How to see Machu Picchu on the cheap?
A trip to Machu Picchu is something nearly every traveler has on the bucket list. And why shouldn’t it be?
Perched high amongst the mist-soaked mountains of Peru, it is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization and also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
But let’s face it – even though Peru is generally an inexpensive destination, a trip to Machu Picchu can really break your bank.
If you plan to hike the Inca Trail (which you can only do as part of a tour), you will easily end up spending more than USD 200. Even tours directly to Machu Picchu (NOT via the Inka Trail) are quite costly.
It takes a bit of research and self initiative to figure out how to see Machu Picchu on the cheap.
Asking around in Cusco, you will most likely only be offered the option of taking a tour and the possibility of a self guided trip will not even be mentioned.
Well, simply because the tour operators and hotels want to make more money. Fair enough.
What I didn’t know before I went to Peru: Machu Picchu is not that close from Cusco, even though the city is the main hub for hikers and people interested in visiting the ruins.
In fact, the ruins are at least 8 hours away. And the leaving point for Machu Picchu, the town Agua Calientes is not accessible by car, only by foot or train.
Follow these steps to visit Machu Picchu as cheaply as possible
Leave your luggage in your accommodation in Cusco and pack a small bag (as light as possible) for an overnight stay in Agua Calientes.
Most hotels in Cusco offer to store your luggage for 2 days at no additional cost.
In the early morning (around 7 am), head to the Santiago bus terminal in Cusco. You will find plenty of shared mini vans heading to Santa Maria. As often in Peru, there are no fixed schedules or prices for buses, but the first vans leave around 7.30 am. Be prepared to wait for a while though, as they only leave once all seats are sold. This can be a bit annoying.
You should not pay more than 25 soles (USD 7.6) for the 4-5 hour trip to Santa Maria. The bus will make one stop half way at a local shop so that you can use the washrooms and buy some snacks.
Once you reach Santa Maria, you will have to change buses in order to get to Hidroelectrica. You will easily spot some guys waiting in cars/mini vans (collectivos). Again, you might have to wait until the car is filled up with enough people. This 1.5 hour trip should not cost you more than 15 soles (USD 4.5).
The car will drop you at the train station of Hidroelectrica. You can certainly take the train (they are quite luxurious), but the tickets are at USD 28 per way. If you go for the budget option, you will have to walk the 10 km path following the train track until you reach Agua Calientes.
Don’t worry, it is a flat path with a beautiful scenery. A lot of people walk along the way so there is really no risk of getting lost, just follow them.
Take enough water and snacks with you. If not, there are several small stalls that sell bananas and water on the way, and even a few small restaurants.
Even though you might be lucky and get a better rate at a hotel/hostel when you book on the spot, it is recommended to
reserve your room/dorm bed in advance (especially during high season). After the long trip and walk you don’t wanna end up with no place to stay.
If you book in advance the cost for a dorm bed will be around USD 12 and USD 28 for a private room.
Be prepared that prices for food and drinks are above average in Agua Calientes. You should budget around USD 15 for a decent meal.
Regardless you should prepare and buy enough drinks and snacks for the next day, because there are no restaurants or anything on the Machu Picchu site itself.
Depending on the type of ticket you bought for Machu Picchu you will either leave to the site very early the next morning or in the afternoon. Afternoon tickets are slightly cheaper, however this would also mean that you will have to stay an additional night in Agua Calientes. And trust me, there is really nothing to do in Agua Calientes itself. The early morning option is recommended.
Many hotels/hostels, offer continental breakfasts as early as 4:00 am, for guests who would like to reach the ruins before first light hits it.
Ticket prices for Machu Picchu are at 152 soles (USD 46) for the general entrance and 200 soles (USD 60) including access to the Machu Picchu Montaña.
For going up to the main gate of Machu Picchu you will have two options: take the bus (USD 12 per way) or hike up. The hike takes about 1.5 hours and is quite steep. If I would visit Machu Picchu again, I would invest the USD 12 for the bus to safe up some energy for exploring the site itself. You don’t have to purchase the bus tickets in advance, they can be bought on the spot. The queues are usually very long in the early morning, but the buses leave frequently about every 15 minutes. The first bus leaves at 5:30 am.
If you opt in for the hike (not the bus), be prepared and bring plenty of water. The first ticket check point, at the bridge just a 25 minutes walk from Agua Calientes city centre opens at 5:00 in the morning. That’s when you should be there. From there it’s 1.5 hours uphill until you reach the actual entrance of Machu Picchu. The site itself opens at 6:00 am.
Depending on your preference you should calculate at least 5 hours on the site – 8 hours if you plan to visit the Machu Picchu Montaña as well.
Try to be back in Agua Calientes before 3:00 pm, then walk back the 10 km to Hidroelectrica. The good news is that in Hidroelectrica there are shared vans going directly to Cusco (no change of bus needed). The cost should be not more than 30 soles (USD 9). The ride can take up to 7 hours, so you can expect to arrive in Cusco very late.
General TipsTickets You must purchase your Machu Picchu entrance tickets in advance. There is NO option to buy them on the spot. During the rainy season (October to April) it’s sufficient to buy them a few days in advance, during the dry seasons, it is recommended to get them even a few months on advance.
Number of daily visitors are restricted to 2,500 for Machu Picchu and 800 for Machu Picchu + Montaña.
The best rates I found on http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/. The prices are the same, during dry and rainy season. Things To Bring Wear lots of layers as the weather switches often from cold to warm, sunny to rainy. Best is to get some fast drying clothes. A rain coat should also be in your bag. Hiking boots are essential if you decide to walk up to the main gate and if you plan to visit Machu Picchu Montaña. A torch would be very handy for an early morning visit as it will still be dark. Last but not least: sunblock! Even if it’s cloudy, don’t forget that the site lays at 2,430 m altitude, so you can easily get burned despite the clouds. Machu Picchu Montaña If you got a ticket which includes access to Machu Picchu Montaña, you need to chose your time slot in advance: either between 8:00 am to 9:00 am or 09:00 am to 10:00 am. The peak is closed in the afternoon. The hike up (again very steep steps) takes about 1,5 hours.
Note: Even though I had a ticket I couldn’t do the additional hike because I felt too exhausted from the walk up in the morning. Best Time To Visit Give yourself time to acclimatize. When planning your visit, give your body at least a few days to adjust to the altitude – especially if hiking. Cusco is a great place to do this.
The least busy time of day at the ruins is in the early morning (6:00 am to 8:00 am) and late afternoon (2:00 pm – 4:00 pm). Get A Guide If you are interested in more than just taking nice photos and the views, get a guide that will give you explanations of the ruins. You can hire one right on the site for just 20 soles (USD 6) and still enjoy the site at your own pace and preferences after the tour. Other Tips
1. You must bring your passport to the site in order to identify yourself. You will also need a passport to purchase the bus tickets (if so).
2. Bus tickets can be paid either in cash or by card (VISA card only).
3. There are no toilets within the site. You should use the washrooms that are located just next to the entrance. The cost is 1 soles (USD 0.30). You can also rent a locker to store your bag, right next to the toilets for an additional fee.