Discovering Machu Picchu: The Holy Grail of the Gringo Trail

“Well, that was nice”, said Brittany as the train pulled out of the station. I laughed at how simple, yet true, the summary sounded. We had just visited Machu Picchu, one of the modern wonders of the world, and it really was ‘nice’. So many adjectives are used to describe Machu Picchu: mystical, awe-inspiring, incredible. And, while these are all true, it’s also true that it’s ‘nice’. Visiting Machu Picchu is a nice way to spend a couple of days.

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It’s also a mandatory stop on the Gringo Trail – the path most travellers make through South America. It was the one spot I knew I would visit before I left home. This had the strange effect of putting a lot of pressure on my visit to Machu Picchu. I put it off for a long time, delaying gratification, feeling apprehensive about whether it would live up to my expectations. After all, so much has already been written about it, you’ve seen so many pictures of it on the Internet. The adventure is somewhat taken away from you. But still you go. You have to. You have to see it for yourself.

We forewent the 4-day Inca Trail – the idea of spending 4 days hiking in high altitude sends my body into a panic. While it’s one of the most famous treks in the world, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it, and that it’s not really for me. Instead, we opted for public transport.

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I always thought seeing Machu Picchu would have to be one of the big expenses of my trip to South America. But, after looking into it, it turns out that you can do the whole thing pretty cheaply. You can take a colectivo (a minibus that only leaves when it’s full up) to Santa María, which is about a 4-hour journey through windy mountain roads. From there, you can take a taxi onto the hydroelectric plant, which is a further hour or so away. Once you get to the hidroelectrica, it’s just a 20km walk along the railway tracks to Aguas Calientes, the very touristy town at the foot of Machu Picchu. Although this walk is almost half the length of the Inca Trail (43 km), it’s a much easier hike at a much lower altitude and you can reach Aguas Calientes in about 2.5 hours, depending on your pace.

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Overall, it takes about a day to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes this way. And while it’s probably not for everyone, it was a memorable way to reach Machu Picchu. It alleviated my traveller’s guilt for not doing the Inca Trail: it had an element of hiking and I could use public transport – something I love to do when I travel. So, for me, it was perfect!

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What can you say about Machu Picchu itself that hasn’t already been said? We had a great time wandering around the ruins, admiring the views, and petting the llamas. It was incredible, awe-inspiring, mystical, and all of the other adjectives that have been assigned to Machu Picchu over the years since its ‘discovery’ in 1911. But, most of all, it was, quite simply, ‘nice’.

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