Back in May 2015 I spent a month in South America starting in Peru then visiting Bolivia and Chile too. During my time in Peru, one of the most quintessential places to visit in Peru ad around the world is Machu Picchu (MP). MP is one of the seven world wonders, and rightfully so! of all the places I have ever been, it is definitely one of the most amazing, unbelievable and unreal to see.
Getting to Machu Picchu
The way of getting to Machu Picchu can be rather complex, especially if planning it on your own without a tour group. Since this blog is about my experiences backpacking, I figure i’ll go over the cheaper backpacking route.
Located towards the south central region of Peru, your journey to Machu Picchu begins with your flight in to Peru. Since we are going through the cheapest option, you’ll be flying in to the city of Lima, Peru’s capital. This will be the cheapest airport to fly in to. Once you arrive in Lima you’ll want to take the bus from Lima to Cusco. There are many different companies with varying levels of services and safety records. I recommend Cruz del Sur as they are cheap, the buses are comfortable, a meal is provided on the bus ride and some buses even have wifi and power outlets on board.
Cusco is the gateway from where all travelers launch their visit to MP. The ways to get to MP from Cusco are limited and include:
- Train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (Peru Rail of Inca Rail)
- Hike the Inca Trail (or alternative route)
- The backpacker on a budget way
Train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes
The train system from Cusco to Aguas Calientes is heavily monopolized and as a result, VERY expensive. There are only two train companies to choose from: Peru Rail or Inca Rail. Peru Rail is the more expensive option with one way tickets costing $84 USD and up to go from Cusco all the way to MP or $64 USD (a 5:00AM departure time!) and up to go from Ollantaytambo (a town part way between Cusco and MP) to MP. On the other hand, Inca Rail only services between Ollantaytambo and MP and tickets start at $52 USD (8:30AM departure time) and up. With both trains you have the option of paying for more services or if you’d like, both trains also have vistadome cars with glass roofs so you get full views throughout the ride. However do expect to pay $120 USD and up one way for that ride!
I took the cheapest Inca Rail train from MP to Ollantaytambo for $52 and the ride was very comfortable and included in the price was a drink and snack service as well. Even without the vistadome roof, I still got great views throughout the journey and really felt like having a glass roof really wouldn’t provide that much more, especially not for the price. The train tracks mostly run along the edge of a river along the edge of a mountain wall so one side of the train mostly looks out on to the face of the rock while the other side has the views. So even with a glass roof you would just be looking up at the edge of the cliff face and then out to the side that has the views anyways.
The train is the most common way people get to MP, bringing hordes of tourists every day however in my opinion i’d rather avoid it and take one of the other two methods for a more Peruvian experience.
Hiking the Inca Trail
The next most common way to get to MP is by hiking either the Inca Trail or one of the alternative trails that are now available for a lower cost. I myself have not done the trail yet but I would love to go back to Peru just to hike the trail. If you are going to do the hike, keep in mind it books up fast and well in advance. Plan to be booking your hike about 2-6 months in advance (depending on the time of year you are going) if you want to do the most well known Inca trail.
The hike is not going to be cheap either! Expect to pay around $550 – $1000+ USD for a 4-day hike which includes the entrance fee to MP as well as the return journey to Cusco on the train. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for so at $550 or less you will probably not have as great of an experience compared to if you had paid even a little more. Peru also has an 18% sales tax which is included in this price as well and they usually offer a student discount to those who have an international student identity card as well. If they don’t offer it, be persistent or go with another tour company because these guys will get a student price when they buy your entrance ticket to MP as part of the tour so you might as well get some of those savings too.
