Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Backdoor Into Machu Picchu

Day 97 (January 20, 2013)
Cuzco, Peru to Agua Caliente, Peru
Day's Ride: 150 Miles, Day's Train Ride: 20 Kilometers



When going to Machu Picchu, you are required to enter through the town of Agua Caliente. The only way to get to Agua Caliente is by foot, train, or bus. Even though there is a road, you are not allowed to ride your motorcycle or take a privately owned vehicle into the town. I asked a few people if it would be possible just to ride in, and they told me that the Police have roadblocks to make sure no one tries to do something as pernicious and underhanded as that.

In order to get to Agua Caliente, most people either take the train or do the hike from Cusco along the Inca trail. The Inca trail takes three days. For a one way ticket on the train from Cusco, you have to pay over $70! Then there is the entrance fee into Machu Picchu which is around $60, not to mention the money that you have to spend on food, lodging, and other things like taxis and bus rides. All in all, Machu Picchu is probably the most expensive piece of tourism in South America.

In order to minimize my expenditures and maximize my time, I had been looking for a slightly cheaper and more DIY way to get to Machu Picchu. After talking with a motorcycle rental shop in Cusco, I learned that you could ride all the way around the mountains on the opposite side of Machu Picchu to a small town called Santa Theresa, park your bike at a Hostal, then hop on a train at the nearby hydroelectric dam and ride into Agua Caliente for a mere $17. If you were really feeling cheap, you could just walk the 20 kilometers along the train tracks for free.

The owner of the motorcycle shop warned me that the route to Santa Theresa would go over a 4,500 meter tall pass, have a fair amount of dirt roads, and would take anywhere from five to seven hours. That sounded like a plan to me!

Mike and I left Cusco at 8:00 AM and started riding towards Santa Theresa via the Sacred Valley. We had originally thought that we would wait one more day in Cusco and then make the trip; however, after waking up this morning, we decided to just bomb it. We did have a deadline though: the train left "hidroelectrica" (the dam) at 4:30 PM which meant that we had to have the bikes stashed in Santa Theresa before 4:00 PM so that we could get a taxi to the train station and buy tickets.

The initial part of the ride was on relatively smooth pavement through a series of small towns along the Sacred Valley.



We passed numerous ruins and archaeological sights......



....and eventually came across Hewby (Deb) and Huzar (Marcin), two other riders that we knew through advrider. Huzar was low on gas and had to turn back and refuel before continuing onto Santa Theresa, so we said our goodbyes and continued on.



Upon reaching the town of Ollantaytambo, the road immediately cut north and begin climbing. The switchbacks rose in a crescendo of dizzying turns, climbing higher and higher into the clouds until all visibility was lost and the thick mist drenched through riding gear and rider alike.



Eventually the climb topped out in a high alpine pass over 14,000 feet and then descended down the other side. Crystal white torrents of glacial runoff cascaded out of the clouds and down the green hillsides, creating an impressive view and distracting us from the treacherous road.



As the road descended farther into the valley, large gaps in the pavement began to appear. Due to the rain and the traffic, these sections turned into muddy slogs for our bikes.



We eventually reached the turn off for Santa Theresa and left the pavement for good. The final 30 kilometers were all on an amazing dirt road.



Mike and I had an amazing time rallying down this track. It wasn't smooth graded gravel by any means. It was washed out in several spots, covered with potholes, strewn with large rocks, and overflown by several small streams; in other words, it was amazing!










All in all, the ride from Cuzco to Santa Theresa was amazing! It was easily one of the top three rides I've done on this trip. It was an incredible mix of pavement and off-road, combined with breathtaking scenery and miserable weather; in essence, the perfect adventure ride!

Arriving in Santa Theresa, Mike and I had a victory beer to celebrate the amazing ride that we had just completed....



We then went about the business of stashing our bikes at a Hostel and finding a taxi to take us the remaining 10 kilometers to the hydroelectric dam and the train.

We arrived around 4:00 PM, purchased our tickets, and sat down to watch the swarms of Gringo backpackers begin trekking down the railroad tracks.



It turns out that the back door to Machu Picchu is becoming fairly well known. I saw one guy who was carrying nothing with him save a guitar and a small fanny pack. I began to joke with Mike that when the train finally caught up with some of the backpackers, it was sure to run over a drum circle or two.

A few minutes later, Hewby and Huzar caught up with us, and we all boarded the train. The train was extremely nice; very reminiscent of the "Nariz del Diablo" train. It even had the forward and reverse switchbacks. The tourist car even had windows in the roof so that you could look up and see the mountains.



Eventually we came around a corner and were treated with our first view of Machu Picchu perched on it's cliff high above us.



Arriving in Agua Caliente, we hunted down a hotel and then went out to get some dinner. I finally buckled down and ordered the Cuy. Cuy is fried guinea pig, a traditional Incan dish. I had been holding out, trying to find a guinea-pig-on-a-stick from a street vendor or a market, just so I could get the "authentic" experience. Unfortunately, I hadn't been able to find one, so I just ordered one at the restaurant.



In case you're wondering, it tastes like chicken!



Tomorrow I wake up early (4:30 AM) and go up to see Machu Picchu.

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