When you think of Peru you think of the Inca Trail and the majestic Machu Picchu. With its ‘must do’ tag, the Inca Trail appears on many a bucket list and finishing it will give you stories and tales aplenty for years to come. It’s something to tell the grandkids about, the time you immersed yourself in that ancient civilisation and marvelled at the pure genius of this lost trail and the mysterious town that is keeping the experts puzzled. But with the Peruvian government becoming more aware of the damaging effect that the bumbling tourist is having on the ancient and lost trail, isn’t it about time to find an alternative to the Inca, not to mention the fact that the experience feels far from unique when walking a trail trodden by thousands before you.
After six months travelling, Peru got a little lost when I ran out of time and money. Desperate to see Machu Picchu, I started to investigate a way to get there that wasn’t along the crowded and expensive Inca Trail. I stumbled across an alternative route that brought me to the foot of Machu Picchu in the town of Aguas Caliente, a route rarely taken by tourists. I felt a sense of cautious excitement as I set off early one morning from Cusco bus station on a crowded local bus, my destination was Santa Maria, a collection of buildings in, quite simply, the middle of nowhere. The journey proved to be an interesting one, as my companions and I huddled in the thronging bus, sitting decisively still whilst a fist fight broke out between two men over a contested seat. For a good hour we had a local man selling what looked to be a GCSE science book, but our lack of Spanish proved to be the devil again, as we shied away from the lively salesman, as he grilled us on our scientific knowledge (I think).
Once we reached Santa Maria it was a scramble for a taxi. We jumped in with some other travellers and set off to the Hydroelectric Plant of Santa Teresa. After a hair-raising journey we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, again. We had been told to follow the train tracks which led from the plant to Aguas Caliente and after a spell of broken Spanish and exuberant hand signals we finally set off. While on the Inca Trail the group guide may be adhering to strict health and safety procedures, I can tell you that on the Rail Trail these procedures were severely lacking. There were many moments of ‘STOP, I think a train is coming’ before a quick leap off the tracks and a scramble into the bushes. Of course you can get the train to Aguas Caliente but then you would miss out on the thrill seeking element that comes with the sight of a train steadily approaching. We walked for what seemed like hours, hoping to see Aguas Caliente around every corner. As we trundled on late into the day we got increasingly worried about the fading light and pretty soon our worries materialised, as we faced a pitch black tunnel, with no torch. The threat of trains was still high but we got lucky when a local man walking home from work held out his Nokia 3310 to cast a dim light on our path. Not long after, we snaked round the last corner and saw the lights of Aguas Caliente, inviting us for a well deserved rest.
The next morning our alarm woke us at 4am, as we pulled our aching limbs out of bed, ready to climb the final stretch and reach our ultimate goal as the sun rose. We stumbled out into the dark and braced ourselves to climb the incredibly steep path up to Machu Picchu. For several hours we ploughed on up the testing track, with each step the day breaking, shedding light on the mountains that held one of the world’s greatest secrets. Just after sunrise the mountains finally gave us our gold and we slumped, taking in the view of Machu Picchu. It was nothing short of breathtaking. We were left in as much awe as the next exhausted tourist. A new burst of energy flooded over us as we practically skipped round the ancient buildings littering the hillside. As I stood in the ruins with its other admirers, I couldn’t help but feel a little triumph at completing our journey. While the Inca Trail offers a truly historic and magnificent experience, for the penny pinching and time short tourist , our mini Inca was a deserving alternative, bringing us a little closer to the true Peru.