Cusco and the dangers of tourism

A local girl fights to bring a lamb over for a tourist photo. The streets of Cusco are lined with women and girls who pose for photos in traditional costume with their animals for money.

During our first taxi ride in Cusco, we asked the driver what drove the city’s economy. “Tourism,” was his first and definite answer. “Are there any other things?” we asked out of curiosity. “Mmm…” There was a long pause before he answered, “Culture. We have culture.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that culture probably also fell under the category of tourism.

A guide explains the construction of the Saqsaywaman ruins to his tour group. The primary source of income for most people in Cusco seems to be tourism.

One of the dangers of tourism is that when it’s the main economic driver bringing money into your city*, it needs to somehow employ everyone. Yes, there are the people who keep the city running in the day to day, but all of the best-paying jobs are tourism related: hotel staff, tour agents, travel guides, shopkeepers selling souvenirs. And when those jobs are saturated, people find other ways to take part in the tourism economy. There are the llama ladies on the streets of Cusco, dressed in traditional attire and toting their pet llamas. They’ll invite you to take a picture and then demand payment. There are the wandering art sellers, toting their portfolios and approaching tourists, asking them to buy a piece and support their attendance at an art school. And there are the folks dressed as Incan warriors hanging out along Calle Hatumrumiyoc, “guarding” the stone wall here that was once part of an Incan palace and insisting on payment for photos.

The logic is simple. Tourists have money, and they’ll pay me. And doing this pays better than another job I can get.

A vendor poses with his wares at one of the archaeological sites near Cuscuo. I paid him $1.25 USD for this photo. He will likely make more money selling souvenirs to tourists than as a farmer or local market vendor.

In the high season, there are plenty of tourists around and things are probably pretty good. But in the low season, the people here get more desperate. Sweet invitations turned into shouts and frowns when we declined to take photos of some of the llama ladies. We were offered tours and massages from about twenty different people a day. Art vendors practically begged us to buy something. Again, the logic was simple: times are hard. You have money. You can (and should) give some to me.

Slow day: in the low season, fewer people come to Cusco and there’s less tourism money to go around. The vendors, tour sellers, and costumed women get more desperate.

And while that logic might be simple, it can make visiting Cusco as a traveller, especially one with little money, feel pretty bad. It’s the constant being sold to, the commercialization of every aspect of the place, the insistence that you must spend, spend, spend to experience and enjoy.

But what the people of Cusco are doing isn’t wrong, either. They’re simply trying to make money to survive, to save, and to take care of their families. To exclude them from the tourism economy is to deny them a better life.

A woman walks by signs taped up by protesters.

But that exclusion soon might be coming to all of Cusco. The second major danger of tourism as your only economy is that the flow of tourists might stop entirely. This could happen because the global economy dips and fewer people have money to travel. It might also happen if the reason tourists visit disappears or gets destroyed (though this one is less likely). And it can also happen when tourists find a more convenient route to get to what they want to see that doesn’t involve you.

Signs protesting the construction of the new international airport in Chinchero. Once completed, tourists will no longer need to fly to Lima or Cusco to reach Machu Picchu, the country’s most popular tourist destination.

When we went out earlier, we saw signs plastered around Plaza de Armas in protest and several people scrawling more with black pens on white poster paper. They were protesting the construction of an international airport in the nearby town of Chinchero. Approved in 2012, the plan would create a travel hub closer to Machu Picchu with more capacity to receive tourists. It would also enable tourists to see the ruins without having to visit Cusco at all, and the people here know that’s bad news for the biggest employer in town.

A man stands at the edge of an Andean vista outside of Cusco. How the city would change from a sudden drop in tourism remains unknown.


*Frustratingly, I couldn’t find much hard data on the size of Cusco’s tourism industry (in dollars or empoyment).

According to Wikipedia, Cusco’s tourism industry was worth $2.47 billion USD in 2009. Considering that the Cusco region (not just the city) accounted for 4.4% of Peru’s GDP, we can use Peru’s GDP of around $190 billion to figure out that Cusco’s region accounted for $8.4 billion. After this we get kind of stuck, since we’re not sure how much Cusco the city accounts for GDP in the region, but let’s say 50% because it has about 1/3 of the region’s population and as a city it’s going to have a pretty big economic footprint. So that means Cusco the city has a GDP of $4.2 billion.

