An Alternative (and Cheaper) Trek to Machu Picchu
by Kirstone on December 8, 2010
Many people visit Peru to see the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu but only a few people get to trek the original Inca Trail, a four-day hike from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Like many other people, I was prepared to spend my time and a substantial amount of money to do the traditional Inca Trail until I heard about the Inka Jungle Trek.
While in Mancora, Peru (I was staying at Kokopelli Backpackers, which I highly recommend), I met a girl who had just come from Cusco. I asked her if she rode the bus, took the train or hiked to Machu Picchu. She gave me an answer that I did not expect. She did what is called the Inka Jungle Trek. She was very happy with it and, after hearing her version of it, I became very interested in trying it out for myself.
Inka Jungle Trek
On the first day, you ascend a mountain by bus and then bike through the mountains for several hours. Afterward, you have the option to go white water rafting. The second day is a full hiking day. This is the hardest day as you are hiking for eight hours. On the third day, you have the option to zip line or hike in the morning and, in the afternoon, you finish the hike to Aguas Calientes, which is near the base of Machu Picchu. On the final day, you have the option to hike or take a bus to Machu Picchu, where a guide will meet you and take you through the park for two hours after which you have the rest of the day to spend as you want.
Tours can be arranged for three days (two nights) or four days (three nights). Although this is not as hard core as hiking the traditional Inca Trail, it may be a more interesting option if you think you will get bored hiking four days straight. In any event, it is a happy alternative to taking the train or bus from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
Day 1 – Mountain Biking/Rafting
From the hostel, we took a bus up into the mountains (a few hours drive). When we arrived at the top of the mountain, about 14,000 feet high, there was light rain and everything around us had submerged in a cloud. We were told that we could take the bus to a lower elevation and hope that it was dry further down or simply start biking. We decided to bike in the rain.
We were outfitted with a helmet, a bike and biking gloves. The gloves were fingerless which ended up being a bit of an issue with the rain. We queued up and began to wind our way down the mountain while our fingers went numb and the rain hit us in the face. About 20 minutes into it, the rain stopped and the clouds began to lift as we rode through the beautiful mountains, looked at some of the jungle and sped rapidly towards the bottom. After a short break, we continued on flatter ground (i.e., a gravel road under construction). This was hotter and bumpier but was nothing too difficult though the ride can be dangerous; we were riding down a windy road and sharing it with other vehicles, not to mention the drop-offs all along the road.
For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant and had a traditional meal of soup and rice with french fries and chicken. After lunch, those who signed up to go rafting went. I myself did not go but heard from everyone in the group that it was very fun but a bit bug-filled. A traditional dinner was served later that night.
Day 2 – Hiking
We woke up earlier on Day 2 than on Day 1. After breakfast, we began the hike. Although this is not the famous Inca trails, we did hike on some actual Inca trails. We hiked through the jungle and along the sides of mountains. Some parts of the trail along the mountain were narrow and had very steep drop-offs. To be honest, the hike was hot, difficult and steep. It was a beautiful scenic hike though, when we broke for lunch, we were all very ready for a break and food. After lunch, we hiked near the river and even crossed the Urubamba River on a cable car. That evening, we came upon a natural hot spring, where we breaked for an hour or so. Dinner was another traditional meal.
Day 3 – Zip Lining/Hiking
We had a bit of a sleep in on Day 3. After breakfast, the group separated. Those wanting to go zip lining took one route and those wanting to hike took another route. I went zip lining. It was a great time but a bit of a hike up to the first line (there are six lines total). We were told that this line was the highest zip line in South America. There is some mild rock climbing between two of the zip lines, but you will be given all the necessary equipment (mostly Petzl). I felt completely safe the entire time. After zip lining, we rejoined the rest of the group and had lunch before making our way to Aguas Calientes along the river and railroad tracks.
Day 4 – Hike to Machu Picchu
On Day 4, we awoke at 4:00am and began our ascent to Machu Picchu at 5:00am. This was more of an individual hike as opposed to a group hike. The people I was with were able to complete the hike in about an hour's time. We arrived at the main gate to Machu Picchu around 6:00am and didn't have to wait long to enter the park. In fact, some members of our tour were second to enter Machu Picchu that day.
We met our guide for the last time and spent the next two hours touring the ruins taking pictures and learning about the Incans. The tour ended around 8:00am with the rest of the day to spend as we liked. My friends and I went back and forth over the grounds at Machu Picchu enjoying the sun and the sights until our train left for Ollantaytambo later that day. From there, other transportation was arranged to take us back to our respective hostels in Cusco.
Would I Recommend This Trip?
This was a great trek that was difficult and rewarding and was a wonderful opportunity to try out new things with guides who are prepared and want you to have a safe and memorable time. I would recommend this hike to anyone who plans to go to Machu Picchu. I have asthma and, while I am not recommending asthmatics to take this trail (it is very difficult and exhausting), it was a great way to get to the ruins. I had an amazing time and can't believe how few people know about it.
As a backpacker, I understand that you can get caught up in one city for longer than expected and flights between countries in South America can be very expensive. The Inka Jungle Trail is a great option for anyone who isn't sure when they will arrive in Cusco as you can sign up the day before if you want. There are also shorter trips that allow you more freedom if time is an issue.
Choosing a Tour Company
There are many outfits that offer the Inka Jungle Trek; however, everyone I spoke to who took this trip with other companies had many complaints while the people in my group loved the entire experience. Peru Travels did not lie to us once and they made sure that we were taken care of. We stayed in hostels all three nights, and we were fed excellent meals (although we were a bit sick of rice and soup toward the end), and we were even given a very good sack breakfast for the morning of Machu Picchu. The company was honest with us about the conditions we would encounter and the difficulties we would face. The guides were knowledgeable (our guide had been doing this tour once or twice a week for five years) and did an amazing job. If you are interested in going with Peru Travels, their office is just down the stairs from Loki Hostel in Cusco.
What I liked about this trek is that it is very affordable for a backpacker's budget. The starting price is USD$165 for the four-day tour. Rafting is another USD$25 and zip lining is another USD$30. If you get quoted more than this, then they are ripping you off. The price includes three breakfasts, three lunches, and three suppers, as well as a train ticket from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and a transfer from Ollantaytambo to Cusco. The fee to enter the hot springs on Day 2 is 10 Soles. Other than that, all you pay for is water and any snacks that you want. The water is essential and there are people who sell it along the trail. Also, bring some money to tip your guides. It is always good to tip about 10%. Remember your sun screen and bug repellent and try to get a high percentage of DEET. It does actually help.