This would be the day, heading from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. Leaving Santa Teresa at lunch time meant I had time to spare and had a full breakfast and lunch. Hospedaje Cajamarca arrange a shared taxi (they do two trips a day) for me to Hidroelectrica along with 6 other people, all heading to Aguas Calientes. Finally the day had arrived, I’d be seeing Machu Picchu the next day! A side note: Hidroelectrica is only 10km from Santa Teresa so very walkable. I felt like I was cheating was we passed a few people walking there.
Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica
Everyone refers to Central Hidroelectrica Machu Picchu II / Estación Hidro Peru Rail / Hydro Station Peru Rail (the last one not as common; it often shows up as the train station in Aguas Calientes) just as Hidroelectrica. For Google Maps use Central Hidroelectrica Machu Picchu II. Hidroelectrica is what the name says, a hydro electric powerplant. Arriving there I wasn’t convinced that I was at the correct place – Google Maps said I was!? First impressions were confusing; surely this wasn’t the starting point for a renowned hike route to one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites!?
Hidroelectrica station has a somewhat small market feel, the Quillamaba Bus Terminal in Cusco looks more formal and established. There are train tracks so obviously a train does come through here, though it doesn’t look frequent. There are a few informal shops and cafes/restaurants so if you didn’t have time to eat there is no need to worry. As always I had some snacks (mixed nuts), protein bars, my 0.75L water bottle and an additional 1.5L.
Earlier I mentioned about Hidroelectrica is only 10km from Santa Teresa, not walking is a little regret of mind. My decision not to was from reading various accounts on how long it takes to walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. These varied from 2 hrs (which some say is very fast) through to 4 hrs. Not knowing the terrain or route distance isn’t the key factor, terrain is! Walking 2km on a straight road is easy, doing the same distance over a mountain could take a day!
Unsure if I was at the correct place, I started to walk along the train tracks. Not 200m down the line it was a dead-end with the tracks coming to an end. Turning back, I walked about 100m, some locals sitting outside habitually pointing to a little path footpath running perpendicular to the tracks. In my broken Spanish I asked for directions to Machu Picchu shrugging my shoulders to emphasise “where to go?” – I felt quite stupid and ignorant for doing that! Their heads nodded slightly to confirm whilst they kept pointing to the little footpath which looked like it could lead into the jungle. Surely the locals understood my question, surely I’m not the only one to have enquired how to get to a little know place called Machu Picchu?
Taking the local’s lead, I headed up the path. My first thoughts were “shit” this path leads straight up the mountain! If this is the route to Aguas Calientes it is going to be a climb, not a hike, making all my previous hikes look as flat as a pancake!!!
Directions from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes
Contrary to what you would think, something I quickly found out is, there are almost no signposts at Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes / Machu Picchu! Thankfully the locals have seen the lost look on thousands of visitors faces and now simply resort to pointing ?. If you, like me, arrive there feeling a little lost, here’s where to go:
- Most people get dropped off near the “station”; where most of the activity is and shops line along the railway tracks.
- Standing between the two sets of tracks with the Urubamba river down below on your left-hand-side.
- There are railways tracks only a short way away to your right, hidden from sight and elevated from the station level
- Walk a short distance keeping the river on your left (less than 100m). Almost any path leading to your right will take you to the next set of railway tracks
- When you get to the next set of railway tracks (no more than 30-40m) turn left.
- Follow the railway line and you will get to Aguas Calientes; there are no deviations, this railway line only leads to Aguas Calientes
The hike to Aguas Calientes
Like I said earlier, I had a few extra bits and bobs with extra water with me – I didn’t know what to expect on the route. Not knowing my plans after Machu Picchu, I travelled with all my things, (backpack and daypack), total weight 16kg. From here on my pictures are mostly of the Urubamba River, jungle and yes you may have guessed it, railway lines! The weather wasn’t great, cool which is nice for hiking and every now and then either a misty rain or lite drizzle. I’m not a fan of hiking with a raincoat on but had no choice, I covered my bag with a rain cover too. I mention this as my camera was in my bag so all my photos were taken with my phone – not the best I know.
As the crow flies Aguas Calientes is 4.2km from Hidroelectrica, however the hike follows the railway line which in turn follows the Urubamba River. This makes the distance 10km. It is virtually flat except for the last approx. kilometre where it has a mild gradient leading into Aguas Calientes. The route is in good condition, sometimes you walk between the tracks, others on the side, crisscrossing over the tracks along the way – you cannot get lost.
Unlike when moving around on trains and the Underground in London, I don’t wear headphones when hiking &/or sightseeing! That may sound obvious, but earphones are part of life living and working in a large city especially on public transport. When hiking or sightseeing I like to use all my sense, it gives me a holistic experience. It makes me live in the now, it heightens my experiences and has taught me a lot about myself.
Urubamba River / Vilcamayo River & Vilcanota River
They are one and the same. Vilcanota River may get its name from the Aymara word “Willkanuta”, meaning “house of the sun”. Vilcamayo River may get its name from the Quechua word “Willkamayu”, meaning “sacred river”. Upstream it is called the Vilcanota River, when it gets to La Convención Province (the largest of the 13 provinces in the Cusco Region) it changes to the Urubamba River. Machu Picchu falls into the Upper Urubamba River as does Pikillaqta. Snaking through the Sacred Valley of the Inca it is no wonder is was referred to the Sacred River.
