Aguas Calientes, Peru-
It was 5:15 am and I was stripped down to my boxers holding my shoes and clothes in my left hand and a small bag strapped around my chest trying to cross the Urubamba River in the dark with a steady drizzle coming down hoping to stealthily make my entrance into Machu Picchu without paying a cent. As I strode into Aguas Calientes the day before this seemed like a good idea. Yesterday was a warm, sunny day and the river was crystal clear and lazily flowing down stream.
But that was yesterday. At 5:15 am this morning yesterday seemed like months ago and this river in its current form didn’t exist.
A mere 12 hours before this episode I passed the river on my way into town after taking the now well-known cheap route from Cuzco. Anyone visiting Machu Picchu can pay 202 Soles ($71) for a train ride from Cuzco, 142 Soles ($50) for a cheaper train ride from Ollantaytambo (not including the bus ride to get to Ollantaytambo) or 15 Soles ($5) for the bus to Santa Maria where for another 15 Soles ($5) a minivan awaits to take you to a hydro-electric station.
Taking the 6 hour bus to Santa Maria provides a view not easily forgotten. The bus slowly switchbacks up the side of a mountain for an hour before reaching a mountain pass where it then descends. As the bus made its way up to the mountain pass an uneasy feeling overcame all as we peered over the edge to see a wrecked, overturned bus that. That could be us and wasn’t something anyone wanted to see as the bus driver was surgically weaving his way along the mountain’s blind curves. Overturned bus aside the mountains here just seem bigger than any others that I’ve seen before. Maybe it’s just because I’m only several feet from the side of a cliff and I could see everything from the high snow peaked tops down to the jungle filled valley on not one mountain, but half a dozen. I wish the kids in the seats across from me felt the same way but they were too busy being car sick and puking into plastic bags to really appreciate the view.
After the bus ride and minivan I was at the hydro-electric station where I began a scenic 2-3 hour walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. A great day of travel.
“20 Soles? Not possible.”
That’s what a hostal owner told me when I rebuffed his 40 Sole a night price with the maximum I wanted to pay for a room.
“You can’t find that price anywhere in town.” he continued.
That sounded like a challenge to me and I don’t like it when people tell me I can’t have or do something that I want. Taking up his challenge I moved throughout town asking for a room receiving much the same answer. “30 Soles minimum. No rooms for 20.”
Sticking to my price I left another hospedaje with my price point being rejected. Then I met Juan, owner of the Machu Pisco Restaurant, who offered me a place to crash in his half-completed house for 15 Soles a night. Like most buildings in Latin America his was being constructed piece meal one floor at a time on top of his restaurant. At the moment it’s a large concrete open space but it has a hot shower, a toilet and is a secure place to stash my bag.
“I have tents. You can set one up on the floor. I’ll give you some padding.” he went on.
What more do I need? On packing my bag in Cuzco I left some things behind but had a gut feeling that I should bring my sleeping bag. It’s high season in Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes is a small, tourist town with nothing but restaurants lining the streets with over-inflated prices so I thought finding a place to sleep could be tricky. Good gut feeling. That sleeping bag would come into play after all.
I’m there, I’m settled and now all I have to do is get in which brings us to 5:15 am the following morning. I’m wet, a bit cold and half naked standing knee deep in the once-clear but now muddy brown river trying to cross to the other side. The river’s temperament quickly changed with a 2:30 downpour in which all the water from the surrounding mountains ran to the only place it could go – down hill and into the Urubamba. I gingerly made it a quarter of the way across when I saw the rest of the river – Fast moving white water. Common sense then kicked in and I thought better of this fool-hardy plan and headed back to shore guided by the small amount of light my cheap headlamp provided.
That was Plan A and it was a complete failure. Onto Plan B. I’ll simply play stupid with the guards at the bridge. This was my last hope of not paying the 126 Soles ($45) entry fee. With 2,500 visitors a day, 365 days a year paying 126 soles this place is a cash cow and won’t miss my cash.
The bridge and the guards standing at it was my first obstacle. This is the only crossing past the river into Machu Picchu and they weren’t just going to let any schmuck pass. They demand to see your ticket at the bridge before you even get within an hours walking up the side of a mountain of the place. Once past the guards the second obstacle was to make it past the Welcome Center and Ticket Booth at the entrance to the ruins.
Obviously, I didn’t purchase a ticket, thus my current dilemma. My Plan B was given to me by a comment on Travelvice.com and was simply, “Say your friends have your ticket and they took the bus to the top.”
