If you want to go to Peru the chances are that you have one place in mind; Machu Pichu, Lost City of the Inca. But is this impossibly perfect ruin all that the brochures and charity walks make it out to be. Wanting to delve beneath the shining veneer of Machu Pichu I took a different route into the centrepiece of Peru's tourism industry. I'd been umming and ahhing about how I would make it to Machu Pichu for a few months, specifically I'd been having a long running internal debate about the ethics of not taking any of the typical routes to this most striking of monuments. As I dug around on-line I found that Machu Pichu as an entity in the 21st century is more contentious than the average traveller might expect and that the debate about how to visit the site is more complex than it might look from the surface. I'll try to outline what the choices are for a visitor to Machu Pichu, why I made the choice I did and then I'll describe why I wouldn't make the same choice again. The key issue of getting to Machu Pichu is its location. It (as the map below shows) is not exactly proximate to anything else. The area around Machu Pichu can hardly be described as a major conurbation and aside from the village of AguasCalientes near the base of the mountain on which the ruins nestle there is nowhere else to stay that's less than a few hours walk from the ruins.
A visitor wanting to visit Machu Pichu has three traditional options: 1) Stay in Cusco and take the train to Aguas Calientes then a bus up to the turnstile. 2) The Inca trail hike that leads directly to the ruins 3) Stay in Aguas Calientes the night before, Wake up early, hike up to the entrance and be one of the first 200 in
These all sound like good options yet I decided that none of them were suitable for me.
1) Panoramic windows, dining service, 1st class treatment and an on train bar might sound like the way to travel but such finery seem somewhat lacking in adventurous, pioneering spirit. You might as well be carried around the ruins in a sedan chair. When you arrive at Machu Pichu you want to feel like Indiana Jones rediscovering a lost marvel (hard when over 2000 others visit the ruins every day) but the sense of exploration must be diminished by being ferried there and back by rail. Worse yet is the corporate greed that the railway is powered by. An article in the economist explains in greater detail the business culture that surrounds the effective monopoly Peru Rail, 50% owned by Orient Express, have on access to the ruins. Whilst Orient Express, who also own a chain of luxury hotels including the US$750 a night Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (the only hotel adjacent to Machu Picchu ruins), rake in 10s of millions of dollars from the train line those communities that live in villages surrounding the ruins see little benefit. Orient Express, of course, chooses to do its banking in Bermuda. For balance I should also point out that even the backpacker train (which is supposed to be for Peruvian nationals) was well beyond my budget.
2) So If the train is not in an adventurous spirit and profiteering is rampant then how about a nice hearty trek right into the hear of the ruins? Sounds ideal, except that "The Inca Trail" has also become a victim of its own success and the freedom and beauty of hiking has become lost amongst the rules and regulations necessary to ensure that 200 trekkers and the 300 porters they bring with them, PER DAY, do not, in a few years, do permanent damage to a route that had previously survived for centuries. I haven't walked The Inca Trail and I never will so cant comment with authority on the quality of the hike but rumours of poorly paid, poorly equipped and overloaded porters combined with the necessity to walk the trail as part of a group of, frequently, loud novice hikers is not my idea of a pleasant experience. Whilst The Inca Trail brings in millions of dollars every year the percentage that is distributed locally would appear meagre by comparison and after talking with other travellers the notion of rushing to book slots or sign up with a tour company that runs "trekking experiences" simply was not on the cards. The Inca road I walked in Bolivia was the best trek I have ever done, the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu sounded like it had all of the ingredients to be the worst. For balance I should also point out that The Inca Trail was well beyond my budget.
