Ziplines, hot springs, mountain biking, hiking, rafting, kayaking, plus the cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu and an easier route to Choquequirao…Is Santa Teresa Peru’s next adventure town?
Adventures in Santa Teresa, Peru
When we were in Santa Teresa, there were five zipline companies including Cola de Mono and Vertikal (which was recommended to us). You can also go rafting and kayaking through class 3 and class 4 rapids. A day hike up to the Llactapata Ruins earns you tantalizing views of the nearby Machu Picchu archaeological site and you can even get there from here (more on getting to the site later).
Softer adventures include coffee tours. Santa Teresa is producing some of the best coffee beans in Peru (chef Virgilio Martinez, from lauded restaurants Central and Mil, is said to be a fan). Nearly a dozen types of beans are being grown in and around Santa Teresa, including geisha coffee, and some places offer tours of their farms and facilities.
And you should visit the Aguas Thermales de Cocalmayo hot springs, about a five-minute drive out of town. For 10 soles (about US$3) you get access to impeccably clean changing rooms, toilets, Wi-Fi, and cold showers plus three pools of naturally-heated water at different temperatures. The water is crystal clear and it flows through constantly to keep things algae-free. The pools are also covered in smooth gravel so there’s not grit, muck, or silt to kick up as you move around. The parking lot is secure and there are food and drink vendors on site serving more than passable dishes. And it’s all situated in a lovely canyon. The hot springs are open from 5 am to 1:30 am and they’ll rent you a towel for 5 soles (about Us$1.50).
The Choquequirao trek from Santa Teresa
The Choquequirao archaeological site is considered a sister site to Machu Picchu and may have been even more important. Hiram Bingham got bitten by the Incan bug at the Choquequirao site which inspired him to go in search of the Espiritu Santo site and it was during that quest he was lead to Machu Picchu. The traditional trekking route to Choquequirao is a notoriously long, hard, hot, and buggy slog up and down through the Apurimac Canyon.
But you can also get to the Choquequirao site from Santa Teresa with a five-hour drive followed by a 7.5 mile (12 km) hike. Drei Candela, a guide we met in Santa Teresa, says he leads trekkers this way in three relatively easy days round trip including one full day driving and walking to the site, one full day at the site, then one full day walking and driving back to Santa Teresa (where you have the added benefit of access to the hot springs for some post-trek soaking).
Drei says there are also families along the way that can provide basic meals, which means you don’t need to carry as much food in your pack, though you do still need to bring a tent for the night spent at the site.
Visiting Machu Picchu from Santa Teresa
Though Machu Picchu may not be connected to the rest of Peru by road, a road does go to within a few miles of the site and Santa Teresa is the gateway for this route. More and more budget and independent travelers are opting to access the Machu Picchu archaeological site From Santa Teresa, and you can too. First, take a shared van or taxi or hike six miles (10 km) from Santa Teresa to Hidroeléctrica. From there, it’s a pleasant 7 mile (11 km) flat walk from Hidroeléctrica to the town of Aguas Calientes along a trail beside the train tracks which follow the Urubamba River (allow 2 hours).
You can also take the train between Hidroeléctrica and Aguas Calientes, but the walk is lovely (we even saw a hard-to-spot Cock of the Rock national bird of Peru in this area – it’s pictured below) and they charge US$33 for the 30-minute train ride, which seemed pricey.
From Aguas Calientes take the bus (US$12 each way) or walk (if you’re really on a budget) from town up to the Machu Picchu site. After touring Machu Picchu, return to Hidroeléctrica where you can catch one of the waiting vans to return to Cuzco (spelled Cusco locally) for 35 soles (about US$10) or take the train or return to Santa Teresa.
You can do all of that independently from Santa Teresa, or you can book a tour from Cuzco. Just remember that you get what you pay for. With all the competition between the hundreds of cut-rate travel agencies in Cuzco, it’s possible to find an all-inclusive round trip tour from Cuzco to Machu Picchu via Santa Teresa and Hidroeléctrica for US$100.
Though popular, we’ve heard of several problems with these trips and it’s no surprise. If you do the math you can see that there is very little profit to be made at that rock-bottom price which includes transport to and from Hidroeléctrica (60 soles or about US$13), a hostel bed in Aguas Calientes (at least 30 soles or about US$10), round-trip bus from Aguas Calientes up to the Machu Picchu site and back (US$24), entrance to Machu Picchu (US$36), plus the mandatory site guide and meals. You can assume that tour operators are cutting as many corners as they can.
Read about all of the various ways you can access this most famous site in Peru in our complete post about how to get to Machu Picchu.
Getting to Santa Teresa
Even just getting to Santa Teresa is an adventure involving a spectacular 6-hour drive or public bus journey from Cuzco (60 soles or about US$13 for the bus) or from towns in the Sacred Valley. The road winds uphill to the 14,160 foot (4,316 meter) Abra Malaga Pass at the base of massive Veronica mountain which seemed so close we were tempted to try scrambling up.
The road up to the pass is well paved but on the other side, the pavement deteriorates with lots of potholes as you leave the scrubby high altitude environment on the Sacred Valley side and descend down, down, down toward the lush Amazon. The last 40 minutes of the journey is done on a dirt side road through the Urubamba canyon to reach Santa Teresa. Agencies in Cuzco also sell packages that include a ride to the top of the pass followed by an 8,000 foot (2,438 meter) descent down the road on a mountain bike with a support van behind you.
Eating and Sleeping in Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa remains a small and simple town but it does offer sufficient food and hotel options. We stayed at the spotless, well run, and relaxing Eco Quechua Lodge which opened in 2004 with five rooms and has expanded in a pleasingly ramshackle way over the years. It now has 12 rooms perched on a rocky hill. We were in room 301 which overlooks the river.
All rooms at Eco Quechua Lodge are a different size and style, but they all have nets over the beds and private bathrooms and rates include a generous breakfast with fruit, juice, coffee, tea, bread, jam, butter, and eggs to order. There’s a communal fire pit and a small spa with a hot tub that can be filled and heated for a fee with advance notice. The hotel restaurant also offers good set menu meals including soup followed by a vegetarian, fish, or meat option plus dessert for 30 soles (about US$9). Hot water bottles are also available on request. There are a lot of stairs to climb, so travelers with mobility restrictions may want to look elsewhere. You can buy bags of local coffee at the hotel and they prepare coffee in a French Press or an Aeropress. Manager Kike (pronounced Kee-kay) is full of knowledge about the area’s adventures.
Cola de Mono, the same company that operates a zipline and river trips, also has a campground and riverside bungalows each designed for families with a double bed, bunk beds, and another bed in a loft area. Located about 1.2 miles (2 km) out of town, the complex also has the Chola y Che restaurant where we had one of the best pisco sours we’ve had in Peru and one of the best lomo saltados too.
Here’s more about travel in Peru