We settled in at Hostal Estrellita in Cusco, a popular well run family hostal that many overland touring motorcyclists and bicyclists stay at.
Rejuvenated by the ‘gringo options’ and making new friends but it wasn’t before long that we were ready to set out on the bike again and explore the Sacred Valley, albeit with a lighter load so we stored most of our gear and took off for what was supposed to be a 2 week expedition including Machu Picchu and a dip into the “Selva” (Jungle) but opted against the jungle trek as rainy season had arrived and after the route we did accomplish we couldn’t be faced with another day of pushing our bikes. Read on for more info.
For what is considered to be the one of the world’s most popular ruins and a top ranked UNESCO world heritage site, it’s sure not easy to get to Machu Picchu on a budget or easy to find out information on “how to”. The easiest way is to take a bus from Cusco to the town of Ollantaytambo then hop the train to the Pueblo of Machu Picchu (formerly known as Aguas Calientes) but this will set you back at least $100.
Unwilling to succumb to the high prices we vowed to get there for less. The way to do this is known as the “back way” which constitutes of taking a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, then a bus to Santa Maria over the Abra Malaga pass at 4,350 m then a combi to Santa Teresa, then a taxi to the Planta Hydroelectrica where you walk along the train tracks for 8 km’s (about 1.5-2 hours). Total travel time is estimated at about 7 hours.
It is possible to ride your bike as far as the Planta Hydroelectica but you’d have to leave it there (you can pay someone at the station to watch them for you) but you aren’t allowed to take the bikes to Aguas Calientes (based on accounts from recent bikers who have tried – Check out While out Riding’s Post).
We opted to ride the back way to Ollantaytambo through the charming town of Huarocondo(62 km), leave our bikes at Hospedaje las Portadas [great, secure family owned hospedaje for 40 soles/night (double), space for camping (10 soles) and dorms for 15 soles] and take the above mentioned route via bus/combi/taxi (Approximate cost: ~$30 USD according to our friend’s Simon and Olivia’s blog from when they did it) but we lucked out as there were two consultants staying at our hospedaje that needed to drive to the hydro station the next morning and offered us a ride (about 4 hours by vehicle). The back way is scenic but very curvy (I managed to get sick – first time ever guess I am too used to being on my bike now) but we got there a lot faster than by taking public transportation (and didn’t cost us anything). From there we hiked the train tracks (~8 km’s) into Aguas Calientes.
To get to the actual site of Machu Picchu you can hike up from the town (8 km’s/~ 2 hours) or take a bus ($10 USD/person). To get back out we opted to hike from Aguas Calientes along the train tracks towards Ollantaytambo for 28 km’s (7 hours hiking) to km 82 where you can catch a combi (about 45 min) to Ollantaytambo (~4 soles).
Woman selling chicha morada (a drink made out of purple corn, lime, cinnamon and cloves and sweetened) in the plaza in the town of Huarocondo.
We had been seeing red flags hung out of door ways for a while now, we stopped and asked what this meant. When there is a red flag it means that the house or tienda (small store) has freshly made chicha (a fermented corn beer), alternately a white flag signifies that there is freshly baked bread.
From the town of Huarocondo, it was pretty much downhill to Ollantaytambo on a “closed” – due to derumbas (landslides), we were told that we could use the road, just bike with caution. This also meant there would be little to no traffic for us.
The back way was also lined with little visited Incan ruins which we had all to ourselves.
Karen enjoying the back road with her festive Christmas bicycle.
At the town of Pachar we were able to jump on an Incan trail for the last few km’s and enjoy some single track before reaching the town of Ollantaytambo.
The final section included a muddy road and pedestrian bridge before reaching the cobblestone town.
Arriving at the hydroelectric station we hiked along the tracks where there, for the most part, was a path along the side of the tracks. The hike is a gentle grade, easy and there are little houses along the track selling beverages and snacks. We had a companion join us for the whole duration of our walk.
