Does the idea of rising at sparrow fart to shuffle aboard a busy train send a shudder down your spine? Yeah, I thought it might. That’s how most people make their way to Machu Picchu, though. But there is an alternative. It takes a little more time than the train, and perhaps a little more effort – but it’s infinitely worth it. From Quintalala campsite, in the hills above Cusco, we drive the road to the Sacred Valley, arriving at Ollantaytambo some two hours later.
After losing Cuzco to the Spanish at the battle of Sacsahuaman, Manco Inca led his troops to the fortifications at Ollantaytambo. It marked the beginning of the Inca retreat into the hills of Vilcabamba, and the closing stages of their reign. We arrive here by late afternoon and camp in a quiet car park just off the plaza. Ollantaytambo is definitely worth a beer or two in the plaza, just to absorb the sights.
Continuing from Ollantaytambo we crest the 4,300 metre Malaga Pass, immediately descending 3,000 metres to Santa Maria. From Santa Maria to Santa Theresa the twenty kilometre stretch of piste can get quite hairy as it rises a few hundred feet above the Urubamaba River. In most places it is single-track and minibuses and pick-up trucks hurtle round the blind bends. The indiscriminate use of throttle is usually marked by a small black cross (or several).
From Santa Theresa follow the piste to the Hidroelectrica MachuPicchu, where you’ll find Sr Escobar and his son are more than happy to watch over your car for a fee of 15 Solis a day. You might wonder where on earth you have come to. This is a working mine. There is a massive great hole that disappears into the mountain and a lot of hardy-looking miners clad in orange suits and hard hats. Persevere. I’ve never heard of an overlander ever loosing his vehicle down that big hole.
From here you proceed on foot along the railway line cutting through the sub-tropical forest. It’s a great walk and takes about three hours to Aguas Calientes.
From Aguas calientes a legion of buses convey the tourists up the switchback mountain piste at break-neck speed. I’ve seen Machu Picchu on the TV, in journals, on posters and the side of buses, but when you clap eyes on the place for real – WOW! – it really is something special.