Hiking the Backdoor Trail to Machu Picchu (Peru)

From the bridge I could see them for the first time: the famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. This was the site that had been on my one-day-must-see list since childhood and finally I was going there. I was so excited!

High up on the mountain, some 600 meters above us, was the clear outline of Huayna Picchu and what seemed to be moving sticks, but in reality were visitors walking among the ruins. Between there and where I stood, ran a river and rose a vertical wall – which obviously wasn’t the way to get there. Coen and I still had quite a way to go before we would arrive at our destination. I didn’t mind. We were in the middle of forest-clad mountains, under a beautiful blue sky and had the world to ourselves. Machu Picchu could wait one more day.

How to Get to Machu Picchu

There are a couple of ways to get to Machu Picchu, or to be more accurate, to Agua Calientes, which is Machu Picchu’s hub with hotels, restaurants and other tourist infrastructure from where you either walk up to the Inca ruins or take a bus. To get to Agua Calientes you can go by train, on foot or, for the lucky few who can afford it, by helicopter.

Most visitors opt for the train on a one or two-day trip from Cusco, the gateway to Peru’s Inca ruins in the Andes Mountains. To best-known route on foot is the Inca Trail, a four-day hike along various Inca ruins before arriving at Machu Picchu. Both options have their charms for entirely different reasons, but they share two things: you are among hundreds of others and it is a costly way of getting there.

There is also a group that tries to find a less-traveled path to Machu Picchu (Agua Calientes), and/or a cheaper way to get there. Coen and I were among that group and our quest was to find both. We succeeded. Locals refer to it as the quiet backdoor trail from Santa Teresa.

Hiking to Agua Calientes

We drove from Cusco to Santa Teresa (but buses ply there too) and from there took a bus to Hidroelectrica, which stopped at the train station. Along the railway tracks were various little food stalls and we enjoyed a lunch of a wholesome soup filled with pasta, vegetables and a piece of chicken. Right behind the stalls was a sign showing us the way: ‘Camino de Machu Picchu.

It was a short trail right up a hill through a coffee plantation, which took us to the higher railway tracks. We took a left and for the next couple of hours followed the track to Agua Calientes. There is no way you can get lost here as for the next couple of hours you simply follow the railway tracks.

Soon I was lost in my thoughts about that childhood dream of seeing and visiting Machu Picchu. The idea was still unreal. In the background dominated the thundering sounds of a river that cascaded down over huge boulders that over the centuries nature had sculptured into beautiful pieces of art. The noise suddenly abated as we reached the bridge from where we saw the first outlines of the ruins high atop the mountain ridge.

The river became a tranquil flowing stream and the noise gave way to the sounds of twittering birds. Vegetation became denser, with the sunlight filtering through the leaves of the forest canopy. It was utterly peaceful. A bit further up the trail was an even better view of Machu Picchu; we could now distinguish some roofs of the ruins (117 km sign).

Along the way we found one more restaurant (116 km sign) and a hostel (114.5 km sign), both run by local families. They were among the very few people living here. During the entire trail we were surrounded by nature: mountains with either sheer rock walls or covered in lush vegetation. The hostel sat right at the entrance to a Botanical Garden, which according to a sign is home to an impressive waterfall. Few other hikers shared the track with us.

Reaching Machu Picchu

After two or three hours of walking and taking in views we arrived at the main road running between Agua Calientes and Machu Picchu. We followed it for some fifteen minutes and left nature behind us: we entered the hustle and bustle of the tourist world that characterizes Agua Calientes.

We focused on the couple of things we had to do: buying the entrance ticket to the ruins, finding an affordable hostel, and having a good night sleep before going up to one of the most scenic places on earth: the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.

Practical information

  • Santa Teresa lies west of Ollantaytambo, on the other side of the Abra Malaga pass. To get there take a local bus (some 6-hour drive). The village has accommodation or you can camp at the nearby campsite of Cola de Mono (which is the perfect place to go ziplining).
  • From Santa Teresa it’s an eight-kilometer walk to Hidroelectrica. While the surroundings are scenic enough, you do walk on the road where buses and taxis whiz by without caring about your walking there and covering you in dust. That’s why we took a local bus and started walking in Hidroelectrica.
  • Bring a hat, sun lotion and drinking water for the hike.

Additional Reading

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

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