Visiting Machu Picchu, the famous Inca ruins, isn't a totally straightforward journey - and I don't think we took a particularly complicated route. First we flew to the Peruvian capital Lima, then took another plane to Cusco, the closest airport. Then there was a bus to the historic Inca town of Ollantaytambo, and later a train to Aguas Calientes, a town of hot springs at the bottom of the hill from Machu Picchu. (Aguas Calientes is a relatively hideous little place, built only to serve the tourists and only half finished. It has been renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo (Town), presumably to make it easier for tourists to know they have arrived at the right place.)
Then finally there was a bus up to the ruins themselves.
And your Machu Picchu experience doesn’t come cheap – though I certainly don’t begrudge the Peruvian government what must be a significant addition to the country’s GDP. Flights to Cusco aren’t cheap, and the closer you get to Machu Picchu, the more the tourist prices rise. It cost more than US$70 each for the 90-minute or so train trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (though that does include a free cup of coca tea and biscuits), US$24 for the 15-minutes bus trip up the hill, US$50 per day for entry to the ruins, plus almost US$15 to climb one of the sacred mountains behind. Want a pee? That’ll be 50 cents. And of course every tourist pays for accommodation, restaurants, bottles of water and photos taken with a woman with a colourful hat and a llama.
Since we didn’t have to be back at work in Denver within the week, we were able to enjoy the journey in a relaxed fashion. The bus ride from Cusco takes you through the fertile Sacred Valley, with its rushing river (white water rafting is popular with tourists here), its fields of corn, potatoes, quinoa, flowers and vegetables, and a series of small settlements and bigger towns, with most of the houses still made from local red earth bricks, with orange tiled roofs. The fields were small and varied, and all the ploughing was still being done by pairs of oxen; harvesting was by hand. Women carried the produce from the fields in big bundles on their backs. Alongside the road there were cactuses and prickly pears, and the odd Inca ruin.
The towns were busy. There was Saturday morning football going on, a wedding in one place. One town was advertising a “Festival Gastronomica de la Cuy”, with an alluring picture of a cute guinea pig just waiting to leap into the pot. We saw tuk tuks for the first time, colourful three-wheeled vehicles carrying everyone and everything between the settlements.
Once on the train the valley narrows to basically the river and the train tracks. It’s dramatically beautiful as the steep, dry mountains on either side give way to jungle.
There is a road to Machu Picchu Pueblo, but it’s a perilous, five-hour trek on a single lane unmade-up road through steep countryside, with bus-swallowing drops. Locals living in villages along the road have long asked the government for an upgrade, but the railway lobby is strong. Put in a decent road and some of the more budget-conscious backpackers and tour groups would start going in by road.
And then they’d miss out on their tea and biscuits.