Taking this verbatim from Wikipedia (couldn’t think of how to put this into my own words more succinctly. “A partially navigable headwater of the Amazon River, it rises in the Andes to the southeast of Cuzco. It originates on the slopes of Khunurana in the Puno Region, Melgar Province, near the La Raya pass. It flows north-north-west for 724 kilometres before coalescing with the Tambo River to form the Ucayali River.”
…back to the hike
I’d been staying and hiking at altitude for 10 days. Cusco at 3400m my base and maximum at Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley 5200m. From the destinations I visited, I’d say most days I spent hiking between 3800m – 4200m. That’s not me bragging, it does however explain the bounds of energy I had during this hike. Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes is around 2000m above sea level, well below what I had become (reluctantly ?) accustomed to! My backpack felt as light as a feather and my walking speed was like a professional speed walker! I stopped along the way to put my raincoat on, and off again, had a snack from my bag and stopped to take pictures too. It felt like I could walk at this pace forever!
Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes is a peaceful and scenic walk, with the sound of the Urubamba River a constant companion. Rustling in the forest of things scuttling around in the leaves and shrubs. On many occasions I stop to see what was making the noises, but the vegetation is dense so impossible to see unless you are luck. Very likely lizards or small mammals, though the area does have pumas and spectacled bears amongst many other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
I lost count of how many streams I crossed. Some little trickles, others rushing narrow torrents, all starting somewhere up in the mountain feeding the white-water rapids of the Urubamba River. You don’t literally walk through these streams; the route has many little bridges for the railway line. The route was deadly quiet, bar the sound of nature. Such an intense noise it consumes your senses, yet still the quietest of sounds. Nature makes you hear yourself, your footsteps, your breath, your heartbeat.
Déjà vu…railway tracks
What makes this hike wonderful if that you don’t need to think. Just follow the railways tracks and get lost in your thoughts. Like I’ve already mentioned you can get food & drinks at Hidroelectrica, as you can also do along the way. Every so often there are restaurants and shops along the way. None of them on the railway tracks, they are set back about 30-50m into the forest. Some are little cafes, others offer accommodation and full menu. Mostly built using the forest as materials it reminded me a lot of the restaurants in rural Thailand/Vietnam/Indonesia.
Without even knowing I saw a few Inca terraces high up in the mountains, these are part of Machu Picchu! For now I wasn’t that interested in them I was enjoying the deafening silence of nature. The railway lines stretching out into the distance or merging together as they disappear around a corner and into the jungle. Somehow I felt like this hike had another purpose and these lines were guiding me. I didn’t know where I was or how far to the destination, but at the end they would take me to where I needed to be. If it took me days it didn’t seem to matter, I was fixated on letting them lead me. Yes I know that all sounds like BS, but it isn’t. I was in a mild like trance.
Arriving at Aguas Calientes
Needless to say, it didn’t take me days to get to Aguas Calientes! I knew I was near because I passed the road I would be taking the following morning to Machu Picchu. Not only that, but there were a lot more people too. Something I wasn’t going to include, mostly because I’m embarrassed. However, I’ve been truthful in all my posts so why not this time too. When I got to the junction where the route passes the Machu Picchu turnoff, I got a little emotional. More so than when I got to the Giza Pyramids. Not everyone gets the opportunity to realise their dreams, I had realised two of mine, tomorrow it would be three. At the start of my travels I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me everything I would see and do during my journeys. Tomorrw, Machu Picchu, unbelievable!
Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes took me 1hour 50minutes and I felt over the moon when I arrived. Extremely excited to be there, still I would have loved it if the hike was much longer. I stayed at Machu Picchu Adventure House, much nicer than Santa Teresa (?); like a small hotel with super friendly staff. Just a word of warning, accommodation is considerably expensive compared to the rest of Peru, the locations I went to. For example, in Miraflores the heart of Lima’s tourist area was very expensive at US$52 per night, Aguas Calientes cost me US$83! Most of the accommodation here is basic to good, not the sort of place people come to for 5star hotels.
Aguas Calientes isn’t big, with only around 4500 residence. Visitors come for a few days, many only for one. The town is a tourist destination town, if it weren’t for Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes wouldn’t exist. I only had diner three times, it was either at Alpakitay Resto Bar or Full House, good food, service and prices – there are many restaurants. As for the rest of the town I only spent one day walking about, not that much else to see. With quite a lot of construction going on it wouldn’t surprise me the in the future (maybe even now) the place will be much more commercial. Mark my words, give it a short time and there will be a KFC, McDonald’s…such a pity.
I found a bird
Plan was to be there for two nights, I extended for another. Like the hike, there are plenty streams running down from the mountains into the Urubamba River, one runs straight through the middle of the town. Looking at the size of the channel for the latter stream it must be hectic when they have heavy rain! Aguas Calientes is what it is. A lasting memory of the place was a bird I spotted, the feathered type, called Cock-of-the-rock…I kid you not that’s what it’s called! About the size of a canary, it’s most orange, luminous orange, with grey and black tips wings and tail. It’s so bright it looks artificial! They stick out like a strobe light in a sea of green, they’re quite cautious too. It took me ages to sneak up close enough to get a decent picture. Even then it wouldn’t keep still for a second!
Next post will be…yup, Machu Picchu! I’ll post more pictures on my Batnomad Facebook page two days after posting this.