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For many of us, visiting Machu Picchu is a dream of a lifetime. The Inca citadel has been recently elected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and millions of tourists are visiting the site every year. We wanted to make our visit memorable, therefore we thought it’d be a great idea to visit there for Darian’s first birthday! We had already been in South America since July, starting from Colombia, while his birthday is in December, so we just had to be patient and travel slowly down the western part of South America. Perfect! We love to travel slowly! South America countries, especially Peru, are definitely not boring, so we had plenty of things to entertain ourselves on the way. We had a great time touring around the little-visited northern part of Peru before heading down to the southern and more touristic part of the country, dominated by the Inca’s old capital, Cusco.

Cusco is a prime touristic destination, with enough things to do to keep you busy for at least a week! Located at an altitude of 3400 meters, the city can take you a while to get used to its elevation, but don’t worry, locals have a good remedy for the altitude sickness : A tea made with coca leaves. We had been in Cusco for 2 weeks when we left to visit the Machu Picchu, altitude was not a problem anymore, but it’s worth noting that the Machu Picchu is 1000 meters lower than Cusco, and there are 80 kilometers between these two places.

Our expectations were sky-high, which is usually a perfect recipe to be disappointed, but the experience was just mind-blowing, I was truly impressed by how powerful and mystic the Machu Picchu made me feel. Below is an account of our trip to the UNESCO site, starting from a day before Darian’s birthday. The article’s title could also be “visiting Machu Picchu on a shoestring”.

A trip to the Machu Picchu :

HiuYing with two llamas
This isn’t the Machu Picchu without llamas !

Thursday 14th December 2017 :

6.45am – Early wake up in the city of Cusco. We’ve been renting a room on AirBnb in a local’s home for about 10$ a night. We have a long day in front of us. Our host prepares us a solid breakfast and accompanies us to the local bus stop where we hop on to get to the city center.

7.55am – We arrive at the center. The evening before we booked a shared mini-bus through a travel agency to go to Hidroelectrica, a village near the Machu Picchu, located 6 hours away from Cusco. Advice number 1 : It’s cheaper and faster to go through an agency than to take local transport to get to Hidroelectrica.

8.45am – Still no sign of our mini-bus, despite the fact that the departure was supposed to be at 8am. We try to contact them on the phone but no one answer. The agency finally opens at around 9. The guy who came is just an employee. He wasn’t there when we made the booking yesterday.

9.30am – After trying to find another touristic mini-bus who had not yet depart, the guy just reimburses us and we directly go to the local terminal to take a bus going closer to our destination. Since we could not take the mini-bus, we have to take 3 different local transports to get to Hidroelectrica.

9.45am – The bus leaves. I have no clue how long it’s going to take but I already feel stressed to arrive late. I know we’ll be rushing against the clock all day. We still have to change our means of transportation twice and walk 11 kilometers to get to the village at the bottom of Machu Picchu. We spend the next hours enjoying the views while Darian is alternating sleeping time and playing time in the bus.

2pm – The driver is making a break in a small restaurant. We stay in the bus, wondering how long it’s going to take and if we will make it before the night.

3pm – We finally arrive in the village of Santa Maria. It’s very hot here compared to our initial point, only 1200 meters high with a tropical feel. Our journey is still not over though, we directly take the only available public transportation here, a shared taxi (or colectivo) to go one hour up along the cliff on a broken earth road without any concrete. The driver would wait 20 more minutes to fill the car with other passengers, leaving me the time to buy some bananas for our lunch.

3.45pm – After a scenic bumpy ride in the valley, we arrive at the village of Santa Teresa. Clock is playing against us because the night comes around 6pm but we still have a long way to go. We change to another shared taxi, waiting for the car to fill up. 2 minutes later more passengers arrive and we end up being 4 on the backseat. A very comfy ride in direction of the train station of Hidroelectrica. The train is the only possible option to access the Machu Picchu, as there’s no road to get there. Monopoly makes the train quite pricey, but of course backpackers found a way: Hundreds of tourists walk on the rails every day to avoid paying the most expensive train fare in the whole South America in terms of price divided per kilometer.

Hidroelectrica from the Machu Picchu
Hidroelectrica down there marks the end of the road.

4.20pm – We finally arrive at the train station in Hidroelectrica. The last train is leaving in 15 minutes but we already know we’re not going up. Why not? Foreigners have to pay around 35US$ for one-way. Locals pay less than 1US$ for the same trip so thanksfully they don’t have to walk. But we knew that before, we just pass by all the people waiting and get ready to walk the train’s rails for 11 kilometers to our final destination, Aguascalientes. This is the name of the village near the Machu Picchu where all the hotels are located.

Hidroelectrica's train station
The train is about to leave Hidroelectrica… without us !

4.55pm – We are quite fast and the train just passed by us. The landscape is very beautiful. We are overtaking some backpackers on the way. Darian is holding up quite well, as always.

The train passing by us.
HiuYing is always very cautious about the noise, so she’s blocking Darian’s ears.

6.15pm – FINALLY! I can see the village’s first lights, I’m very excited because we made it, just while the obscurity was taking over. It took us less than 2 hours to walk 11 kilometers, carrying the baby plus about 10 kilos in our backpacks (We left some stuff in Cusco).

6.30pm – We go to the office to buy our tickets to enter the Machu Picchu tomorrow morning! The basic entrance ticket cost 45US$. You need to add 15US$ if you want to hike the “Huayna Picchu” or “The Mountain”.
*As you can see we blew our daily budget that day! But it was definitely worth it. The baby didn’t have to get a ticket though. Advice number 2 : The site is limited to 2500 visitors a day, so better book in advance! We visited during the low-season, so crowd wasn’t a problem and there were still tickets to hike “Huayna Picchu” and “the Mountain” available the night before.