If you are pressed for time or money, here are a few of the alternative treks that either cost less, take less time to do or both:
- Short 2 day Inca Trail – easy to moderate
- Mollepata-Salkantay-MP 7 day trek – moderate to difficult
- Mollepata-Salkantay-Santa Teresa-MP 5 day trek – moderate to difficult
- Ausangate 6 to 7 day trek – moderate to difficult
- Lares Valley 4 day trek – moderate
- Vilcabamba 7 day trek – moderate
The backpacker on a budget way
This route to MP is not widely known and can get you to MP and back for as little as $20 USD there and back. This is the route I took and would recommend it only to the very adventurous. this backdoor route to Machu Picchu involves a bus from Cusco to a town in the jungle called Santa Maria. From Santa Teresa you take a minibus or shared taxi to the next jungle town called Santa Theresa. From Santa Theresa, again a shared taxi or minibus to the hydroelectric station and from there you hike about three hours along he train tracks to get to the town of Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of MP where the trains also drop off all the tourists). You can’t do this route and visit MP in the same day and i’d recommend not rushing it anyways, you’ll see soon why.
When I was in Cusco buying my entrance ticket to MP, it was a Tuesday and it turns out that there was going to be a railway strike on Wednesday and Thursday so the roads would be blocked and trains stopped on the route to MP. As a result, MP was not selling any tickets for these two days Fortunately I had just bought my bus ticket to Santa Maria and I was leaving that night and travelling overnight so as to avoid the strike blockades on Wednesday morning. By the time the strike started, I would be well past the strike points. So, they sold me my entrance ticket for Thursday morning and I was off! One thing to note for students, if you don’t have an ISIC card but have a regular student card don’t buy your ticket to MP online. Instead, wait until you arrive in Cusco and go to the MP office (Direccion Regional de Cultura) address:
Centro de Pago, Casa Garcilaso, Calle Garcilaso, Cusco Peru
Even without an ISIC card, they will probably still give you the student price (50% off). They did for me and had no problem at all doing so as long as you show a valid student ID from your school. The ticket to enter MP costs an absurd 128 SOL (64 SOL for Peruvian residents) or about $52 CAD but the student price is 50% off that at 64 SOL. Also keep in mind, the number of people allowed in to MP every day is limited to only 2500 so tickets do run out some days. Make sure to buy your ticket at least a couple days in advance. Buying on the day of could have the risk of tickets being sold out and you not being able to visit the site.
Once you have your entrance ticket to MP, head to the Santa Maria bus station in Cusco to get your ticket to Santa Maria. This station is across the railway tracks in the Santiago neighborhood. Many sites online tell you to not walk this area by yourself but I did and felt just fine here. The easiest way to get to this station is to get in a taxi and tell him you want to go to Terminal Santa Maria. Once at the station, there are a few options for getting to Santa Maria with various departures throughout the day. I was pressed for time so I chose to get an overnight ticket. The bus from Cusco to Santa Maria takes about 5-6 hours and costs about 15-20 SOL. They should have prices listed on signs in the station. The bus from Cusco to Santa Maria isn’t very comfortable or even very nice for that matter but our goal here is to save some moola for other adventures and besides you’ll probably want to grab some shut-eye on this bus ride anyways.
The overnight bus departs at 9PM winding through the mountains on a narrow, dirt road on the edge of a cliff with hundred of sharp dangerous bends that feel like you could fall over at any moment. I’d recommend setting your alarm to 2:00AM in case you doze off. You want to make sure you get off at the Santa Maria stop and not continue on further to Quillabamba. The bus will get to Santa Maria at around 2:30-3:00AM at which time you will hear the driver call out “Santa Maria”. Once off, you will be approached by a taxi driver or two (even at 3AM) taking people to the next jungle town of Santa Teresa. This will be a shared taxi ride where you will be crammed in a 5-person car with probably 7-8 people (we fit 8 people plus luggage in to a car the same size as that little white one above!). The journey to Santa Teresa takes about 1 hour so you’ll be getting there about 4AM.
Before your taxi driver departs ask him where the hostels (or hospedajes) are and he will point you in the right direction. I’d recommend finding one for a few hours of sleep in a bed. For a mere 10 SOL ($4 CAD) it’s a lot better than waiting at the bus station in town at 4AM.