Resting amongst mountains peaks
3) So, what about skipping the train, skipping the trek and still making it to Machu Pichu via a couple of local buses and an afternoon stroll along the bank of the Willkanuta River. Now this is more like it and an option I gave serious consideration to. By taking a couple of local buses to Santa Teresa you can walk along some train tracks for an hour or so right into Aguas Calientes, buy your $44 ticket for the ruins the next day, find a hostel, get some shut eye and be the first at the gated bridge across the river and charge through the entrance gate on your way to the watchman's hut in order to realise that despite what the brochure told you the sun actually rises at around 5:30 and not 7...Still this sounds promising. You can go at your own pace. You support local businesses along the way and best of all until you reach Aguas Calientes you feel like you are genuinely in Peru rather than a Disneyland experience. I liked this option, and actually left Machu Pichu via the stroll along the train tracks to Santa Teresa and the buses back to Cusco. It was very nice. The only thing that put me off using this route to make my trip into Machu Pichu was Aguas Calientes, There is no bigger tourist hole in the world than Aguas Calientes, which is ironic given its comparatively small size. Along with the shear number of visitors to Machu Pichu the unchecked development of the town is one of the reasons why Machu Pichu has been placed on a list of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. I wanted nothing to do with Aguas Calientes and I wanted even less to do with the rampant profiteering that is taking place around this beautiful site. For balance...you can see where this is going cant you. Yep that's right. After so many months in South America my initial budget of £2000 had taken such a hammering that whilst I could probably have stretched to a night in one of Aguas Calientes cheapest hostels it would have meant I couldn't eat untill I returned to the UK several days later.
So, what if you didn't want to be part of the scrum, part of the charge to get tickets to climb Huyna Pichu, what if you didn't want to throw your last dollars into the pockets of a company based in Bermuda that rakes in millions from Machu Pichu, aggressively defends its monopoly in the courts and makes cursory nods towards local development. What if you didn't want to justify the rampant expansion, commercialisation and downright tackyness of Aguas Clientes by paying up for a night in this tourist dive. What if you didn't want to join a route march along prepared trails whilst some poor local porter in sandals carries your bag for a pittance. What if you wanted just to enjoy the ruins, to tread lightly and then retreat away from this most special of places without being exposed to tat and at least a thousand very loud tourists asking where the restrooms are. What if you didn't want to be marched around the ruins as part of a guided tour or to have the same tours cluttering up every single corner of your world. What if you could see how the scramble to make a profit from this iconic place devalued it in every way that really matters. What if you wanted just a moments piece in this most special of locations. Could there be another way?
To cut a long story short I found a way and however I might try to sugar-coat it or justify what I did it basically boiled down to breaking in. I'm not going to describe how I did it because I honestly dont believe any one else should do it. This is not thorough selfishness or because I believe other visitors have less rights to do what I did than myself, nor is it because I somehow believe I tread more carefully when I travel than others do. I simply believe that Machu Pichu, already sinking under the weight of a tourist invasion doesn't need a host of broke backpackers trying to recreate what I did. It would be bad for the environment and it would be very bad for my concious should anyone get into trouble doing something against the rules and slightly dangerous. Having Machu Pichu to myself in the early morning before the gates were open was a magical experience tinged with a slight sense of anti-climax and anxiety. I couldn't get close, certainly not in amongst the main ruins or I would no doubt be caught by the guards. This lack of contact with the main set of ruins after all I had gone through to get there was a shame. Yet sat eating breakfast in my secluded, elevated location surrounded by hints of Inca stone work covered by rich blankets of Epiphytic plants was a very special moment and the one I remember most fondly from my time at Machu Pichu. As the clouds thinned in morning light tantalising glimpses of the ruins revealed themselves, like an archaeological feather dance. Then all of a sudden the clouds dissipated and the whole site lay viable before me, at that moment the gates must have opened because I could see a stream of people making their way into the site like ants swarming towards a sugar cube.
emerging from the the mist
Machu Pichu and terraces
The clearing of the clouds and the arrival of the masses were my signal to slink out form my hiding place and blend in seamlessly with the wave of backpackers who had made the stomp up from Aguas Calientes in order wonder around for hours in slack jawed amazement. And amazement is what you feel. There is no denying the majesty of Machu Pichu and I was pleasantly surprised at how the site swallowed up the number of visitors. Unfortunately at the same time there is no denying that the magic isn't there. Down among the mighty brick work, the remarkable terraces and the stunning vistas I simply couldn't find the awe and secret wonder that I could find from my isolated perch amongst the moss and hidden stones. There is nothing left to discover at Machu Pichu, the site has been cleansed of its mystery by pay for use toilets and backpackers sleeping off their early start by flopping down on the grass.
Machu Pichu; the classic view
I left Machu Pichu with very mixed feelings. The site is spectacular. Truly and wonderfully spectacular. The location, the layout, the history all wonderful. However its whole is worth much less that the sum of its parts because so many are taking a slice of the pie. I only felt I connected with Machu Pichu when I was away from the main site and had the time to stop and look closely at the semi-hidden wonder around me.