Peru has so much unexplored territory, why would you take the well beaten track? And yes, you should take your heels 😉

Many time-strangled travelers opt for the PeruRail train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo. You can board it in Poroy or Ollantaytambo and it becomes a leisurely (so they say, I haven’t done it) and costly ride right to the township at the foot of the citadel.

But hey, I like making things difficult for myself and fellow travellers (because that’s where the adventure lies 😉 ) and instead opted for the lesser known, budget-traveller back route. It’s not just for the budget-conscious. While the Inca trail route is more of a “glamping” experience, this one gives you a real glimpse into the world of the local population and ends in a true hiking experience.

Cusco to Santa Maria

Scrambling out of bed super early (5am?) to catch a taxi to the bus station is where it all begins. We were forewarned that the area is not the safest part of town so a taxi was mandatory and only around 7 soles at that hour. When we arrived the buses were nearly full but we could still ask around for the best price (we got ours for about 19 soles each). There were about 5 other foreigners on the bus: a Brazilian backpacking through the other South America and a few French girls who spoke almost no Spanish. Luckily I could blurt out a few words in French. **impressed with myself I still remember**.


The bus ride is far from comfort: windy roads and moody weather. Makes for stunning photos. If only we could get off to take them! But nothing beats the journey. The clucking chicken tucked away in the purse of the woman behind us, the cravings for the cheese-topped “choclo” (corn) or capsicum or even eggs – !dairy-free alert: if you pick carefully you can get an uncontaminated cob of corn and it’s a super cheap snack for the 5 hour ride! – lovingly home-cooked by every woman in every village who boards the bus offering the bus driver something from the fruits of her labour (bribe? 😉 ) and hopping off at the following stop, catching the next bus back. The locals on the bus are lapping it up so it must be good fare!

There were no bathroom stops along the way so about half way, on a barren hilltop with stunning vistas of a valley the bus made a stop and about 90% of the bus hopped off to do what they needed to. In plain sight. Wish I took my camera out (reminded me of the time I saw a busload of Japanese tourists urinating next to the Church of The Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo – another set of pictures and story altogether!). The Peruvian women from the bus proved why large skirts were the best invention ever. They were the only ones who managed to maintain some level of dignity.

The rest of the ride is fairly cruisy, with the typical Andean/Peruvian radio station playing 70s/80s love songs from the region: consistent themes of drunken nights, red wine, labouring, beautiful “morenas” and a whole heap of broken hearts emerge. They call this type of song “corta venas” (vein cutting) and is best enjoyed with a lot of wine and in a drunk stupor, reminiscing over lost loves. Would even make a cynic fall hopelessly in love just to lose him or her. Certainly had me falling in and out of love with my travel companion 😀


Santa Maria to Santa Teresa & Hidro-eléctrica

Santa Maria is not a stop you are likely to miss. About half of the bus gets off and you are greeted with more home-cooked food and a whole lot of drivers. These guys are your lift to the next destination. If you are traveling solo, get onto them quickly so that 1. you don’t have to wait for the next busload and 2. so that you can squeeze in with another group before someone else does. The trip should cost you around 10 soles.

Some people opt to stay the night in Santa Maria, however the township itself is the sort of place that grows because of the need for a bus stop really. Instead I opted to use my time to argue with the woman at the local ‘market’ after she refused to give me my change back. Really, I was only practicing my Spanish and I got my money after a few minutes of heated debate – it wasn’t a significant amount either however on principle I refuse to be seen as an opportunity to be cheated. Just goes to show the importance of learning the local lingo. Well worth it anyway. The market I mean. The fruits they sold are grown locally and were as ripe, plump and juicy as a fruitarian would have them. The perfect 5-hour motion-sickness antidote. If I didn’t have all my camera gear I would have filled my bag with them.

The Santa Maria stop is also a good time to use the long-drop public toilet (paper will cost you about 1 sol) because you won’t be seeing another one until you arrive at your accommodation at Machu Picchu Pueblo (unless Santa Teresa is your destination, or you are comfortable with going in nature – together with who knows how many other tourists!)

