Cusco, Peru


Andi Cross
Adam Moore
February 25, 2024
8 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

It’s one of the seven wonders of the world, and so much more. Machu Picchu, the remains of an ancient Incan city nested in the overwhelming beauty of the Andean mountains, firmly lives up to its reputation. But little did we know that amidst these spectacular views and grandeur would lie one of our more perilous tales of subverted travel expectations on an expedition. Brace yourself, because like the meandering mountain roads of Peru, this one is full of twists and turns. 

Before the pandemic, Machu Picchu welcomed close to 8,000 visitors per day. But in the 2020s, with its closures and new restrictions, the site has cut its numbers in half, with only 4,000 visitors allowed in daily. During our visit, the headcount was less than 1,000 for a number of reasons, some of which were unbeknownst to us. At the time of entry, touring this incredible site, we felt fortunate that we had local llamas guiding us along its perimeters with hardly anyone else in sight. 

As we made our way through the ruins that sit 2,430 meters (7,972 feet) above sea level, the rain was deterring the few remaining visitors left onsite from going much further. But, we were there and we were determined to keep navigating this ancient relic. There are four routes you can take to navigate the ruins, with or without a guide. We chose Route 2, as it was the long way through, and certainly one of the more scenic ones. 

Our guide, Vilma, knew quite literally everything about this place. As part of her training, she has hiked every route, she has entered from every access point, and has climbed all but one of the region’s mountains from top to bottom. After 25 years as a guide here, Vilma has truly explored every facet of this mountainous landscape. Walking us through the high-jungle ecosystem’s fauna and flora, all the way to giving us a detailed history of the Inca population from this area, we were hooked by her storytelling. 

But we’re not here to share facts and figures regarding the region. Our story is a bit more grim. 

A fun detail to give you some further insight on our well-being while exploring Machu Picchu is that Adam and I both had suffered from serious food poisoning leading up to our time in Aguas Calientes. In fact, my condition was still pretty gnarly as we moved slowly around Route 2. As someone who has spent a bulk majority of my time violently ill on boats due to sea sickness, I’ve become somewhat of a pro at controlling my spew and marching onward regardless. In this case, it was a lot of additional effort to successfully make it through Machu Picchu, with Vilma enthusiastically sharing her history lessons, all while resisting the urge to upchuck all over her.

After six hours of holding back the sickness, we finally made it to our hotel which required more climbing up 150 stone steps. Everything in Aguas Calientes is elevated, and what proceeded that night was nothing short of a horror film—the kind of thing you’d expect from a South American “Exorcist” installment. Waking up in the morning, we were to take the train (the only form of transport in and out of the Machu Picchu area) from Aguas Calientes to Ollytetembo, the next major town. From there, we would make our way back to the Incan capital city of Cusco. All in all, it would be four hours worth of travel—but nothing we couldn’t handle. 

We climbed down the stairs at 8:30 am the next day and stepped out into the main square of Aguas Calientes. Typically a busting congregation of the city’s locals was instead completely vacant. Not a soul in sight. Perplexed, we made our way to the train station only to discover that the entire population of around 4,500 were on strike, and the only mode of transport in and out of the town fully closed for an indeterminate amount of time. 

Now back to Vilma for a moment. She was telling us about the political unrest happening around Peru, in particular right here. The government had removed something sacred to the people: the ability to access Machu Picchu and surrounding sites free of charge. This is deeply significant to the residents as they are mostly descendants of this landmark. Every weekend, for as long as it can be remembered, the site has been accessible to locals and for those who guide and work on the site. But, as of December 2023, that privilege was revoked, causing an uproar within the Aguas Calientes community. 

No one could seem to tell us when the trains would be back in action. Yet they could tell us one thing: if we needed to get out of Aguas Calientes anytime soon, we would need to walk. From there, if we were lucky, we’d be able to catch one of the buses or shared cars passing by and hitch a ride all the way through to the capital. This entire car-based journey was estimated at around six hours without a single interruption. 