Once the sun starts to come up, rather than heading to the hydro electric station, head first to the hot springs near Santa Teresa (Banos Termales de Cocalmayo) which should cost only 10 SOL in a shared taxi and relax for a few hours in some amazing hot springs high up in the Peruvian mountain jungle. After you’re done, head back to town and grab a shared taxi to the hydro electric station. This should only cost about 5 SOL for the 20 minute ride.
At the station, cross the bridge and sign in at the little hydro electric sign in booth. Then ask the attendant in the booth how to get to Aguas Calientes. He will point you along the path at which point you simply follow the train tracks and signs to Aguas Calientes. This 15km hike will take you about 2-3 hours and is completely flat so it is a very easy, enjoyable and stupid-proof walk.
Hostels and Food in Aguas Calientes
Once in Aguas Calienties you’ll quickly realize it is a major tourist trap and very westernized with all the burger and grill shops to eat and the tourist shops selling MP souvenirs. This town CAN be expensive unless you know where to look. Walk up the main street (Ave. Pachacutec) and look for hostels. However the hostels on this street will be mostly overpriced until you either get a lot further up the street or head down some side streets. Either way, for a basic hostel with a shared room, shared bathroom and hot shower expect to pay about 30 SOL/night/person here.
You can get meals for about 15-20 SOL on this street as well. However these meals are typical tourist grub such as burgers, pizza and pasta. For a more local experience with Peruvian food head to the Mercado Central (central market) which is a blue building right next to the MP bus stop. head up to the top floor of this building where you will find many food stalls offering set menu meals for as little as 6-7 SOL for a full meal with a hot tea drink. NOTE: Many of the stalls offer a salad with the meal but like anywhere in Peru i’d recommend avoiding them due to possibly dirty water used to wash the salad.
Bus to MP
Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes, head to the main bus station and buy your bus ticket for the next morning. You don’t buy a ticket for a specific time but just rather buy a ticket and then you line up and get on the bus any time during the day which that ticket is valid for. MP opens at 6AM and the first bus leaves Aguas Calientes at 5:30AM and then buses depart every 15 minutes thereafter or whenever they get full. I’d recommend getting in line at 5AM or before to get on one of the first buses and be there when it opens. It takes about 20 minutes to go from Aguas Calientes to MP on the bus and costs about $24 USD for a return adult ticket.
If you are on a very tight budget or feeling more adventurous, there is a steep uphill path you can hike from Aguas Calientes to MP which takes about an hour each way. If anything, i’d suggest taking the bus up and hiking back down on this path. You don’t want to be too tired for your time at MP.
Getting back to Cusco
Depending on your budget and how much hiking you want to do, you can get back to Cusco very cheaply by spending a day hiking from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo along the train tracks (about 24km and 7 hours of hiking) or you can take the cheapest Inca Rail train that departs Aguas Calientes at 8:30AM and takes you to Ollantaytambo. Once in Ollantaytambo, take a minibus back to Cusco.
Total Cost Breakdown to Visit Machu Picchu
Bus Cusco to Santa Maria: 20 SOL ($6.3 USD)
Shared Taxi Santa Maria to Santa Teresa: 10 SOL ($3.15 USD)
Minivan Santa Teresa to Hydro Electric Station: 5 SOL ($1.5 USD)
Hiking Hydro Electric to Aguas Calientes: FREEE!
2 nights hostel in Aguas Calientes: 30 SOL x 2 (60 SOL or ~$18 USD)
Machu Picchu Bus Round trip: $24 USD
Machu Picchu Entrance Ticket: 64 SOL (~$20 USD)
Train Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo: $52 USD
TOTAL: ~$125 USD
There you have it! We made it to MP without breaking the bank on those expensive trains or the expensive Inca trail hike. For any questions or advice for your own Machu Picchu trip feel free to hit me up anytime! It truly is one of the most amazing sites I have ever seen in the world and recommend everyone go visit this amazing wonder of the world once in their life!