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Feb 03 2014

An Alternative Trek to Machu Picchu

I like to be spontaneous when I travel and don’t like booking things too far in advance, just in case something I hadn’t thought about comes up along the way. That is great for the freedom and flexibility it gives me, but it doesn’t work so well when I want to take part in an activity, like doing the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

I knew this would be a problem for the classic Inca Trail because there is a restriction on the number of people allowed on the route at one time, which means you have to book far in advance to ensure you get a place.  I wasn’t so fussed about doing that particular trek as long as I did some kind of trek that got me to Machu Picchu.  Like many people, Machu Picchu, ‘The Lost City of the Incas’, had been on my ‘must-see’ list for a long time.  Knowing I would have to find an alternative route to get there, I decided to wait until I was in Cusco to see what my options were and then I could make a decision.

Having trudged around the many tour operators that were offering tours to Machu Picchu, I ended up plumping for a tour offered by… the veggie restaurant I frequented in Cusco.  I know, I know!  There are tons of tour operators offering a variety of treks and I chose one arranged by one of the veggie restaurants.  Well, it was the mystery of the ‘Jungle Trek’ to Machu Picchu that won me over and I am partial to things that are slightly different to the norm.  So, I booked it with Pepe, a local guide based at the restaurant who was leaving for the trek in a few days with two women from the US.  With a few days to play with, I decided not to hang about and booked myself on a bus to meet up with a couchsurfer from Arequipa who was taking a few locals on a trek of Colca Canyon.

On the day of the trek to Machu Picchu, I only made it back to Cusco by the skin of my teeth, but that’s another story for another day.  We left Cusco late in the afternoon and travelled by car to Santa Maria via the Old Town of Ollantytambo, which is an old Inca town that is still inhabited.

It was the following day that the trek really started.  To our surprise, we didn’t have to carry our backpacks.  Instead, they were loaded into a car.  It seemed that this was going to be more of a luxury trek.  Not only that, but it wasn’t a particularly difficult or technical trek.  In fact, it was just like going for a nice walk in the mountains.

Apart from one other small group, we were the only ones on the trail, which I loved.  It wasn’t a busy tourist route and we weren’t in a rush.  So, we kept stopping to take photos and to enjoy the views on offer – the verdant landscape accented with a hint of colour from the flowers and fruit growing naturally along this beautiful nature trail.  It was the first time I had seen coca leaves, cacao, and coffee in their natural environment.

We listened to Pepe, our guide, who told us stories and followed an old tradition to keep us safe by picking three coca leaves and making a wish before blowing them away.  I was definitely up for that, having had a lucky escape when I came off my bicycle on Death Road in Bolivia. 

I also got my first sighting of the ‘lipstick tree’, Achiote (Bixa orellana).  The flowers were in full bloom, but it’s the fruit, mainly used in food production for flavour and colouring, that we were interested in.  We did what the Central and South America native people do and used it for body paint and make up.  We were really getting into the swing of the whole nature and culture thing.

Learning about old South American traditions

Once we had our faces painted, we continued on past trees full of lemons, bananas, and papayas until we arrived at the first of two farms.

At Monkey House, as it is called, they produce coffee and chocolate, my two favourite things, but they also provide refreshments and a place to chill out along the way.   Here, we encountered a number of animals – ducks, a mountain paca, a mountain coati (which was tied up, unfortunately), and some parrots.


We really decided to make the most of this rest stop.  We chilled out on the hammocks, as you do when you are in the Peruvian jungle.  We had some refreshments, enjoyed some very rich, freshly produced chocolate.  I bought some coffee to take with me.  I mean, how could I resist?  It couldn’t be any fresher, coming straight from the original source – marvelous!  Ah, and how could I resisit the temptation to try on some traditional dress?  Of course, I couldn’t.  We had to be pretty much dragged away from Monkey House.  It’s a rather unusual but interesting place and one that I could have easily stayed at for a night or two, if I wasn’t on an organised trek.


Well, onwards and upwards, as they say.  We continued on until we arrived at the next farm.  There were turkeys, an exhausted dog, more ducks, a puppy, and a cute little kitten.  They also produced coffee at this farm.  The owner played us some tunes with his Bandurria, a Spanish instrument commonly found in countries, like Peru, that were once Spanish colonies.