Assuming tourism hasn’t drastically fallen since 2009 (according to various sources, it’s only increasing), then tourism accounts for at least $2.47 billion of Cusco’s $4.2 billion GDP, meaning it makes up 59% of the city’s GDP. While that doesn’t equate to employment, that does suggest there are a lot of incomes in Cusco that are dependent on tourism.

Alternatives to Machu Picchu

Last time we talked about the full cost of visiting Machu Picchu and how much it can be compared to the few hours you get exploring the ancient ruins. You can either pay in comfort and time and the whole 4-day trip will cost about $737 (including airfare), or if you don’t want to/can’t hike 14+ kilometers, it’s going to cost you a whopping $1,382 for the same trip!

While there is no place exactly like Machu Picchu, these six places might also match your travel dreams and deliver more value for the money. Prices below are divided into cheap and comfortable: on the cheap end, you’re hosteling/camping and eating cheaper meals with locals, while on the comfortable end, you’re staying in air-conditioned two/three-star hotels and eating at trendier restaurants. For the purposes of this list, we’ve divided the reasons for visiting Machu Picchu into the following: archaeological ruins, natural beauty, and hiking.

South America

Teotihuacan’s central plaza

Mexico’s Teotihuacan

Good for: ruins

Price: $410 (cheap) or $640 (comfortable) for 4 days/night trip to Mexico City and Teotihuacan

Details: Mexico City is a short flight away from the U.S. and is located less than two hours away from the ruins of Teotihuacan, an ancient city build more than 2,000 years ago by an unknown people. Their avenues, homes, and temples were so impressive that the later Aztecs revered this site as sacred and claimed it had been built by gods. $275 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board in Mexico City as well as transportation, admission, and a guide for Teotihuacan. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, so you could stay for a whole week and still save money compared to Machu Picchu. Insider’s tip: if you can, visit Mexico City and Teotihuacan for the Day of the Dead festival (October 29-November 2). The City has a huge display of handmade papier-mâché Alebrijes, Calle Regina gets decked out in beautiful dioramas celebrating the dead, and the ruins of Teotihuacan plays host to a huge festival. (P.S. Despite popular perception, most parts of Mexico City are pretty safe.)

Carvings at Sayil’s palace, along the Puuc Route

Mexico’s Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and the Puuc Route

Good for: ruins, natural beauty

Price: $702 (cheap) or $1100 (comfortable) for 4 days/nights Cancun->Merida->Cancun

Details: While the Yucatan region is better known for the party city of Cancun, it also hosts some of the most amazing Mayan ruins, including pyramids, temples, palaces, fortresses, and sacred sites. Chichen Itza is the most well-known, but the Puuc route near the city of Merida also boasts more than six archaeological sites, including the lesser-known ancient city of Uxmal, the palace of Sayil, and Loltun Cave (believed by the Mayans to be the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld). $280 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board, a car rental + road tolls + gas to drive yourself around, entrance fees to all of the sites, and guides. Staying an extra day in Merida or Cancun would cost between $30 (cheap) and $110 (comfortable) for food/board, not counting any extra days of car rental. If you want to make it cheaper, skip the car rental and book day tours to these sites. Insider’s tip: the guides will highball you on both their rates and how much is acceptable to tip. Remember to negotiate and tip IF you really felt your guide delivered value.

Barefoot hiking the Pueblito trail in Parque Tayrona, an ancient trail paved with granite stones by the indigenous people

Colombia’s Parque Tayrona

Good for: natural beauty, hiking

Price: $560 (cheap) and $950 (comfortable) for a 6 day Cartagena->Santa Marta->Parque Tayrona->Santa Marta->Cartagena trip.

Details: The dollar goes further in Colombia, and the country’s Tayrona National Park is as beautiful as it is remote. Home to several indigenous tribes and three different types of tropical forest, the park has a few excellent hiking trails and a plethora of native species that are easy to spot, including a species of monkey. Though it doesn’t have ruins, it has a hike to an indigenous village via a granite trail made centuries ago. $370 of both of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for two nights in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park, with money for transport and food/rooms in Cartagena and Santa Marta at the beginning and end. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, with +/- $10-$40 depending on which place you chose to spend your extra days.