We did probably what every tourist does, we wanted to get the Machu Piccu as soon as the site opened at 6 am, and woke up late (we had planned to hike up) but it was pouring rain so we forked out the $10 each for the bus up to arrive at the site shrowed in mist and clouds. We had paid the extra fee (you have to purchase your tickets in advance) for the Wayna Picchu (meaning young mountain) hike for the first group. They only let 400 people hike this a day, 200 at 7 am and the other 200 at 10 am, thus we hiked the whole thing in the clouds with limited views. The hike was nice and kept us warm in the rain but we weren’t able to see much.
After coming down from the Wayna Piccu hike, we had read the Cerro Machu Piccu hike on the other side of the site was free and headed over that way to kill some more time in hopes that the clouds would break however we reached the check point for the hike and found out that admission is only with a pre-bought ticket and there is no way of purchasing a ticket on-site (which seemed silly to me as the whole Machu Piccu experience is extremely monetized and here we were willing to pay extra for an additional hike on the spot and found out that it was not possible). In hind site I would recommend doing the Cerro Machu Piccu hike over Wayna Piccu as there is not a limit to the number of people that hike it, there are no slotted time spots (as long as you start hiking it before 11 am), less people hike it, and it’s supposed to have stunning views.
Waiting for the clouds to break meant that we could focus on the finer details … like the intricate stone work …
But by the afternoon the clouds started to part and we got our first glimpses of this magical place.
Until finally the clouds dissipated and the full splendor of the site was revealed.
Words nor pictures can justify the splendor of this place, it’s not even the ruins themselves that are overly spectacular but when you look at the site as a whole, the sheer location is what makes Machu Piccu so spectacular and just spending the time pondering how this magnificent site was built and what civilization would have been like when this site was active is humbling and mystifying.
The hike back along the train tracks from Aguas Calientes to km 82 was enjoyable and went by quickly as the scenery constantly changed and there were several ruins along the way to break up the trip and explore.
Before leaving Cusco, we had borrowed a book from our Hostal called “Hiking and Biking Peru’s Inca Trails” (poorly written, wrong elevation and distances BUT gives you an idea of trails you would not know about without the book) we got the idea to make a circuit connecting several ruins. Our ‘back bike ways’ would take us from Ollantaytambo to Lares Hot Springs over to Pisac, back to Ollantaytambo then over to Moray through a series of what were supposed to be “bikeable” back roads/trails.
Lightly packed we decided to tackle the Lares Trek, locals had told us we were crazy to go by bike, but we insisted that this “guide book” says it’s possible by bike so we set off soon to realize it was more of a “hike-a-bike” rather than the sweet single track we were in search of.
From Ollantaytambo we headed up the first 16 km’s of good road towards the town of Patacancha from there the guide says to take the trail up towards the pass behind the school. From here we pushed the bikes another 6 km’s with only a couple 100 meters being ‘bikeable’ to the Abra Ipsay pass where we finally gave up and made camp for the night
Señor Esteban helped us find the right route and invited us in for coffee and a snack of boiled potatoes to wait out the rain before we carried on pushing our bikes uphill.
These three children dressed in traditional clothes of the sacred valley met us on the trail up to the pass hiking back home from school. They live in the community of Ipsay (2 km’s before the pass) and walk this every day to school. It’s about a 5 km walk and to return to their homes it’s a steep hike which didn’t seem to phase them. The three of them helped push my bike for at least 4 km’s before we parted ways. They were smiling and laughing all the way and only spoke a few words of spanish (Castilleno) as their native language is Quetchua.
Our camp spot in the pampas (high grass plains >4,000 m asl) for the night right before the pass.
The very little of single track we had on the other side of the pass on our way down to Lares.
Mike getting his bike stuck in the squishy crossing, he thought he’d have some luck calling a tow truck to get him out : )
A welcome sight after 2 days of slogging, rain and cold we finally arrived at the Lares Hotsprings where we were able to pitch our tent for the night (7 soles) and soak in the hot pools.
The road out of Lares was of true Sacred Valley splendor with amazing views, not much traffic and dirt.
It was also lined with splendid murals, the first depicts the Puya raymondii plant (endangered and endemic to the region) and the second a tribute to the importance of the potato (a staple crop and with over 400 varieties in Peru alone).
We spent a few days in Pisac taking one day to explore the massive ruins from there we opted to return to Ollantaytambo for the night to take the back road (as shown in the guide book we were using and confided by Google maps) to the Archaeological site of Moray avoiding the main road through Urubamba.
The supposed “backroad” to Maras shown in Google Maps (see red arrow) .. ended up being a goat trail lined with thorns.
The supposed “backroad” to Maras (heading east) shown in Google Maps (see red arrow) .. ended up being a goat trail lined with thorns.
Heading back along the back road we took from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was supposed to be the back road to Moray. We asked some gentleman for the way and they literally pointed up the mountain at this goat trail confirming that was the back way to Moray and that it would be a had slog. It turned out the men I had asked for directions were teachers at the local school and invited us in for a rest and to meet their students. We gave a small talk with the aid of a globe to explain a little about our trip and before we bid our farewells they loaded us up with a bag of biscuits, can of evaporated milk and sent some of the kids as our escorts up the trail towards Moray.
The kids took off wish gusto pushing both mine and Mike’s bikes up the hill for a good distance. When I was sure we were on our way I thanked them for their help and sent them back to their classes. After another 1/2 hour of pushing I realized that our SPOT tracker, usually on the back of my bike, was missing…
I immediately dropped my bike, yelled to Mike to stay there and ran down the hill back to the school where I explained to the teachers what had happened. Of course not one of the kids confessed to taking the SPOT as I explained exactly what it did. With the teachers help they rounded up a group of boys to help me look for it back up the trail. Again no one would confess to taking it but as they lead me back up the trail one of the boys found the waterproof bag that usually holds the SPOT discarded on the side of the trail, empty.
I explained to them my thoughts that if they knew where the bag was, they certainly knew where the SPOT was. All denied again until they accused the little old lady that had passed us on the trail of taking it, I explained to them that I doubted that, then they accused a fellow classmate of taking it who was not there. I asked if they could take me to where he lived to ask him, they agreed and I followed the group of boys back down the hill to seek out the accused offender … on the way back down another boy from the class was running up towards us with the SPOT in his hand… with luck it was returned.
With this I sat down and explained to them what exactly the contraption did, that it sent a signal to our parents to tell them where we were for safety and if we got into trouble we could press a button that would notify the police as to where we were. I explained the implications of what would happen if the SOS button was pressed. I also explained how grateful I was that it was returned and that I wasn’t mad with them and thanked them for their help in getting it back.
What could had turned out bad turned out fine in the end. Our first item stolen was also our first item returned. And with that the youngest shook my hand and gave me a big before he ran back down the hill to school, the rest followed his gesture. I was touched…
After the ordeal we pushed on, literally, as there wasn’t a meter that was “rideable” until we reached the “carreterra” aka highway as the local lady referred to it as (shown above) with her help navigating through the goat trails lined with thorns and cacti, two flat tires later we had reached the top. At least the views were great.
Once we reached the top it was flat enough again for agriculture and we followed the trail down towards the Archaeological site of Moray.
Reaching it about an hour before dusk we had time to have a peak and continue on to the town of Maras for the night. In hind site we should have camped at the site of Moray as the town of Maras was dingy, with only one hospedaje that charged too much for what it was and there weren’t a lot of wild camping options as the church was under reconstruction.
But the views at dusk on the way down to Maras and the final taste of 6 km’s of single track made it worthwhile. After our visit of Maras we opted to hightail it back to Cusco skipping a trip to the salt mines of Salinas as we had had enough of disappointing routes where we were looking for more biking and single track and less hike-a-bike.