Machu Picchu, the pinnacle of Peru’s tourism is also one of the most expensive destinations to reach in the country. That is if you don’t do your research and map out a way to Aguas Calientes without the train. As one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is highly worth your time, but you don't have to break your wallet just to get there.
You don’t have to pay $200 to take a train to Machu Picchu.
Instead, how about some adventure and a bit of countryside exploration for only $19 USD roundtrip?
That’s right, less than $20 for transportation to the base of Machu Picchu and we’ll detail how we did it, what we spent on accommodations, and information on entrance to the sacred site of Machu Picchu.
First let’s break down what we’re talking about when we say getting to the base of Machu Picchu. Whether you take the train, trek, or go by local transit, your journey begins in Cusco and leads you to a town called Aguas Calientes. This is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. The town is quaint, remote and you can only get to it by train or walking. Thus, it’s a bit pricey. There is still affordable accommodations, hostelworld advertising the cheapest for $9.72/night, but we chose Supertramp Hostel Machu Pichu for $12USD in an 8 bed mixed dorm. You can also consider a simple hotel where you can get a private room for as low as $25USD. You can locate appropriately priced food if you leave the main strip and every restaurant loves to advertise their 3 for s/20 or 4 for s/20 drink specials to draw you in. One thing Aguas Calientes doesn't really have is a good supermarket. Their tiendas are limited on items and so cooking in your hostel requires a little more creativity.
Reaching Aguas Calientes By Train
Cusco—Ollantaytambo—Aguas Calientes 3 1/2 hours
You can depart from Cusco or from Ollyantambo and take either PeruRail or IncaRail to Aguas Calientes. The price of tickets varies greatly based on the time of day you depart and the day of the week. Tickets range from $60-$400 each way and it’s only a 3 1/2 hour journey. The train ride, we’ve heard, is beautiful and we understand that it’s a popular option, but it’s not the only way. Yes, the train takes less commute time because it takes a direct path through the mountains. Despite agencies efforts to convince you that it is the only option, we’ve uncovered another route in getting to Aguas Calientes.
Note: Perurail is a foreign company operating routes to the scared site. Perurail is owned by the Orient Express, a Bermuda-based company that also owns the luxurious hotel at the top where rooms start at $825 a night. IncaRail, a Peruvian company, just started routes on the railway within the last five years. If you’re going to take the train you might as well support the local economy and book through IncaRail.
Take Local Transportation to Aguas Calientes
Cusco—Santa Maria—Santa Teresa—Hidroelectrica—Aguas Calientes 5 1/2 hours by van + 2 hours walking
This option takes more patience and time, but it's worth paying such minimal costs for the same destination. From Cusco you can find companies that will shuttle backpackers to Hidroelectrica, the closest location to Aguas Calientes you can get to by car. It’s 5 1/2 hours in a 15 passenger van with stops for bathrooms every hour or so. It breaks up the journey quite nicely. We went with Machu Picchu Express, purely out of luck. They were the last company to leave Plaza de Armes around 8:30am and had a return from Hidroelectrica at 2:30pm back to Cusco. At Hidroelectrica we discovered that there are plenty of companies that take this route so you won't be limited on options and you can negotiate the price. The vans won’t depart until every seat is filled, which means you could be waiting awhile but it also means that you might have more success in negotiating price because they want every seat filled.
You can get a ticket from different agencies in the square by asking for transport to Hidroelectrica and some of the hostels sell tickets as well. You'll most likely pay more through the hostels because of convenience and probably commission. We wandered into the plaza the morning of and found a representative of the company to buy from directly. The average price is 40soles one way ($12 USD) or 70soles return. We were able to talk him down to 65soles ($19 USD) for a return trip and we've heard of people getting it for 60soles. Make sure that you get a receipt for your purchase and a wristband. We had a few people in our group that joined the van last minute and had trouble on the return trip because they had no proof that they paid or what company they rode with. You'll also want to inform your driver upon exit at Hidroelectrica of when you plan to return, especially if it's the same day return. This isn't entirely necessary if you're unsure of how long you'll spend in Aguas Calientes, we didn't have an exact date, but we had to wait longer on the return route as everyone on the list had preference and they were a little unsure of our business with the company (hence why the wristbands come in handy). They were a little unorganized to say the least.