The view from La Piedra in Guatape

Colombia’s Guatape and Le Piedra del Penol

Good for: natural beauty, hiking

Price: $490 (cheap) or $830 (comfortable) for a 4-day Medellin->Guatape->Medellin trip.

Details: If you’re looking for natural beauty, the idyllic Colombian lakeside town of Guatape and their enigmatic stone monolith La Piedra del Penol (linkout) may be perfect. Medellin is the starting point for the trip, and while once known for its sordid role as Pablo Escobar’s hometown during the height of the cocaine trade, it’s cleaned itself up and is now a beautiful, metro-linked, red-roofed city (linkout). $400 of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for room/board, transportation between Medellin and Guatape, and transportation and admission to La Piedra del Penol. Adding extra time would be between $18 and $85 per day. Insider’s tip: Guatape is famous for its trout, and you can both savor the local delicacy in restaurants or fish your own. There’s also an AMAZING chocolate store in town that’s a must-visit (linkout).

Choquequirao, courtesy of Wikipedia

By Ericbronder at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Peru’s Choquequirao

Good for: hiking (required), ruins, natural beauty

Price: $695 (cheap) or $1275 (comfortable) for a 7-night Cusco->Cachora->Choquequirao->Cachora->Cusco trip.

Details: Perhaps the best substitute for Machu Picchu for those able to hike (though we haven’t done this one), Choquequirao is an ancient Incan city that’s actually larger than Machu Picchu and has beautifully preserved stone carvings. The ruin is only reachable by 2 days of hiking from the towns Santa Teresa or Cachora (~31 km), so it’s fairly isolated (meaning it sees FAR fewer tourists) and admission is currently free. Airfare is taken from the Machu Picchu guide of the last post (580 cheap, 655 comfortable), and the rest covers room/board, supplies for the hike, and transport to/from Cachora. There’s a limit to what we can do here for comfort, since there’s an obligatory hike, but you could hire a guide + private transport + porter in town for ~$200, which I included in the “comfortable” price. Insider’s Tip: The Peruvian government is currently developing a cable car system from Mollepata to Choquequirao as part of a plan to develop the site for tourism, so go now while it’s still isolated and free!

Outside of South America

Mount Bromo at sunrise

Indonesia’s Borobudur, Prambanan, and Mount Bromo

Good for: ruins, hiking, and natural beauty

Price: $1080 for a 7-night Jakarta->Yogyakarta->Bromo->Jakarta trip (cheap; maybe add $300-400 for “comfortable”, but I have limited data)

Details: So this isn’t technically cheaper in total compared to Machu Picchu, but a weeklong visit to Indonesia’s Java is comparable per day and is an amazing destination that spans sprawling megacities, ancient temples, and still-smoking volcanoes. While most people only visit Bali, Java is Indonesia’s most populous island and home to both ancient ruins and stunning natural scenery. As a bonus, Indonesians are some of the friendliest people ever, and you’ll be interviewed by schoolchildren practicing English and pose for selfies with random people on the street (and in the countryside). Borobudur and Prambanan, located near the city of Yogyakarta, are some of the most impressive and well-preserved Buddhist and Hindu archaeological sites in the world. And Mount Bromo is a live volcano in the middle of the island, where you can walk straight up to the volcano’s rim and watch a stunning sunrise over the surrounding area. After the $665 airfare to Jakarta (that drops to about $550 if you’re on the west coast), the remaining $415 covers 7 days’ worth of cheap food, board, admission to all three locations, AND a front-row seat to the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet, an insane retelling of the Ramayana story that involves setting the stage on fire (in the non-rainy season, at least).  Insider’s tip: Booking private transport to/from Bromo can be worthwhile just to avoid Probolinggo, the island’s scammiest location.

