For many, Machu Picchu is the ultimate destination, almost mythical. Described by Lonely Planet as a trek into history. No wonder it’s on many people’s bucket list.
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the citadel was built in the 15th century by the highly developed Inca civilisation, thought to be an estate for emperor Panchacuti. It was on my bucket list for years, but at 2,430m high, in the middle of mountains, it was so remote and hard to get to that even the Spanish never found it, in fact, it remained undiscovered until 1911.
That’s why, despite seeing the photographs of happy tourists in front of the historic site, independent wheelchair users like myself might think twice about travelling to Peru to see Machu Picchu in the flesh.
It turned out to be an incredible third trip to South America and after a couple of months of planning and preparation, I decided to climb Machu Picchu, one way or another.
Specialised Tour or DIY
There are a couple of options when it comes to making the trip to Machu Picchu.
Wheel The World is an accessible travel company that has been set up so that wheelchair users can experience bucket list experiences that may otherwise be off limits. Specific to Peru are other tour companies such as Accessible Travel Peru and Disabled Travel Peru. Wheel The World gets around the difficulty of the terrain thanks to a wheelbarrow shaped wheelchair, the guides carry the chair using sticks and a handle at the back.
Although these tours were the best option, the quotes came back well out of my budget, you could be looking at thousands of dollars for a day trip compared to hundreds of dollars for a non-disabled person. I’ll save the cost difference for disabled travellers rant for another blog.
I soon realised that taking my own powerchair was going to be impossible due to the stairs and climbing, and I read that others had made it work by using a manual chair with two people to help lift them up to the viewpoint.
The most cost effective way is to book everything yourself, show up at the ticket office on the day and hire a guide on the spot, whilst I considered doing this and hope they might have a manual wheelchair tucked away I could loan, I realised going all that way and potentially not getting past the ticket gates wasn’t the best idea.
So, my DIY option was to find a regular tour company off TripAdvisor, tell them my specific needs and see if they could take me and if it was within my budget, after a ton of emails back and forth, comparing prices and my gut feeling of a willingness to make this happen, I picked Isaac from Chacras Travel Peru. I was ready, I made my way to Peru via Colombia.
Getting to Machu Picchu
I’ve travelled the world, from New York to Pyongyang, often in beat up old wheelchairs that couldn’t handle my wanderlust. It was these travels far afield that became a main inspiration to develop the Freedom One Life Series 5 powerchair, already being hailed as the most desirable powerchair on the market. The Series 5 was still at the manufacturing stage as I made the journey to South America. So it fell to getting around on the prototype Version 3 – which I had every confidence in since it had already notched up thousands of air miles without complaint.
To get to Machu Picchu, you fly from the capital Lima to Cusco, which boasts a population of around half-a-million and is the nearest big city to the historic site. Situated in the Urubamba valley of the Andes mountain range, 3,399 metres above sea level, Cusco was the historic capital of the Inca empire until the 16th century Spanish conquest.
Arriving at the airport, bleary eyed after travelling overnight from Colombia and still nowhere near a bed, my first thought was ‘can I still breathe?’. At the arrivals hall, I could hear all the other guides asking the nervous looking lowland softies “are you ok, not dizzy?”. I found Isaac and got asked the same. He took me the 90 minute car ride to the train station at Ollantaytambo, a journey filled with reassuring tales of his skills as a high altitude paramedic and even that he carries antibiotics for stomach infections. He dropped me at the train station and agreed a time to meet me in the morning, then started another 90 minute journey in a spectacular Vistadome train, the midrange train option, filled with huge windows showcasing the views that are about to come. Unless you fancy a four hour drive and five hour hike, this is the only way to access the small tourist town of Machupicchu Pueblo, also known as Aguas Calientes. The town is the closest access point to Machu Picchu itself, which is still another six kilometres away.
The train staff looked at my chair and shook their heads. I know that universal look – it doesn’t fit. My fit-o-meter said it would, so after a few minutes of persuasion, they gave it a go. It made it through the door – just. Throughout my South American adventure I was met with a lot of positivity and a ‘make it happen’ attitude. In Peru, people generally want to help, but they don’t always know how to help and may require a bit more patience and an infectious smile to make things happen. I suspect this is because they’re not used to seeing people in wheelchairs. I didn’t see a single other wheelchair user during my entire time in the country.
After an overnight stay at Aguas Calientes, Isaac and his helper Yonatan picked me up at 5:30am, it’s an entry requirement to have two guides with you if you need assistance during your visit to Machu Picchu. Both would prove invaluable.
We got a bus to the entrance to Machu Picchu. It’s only six kilometres but takes half-an-hour up a zigzag road that affords spectacular views and a taste of what’s to come. A swarm of eager and confused tourists, the stench of belching exhaust fumes from the buses and hectic atmosphere greets you at the entrance to Machu Picchu.
