The Long Road to Machu Picchu | Peru

What happens when there is political unrest in the country you’re backpacking through? Do you stay or do you go? Deep in my heart I knew leaving wasn’t an option, I wanted to finish what I set out to do. So, I stayed, and had a heck of a time making it to Machu Picchu!

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All roads lead to Machu Picchu … or so it was for me. Having tried a few times to get to the ancient Incan site I was weary that maybe it wouldn’t happen on this trip. The political landscape of Peru during my trip was chaotic as protestors lined the streets nightly, oftentimes resorting to road blockades and violent clashes with police. Life for the locals was less than ideal, but that’s not saying much all things considered. So, as a backpacker in a foreign country do you go … or do you stay?

Staying was the only option for me, a reluctant backpacker not wanting to leave a trip I wasn’t ready to depart from. I took the longest bus ride of my life to Cusco from La Paz and just let the universe throw what it had at me. Surprisingly what it had in store was a lovely week spent in the bustling city and one more try at cracking into Machu Picchu.

How I Got There

The first order of business was booking transport and entrance tickets to the site which was easier said than done. The site openings were changed on an almost daily basis while I was there so you really had to have luck on your side. During my stint, the site was opened but the trains were blocked by protestors. Under normal circumstances, it’s a two-hour bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo which then prompts you onto another two-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu’s support town. Afterward, it’s your choice to ride the bus or hike up the mountainside to the entrance.

This was anything but normal as she goes. Instead, I’d taken an eight-hour overnight bus to Hidrolectrica and from here hike ten kilometers to Aguas Calientes. Because of the situation this was the only way I could guarantee at least making it to Aguas Calientes, the tough part is just getting there. The whole trip out and back was an ordeal I wish not to repeat anytime soon, but made a great story to tell. I booked everything through a local travel agency that ensures tickets and prices were fair, and they were. You can shop around at more than two dozen agencies in the city or book through your hotel/hostel.

Of course, there are MANY multi-day treks that you can embark on as well. They do require permits and some of the agencies book up early but chances are there will be tours you can hop on for a few days if you didn’t book in advance. You might get lucky like some travelers I met who paid much less than what was charged online. Initially, this was what I wanted to do without question but with the exuberant cost (tours sometimes start at $749) and the protests I didn’t want to take my chances.

Sidenote: a lot of multi-day treks were canceled in part for tourist safety and the site being closed due to protests.

Setting Foot in Machu Picchu

After years of looking at photos of the Incan site and even reading books about it the first views from the bus zipping up through the windy mountain road was surreal. It’s believed that the site was used as a retreat for nobles and emperors so you’re basically stepping into someone’s AirBnB rental in the middle of the jungle. Does that detract from it in any form? Not a damn bit. Certainly not after walking ten kilometers and a night spent on a bus winding through treacherous mountain roads. The excitement within me couldn’t contain itself as our bus rolled into the entrance, I imagine this like to be being first in line for Space Mountain.

I ended up ditching my tour group and explored the site on my own. It can be warm and the bugs are fiending for a meal. Wear long clothing, ample sunblock and take your time, it isn’t going anywhere. I meandered through to the viewpoint, you know the one where people all take their photos either in yoga poses, proposing to their significant other, or getting attacked by llamas that often roam the premises. Although none were to be found during my visit. From here you can take in everything before you as if the postcards I’ve been seeing throughout Lima have come to life.

As I kept my step count steadily going I took in the corridors, the atriums, the big gardens, or what I’d imagined them to be in their prime. A beautiful place set to a beautiful background, but not without a grim past. If you didn’t know when it was ‘discovered’ many artifacts were pillaged and exploited from the site by Hiram Bingham III in the name of Yale University. The nation of Peru to this day is awaiting the return of some 40,000 artifacts that he excavated from the site over 100 years later. If you want to learn more I’d recommend reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams as he gave great insight into what happened during and after Bingham’s arrival.

It’s hard to put into normal words the impression the site leaves on you, the journey to finally getting there, breathing in the jungle air in the middle of the day. I couldn’t help but get myself lost everywhere I went, taking in the sounds, imagining the lives of so many, the voices of hundreds, and thousands, echoing off the mountains that surrounds it while the steady burble of the river crept its way upwards. Arguably the best vantage point is the one everyone can enjoy at the beginning of the tour, but if you’re lucky enough to snag a permit to trek up Huayna Picchu consider yourself one of the lucky few. I couldn’t attain one in time but heard the views from this mountain peak were the ones to write home about.

The park itself was relatively quiet and had about a few hundred or so patrons spread throughout it. Usually, you can expect upwards of 2,500 visitors a day here. Anywhere you go these days the crowds will follow. So having only a few hundred was worth the price of adventure in getting to the site. The one thing I loved was being on a tour with a bunch of locals, and myself being the only gringo in sight. For them, this is still as much of a pilgrimage as any other holy site around the world, and I loved just being a passenger for the ride.

SNAFUS Can Happen

At this point, I’d gotten my fill of Machu Picchu and was ready to leave. Down I went on the bus and a prompt ten-kilometer trek back towards Hidroelectrica later I arrived at where I set off at 6:45am that morning. With protests still happening it was a gamble to even get to MP but I never had anticipated that leaving would’ve been an issue as well. Oh, how wrong was I? Really, incredibly, stupendously … wrong.

After traveling for nearly two hours on sketchy cliffside roads we came to an abrupt stop. I thought up ahead was a car broken down and needed some attention. Ten minutes go by, then fifteen, then patrons from my van got out to pick mangoes for some reason, maybe they were all hungry, I thought. 30 minutes later I was worried, so I went to take a look. Car by car everyone was out and wandering around and I kept walking into the unknown. A few steps before the next intersection laid a protest road blockade, silly me for thinking I could’ve made it back to my dorm before 1am.

The protestors meant business and you could tell they were in it for the long haul. Cars were not allowed to pass on this one-way stretch in any manner. Locals were not to help tourists get by as made clear in the previous days’ violence towards anyone who helped traveling gringos. They had snacks, a fire, and ample water, everything we didn’t have, so this was going to be interesting. Oh, did I mention there was a baby on my bus?

Without military or police assistance we were truly at their mercy. The closest town was still a two hours walk away, and we did all we could, hunkered down for the long haul. I sent a few texts home to let friends and family know what was happening, but also got cozy and tried to sleep. Neither was of use. At around 1am, funny enough, they allowed the cars to pass through and all the drivers revved up their vans in a frenzy, ours included.

Protestors blocking the roads with big boulders and eventually cars and

By 6:45am Monday morning, I made it back to my hostel’s bed some 32 hours after I had left for Machu Picchu. I was physically and mentally exhausted, but the adventure was worth everything endured. My takeaway from the whole experience is that there are bigger things at play than me getting to go see the famous Incan site. People’s very livelihoods depended on the individuals they elect to represent their best interest and being angry, disenfranchised, and disappointed was completely in their right when those people have utterly failed them. My only hope is that the people find peace after all the chaos because they are incredibly warm, inviting, and genuine.

I was determined to see the site at all costs (kind of), which meant going against my better judgment and sticking it out. Fortunately for myself, it worked out well, but for others that weren’t the case. I came away from the experience with far more than I bargained for. It was a trip of two sides, on the one hand, you have a famous destination, one of the eight wonders of the world, a tourist mecca for everyone all over the world. And on the other, you have people fighting for justice in their everyday lives, for a seat at the table that has forgotten about them. It’s hard not to be affected one way or the other.

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