The ruins of Prambanan
Carvings in the ruins at Prambanan


The point of this article isn’t to say that you must go somewhere else instead of Machu Picchu. This article exists because we were shocked at how much Machu Picchu costs compared to how much we valued the experience. In our travelling, we found the above places delivered better value for the money spent, but it’s up to you to decide what you want out of your travel experience.

The full cost of visiting Machu Picchu

The ruins of Machu Picchu, the dream destination of many

Machu Picchu is a dream destination, once-in-a-lifetime visit for many people. The reconstructed remains of this Incan Citadel see over one million visitors each year, and it’s a place of amazing beauty. But when we visited as two backpackers, we were shocked at how much the trip cost. So we’ve put together a breakdown of the cost per person below as an estimate for future travelers. There are two categories: cheap (you’ll be staying in hostels, dining at cheap local eateries, and all around paying time/comfort instead of money) and comfortable (you’ll be staying at 3-star hotels, dining at trendier restaurants, and paying to walk/hike less whenever possible). Note that we use US dollars and assume you’re visiting directly from the U.S., but you can easily put your own numbers here to get a final tally from your country of origin and then convert to your local currency.


The flight to Cusco

$580 (cheap) and $655 (comfortable). While $500 was the cheapest rate I found for the next month, it was only available flying through DFW. The mean price for flying out of Dallas, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco was around $580. It will also be more expensive if you’re not flying from one of the major airport hubs.

Flights to Cusco depart only in the mornings (the region’s weather makes it hard for flights to land in the afternoon), so you’re probably going to spend the night sleeping in Lima’s international airport. If you want to be comfortable, you’ll have to spring for a room and some food, which I’ve estimated at $75 over the ‘cheap’ price for a total of $655.

The stay in Cusco

$30 (cheap) and $250 (comfortable). Unless you’ve booked a tour to Machu Picchu or are really packing your schedule, you’re probably going to stay a night in Cusco after landing and a second night after returning from Machu Picchu. On the cheap side, you can get a cheap hostel bed for as low as $5 and eat $3-$4 meals with the locals at Mercado San Pedro. For those who want comfort, expect to pay around $75 for a hotel room and $50 for three meals at nicer restaurants. Double each of those for your two nights in Cusco.

A view of Cusco’s tourist area, Plaza de Armas

Getting to/from Aguas Calientes

$30 (cheap) and $150+ (comfortable). You’re either paying a lot of time or money here. For the cheap option, you take a $20 collectivo from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, a 5+ hour ride through the winding Andes. Then you hike ~3 hours (13 km) to Aguas Calientes; on the way back you do the same hike, but we found the collectivo was only $10 back to Cusco. The total time paid for this trip is around 30 hours.

On the other hand, taking the comfortable option with the whopping $150 price tag cuts travel time to a total of 5-6 hours. The cheapest round-trip train tickets run for around $136 (in low season) round-trip. In the low season, the train doesn’t reach Cusco (only Ollantaytambo), so you’ll also shell out ~$14 for a bus or shared car from and to Cusco. You could also take the train only one way, but be warned that you’ll be paying $75 for that one-way train ticket*.

A night in Aguas Calientes

$50 (cheap) and $200+ (comfortable). To get those much-coveted views of Machu Picchu in the morning, you’ll have to spend the night in Aguas Calientes, where prices are 1.5-3x those in Cusco. $30 will get you a cheap place to stay and $20 should get you three meals. If you insist on the comforts of having working hot water, clean accommodations, and soundproof rooms so you can fall asleep and get up early, plan to spend $150 for your room, and $50 for three meals at the more upscale restaurants.

Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu, is more expensive than Cusco

Machu Picchu entrance fee

$47 (minimal) and $62 (with Huayna Picchu or Machu Mountain). The base price of an adult foreigner ticket directly from the offices in Cusco or Aguas Calientes is $47 a person. If you want to hike Huayna Picchu or Machu Mountain, expect to pay $15 more for that privilege and plan to buy your tickets far in advance—these extras sell out much sooner than standard tickets, even in the low season.