“No. That can’t possibly work. The guards just can’t be that stupid,” I thought. “I’ll need some other way to get past the guards.” Thus my attempt to swim across the river. With little other option I gave this attempt a go. I played stupid from the start and just started walking across the bridge. My walking across lasted all of two seconds before I heard, “Disculpe! Amigo! Ven Aqui!”
Well, here we go. “Si, Senor?” I replied.
“Ticket? I know, I need a ticket to enter Machu Picchu. This isn’t Machu Picchu.”
“No. No. You need a ticket now.”
“I don’t have my ticket. My girlfriend has it. She took the bus because she didn’t want to walk up the mountain in the rain.”
“No. Ticket. Now.”
“I don’t have it! My girlfriend has it. I need a ticket to enter the park at the top. Not here.”
I wasn’t budging from my story and this back and forth went on for two more minutes before the magical words were uttered, “Pass. Pass.”
Yes! River Passed. “Gracias. Buenos Dias!” I said as I continued on my way happily walking over the river instead of through it. The guards really are that dumb and will believe anything if you stick to it.
Obstacle one down. Now onto obstacle two.
My original plan was to simply follow Craig’s advice. Seemed easy enough. I trudged 45 minutes up the steps of the mountain with the rain soaking me through and through. When I saw a gate next to the trail’s stairs Craig’s initial jungle entrance went out the window. The gate was clearly locked and there was no way to climb over it. Luckily, this gate was built with the usual ‘Good Enough’ Latin American attitude. The geniuses who installed the gate did exactly what they were told and installed a gate. What they didn’t do was to fully comprehend why they were installing the gate in the first place so they didn’t think to block off the left side of the gate with a fence. To me a gate is a clear barrier of
entrance so it would also make sense to me to install a fence on top of the waist high boulder to the left of the gate.
That’s not how people think here.
Their solution to this obvious entrance point was to put some dried branches on top of the boulder – not exactly impenetrable and was screaming, “Enter Here!” to me. I shoved the branches aside, climbed up the boulder and swung around the gate before the next group of early morning tourists made their way up the steps and saw the Forbidden Incan terraces in the distance.
I was in but easily visible from all angles. I crouched low and made my way as fast as possible across several stick bridges on a clearly marked path to a gathering of trees. The terraces sat before me so I snapped a few photos and continued up the mountain hiding myself behind the sides of the terraces avoiding detection.
The trail should have continued at the top of the terraces and I found myself staring at the jungle thinking, “That might be a trail.” From here on out I was fruitlessly looking for a trail and my golden ticket into Machu Picchu. What I found was myself bushwhacking my way through muddy, mossy, Peruvian mountain jungle expecting something to jump out and sting or bite me at any second. 45 minutes later I could see faint remnants of the gray sky peering through some tall grass at the top of the hill next to some massive boulders. Feeling the end was near I pushed through the last few mossy trees, vines and sticker bushes to the tall grass where I saw a stone sidewalk and a ‘No Passing’ sign.
I was in! I had no idea which part of the ruins I was entering, but I was in.
At 7:15 am I was wiping the dirt and mud off my pants, hands and face and blending in with the rain poncho wearing tourists. Not easy but not exactly difficult either I had entered one of the new 7 Wonders of the World.
Today was not the best of days to visit Machu Picchu. It was foggy, rainy and cold but that couldn’t put down my spirits. A couple of hours later I had snapped my Machu Picchu post card image and had my fill of the Incan rubble on the side of the mountain and began making my way back down.
The ironic part was I had no idea where the trail from the entrance started so I followed the bus road down the mountain until I could find it. After unloading its army of tourists an empty bus pulled up beside me and the driver told me to ‘get in, get down and shut-up.’ He was sneaking me down the mountain and back into town.
All-in-all my three day and two night trip to Machu Picchu cost a fraction of what everyone else pays. For less than 1-way train ticket I spent three days traveling and visiting the site. Here’s the complete breakdown of costs for visiting one of the most expensive places in Peru.
2 Nights Lodging: 30 Soles
Food/Drink: 59 Soles (Food isn’t cheap and I had no kitchen to cook in)
Bus to Santa Maria: 30 Soles (15 Soles each way)
Van to Hydro-Elec.: 30 Soles (15 Soles each way)
Taxis in Cuzco: 8 Soles
Total: 157 Soles ($55)
Photos of Machu Picchu: