Sticking out at Machu PicchuBy Angus Drummond -
Last year I decided to see how much I could stick out at Machu Picchu. Not because I'm 6' 5" and the average Peruvian is 5'5", but to see if I would be able to get around the site with my 2 walking sticks.
I decided to take the so called "easy route", which bypasses the 3 day Inca Trek, believing I would be able to enjoy a relaxing day exploring one of the truly magnificent wonders of this world. As I later found out the "easy route" is by no means easy. The altitude is high and the going is tough so if you are going make sure you are well rested and pack a big bag of determination!
For a wheelchair user Machu Picchu is not quite impossible (“nothing is impossible to him who tries!”), but it is only possible with the help of porters or a very fit and strong friend to carry you.
For anyone with limited mobility who is thinking of going, I will break down each of the components of the trip. This will guide you through the journey and help you understand how you can accomplish it.
Part I – The Train (Choo Choo)
For me, the train to Machu Picchu was one of the best bits about my whole time in Peru! I love trains and the journey to Agues Caliente is probably one of the most breathtaking journeys I have ever undertaken, with views comparable to the lost world of Jurassic park – I half expected a terridactal to sweep over our skylight roof.
Most people catch the train from San Pedro Station, on the outskirts of Cusco. Here the secondary entrance is the best to use as there is a steep, fixed ramp from the street to the platform. As with most stations outside of the UK, there is no raised platform which means you have to climb a couple of large steep steps to get on board. There are handrails to pull yourself up, and the Peru Rail staff are happy to give your bum a push up when you shout “Ayudame” (help me). I was very happy to know that with a bit of assistance I could get on – if I could do that train, I felt I would be able to do any (a theory which was to be tested to the limit only a few months later in Vietnam!).
Part II – Aguas Caliente
Aguas Caliente isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I quite liked it. To me it’s 'tourism on speed' – the town is covered in Chinese buffets, street sellers, Peruvian pipes and all the touristy crap you could ever wish to buy to take home to your Auntie.
The train arrives slap bang in the center of the town, you literally stop off in front of shops and restaurants. I recommend booking a place to stay as close to the train station as possible. You won’t have to walk up any hills and you’re situated very close to the bus pick up point for the trip up to Machu Picchu. If you have any luggage there are lots of porters on hand to carry it for a small tip – but I strongly suggest you store your luggage in your hotel/hostel in Cusco and pack a small overnight bag.
Part III – The Bus
When visiting Machu Picchu, get there when it opens at 6 am. You will experience the most breathtaking views of the morning clouds slowly shifting to reveal the bare magnificence of the sacred site. It feels like the site is being discovered for the first time since it was abandoned centuries ago.
To get from Aguas Caliente to Machu Picchu you can either climb 1000 steep steps or enjoy a comfortable 20 minute bus journey up the mountain ("easy route"). To get the bus you need to buy a ticket from the office next to the bus stop.
The first bus leaves at 5:30 am but the ticket office isn’t open at this time so you’ll need to buy yours the evening before. To get this bus you’ll need to get to the bus stop by 4:45 as even when we arrived at 5:00 there were over 30 super keenos waiting in the queue. There are a couple of large steps up on to the bus, but these are nothing compared to the train and with a little push you’ll be fine.
Part IV – Machu Picchu
The bus drops you off at the bottom of a flight of steps which lead up to the ticket office, but these have hand rails and aren’t very steep. Make sure you use the facilities at the bottom of the steps as there aren’t any past this point!
I took 2 rambling sticks with me but I was told by one of the attendants I had to put them in the locker. They have a strict policy against sticks and other items which might damage the site. However, they do make exceptions for people with disabilities and after I said 'soy descapcido - no puedo caminar sin mis bastons’ (I am disabled I cannot walk without my sticks) they let me take both. If you are bringing sticks I would advise you bring a printed note in Spanish which explains you are disabled and cannot proceed without them.
From here it is a short walk up a gentle gradient to the edge of the main site. You are then presented with 2 options – left up a large number of steep steps which takes you to the top of the site or right down a set of steps which leads you to the bottom corner. I am always of the philosophy that it’s best to get the climb out of the way first so we took the left option. THIS WAS HARD. The steps are big, there aren’t many hand rails and it is quite a long time spent climbing. After countless pushes and heaves from my wonderful travel companion and fiancée Lucy, we reached the top. Here you can walk back along the Inca trail (passing several exhausted looking trekkers reaching the end of their 3 day journey) to the sun gate. But it’s quite an uphill slog and I would suggest conserving your energy for exploring the rest of the sacred village.
There is a set of stairs which leads to a plateau at the top of the site and it is here where you can take the famous photos looking over the glorious ruins. Once at the top it’s pretty much downhill, exploring the central parts of the site in a clockwise loop. I managed quite well with just my sticks and the occasional bum shove from Lucy, but it was still quite exhausting (altitude doesn’t help!). When you want to leave, head towards the exit and say to any attendants “soy mal” (which literally means ‘I’m bad’, but the Peruvians use it in a different context) and they will show you the easiest route out.
We ended up leaving the site at 12:00 pm, by which point it was pretty busy. I was glad we had arrived early to avoid the crowds – as I think trying to clamber up and down the steps would have been quite nerve-wracking with so many people about trying to get past, and would have added pressure to the adventure.
Part v – Beer & Home
The bus will pick you up from the same spot it dropped you off at and will take you back to the center of Aguas Caliente. Make sure you treat yourself to a well-earned drink and bite to eat; I don’t think beer has ever tasted so good!
Reflecting on my trip to Machu Picchu, now nearly a year ago, I doubt that there is another place which matches its majesty and mystery. There is something very special about it. Perhaps it is the fact that no one is really sure what it was built for. For the beauty of Machu Picchu lies in the dramatic landscape in which it rests, and at the audacity of the Incans to conquer the top of the world.
- Book a hotel near the train station
- Leave your bags in your hotel in Cusco
- Get your bus tickets when you arrive in Aguas Caliente and arrive at the bus stop at 4:45 am to get on one of the first buses
- Take snacks and lots of water
- Pee before you go in
- If using sticks or mobility aids bring a letter, in Spanish, which explains your disability, as otherwise they will not be permitted
- Treat yourself to a large cold beer or glass of wine when you're done – you definitely deserve it!
And if you are feeling really adventurous, why not try some Peruvian cuisine...?