6.45pm – I’m prospecting the city to find the cheapest double room in this very touristic village. I manage to get one at less than 10$ and we rapidly go out to have a bite after checking in. This village doesn’t feel like Peru at all, it’s full of tourists, which means that we can find many foreign restaurants, fancy hotels and even locals who speak some English! We’re very hungry and exhausted, but deep inside we are very excited because we made it, and we’re now so close to the Machu Picchu.

8pm – I open my computer, test the Wi-Fi and start my working day. For already 8 months I’ve been teaching French online, and tonight two of my students have scheduled a lesson, one hour each. ‘Why did I open my availability?’ I’m wondering. I feel very tired and I feel like I am the only tourist who come to Machu Picchu with work. Luckily for once the Wi-Fi is decent, I hope it won’t cut out this time. In fact I was supposed to have 3 lessons, one of my students had booked a lesson at 5pm, but I wasn’t able to make it because of all the setbacks we encountered. I hate letting my students down, but, deservedly, I haven’t heard from him since then.

10pm – I’m done with teaching. It was better than expected and the internet connection was flawless. A quick warm shower, we prepare our day bags for tomorrow and we go to sleep at around 11pm.

Friday 15th December 2017 :

4.45am – We set an alarm to wake up very early! We want to be the first ones inside the Machu Picchu and it’s opening at 6am.

4.46am – Happy Birthday Darian! One year already! :)

4.55am – We leave our bags at our accommodation and take just the minimum to get up there. We still have a steep walk in front of us. Aguascalientes is located down the valley, while the Machu Picchu is up on top of a hill.

5.15am – We arrive to a checkpoint where they check our tickets. It’s still dark but we are surprised, many people are already queuing! After that we cross the bridge and the fun is in front of us, a 400-meter height difference and around 1.500 steps to reach the entrance gate! Many backpackers are also walking up, and I get a lot of looks and people encouraging me since I’m carrying the baby.

6.20am – We’re up there! We’re definitely not the first ones, many people are queuing to enter the site, most of them came by bus. The bus costs 24US$ round-way for a few kilometers and a 20-minute-ride up.

People waiting at the entrance.
No, we definitely weren’t the only ones up there.

6.30am – While I’m making the queue, HiuYing is buying a bottle of water. It’s worth nothing, because since we met a couple of years ago it was the first time we’ve ever bought water while travelling. It was and still is part of our policy to never buy any water when travelling.

6.35am – We are inside ! Finally ! :) Unfortunately it’s very misty there and we cannot see much. We hoped to see the sunrise. Guards tell us that around 10-11am the mist should be gone. We spend the morning exploring the site, especially areas located farther away. The site is actually much bigger than we expected! We brought a lot of food and we eventually found a water source inside the site. Darian is happy, so are we. Around 11am the site is uncovered by the mist, and I’m blown away by the beauty. What an incredible setting on top of the mountain I thought. Of course we take a lot of pictures. A great day!

Machu Picchu : A birthday treat for a one-year-old baby 1
The Misty Picchu
Photo of Darian and Maxime with the Machu Picchu in the background
And then, the mist is finally gone!
Maxime overlooking the ruins
An amazing experience

As always, being with a baby is a great starter for conversations. One British guy stops us and tells us how lucky our son is. “I’ve waited 60 years to come here, and your baby has already the chance to be here!” This is the sentence I’ll remember the most from all the conversations we had that day.

Darian looking at a llama.
“Hello Darian, I’m a llama, nice to meet you!”
Darian playing in the ruins
We’re having fun with him
Darian playing in the ruins again !
Yes, we do!

3.15pm – At last, we are ready to leave the site and start to go out, I’m running down the stairs alone to get back to the village and grab our bags, while HiuYing & Darian will wait for me at the bridge where the first checkpoint was since it’s our way back to Hidroelectrica.

4.05pm – I meet HiuYing at the bridge and we start to walk back to Hidroelectrica and the train station. There’s less than 10 kilometers left from this point.

Selfie of Maxime walking on the rails.
We’re getting there!

6.30pm – Much slower than the first day and with a few breaks we eventually arrive to the station, while the dark is once again taking over. Only one shared taxi is here but the driver doesn’t want to take us for the normal price and tries to charge us double. It doesn’t bode well with us.

Photo of the Machu Picchu from down the valley.
The highest mountain is the Huayna Picchu, then on the right is where the Machu Picchu is located. The picture is taken from the train rails.

6.50pm – After faking the fact that we were going to camp here, the guy brings us to Santa Teresa at the normal price. Along with another backpacker who just arrived.

8pm – We arrive to the village’s camping site, we pay a very small fee and set our tent. We rented that tent in Cusco because I was planning to hike Choquequirao, another Inca site, right after the Machu Picchu.

Darian sleeping in the tent
Darian still sleeping in the tent the next morning.

8.30pm – We go to eat some street food, and as always with a baby we attract a lot of attention. We meet some locals and I end up being invited for a few glasses of beer. Some of them are shared taxi drivers. Great! I need to ask them about my plan of going to Choquequirao tomorrow. They tell me that transportation to the starting point might be difficult to find.

10pm – We are exhausted, my feet are bleeding because of the shoes I rented from a store in Cusco and our legs are aching. I’m dropping the idea of hiking tomorrow and instead we’re celebrating Darian’s first birthday in a tent.The first time ever for Darian. But for sure not the last…

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A young father following his dream of travelling the world, now joined by HiuYing, his wife, Darian, and Mati, their two sons.
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