Once you’ve settled into your “colectivo” (shared taxi), do not be surprised if you make stops along the way either to top up on passengers in Santa Teresa, to load up a walking mother and children into the trunk of the vehicle or to wait while a slip is being cleared. It’s about a 1.5-2 hour ride (not including delays) to the hidro-eléctrica. For anyone that’s done the Skipper’s Canyon drive in NZ before upgrades you’ll recognize the feeling of driving on a gravel road with nothing separating you from certain death but the few centimetres between the wheel of the vehicle and precipice and the faith you (should) have in your driver. If you are lucky to speak some Spanish, sharing such a claustrophobic space with your driver can give you a perfect opportunity to find out about the locals. Ask anything. All these people are tied to the land one way or another and are a wealth of knowledge: whether about the local life or tourist routes. Ask about the Santa Teresa floods. Ask about the Incas. Ask about other Inca ruins! Ask about the plantations. Ask about the Ukumari. Actually don’t ask about the Ukumari. Don’t even google it before your trip. Don’t even google or ask about Pumas either. You’ll thank me when you get back from Machu Picchu 😉

If you don’t speak Spanish, start learning 😉 Most of the people in this area do not speak English!


The trek to Machu Picchu Pueblo

When we arrived at the hidro-eléctrica it was getting late. Around 3pm to be precise. We had a delay with filling up a ‘colectivo’ in Santa Maria then had to change to another one in Santa Teresa and wait for the next bus. Not ideal when you are visiting during the rainy season and clouds come and go frequently. Visibility can be very poor in the early evening. We quickly strapped on our backpacks, tied our laces and set off on the power-walking race along the railroad.

The demographic that takes the route is quite varied. From college-types to well-seasoned seasoned travelers. To start off there were about 10-20 others heading in the same direction. Then I have no idea where everyone disappeared. Train? Running ahead? Lagging behind? Met an Ukumari? Remember don’t google Ukumari just yet. We continued the journey with the Brazilian and the French girls, one of which had become quite sick by that point.

It’s only a 2-3 hour walk, over flat or gently sloping terrain (and past banana plantations!) so should not put off even a family pack. There are some interesting relics and land formations along the way (look out for the Mustafa rock – The Lion King reference) but the most rewarding of all, and you won’t realise it until you’ve climbed up to Machu Picchu, if you look up the river and up into the mountains you are actually seeing the back of the citadel. Not even the back: the cliff face that once had a nerve-testing extremely narrow carved path to yet another city, another post, another ruin beyond Machu Picchu itself… deep in the Andean jungle… who knows!


Summary and tips:


  • Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu Pueblo are names used interchangeably to refer to the same place.

  • “Machu Picchu” is pronounced [mah-choo peek-choo]. Saying ‘pee-choo’ adds a whole different meaning 😉

  • Having a torch with a decently charged battery or turning off the cellphone if it has torch capabilities is mandatory as either may be needed at the end of the day!

  • Stocking up on snacks and food at the Cusco markets (vegetarian’s dream and it’s cheap!) the day before is helpful. Machu Picchu Pueblo groceries and food can in some instances be almost double!

  • Best practice in Cusco is to catch a taxi (about 7 soles all up) to the bus station that has buses departing for Quillabamba as the station is located in a dodgier part of town.

  • Ask around at the station for the best prices. Comfort will come second as these are buses taken by locals to get them to work and/or home. The ticket to Santa Maria should cost around 20 soles. Buses depart 5.30am and 7.30am.

  • Santa Maria is the last stop for stocking up on some fruits (again cheaper than Machu Picchu Pueblo). Also a good time to use a bathroom. Then ask around for a “colectivo”. You’ll see a bunch of men on the corner with vehicles packing tourists into cars/vans and the trip to the “hidro-eléctrica” (the hydroelectric plant) should cost around 10 soles. Some opt to stay the night in either Santa Maria or Santa Teresa.

  • From the hidro-eléctrica if you had pre-booked, you can take the train (depending on departure time and available spaces). Otherwise it’s a 2-3 hour hike along the railway track (!photo op!). Unless you’re going during the high-high season, there’s no need to pre-book accommodation at Machu Picchu Pueblo itself. Someone will likely greet you at the journey’s end to offer up the leftover rooms at favourable rates, especially if traveling in a larger group (or stick to and pretend you are part of a large one). Yes you can get cheaper rooms than in Cusco! Just ask around or begin umming and aaaahing…



Was it worth it?

For the price of the cheapest one way train ticket to Machu Picchu Pueblo for one person, we covered all fares one-way (taxi, bus, colectivo), ate some local fruit and snacks on the journey and paid for the first night’s accommodation – all this for two people! Most importantly we had a day-long adventure, and an experience that was so unique to us.


About The Author

I love people. I love to travel. I love new experiences. And I love to capture those on camera. If you asked me where I'm from I would tell you I was born in a country that no longer exists and lived in another as a migrant most of my life. My home is not limited by walls or borders. They mean little to me. The people, experiences and the images captured do! If we meet on this planet, I would love to have a drink, a swim or just a chat about almost anything with you! And heck, maybe take your photo and blog about our adventure?