Getting to/from Machu Picchu

Free (cheap) or $40 (comfortable). The question here is whether you want to do a 1+ hour, 1 km near-vertical ascent/descent on the stairs to Machu Picchu. This is after the 2 km walk from Aguas Calientes in the morning. If you don’t, your best option is to book the $40 ticket for the bus up and down, which should be done at least a day in advance (the bus kiosk in Cusco isn’t open early in the mornings). Be warned that people line up early (earlier than 5:00 am) for the first buses up, so be prepared to wait in a long line in town. I believe there’s also an option to buy a one-way ticket down from Machu Picchu, which costs only $15; inquire at the bus kiosk in Aguas Calientes or in Cusco.

Stairs on the hike up to Machu Picchu should you not opt for the bus ride.


Free (cheap) or $25 (comfortable). There are no informational signs around Machu Picchu’s ruins, so expect to come armed with your own knowledge in the form of downloaded website pages or a book, or you’ll have to pay for a guide. You can get a guide for cheaper than $25, but you’ll be in a larger group and the tour may only last an hour.

The total cost to visit Machu Picchu:

$737 (cheap) and $1,382 (comfortable). Is it worth it? That’s up for you to decide. This article isn’t meant to discourage you from going, but to give you a clear idea of how much the whole to Machu Picchu trip costs. I think I would pay to see it again, but I’m still surprised at how much I paid for what I got.

The ever-popular selfie at Machu Picchu. How much is it worth to you?

*Note: There is a cheap train (~$2-3) that goes between Cusco Machu Picchu, but it’s locals only. Foreigners are barred from using it as of 10+ years ago to ‘improve the quality of their experience’. The current astronomical prices are charged by the two private companies that run rail services to Machu Picchu. From conversations with locals, there’s disagreement over whether the government sees any of that money, and if so what they use it for.

Afterward: Why’s it so expensive, you might ask? The going hypothesis is that Peru sees tourism as a form of wealth redistribution from richer countries to their (relatively) poorer country, so they charge foreigners (especially from non-Andean countries) far more for this visit to Machu Picchu. That’s totally within their right to do, but for those of us who don’t have the money to pay these prices, it feels a lot like a “Not rich? Then you’re not welcome here” message.

Machu Picchu in Pictures

Morning mist at the ruins of Machu Picchu

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a photoessay on our visit to Machu Picchu. For those of you who want a wordier post (and some critical commentary on visiting), here’s the essay.

Mountains obscured by mist and clouds, as viewed from the trail to the Sun Gate
A worker removes dirt from between the stones on the trail to the Sun Gate
Passing clouds obscure the ruins as seen from the terraces to the northwest of the main gate (former cemetary and guard quarters)
Machu Picchu as seen from the terraces to the northwest of the main gate
Terraces and buildings that have been reconstructed and given new thatched roofs
A worker poses beside a wall where he has removed dirt from between the stones. If you encounter the workers, I would treat them with respect and thank them. They work hard to maintain Machu Picchu.
A man poses for a selfie on the terraces of Machu Picchu
A full view of the ruins from near the main entrance.Huayna Picchu (upper right) is obscured by clouds.
Tourists pose questionably while an employee works on a nearby wall
A woman is excited after getting her picture at the Sacred Plaza in the ruins
Nature’s lawnmowers: llamas and alpacas are used to keep grass in check on the ruin’s terraces. They also serve as an informal petting zoo for the curious.
A tour group waits at one of the many “bottlenecks” along the Machu Picchu ruins path. The whole path is arranged to be unidirectional and marked with signs to prevent total chaos. At some extremely narrow or famous points, tour groups get bunched up and chaos ensues anyway.
Workers measure the impact of thousands of human feet on the ruins by measuring the height of the dirt path. This is in the Eastern Urban Sector of the ruins.
A path leading off a cliff in the northern part of the ruins.
A view of the Urubamba River from the terraces in the north of Machu Picchu. The thin line above the split in the river is the rail track we crossed on the hike here.
The archetypal view of Machu Picchu.
Narrow corridors between the buildings is a characteristic hallmark of the Eastern Urban Sector at the ruins. This area could have housed hundreds or even a thousand people during the height of the Incan Empire.

