Peru Plans First Ever Direct Road to Machu Picchu
The Peru Ministry of Transport and Communications just announced a plan to build a road from Cusco to Machu Picchu using the "back door" route. Hallelujah! A real paved road! Currently, the only way to get to Machu Picchu is by train or by hiking the Inca Trail. It's a cumbersome journey from Cusco that takes about 5 hours each way. So the mere mention of a direct route by road is a pretty big deal. Even a game changer.
But before you break out the champagne, be aware that this is not the first administration to announce plans to build a road directly to Machu Picchu. Members of Garcia's administration also planned to build a road sometime during the 2006-2011 term. Obviously that never happened.
Some of you may have heard of the "jungle route" to Machu Picchu. I went there once. It was an amazing trip. We spent hours driving from Cusco through the Sacred Valley up over the 15,000 ft Abra Malaga pass to descend into the semi-tropical valley that lies behind Machu Picchu.
There are two small villages called Santa Maria and Santa Teresa that offer a little bit of infrastructure for people who want to spend a couple of days to enjoy river rafting, ziplining and a dip in the hot springs. Not to mention great hiking through small coffee plantations and fruit tree farms.
Not far from Santa Teresa is the Hidroelectric station which offers limited service and a 25 minute train ride to the village of Aguas Calientes. Train service is so limited and unreliable that most people end up walkling next to the river for a couple of hours. That's what I did. It's pretty easy walking but you have to carry all your stuff. From Aguas Calientes, people can take the shuttle buses up to Machu Picchu or take advantage of the small comforts available in the pedestrian-friendly town.
The idea is to construct a single paved road from Cusco all the way to Aguas Calientes crossing over the high pass, through the small towns and along the railway tracks into Aguas Calientes. Part of the distance is already paved but I've seen sections of road over there get washed out. It's a huge undertaking. After riding all over Peru in buses and cars, including the road to Bolivia, Colca Canyon and even up north in Chachapoyas, I have some observations about roads in Peru. They just can't seem to nail down that whole smooth, speedy pavement thing. To be honest their track record for good roads is downright iffy.
For instance, in Cusco, they have a 4-lane "freeway" to the South Valley region that has huge speed bumps on it. Apparently the road dissected a neighborhood and the local people were occasionally killed by cars when they dashed across the freeway because the footbridges built over the roads weren't placed where needed.
Another example is the new road built through Pachar. It was meant to reduce the drive time between Cusco and Ollantaytambo where the main train station is located. The current route through Chinchero and Urubamba takes over 1 hour.45 minutes each way if you have "clear sailing," which is rare. The 2-lane roads get bogged down by trucks and cars not to mention bottlenecks through small towns. So the Pachar route would offer an alternative and ideally knock 20 minutes off the drive. But the road is haunted by constant rock slides and is often closed to through traffic. After being open 2 years, and one of those years being 2020, the road is already trashed with piles of rocks that block one lane which forces 2 way traffic to share single lanes, also strewn with chunks of scattered rocks. Hardly the speedy highway that everyone envisioned.
Having an actual road to Machu Picchu would eliminate everyone's dependence on the expensive train. Having a road would enhance the lives of local residents in Aguas Calientes who have no access to the outside world except by the train. Not to mention benefits to citizens of the small communities behind Machu Picchu, who deal with limited infrastructure including dirt roads, funky cell phone service, and no access to things like banking and medical services.
There is literally no alternative way to get to Machu Picchu even in the most dire emergency. One year they had to arrange helicopters to rescue tourists stranded in Aguas Calientes when a mudslide took out the train tracks. It took 4 days! Having a means to haul in contruction supplies by truck would help business owners make improvements to their properties in the remote village. Right now, supplies are delivered by train, then transported through the streets on the backs of local men. It's a big problem.
But let's be real. Even if the Peruvians build a perfectly smooth highway through the mountainous jungle, who will choose to ride a bus for at least 9-10 hours each way? While Peruvians think nothing of hopping on a bus for 10-12 hours, I'm pretty sure many westerners would consider a long bus ride like that a deal breaker. Suddenly the cost of train tickets will no longer be an issue.
But having a road in case of an emergency that could affect access to Machu Picchu, will be awesome. So. Is it worth it to invest in this project now? After a year without any revenue from tourism, hotels, tour guides, drivers and ticket agents are suffering. The Mayor of Machu Picchu threatened a hunger strike last week. Yikes! With Machu Picchu still in the "open-not-open-maybe-open" phase, building a through-road seems like a pipe dream.
Let's put this one up there with the projects to build a cable car to Choquequirao, the sister ruins to Machu Picchu, and the new airport project in Chinchero. Maybe one day someone will be able to pull it off. (Construction started in Chinchero, but then it stopped. Well before covid started.)
Can you drive to Machu Picchu?
Just in case you're imagining yourself renting a car and driving to the ancient Inca citadel with your hair blowing in the jungel breeze, I would let go of that one. (link to more info about why you can't drive to Machu Picchu) There's no mention of a parking lot. They'll be lucky if they can find a place to stash the buses.