic treks (The Inca Trail, Salkantay Trek) we settled on a motorcycle. Even after our adventure (and the ups and downs that came with it), we completely recommend a motorcycle to anyone who is in a similar boat as we were - or who is just looking for something epic: you really get a unique feel of the Sacred Valley when you are zipping through it on two wheels. Honestly, it is kind of indescribable unless you've done it.
But, there are some important things to keep in mind if you want to follow in our footsteps:
First, if you are going in the rainy season, and maybe even if you aren't, prepare to get wet. So, pack extra gloves, extra socks, and extra pants to change into. We only brought two pairs of socks (it was only three days after all!) and regretted it after BOTH got wet on the first day. Wet socks suck.
Second, understand that it takes more time on a bike than in a car. Even without the three hour hold up at the river it still would have taken us around nine hours. It supposedly takes cars five or six. So prepare for a long day and leave Cusco early so you don't roll into Aguas Calientes at the ungodly hour we did.
Finally, the whole trip to Machu Picchu is pricey, even if you aren't taking the train. Everything, from bottles of water to (cheap) crackers, is more expensive. So either bring all that stuff with you, or be prepared to just pony up the cash in order to have a good time.
Even after everything, we really enjoyed the trip. It was cold, it was wet. But you cannot complain too much when the end destination is seeing Machu Picchu in person. But it wasn't just the ruins we really enjoyed - Santa Teresa is a surprisingly cool place to spend some time, especially the hot springs, and the views along the Sacred Valley and up and over the pass are absolutely incredible.
So if you are looking for one epic adventure - and have the gumption to take on a motorcycle trip - we highly recommend following in our footsteps. To this day, this has been one of our all-time favorite adventures, and one we talk about again and again.
Looking to learn more about Machu Picchu? Or just want an exciting adventure book to read (especially during these times)? Then consider checking out Mark Adams' book, "Turn Right at Machu Picchu"