Machu Picchu without the tourist crowds? It’s possible!
In a mountain jungle high above the clouds, I can look down upon a sprawling puzzle of stone, combined like an ancient God’s lego stash. Most pieces resemble the walls of houses or terraces with loose stones lying in the emerald green grass waiting to find their place in the rocky mosaic.
The only sound floating in the breeze is the fossicking of llamas keeping the lawns trim. There’s also the scurry of furry chinchillas enjoying an evening dust bath and my mate yelling from a ledge above, “This is fucking awesome! I can’t believe we have the whole place to ourselves!”
But What About All The Tourists?!
For most young, modern explorers, Machu Picchu is the epitome of any South American backpacking trip, but the majority will have to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with a giant crowd of tourists. This can remove some of the majestic vibe of the ancient Incan ruins. But imagine having the whole place to yourself! Not even a park employee looking over your shoulder! See, most visitors train in and out on the same day. This means they have to leave the mountain in the late afternoon to get the last train back to Cusco. To get the place to yourself, you need to stay overnight!
This is how we came to have one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. All. To. Ourselves. This is pretty hard to convey in words, but just imagine having the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids or Times Square with no another human soul to walk too slowly in front of you or to overhear stupid questions like “What’s a Pharoah?”
What Time of Year?
We were there around mid-March, which is the start of the trekking season and that may have had an impact on how many people were there. I expect more trekkers would come through in the evening in later months but the amount of tourists would still decrease quite dramatically in the late afternoon.
Down The Mountain
Here, there are two main options for staying overnight. Firstly, you have the relatively cheap option of staying in the charming town of Aguas Calientes. This is small, quaint whistle-stop right at the bottom of the mountain, sitting on a waterway of canals, frothing rivers and its namesake hot springs.
For less than the price of a sandwich in Australia, you can stay in a little hostel overlooking the tumbling rapids of the river that cut through the town. I don’t mean you have a distant, pretty view, I mean your room literally sits 20m above it! It also provides a lovely white noise to lull you to sleep at night.
But don’t expect too much quality at these prices. The bed was hard and the toilet door didn’t quite close, but really you can’t complain when they’re providing a million dollar view!
The next option is quite expensive, so if you’re looking to save money you do have the option of walking down the mountain yourself after the last bus leaves. Google will show it takes about 2.5 hours to walk back down but that’s following the road, there are little paths between the zig-zagging mountain roads so you can cut through them. It will probably take just over an hour. The trail starts just behind where the shuttle buses park and there are signs marking the trail all the way down.
Up The Mountain
There are nicer hotels along the river but the price does jump up a bit. Although not as much as the second overnight option of staying at the Sanctuary Lodge. This lovely hotel is situated right next to the entrance to Machu Picchu, way back up the top of the mountain. You’d be lucky to get a room as cheap as $800au here, and this is in the low season. My friend and I decided on this option… I mean, you’re only here once!
To be fair, this hotel is brilliant, I couldn’t fault a thing. The rooms were lovely, beds comfy, pillows fluffy, luxury assortment of bathroom accessories to stow in my backpack and the usual robe and slippers to parade around the room in, acting like a twat. But the thing that really blew me away was the food… Oh my Incan God! All meals were complimentary and full of gourmet, local ingredients fused together by some Peruvian masterchef in the kitchen.
On our first night we shared an entree of goats cheese profiteroles and local smoked river trout with aioli that was so fresh there wasn’t even a hint of unpleasant fishiness. A green soup followed, I couldn’t quite place the vegetable, maybe a creamy pea, but it tasted like an organic garden in my mouth. For mains we both ended up getting lamb shanks that were so tender the meat fell off the bone with a mere glance. Dessert, a flourless chocolate pudding bomb sourced from local Peruvian cacao beans. We were impressed. But, the ruins! We were here for the ruins… oh did I mention the hummingbirds that buzzed around the hotel gardens… ok, ok, right the ruins!
Just Metres to Machu Picchu
On our first day we checked into the hotel and soon set out just around the corner where the park entrance lies. Taking the first side path we came across, we zig-zagged up a green trail before coming out onto the giant ledge area of a terrace that overlooked the mighty Machu Picchu. The same vantage point so common in every photo of the ruins, that it seems a little surreal to walk out and be confronted with the sight of the vast, ancient structure below and the looming presence of the Huayna Picchu mountain behind it.
It was around 3pm by this stage and fellow tourists were still swarming the site below so hiking to the Sun Gate seemed a better option. This trail is supposed to be easy and only takes around 40 minutes to an hour. And for the first half hour it’s not too bad… but then at some point three quarters of the way along, our bodies decided they’d had enough of this mountain crap, and suddenly every step became an effort busting move that our legs rebelled against. Maybe it was altitude kicking in, I think it was roughly 3500m above sea level, but soon my panting friend’s OTT motivating phrases were met with “Just shut the fuck up!!!”
The Sun Gate
Finally the peak was reached and before we even turned around to take in the spectacular view, we instead went and sat behind the sun gate to relax, take off our shoes and regather our wits. A few others came and went but eventually all was quiet and we could take in the view of Machu Picchu straddling the mountain in the distance, all in silence.
The sun had started its daily descent to the horizon with the light changing to golden hues, cast over the ruins below as we sat immersed in quiet awe.
Feet hanging over the edge of a wall, we contemplated the Incan’s choice of location and their obvious love of an architectural challenge. Two trekkers came up over the ridge behind us, having hiked the Inca trail for the past few days. We walked back down the mountain with the guide imparting some free knowledge to us along the way. “They’re chinchillas, not furry rats…” Oddly enough they didn’t hang around once we arrived at the terraces and below there was not one person in sight. We were the only ones there!
And so, we wandered. For the next hour we just explored, laughing at the acrobatic chinchillas rolling around on the dusty paths and the llamas dismissing our presence as they searched for green grass to munch. We took some time apart and sat by ourselves listening to nothing, not even the wind stirring.
Eventually a falling pebble would bring to my attention a rock climbing llama, as it looked up and briefly made eye contact before going back to its meal. It was like sitting in a postcard, a little bit incomprehensible, a little bit awe-inspiring, but a completely unique and rare experience that will never be forgotten. $800 very well spent!