We wanted to save a few bucks and we’d heard about getting into Machu Picchu through a ‘backdoor’ entry. We researched this option and although it’s anything but a secret these days it certainly is cheaper and more fun. Especially if you can ride many of the 200+ km from Cusco to Santa Teresa on a motorcycle.
Normally if you want to see Machu Picchu you can hike in from much further down the valley or take a train.
A favourite option for travellers seems to be a 4-day hike. Costs range from $450 to over a grand per person, depending on luxuries, and includes a mandatory guide, park entry fee, porter, tips, etc…
Or you can take the train from Cusco. When it’s running from Cusco, which it wasn’t when we were there. Costs vary depending on where you hop on the train but it’s approximately $200 per person round trip from Cusco. When it’s running. Then there’re the park entry fees, your hotel, meals on top of this price.
The Cheap Way: You can also get yourself to Aguas Calientes, the major hub for getting into the park, by way of backroads and walking, which we opted for. We left Cusco in the morning around 9:00 a.m. and rode our bikes to Santa Teresa, approx. 200 km away. There was an ‘interesting’ section of road the GPS took us on that was closed indefinitely for construction. The raised hand of a working hombre told us we couldn’t pass because they were using explosives ahead. But then suddenly it was OK to pass when an English-speaking man came over and they moved aside the orange cone.
Flying down the ‘closed’ road we had all to ourselves, I came around one corner and saw Dave’s bike down and him in the process of lifting it from a pile of rocks ranging in size from toasters to couch pillows. He had tried to manoeuvre through the rubble, left from a very recent explosion from above, but got toppled over by some of the larger rocks. I jumped off my bike and went to help him but he already had his bike on its kickstand and was pushing aside rocks to clear a path for his wheels. This was made much more exciting due to the fact that rockfall was quite eminent. We were slow-moving targets under a steep, unstable wall of rocks poking out of the dirt slope above. We tried to hustle as the men above waited patiently at first but then realized Dave now had to hike back up the road and get my bike to ride it through the obstacle course. They began yelling for us to hurry up so they could blow up more stuff without the risk of killing a tourist.
Luckily the rest of the road was just fun dirt with a few sections of slippery mud and rock and we were shortly connected back to a paved highway. I believe that GPS is totally on Dave’s side. It too chooses dirt over pavement. Every time.
About 20 km before Santa Teresa we had another fun dirt road etched into the side of the mountains complete with a wafer-thin bridge crossing and one spot where they didn’t even bother with a bridge so we had to ride through a small river over the road.
We got into Santa Teresa around 3:00 p.m., quickly packed an overnight bag with just a few essentials: toothbrush, change of underwear and some money, leaving the rest of our things on our bikes in a locked room beside a hotel that was surrounded by glass, so the bikes actually looked more on display like a motorcycle showroom than safe in storage. But the hotel came recommended for storing overland bikes and it was cheap—20 soles ($6 USD) to keep them overnight.
We hailed a taxi for 30 Soles ($9 USD) to take us the 20 mins or so up the road to where there is a hydro-electric dam and also a station for the train going into Aguas. The sun shining Dave and I decided to walk the two hours in to Aguas instead of paying the 84 Soles ($25 USD) for the train. It was a pleasant but somewhat long walk that ended in a bunch of rain but we enjoyed the scenery, which was along a very exciting, scary river that kept me as a lapsed river kayaker, thouroughly entertained.
In Aguas we found a hotel for 70 soles ($20USD) and went out for dinner. On the way back we stopped to buy bus tickets. You can walk to the park entry but it’s steep and takes about one and a half hours walking the road. There are no other vehicles in Aguas except those commissioned for work or Machu Picchu transport, hence why we had to leave our bikes down-valley. The bus was about 80 soles round-trip ($24 USD) but buying tickets was about to become a problem for us this evening.