Machu Picchu

The view from a window in the ruins of Machu Picchu

The nice part about low season is that you can waltz into the tourism center in Aguas Calientes and buy general tickets for Machu Picchu for the next day. You may not be able to get the more limited tickets to climb Huayna Piccu, but most of the time they still have the standard 152 sole (USD $46) ticket to visit the archaeological site. Likewise, while Aguas Calientes might be a tourist trap, the actual tourism office here is wonderfully helpful free of charge. After purchasing our tickets to Machu Picchu yesterday, we stopped by to ask how to get back to Cusco if we couldn’t afford the train. They told us we could walk back along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica and take a van from there. “The last van leaves around 3:00 pm,” they said.

Next came the decision of whether we wanted to take the bus up to the ruins. The first one left at 6:00 am, but when we asked about how much it cost, we found out it would be $35 per person for the 20-minute ride to the top. Uh, no thanks.

The only consolation I have regarding Aguas Calientes’ steep prices is that they made these adorable frog trash cans, which are free to enjoy.

Our 6:30 am start the next day was early for us, but when we left our hotel there were already more than a hundred people lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to take the buses up. We started out too late to beat them to the top (and have Machu Picchu to ourselves), but hopefully we’d still make it before the ruins got too busy. We hiked out of Aguas and took the left fork in the road for Machu Picchu. The guards at the suspension bridge there checked our tickets for the ruin, along with our passports, then waved us on. Another group wasn’t so lucky—one of them had forgotten their passport, and we watched him sprint off back toward Aguas Calientes.

The map of the trail up (green). I like how they actually drew all of the squiggles in the trail instead of doing the lazy thing and drawing a straight line up.

Now it was time for the pain before the gain. You’ve seen the pictures of Machu Picchu in the National Geographic or online, high in the mountains and shrouded in mist. It’s mysterious. It’s gorgeous. And it looks like this because it actually is on the mountain. And the hike up is just that—up, up more than a thousand stone steps. Some are wide and easy to traverse. Some are narrow and your foot won’t fully fit, so you step diagonally and cautiously. Some are unevenly spaced. And some are wedged into walls so you’re climbing them like you’re in some kind of real-life video game. We raced to the top stopping only a couple of times and passing more than a dozen other groups. We would pay for this later, but for now we’re going for gold.

Steps along the trail. Cue up some video game music from either Super Mario or Ico.

We knew when we were near the top because suddenly little old ladies selling water and premade lunches appeared, sitting on the side of their trail and calling out their wares. A few steps later, we were out into the pavement in front of Machu Picchu’s entrance, which was already thronged with tourists. We ducked between tour groups gathering their members and got to the entry turnstyles, presented our ticket and passport yet again, and then stumbled through into the open dirt path. Made it!

Our first view of Machu Picchu

We had only four hours at the ruins if we wanted to catch a bus back to Cusco from Hidroelectrica. There weren’t too many tourists yet, so we sprinted around the compound to see everything we wanted. First on our list was the Sun Gate (the end of the Inca Trail), but we scrapped that when we found out it took two hours to hike there and back. But we still walked some of the trail in that direction, to get a feel for what the Inca Trail would have been like. The conclusion was rocky and knobbly and full of people with trekking poles and some egos. As we passed one hiking group from the Inca Trail, one guy snarkily asked us if we had enjoyed our train ride here. “We hiked the Salkantay,” Stoytcho said, and neither of us bothered to stop. As we left them behind, I heard their guide say, “That trail is harder than ours. Much harder.”

Mountains in the morning mist along the route to the Sun Gate

Exploring the rest of Machu Picchu’s ruins was more leisurely, as we climbed up to the northwest part of the compound, then walked down along the north edge to the east side. We visited what looked like dwellings, storehouses, meeting grounds, and temples, all painstakingly reconstructed from the ruins over the past century. I say “looked like” because I couldn’t actually tell you much about the ruins: there are only a handful of informational signposts in the ruins, so learning anything about them requires prior study or a guide. (And no, we couldn’t get signal for Wikipedia up on the mountain.)

The only sign I remember seeing in the ruins. it proclaims that this was a “ceremonial rock”. Ok.

So instead of studying the ruins, we studied the tourists visiting them. What had started as a smattering of people when we arrived had turned into a torrent by late morning. They posed for pictures, took selfies, and were overall insanely excited to be here. We’ve been on the road for a few months now, and Machu Picchu is just one destination of many for us. But for some of these people, coming here is a lifelong dream and it shows.