Second Coffee Farm Collage

We continued on our way, stopping only briefly to eat our packed lunch before we arrived at the Colcamayo Hot Springs.  This was completely different to what I had imagined.  I thought it would be very natural with no facilities, but it was more like a resort.  Having trekked through the jungle, I hadn’t expected toilets, showers (albeit cold), and a small shop.  Pepe and one of the trekkers, who wasn’t keen on indulging in the thermal pools, headed off to the local town, Santa Teresa, to get our stuff.  In the meantime,  the only other trekker and I went straight in the pool.  I was the first in.  I don’t mess about when there’s a thermal pool to make use of and I had been looking forward to it all day.  It’s probably the only thing that could have tempted me away from Monkey House.  I stayed in the pool until it was time for dinner, prepared by Pepe.  After more tales about the Incas, we all settled down for the night in a tent at Colcamayo Hot Springs.  We were the only ones there.  This was no ordinary Inca trail!

Thermal hot springs

Because we stayed there the night, we were able to make use of the pools in the morning and the outdoor showers before having breakfast, packing up, and moving on.  We got a car ride into the nearest town, Santa Teresa.  It was a novelty to be in a town that bore my name.  While we wandered around the town, a monkey jumped on the shoulder of one of the other women.  It was all because it wanted her chocolate!  After that, we got back into the car again and were dropped off at the railway track.  From there, we took our backpacks and walked to a restaurant beside it to have lunch.

My least favourite part of the trek came next and that was walking for 2 hours along the railway track.  I wasn’t keen on it because it was difficult to walk on.  In case you’re wondering, the train track is in use.  We had to move off the track at one point to let a train pass, which you can see in the middle right photo.


The next morning, we got up at 4.30am, as advised by Pepe, so we could get to Machu Picchu for sunrise and put our names down for Huaynu Picchu, one of the mountains that towers above Machu Picchu, where there are also some Inca ruins.  Our guide liked to tell stories, even at 4.30am, but we were on a mission to get to Machu Picchu in time.  We set off, but it was light already.  That meant we had missed sunrise at Machu Picchu.  After walking on the railway track again, we finally started to climb tons of steps.  One of the girls was ultra-fit and she ran up the steps.  I don’t know where she got the energy from.

When we eventually arrived at Machu Picchu, it was 7am.  It was then we discovered that, not only had we missed sunrise at Machu Picchu, we had also missed our opportunity to climb up Huayna Picchu.    We needed to be there at 6am because only the first 400 people get to go up it.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.  I was.

To our surprise, Pepe didn’t come in to the park with us and arranged to meet us later.  Since we wanted to find out more about Machu Picchu, we hired one of the guides in the park.  She was very knowledgeable and gave us more information than I was ever going remember.  When she finished, I asked her if it was worth returning to Machu Picchu another time, so I could climb up Huayna Picchu.  She didn’t seem to think so and advised us to climb up the Machu Picchu mountain instead.  So, that’s what we did.  We headed on up the huge mountain that towers over Machu Picchu.

I found it physically challenging to climb but, for that reason, there weren’t many people going up.  Machu Picchu gets packed full of people, so it was great to get away from it all.  It was well worth the effort because, as the guide promised, we had far-reaching views which included an impressive view of both the Machu and Huayna Picchu ruins.  If you are able to do so, I would definitely suggest climbing up the Machu Picchu mountain.

The Lost City of the Incas

After spending the day there, we returned to the guesthouse to collect our backpacks and had a 2-hour walk along the railway track again to meet the car.  This was even worse than the day before because, in the dark, it was even more of a challenge.  Having done it, I wouldn’t recommend walking on the railway track for hours and especially not when it gets dark.  Because the uneven and stony surface, along with the lack of light, I fell over at one point.  I didn’t do any serious damage, but my left leg and hand hurt a bit.

We had to return to Cusco that night because one of the other trekkers had get a flight back to the US.  As we’d only had light meals up to that point, we insisted on stopping off in Santa Teresa on the way back to have something to eat, our first proper meal since leaving Cusco.  We eventually arrived back in Cusco at about 2am via a very bumpy and extremely windy road.  By the time I got to bed, I had been up for about 22 hours and had had a lot of exercise in that time.

It was a rather unconventional way of getting to Machu Picchu and wasn’t quite what I had expected.  Nonetheless, it was an interesting journey:  I learned a lot and I finally got to see the infamous Machu Picchu.


The points on the map indicate the route we took.

Center map
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Have your say

Have you been to Machu Picchu?  If so, what route did you take?  If not, do you want to do the classic Inca Trail or would you consider an alternative route?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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