Note: In Machu Picchu you MUST BRING your passport. In the past tourists were going into the park in the a.m. then coming out and selling their entry tickets—which cost us 142 Soles total ($42 USD)—to other tourists going into the park in the afternoon. There were messages all over Facebook and Twitter telling travellers not to buy tickets because you could likely find a scalper. With passports now required, you need to show this ID along with your tickets. We have mixed feelings about this. We don’t agree with scamming park systems, especially one as sensational as Machu Picchu, but we are growing weary of what we are now calling ‘racist prices.’ In several instances because we are tourists we pay sometimes 3-4 times the amount locals pay for things. We saw this in the Galapagos and find it on a daily basis when we buy anything from water to plane tickets to park entry fees. When you go out of your way and usually your budget to experience a country’s beauty, culture and people, this feels like a slap in the face, especially since it comes on the heals of people constantly approaching you for money because they assume tourists are rich. But I digress…
I had left my passport on my bike at the hotel in Santa Teresa not even remotely thinking I’d need it. Dave had brought his. In order to purchase bus tickets we both needed passports. I knew my number by heart but they wouldn’t accept that, it had to be the original because it needed to be scanned into the ticket.
Deflated, we walked back to the hotel. I told Dave of course he could go to see Machu Picchu without me as it was my own fault. I went to have a shower and then had an idea. We had scanned all our important docs and e-mailed them to ourselves in case of lose or theft. In the lobby I found Dave and asked him to get his phone online and find our back-ups. The internet was agonizingly slow and wouldn’t download the PDF of my passport. It was about 9:00 p.m. and I had no idea if I was going to see Machu Picchu at all, which had been a few days diversion off our schedule to get to. While Dave’s phone was trying to load itself, I asked the hotel manager if he could call the hotel in Santa Teresa with our bikes and get them to find my passport on my bike then scan and e-mail the copy to our hotel in Aguas. Luckily, my absentmindedness in not locking my panniers was going to be a saving grace now.
The hotel manager was happy to make these arrangements. After requesting their phone number on Facebook, a long process in itself, he called the hotel and asked the woman at the desk to find my passport on my bike. Then he hung up. I asked him how does she know where to look for the passport. He said isn’t it just on your bike? Um, no, it’s not just ‘on my bike.’ I explained it was hidden in my pannier and he called her back. Together over the phone we walked her through the tricky metal opening on my hard case pannier. This was placing a lot of trust in a random hotel employee as she could also help herself to my laptop, a Ziploc bag of money, my cell phone, not to mention my passport. But I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to see MP.
We were up before 6:00 a.m. the next day wondering if my passport copy had been scanned and e-mailed to the hotel overnight. It had and now the challenge would be if we could use its copy to buy bus tickets and also park entry fees. We could and we did and before 7:00 a.m. we were on a bus winding up the steep road to MP.
The day was very cloudy, dark and socked right in. We could see nothing! Our park entry fee included a hike to the top of Machu Picchu mountain, which we decided would be a great place to pass three hours in the hopes the clouds would lift. The hike was very steep and we could see nothing until the top where the clouds parted a little and we could see the incredible Inca ruins below through a thin fog. We hustled back down to the ruins. Luck was on our side—we had great views of MP and its ruins. Although not sunny by any means, the cloud and fog actually added to the mystic and we happily snapped off a bunch of photos.
When we’d had our fill of this beautiful and very busy place, we caught a bus back to Aguas, had lunch then caught the 1:30 p.m. train to the hydro dam for 80 Soles each ($24 USD), just to experience that aspect. I’m not sure if the whole ride in from Cusco would be as bad as this 30 minute train ride out but it was pretty sketchy. The tracks are obviously out of shape and very warped. Our train was rocking back and forth so badly it’s amazing it didn’t derail into the river. We were glad for the short ride back. At the dam we hopped into a shared local taxi heading to Santa Teresa for 10 Soles ($3 USD), found our bikes and rode off to one of the best camping spots we’ve had so far.
Total cost for us to visit Machu Picchu: 367 Soles per person ($109 USD), including hotel but not meals or fuel riding to Santa Teresa and out.