A man takes a selfie
These women took photos of everything while grinning madly; it was probably their lifelong dream to come here.

And despite the dearth of information on the ruins, it’s clear they’re deeply loved by the staff that cares for them. We encountered more than twenty khaki-clad workers in our visit, doing everything from removing plants and dirt from between the stones to measuring the impact of thousands of human footsteps on the stability of the ruins. From the first moment in the morning to the end of the day, these men and women work hard to preserve Machu Picchu in the face of more than a million tourists each year*. And through chatting with them, we learned it’s definitely not for the money; one worker was stunned and amused to find out how much foreigners paid for admission compared to how much he made working there. “We see very little of that money,” he told us.

Workers measure the impact of tourist footsteps/walking in the ruins.

So is Machu Picchu worth all of this? The expensive fuss to get here, the painfully touristic atmosphere of Aguas Calientes, the long hike through and up mountains to get here? It could be reviled as the cash cow of the Peruvian government and the local area, or admired as the dream destination of so many and the labor of love for those that work to preserve it. To know if it’s worth it, take a look and decide for yourself.

The archetypal Machu Picchu view, available to everyone who visits.

*Note: that 2014 linked article stated that guides would become a requirement, but when we visited (January 2017), this was still not in effect. There were some concerted efforts to move people more quickly through bottleneck points though.

Hidroeléctrica to Machu Picchu

Visitors ask locals for directions to Machu Picchu at the start of the railway in Hidroelectrica.

FAfter our evening of food, hot springs, and rest in Santa Teresa, we woke up ready to tackle the last leg of our journey to Machu Picchu. Because we couldn’t afford the insane $200 price tag for the train to and from Aguas Calientes (the town that serves as the base for visiting Machu Picchu), our only option is to walk from the relatively nearby town of Hidroeléctrica along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. It’s something that a lot of backpackers do, so we figured we’d be in good company.

Our trail supplies (plus water and some trail mix). Note that the Sublime is actually an amazing chocolate bar for the price, with decent quality chocolate.

We stocked up on ‘supplies’ (read: life-saving chocolate) in a general store near the main square, and then caught a van headed toward Hidroeléctrica for 10 soles. The road was hot, dry, and dusty, so we were grateful to be in an air-conditioned van, despite the bumps and ruts. After half an hour, we passed an odd geological feature that our driver insisted was a natural cave in the wall. Ten minutes later, we passed by the hydroelectric dam compound that Hidroeléctrica is named after. Then came our stop, marked only by a sign welcoming us to the Hydroelectric Center Machu Picchu. From here, we had to continue the rest of the way on foot.

The mysterious ‘natural’ cave near Hidroeléctrica. Any idea on what it is?

With the exception of the towering peaks around us, this area looked a lot like a scene from Southern California’s dusty lowland bush. It was also not well signed, so we set off on the largest trail we could find in the direction of Hidroeléctrica and hoped for the best. Thankfully, within minutes we encountered a guard post that marked the entrance to Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. The guards here checked our passports, wrote down our passport numbers and names, pointed to the park rules, and then genially waved us on our way. I noticed the rules included “Not walking on the train way” and “Not starting plants”. Given that we’re literally about to walk the track path to Machu Picchu, I can guess that they’re poorly enforced.

The guard station at the entry to Machu Picchu’s Sanctuary and the start of the railway tracks. Go here to register!
The do and do nots of the sanctuary. I see that walking on the train way isn’t allowed; I hope they just mean walking directly on the tracks.

We hiked in the direction the guards waved and found the start of the railway track, a mix of tourists making the walk and vendors selling last-minute snacks and goods. There was even a full-service restaurant, just off to the right of the track. We had our snacks so we kept hiking, and within a few minutes of following the track it was just us. We may have taken a wrong turn, because after half an hour our tracks dead-ended into a wall. Above us there was an ominous, handpainted “no entry” sign. We backtracked and asked a guard on duty nearby what direction to take. He pointed us to the dead end, and off to the left, where there was a trail hidden in the underbrush.