Our transit time went from four hours to close to nine, and a significant chunk of it on foot. 

Under normal circumstances, making this trek would have been fun—especially as the landscapes around Machu Picchu are so incredibly breathtaking. But add in our “diminished” states, and we had stumbled upon a recipe for disaster. It took me a minute to muster up the courage to accept my reality for the day. As we started to get going, something inside me switched on. Instinctually, my body managed to hold on for dear life and treated me decently through the hiking portion. 

It was on the brink of raining the entire time. Although I was drenched in sweat with shooting pains running through my body, the two hours of hiking was actually pretty special. We followed an old railway track from Aguas Calientes to the Hydroelectric area (where a hydro plant was situated powering the region), and we had the natural beauty of the place all to ourselves. It was quiet, peaceful, and quite nice. Making it to Hydroelectric felt worthy of a celebration, but it really was only a brief victory on our long road ahead. 

Little did we know, the next step would involve taking four different unmarked cars to get to our final destination. And for three of them, we were at an elevation of 4,000 meters (13,120 feet), driving on dirt winding stretches with no safety measures, at high speeds and of course, in the rain. At any moment, in these rickety old cars, could we have plunged to our deaths off the sides of these insane cliffs. 

The proper road from Hydroelectric to Ollytetembo was in the process of being built. Everything about it was as unsafe as it gets, but it was simply our only option. Putting our trust in three men we’d never met before, with a significant language barrier, we accepted each car ride with our fingers crossed and hopeful hearts. 

But our final car ride was the extra special one. 

We had now officially been in South America for a month and during our time, we had come across the beloved (and highly illegal) coca leaves. These leaves are farmed in the Amazon, and are the source for medicinal teas and other food products, as well good old fashioned, cocaine powder. Deep within the jungle are labs all around Peru that prepare these leaves into their final form. 

Having stumbled onto a coca plantation while in the Amazon, we saw the leaves first hand and knew the process of farming, drying and transporting them. Bright green leaves meant they were ready to be laid out in the sun for an hour or two until they dried and darkened in color. Then they were ready for their next step. 

We were now in a town called Santa Maria, where a 12-person bus was going to drop us off in Ollantaytambo. This was the longest and most formidable stretch through the Andes. Once the van was finally full of its passengers, we were off. But not before stopping on the side of the road at the town exit for our driver to be given a yellow plastic bag, filled to the brim with leaves. Coca leaves. 

For the next hour, we made stops along the way at what seemed like every tiny village leading up to the mountains. And with every stop, a new set of bags filled with these precious leaves. It hit me before it hit Adam, that we could possibly be participating in a weird, undercover drug transit operation. Setting that thought aside, on we went. With more hours came more stops. And with more stops, more rain and random elderly folks hopping onto the bus, piling in like sardines, until reaching a new level of full. And of course, more coca leaves coming onto the bus from every angle. Their final form? We’ll never know. 

This was an unexpected first for the Edges of Earth team.

I’m happy to report that yes, we made it safely to Cusco by 9pm. Despite all the odds stacked against us, and the multitude of ways in which we could have been killed, maimed or forever scarred by this journey, we made it. More or less unscathed as well. No one was spewed on in the making of this story. 

We came to find out that, had we stayed in Aguas Calientes, we would have been there for well over a week, as the strikes were unrelenting. In fact, the iconic Incan ruins were closed, for the first time in decades, unless visitors were willing to hike up the mountain and back, as the bus drivers that take you from town to the top were among those on strike. 

What did we learn? Sometimes there’s no other option than to just go with it. If you’re going to travel often, then there’s an underlying rule that you need to celebrate when things go your way, and accept when they do not. As it will happen, frequently, and you need to have the guts to handle it. Food poisoning, sea sickness, stomach virus and all. For those willing to accept the pleasure and the pain, there’s usually a great story at the end waiting for you to look back on in the form of fond, fond memories. 

To be continued … 


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