It’s also worth noting that this will be your last opportunity to use a toilet as there are none available once you go through the turnstiles and you can’t return before you finish your visit. Once inside the heritage site you’re not allowed to leave and re-enter. There is an accessible toilet next to the ticket entrance.
Climbing Machu Picchu
Because Machu Picchu is stepped almost all the way up, the guides had brought a manual wheelchair to the hotel for me to use. They would have to carry the wheelchair much of the way and wanted one that was lighter than my own powerchair. I could tell immediately the wheelchair they had brought wasn’t going to last because it looked like crap. I’m fairly sure I saw it in a 1950s episode of General Hospital. It looked even more antiquated than the one Bran used in Game of Thrones.
Just 100 metres from the ticket office, after being rattled around in this contraption, we got to the first partial viewpoint, Isaac looked up at the winding steps and told me this was as far as we could go with the chair. Isaac and Yonatan offered to start carrying me in the chair, I wasn’t comfortable with this. It is really strenuous work, not to mention a bit iffy on safety up the steep, winding and uneven steps.
I have limited mobility and can walk a bit with difficulty. I showed them how best to support me and so we abandoned the useless wheelchair and started the long and steady climb towards the world famous viewpoint. This was hard for me, but I was determined having come all this way and I knew well in advance that it would be a real test. The guides were extremely friendly and supportive of my bid to reach the top of Machu Picchu. I couldn’t have done it on my own.
One hurdle even before you get to Machu Picchu is that you might experience the effects of high altitude and shortness of breath. I was a bit worried before travelling there but in the end, rather than a little shortness of breath if doing something strenuous, it wasn’t a big deal for me. I was surprised to learn that your susceptibility to altitude sickness tends not to be linked to your level of fitness or smoking habits and is something people either get or don’t get.
It can get very busy on the way up. Be prepared to have to make frequent stops to allow hordes of other visitors to pass you by. Many gave me a well-intentioned high five or told me, well done. The further up you go, the harder it gets. Step by step, zigging and zagging up the mountain, there are several viewing points along the way. The first complete viewing point came about an hour into my trek at my pace, giving me the first breath taking view of Machu Picchu.
It was brilliant. Was it the top? Isaac said no, pointed a bit higher up and said “that’s the top Alex, if you want to go, we’ll do it.”. I think you know what my answer was.
When I was there, in April, it was 24 degrees Celsius. Any hotter and I would have struggled to complete the trek. By the highest point of the trek, I needed to sit down, but it was worth it. The view is spectacular and is everything it is cracked up to be.
I was lucky because most days Machu Picchu can be shrouded in low cloud and mist. I had got there on a spectacularly clear day, which I’m told only happens once every 10 days. I met other people who had done the trek on previous days who said they hadn’t managed to see Machu Picchu in all its glory. Not that they had time to hang around and wait for the clouds to clear. The rangers will ask you to move on if you stay too long at the summit. They like to keep the traffic moving.
There was just time to capture the perfect photo opportunity and hear a few facts from Isaac, such as the Inca’s sophisticated aqueducts and ingenious use of the sun to calculate times and dates.
It was here that my adrenaline and stubbornness had started to fade. I had made it to the top but now realised that I still had the whole journey back down and through the ruins of the original citadel of Machu Picchu itself. We could have taken a shortcut back to the buses, but as usual, I had to do it all.
In the citadel, I was starting to feel very tired, any walking had become very hard and I was struggling to continue. I was leaning on the guides more and more for support and even got a piggy back.
It’s difficult to get around the narrow entries to the ruins and man-made terraces now covered in grass that were carved long ago into the mountainside. There are lots of uneven steps. As much as I enjoyed it, my focus was starting to shift to getting back on the bus and how much longer it would be before I’d be able to sit down. I had used all my energy to get to the top, but there was another hour and a half before getting on the bus. I was starting to sound like an annoying Bart Simpson as I kept asking “how much further now?”.
Due to the heat and exertion, I drank water at various intervals while being careful to ration it so that it would last and also so I wouldn’t need the toilet. Isaac said the reason they don’t have toilets on the site is to get you to leave.
Having made it back to the bus, there was no view on the way down the winding road because, after the rigours of Machu Picchu, Isaac and I fell fast asleep as soon as we sat down.
I realise that my journey to Machu Picchu was uniquely tailored to my disability and my capabilities and that some people will need to remain in a wheelchair for the entire day. It’s great that there are companies offering this service, and I hope this blog serves as inspiration to other ways of doing it.
I found it tough going. But doable. And like most tough experiences, unforgettable.