I’m proud to say that despite several websites stating that this hike had only one trail, we managed to find the dead-end track AND take the alternate route up the hill. TAKE THAT, BEATEN TRACK!

We followed the trail, skirting the “no entry” area that consisted of someone’s wooden shack and farm plots. It quickly got steeper, until we found ourselves climbing over rocks and clinging to branches to continue up the hill. Twenty minutes later and panting, we emerged from the hillside onto another set of railroad tracks. There were several more people walking along these tracks, so we guessed that this was the correct way to Machu Picchu.

Small white mushrooms grow on a stump along the trail.
A emerald-green insect along the trail (a beetle or hemipteran?)

From here on out the hike was pretty straightforward, marked by a few odd scenes along the trail and some interesting plants and animals. The first half was hard-packed earth that made the going easy. We passed wild avocado and guava trees, and occasionally saw farms cultivating bananas. Huge green macaws flew from tree to tree, squawking loudly, but were impossible to photograph. About an hour in, we crossed a train bridge using a wobbly, steel-sheet pedestrian path to the side of the tracks. Looking over the railing, we watched the brown water of the river move lazily below us. It looked like the rainy season was carrying off quite a bit of dirt.

Crossing the rail brige over the river: mostly safe, except for some wobble in the steel sheets and a couple of rust pits. But she seems stable enough!
A hibiscus flower along the trail

At halfway, rocks and gravel replaced the dirt along the track and the hike got harder. While in some places the trail was wide enough that we could avoid the gravel and walk on the dirt or grass, in most places the path was too narrow. We found ourselves slipping on the gravel, twisting our feet and ankles this way and that. Passing trains also became more frequent, accompanied by conductors shouting at us to get out of the way and scowling. I get it, but maybe we wouldn’t be here if the train didn’t cost as much as a night’s stay in a five-star hotel.

On the upside, guess who met up with along the track? Yep! It’s Ashley and Kyle! They had managed to hike Llacapata and were now on their way to Machu Picchu as well.

The train passes us on the trail carrying a dour, shouting conductor. He’ll shout and frown even when you’re far off the track on the side of the trail.

Near the end of the hike, things started to get a little surreal. The path widened to include four tracks and included a grassy knoll in the center. We stopped on some nearby rocks to eat our chocolate bars, and noticed that there was a whole botanical garden, restaurant, and lodge here alongside the tracks. Again, the only way to reach this place is by walking along the train tracks, so this establishment has to get all of its visitors from people like us.

Eating our trail rations of chocolate
This is a lodge, garden, and (I think) restaurant that seems to just serve visitors hiking the railway. Maybe the train stops here too, but that seems unlikely.

Just outside the garden there was also a signpost indicating destinations and distances. According to it, we had covered 7 of the 13 kilometers to Aguas Calientes. We had 4 more to go.

Look, Cusco is only 115 km! More importantly, don’t conflate Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, or you’ll have an extra 2 km to hike that you didn’t account for.

The last part of the hike seemed to stretch on forever as exhaustion weighed on us. After two more kilometers on the tracks, we reached the train station and transitioned to hiking on a road. We passed the offshoot to Machu Picchu, and finally we could see the town. The sky was threatening rain again, so we picked up our pace and reached the town’s edge in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes of stopping at hotels and asking for prices, and we finally we found a room we could afford just as the first raindrops came down.

A view of Aguas Calientes, the end of our hike for today.

I won’t spend much breath on Aguas Calientes, since it wasn’t a place we liked much. Like Cusco, it was suffering the effects of the low season, and desperation for tourist dollars and two-fold inflated prices made the town seem even more bleak. We did manage to find the doctor, who told us that while Aguas does have an X-ray machine, it’s a small one that’s only for examining hands and feet, so we would have to seek a doctor in Cusco. He seemed overworked, but gave us a weary smile and told me, “If you were able to walk here, you’re more or less ok.” I’ll take his word for it, since we tackle Machu Picchu tomorrow.

An Incan-styel sculpture in Aguas Calientes. It’s a tourist town. The best thing I can say about it is that it has an interesting layout, spread across two rivers and connected by several aerial bridges.