Up until about a year ago, although close to Machu Picchu, the town of Santa Teresa had no viable access to the most famous ruins the country of Peru has to offer. The only point to cross the raging, rock-filled and wild Urubamba River was a rickety wire basket and steel line contraption that few would dare to try.
About a year ago, the bridge was completed and as a result, Santa Teresa has become a modern-day backpacker boomtown. It’s certain to change quickly within the next few years as tourism brings in a fresh infusion of capital and cosmopolitan influences, so experience this still-rugged adventurer outpost now. The crowd is fairly young – I saw a few spirited (non-local) folks who were probably 50+, but most are the 20’s-30’s range. The music thumps at all hours of the day and night, so bring earplugs if you’re sensitive.
The main street in town is the only one that’s finished. Both the streets in the village and roads leading into town are still bumpy rock and dirt. The town is compact, most buildings are one-story, and all the roofs in town are corrugated metal weighted down with big chunks of river rock. There are bars aplenty to offer cheap drinks and all-day happy hour. The juice bars are cheap and the produce fresh. The hostels are reasonably backpacker budget priced and comfortable. The people in the town are laid back – something not always easy to find in Peru.
The town plaza is brand new. The statues in the plaza are supposed depict Andean people in traditional dress, but I swear the facial features on those bronze statues looked white to me. The town has a real dichotomy in that one can find artsy BBQ joints, vegan eco-camps and the outdoor village butcher block (where if you are lucky, you might see a bloody cow head swinging in the open breeze) all on the same street.
And of course, there are the hot springs. Going only for the hot springs would be perfectly reasonable. Add the fact that Machu Picchu is only two mountains and an 8-kilometer walk on the train tracks away and you’ve got a town that is a true backpacker destination.
The routes in and around Cusco have been well-worn with tourism within the past few decades, taming some of the wildness of the area, but Santa Teresa is still a rough little gem. If you don’t care to take the European-owned (and stupidly expensive) Orient Express Train, the Inca Trail or another long hike in, this is the spot you’re looking for. The main town around Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, where the stupidly expensive train runs is much more touristy and busy. And the hot springs are nowhere near as nice as those in Santa Teresa.
Keep in mind that it would be difficult to wake up in Santa Teresa, hike on the tracks to Machu Picchu, hike up the mountain and fully enjoy the ruins and hike back all in one day. Aguas Calientes is my least favorite town in Peru, but the day you go to Machu Picchu, you might as well plan on spending the night there. The kind hostel owners in Santa Teresa will gladly hold your packs the day you’re gone if you want to check out of your room and save a few soles.