The Adventurous Route to Machu Picchu

One book that is absolutely a 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 can appreciate the means in which we got to Machu Picchu: by motorbike.

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 landscapes nearly as much. We fully agree. This 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 make it to the heart of Peruvian tourism: Machu Picchu.

Girl with Motorcycle in Peru
Motorcycling in the Sacred Valley

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 Machu Picchu, and the only point of entry (besides the Inca Trail) to the famous ruins.

But in reality, you have more or less three routes you can take to get there. There is the standard, and horribly expensive, train that leaves from 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 and 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).

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. All will eventually drop you off at the Sun Gate on the edge of the ruins. There is also the Salkantay Trek, a multi-day hike that ends at Aguas Calientes.

Besides those two (the most popular by far), we found other treks that started in Quillabamba, a hot jungle town near Santa Maria (another small town on the route to Aguas Calientes), 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 getting there.

So while we said there are three options to get there. We decided to pick option four: motorcycle.

So 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 fortune wasn't with us today. I believe he stood outside with us and got his jacket completely soaked through out of pity, and perhaps a bit of guilt at letting us go in out the wretched weather.

Either way, we eventually took off around 7 AM from the town of Cusco. We 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 this decision at all later on down the road.

Two people in front of motorcycle in rain.
The rain couldn't stop us.

The road to Ollantaytambo was familiar to us: we had ventured out a week previously on another bike. Therefore, that scenic stretch of road cruised by quickly. 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 started to lose feeling, he would pull over and jam his hands deep into 3 layers of pants to warm up. Luke eventually did this two more times before we both called it a worthy enough problem and bought dish-washing gloves to help keep the water and wind out of the thin fabric.

One hour later, 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 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 fill up on gas and climb out of the Sacred Valley and over a pass named Abra Malaga, which sits well above treeline. But, the road there is tough. It winds back and forth up the valley walls, giving us blind turn after blind turn; all while it slowly gets colder and colder as you reach higher and higher elevations. By this time 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), we could see waterfall after waterfall, many of which would be 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. 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 jungle. 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 from us 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. We were skeptical but saw for ourselves that there was indeed no traffic coming from where the blocked road supposedly was.

We waited for half an hour, reading our books and drinking more coffee, before our curiosity became too much and we decided to head over and see the river for ourselves. The two cops were right, it was definitely impassible.

The river had completely covered a sharp bend in the road, not just with water but with large boulders, some the size of bicycle tires. We waited with the already long line of cars, talking to fellow drivers who all told us this was completely normal and happened often, especially in the rainy season.

Peruvian men helping lift a motorcycle into a car.
We couldn't have done it without these guys.

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 dinner and drying our shoes, we set off back 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. 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 the bike into his truck. His truck crossed easily - though we were still a bit nervous. We profusely thanked him and 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.

We drove through a couple of small villages, practically empty besides a few barking dogs and a man sitting on a front step 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 fully dark out - 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. But, right as we started to worry we had somehow taken the wrong road we saw the glowing orange lights of Hidroelectrica, the official end of the road and the start of the 11-kilometer trail to Aguas Calientes.

Train track in Peruvian jungle
What the trail looks like in *nice* weather

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 once again switched sides). No surprise, we were the only ones around. It was eerily quiet as if the place had been abandoned years before.

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 along when out of nowhere we saw a super bright light appear in front of us. We stopped in our tracks and watched it, 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 the reason we were out in the middle of the night on a trail (it was about 1:30 AM 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 on the town, which reminded us both strongly of a Pirates and the Caribbean location. Then the first couple 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 AM 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 anyhow before we could head up to the ruins anyway (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 by the way) and 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.

Machu Picchu in fog
The view everyone comes for.

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. From there we started to ascend to maybe the best lookout 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.

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 crossed the day before were completely and totally worth it.