For most people coming to Peru, Machu Picchu is the expected highlight. And rightfully so – the place is absolutely stunning.
But while your trip to the city in the clouds will likely be one of the most memorable parts of your trip, it can very easily become on of the most expensive. Entrance tickets, train tickets, hotels, food, and those cheeky jewelry/art/massage/tour sellers are all distinctly in place to suck the money straight from your pockets and into theirs. The standard day trip from Cusco for example, will easily top $200 USD. Not exactly budget friendly.
But anyone with a little extra time and a keen eye on saving money can do the trip for much, much less.
My entire three day two night journey – round trip transportation from Cusco, entrance ticket into Machu Picchu, two nights of accommodation and two good quality meals, cost me $75. And surprisingly, I did this with only a little bit of organizing. No haggling with collectivo drivers, confusing transfers in small jungle towns and walking for miles hoping I’m headed in the right direction. A few years ago setting out for Machu Picchu required an intensity that rivaled Hiram Bingham’s (the western guy credited with “discovering” the place) original expedition.
But now your unforgettable trip to one of South America’s crowning jewels is accessible on a bare bones backpacker budget. Here’s a simple guide on how.
1) Forget the trains.
The conventional route from Cusco to Machu Picchu involves a two hour train ride through the Andes.
Or let’s put it another way. There’s Comcast, Bank of America, Walmart and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Then there’s ten feet of crap. And then there’s Inca Rail and their equally evil “competitor,” Peru Rail. And while they will very comfortably get you to your destination, they’ll also leave a serious dent in your wallet.It’s pretty hard to justify $60 for an hour and a half train ride. Even if they are leather seats. In terms of cost per mile it’s one of the most expensive train rides in the world – in a very underdeveloped country. So, why so expensive you might ask?
Basically, these two train companies were created by foreign investment firms who, realizing that Machu Picchu was in an extremely remote location, built a railway to the old Incan city. Or Aguas Calientes, the pueblo at the ancient sites base to be more exact. Anyway, as intentionally planned these two rail companies now hold a virtual monopoly on any tourist wishing to visit the place. And these investors are pretty smart people you see. Most people really don’t want to spend several days hiking through the jungle to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A comfy train ride is much more appealing.
And up until a few years ago, short of walking, that vile and predatory carriage of injustice was the only option available to tourists.
Eventually however some savvy backpackers realized a “back door” option, where one could take local buses down a bunch of windy dirt roads for eight hours and walk the remaining 15km from the base of Machu Picchu – an option available to anyone with plenty of time, a strong stomach and serious taste of adventure. For whatever reason this route was little known and largely ignored by most guide books.
And then some time in 2014 a few Peruvian tour agencies recognized a serious business opportunity in shuttling budget conscious backpackers eight hours down those same windy dirt roads – for a nominal fee of course.
Which is where we are today. As of the time of this writing, 60 soles (less than 20 USD) is the standard two-way fare from Cusco to Hydroelctrica. It won’t get you entirely to Machu Picchu, but you’ll get pretty close (about a 2-3 hour flat walk along the train tracks) with a price much cheaper than the train.
2) Organized tours are a great option.
Those same companies that drive you eight hours down the road also organize all inclusive tours. And thanks to the principles of free market economics, they’re actually a really good deal. Packages typically include round-trip transportation, your entrance ticket to Machu Pichu, three meals, and one or two nights of accommodation in a private room. Again, as of this writing, this package could be easily found for $85 USD. $75 if you stay only one night in Aguas Calientes.
Surprisingly, this option is often cheaper than planning a similar journey yourself. Haggling with collectivos to Hydroelectrico, booking your own accommodation online, and packing your own food will at best, get you a similar price with substantially more headache. And unless your super motivated to walk the 28km from Ollantaytombo for (nearly) free, these packages are well worth the cost.
And be sure to note – Cusco is an open air market of tour agencies trying to sell you the exact same package. It doesn’t matter what you pay but know that you’ll absolutely get the same budget service. Be sure to shop around.
3) Decent quality hotels are cheap in Aguas Calientes. There are a few campsites, too.
There’s some seriously great hikes that take you to Machu Picchu. While the Inca Trail is strictly limited to those with permits, often reserved months in advance, that still doesn’t preclude you from trekking the others.
And if you’re the type to start such an adventure, a few family owned campsites are at the base of Machu Picchu and Hydroelectrica, a few hour walk from the ruins. If camping isn’t your thing, or you just want a bed and a shower, there is plenty of hotels in Aguas Calientes at a reasonable price. When I visited in low season, private rooms could be found for around $12 per night.
4) Bring all the food and water that you’ll need for Machu Picchu.
Especially true for anyone considering hiking Huanapicchu or Machupicchu Mountain, two auxiliary hikes from the main compound. While these two options are certainly challenging in their own regard (Machupicchu Mountain is at least a two hour hike straight up) both provide a rewarding and much much less seen perspective of the ruins.
The price of water is nearly triple what you’ll pay in most places in Peru. Food, well I honestly don’t know. There’s one restaurant by the entrance that looks like it might be even more expensive than the train. As an alternative, Aguas Calientes has a few bakeries that open at 4am selling basic sandwiches and pastry. Definitely scout them out when planning he days lunch. While not entirely budget friendly, it is the cheapest alternative if you’re trying to save some coin.
Technically no food is allowed in the site itself, but the rule is loosely enforced. Assuming you don’t pull out the picnic basket in the middle of the sun temple you shouldn’t be bothered.
5) You can walk up to ruins for free.
The price for a 20 minute bus ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu is almost as steep the road that takes you there. $12 for a 4km journey is pretty spendy by any definition. But should you decide to walk up to the ruins (which is 100% free) you will almost definitely wish at some point that you had paid for that overpriced bus. It’s not an easy stroll. Still, many find the walk worth the savings and a fit person would likely ascend the mountain in about 45 minutes, although most people take closer to an hour.
And for anyone, like myself, trying to get to Machu Picchu before the buses, ahhhh…sorry Hans, not going to happen. The gates to Machu Picchu do not open until 6am. The first buses depart Aguas Calientes at 5:30am and the walking path up to the site doesn’t open until 5am. So short of sneaking in (definitely not recommended) you’re just going to have to deal. With loads of tourists. Stepping into you pictures. A lot.
But, pro tip. Most people leave the site around 3 pm and by 4 only a spattering of tour groups remain. The ruins close at 5 but walk the compound for the last hour and you’ll likely have most of it to yourself.
Above all, enjoy and take some time to learn about the ancient Incan sites in general. It will definitely make you appreciate its splendor all the more.
Finally, we organized several trips through Puma Adventure Travel. The owner, Dennis, is super friendly, will customize your trip to any specific request you might have and easily beats all the other prices in town!