While in route, most likely you’ll make a stop in Santa Maria for lunch. It’s a little over half way and each driver has a preference for where they stop. Continuing on from here the journey through Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica is a bumpy drive on a rugged road through the mountains. It’s beautiful and entertaining as you follow along the river and drive within small communities among the Andes.
Finally reaching Hidroelectrica it will appear that you’ve landed in the middle of nowhere. It is literally just a water plant that happens to be the closest location to Aguas Calientes. There’s no town, simply a row of small stands selling snacks and beverages. There is a check point where you’ll be asked to “sign in.” This is just so they can track the amount of people along the trail. Locals commute from Aguas Calientes to Hidroelectrica for work by a local train that begins here. You can jump on this train from Hidroelectrica for a 30minute ride ($25 USD) to Aguas Calientes. But more than likely you’ll join the herd of backpackers that walk the train tracks to Aguas Calientes for free. It takes about two hours if you’re leisurely walking. It’s a scenic adventure along the tracks, over rivers and a rustic bridge. The best part is you walk around the mountain that features Machu Picchu. Looking up you can actually see the outer edges of its fortress.
Ready To Climb Machu Picchu
From Aguas Calientes you can take the bus up the mountain to the historic site of Machu Picchu for $12 each way, or you can walk. It takes two hours if you’re taking your time and it is a good bit of uphill, but the reward is a brisk adventurous hike to the top while watching the sunrise in the valley. Entrance to the park opens at 6am. It’s much advised that you have you’re ticket to enter Machu Picchu before arriving at the top, but we entered alongside a backpacker from London that was able to purchase his ticket at the gate (it was the beginning of high season). They only allow a certain number of visitors into the park everyday (2,500) in attempts to keep congestion down and help maintain the UNESCO site. We also suggest that you reserve your ticket to the peaks before you head to the park. There are two different peaks on either side of Machu Picchu that overlook the entire valley and that you have to pay for in order to climb, but they're worth it for the views.
Inca City of Machu Picchu + Montaña Machu Picchu = $42
*The lesser known viewing point above Machu Picchu
*Roughly 1.5hr hike uphill with the last 20minutes on rocky, uneven and narrow steps
*Higher viewing point than Wayna Picchu
*Doesn’t sell out like Wayna Picchu does
*You either enter the hike between 7am-8am OR 9am-10am depending on your ticket
Inca City of Machu Picchu + Huaynapicchu = $45
*Most popular viewing point in the historic site
*Easier hike, just under an hour
*Tickets sell out months in advance
*You either enter the hike between 7am-8am OR 10am-11am depending on your ticket
NOTE: Having a student ID will save you half the price. They will only accept it if it has a valid expiration date, but if you have it use it! You can also opt for touring the site in the after hours for a reduced rate. That means entrance to the park any time after 1pm and the park closes at 5pm. You can get an entrance ticket for $13 and there’s less people in the park for the afternoon anyways.
What to bring
Bring your own water from Aguas Calientes because there aren’t any shops at the top despite how touristy we imagined it would be. The mass amount of people is the only thing touristy about Machu Picchu—no trinket shops or massages here. You are allowed to bring in your own food, but make sure you’re in a designated eating area otherwise the park officials will be quick to let you know. Good news is the eating area is home to free range llamas so you can get up close and personal with the fluffy creatures, but don’t be ridiculous and feed them. They eat grass, not crappy processed human food.
Make sure to pack for all types of weather. It was clear skies in the morning and we were met with afternoon showers that without ponchos would have been a drag.
Lastly don’t forget your passports because in exiting Machu Picchu you get to stamp your own passport.
The Cheapest You will Pay
Transportation to Hidroelectrica from Cusco and back: $19
Getting to Aguas Calientes: FREE... by walking
Inca City of Machu Picchu After Hours Special: $13
Walking up to Machu Picchu: FREE... by walking
Two night stay in Aguas Calientes: $24
Realistically How Much We Spent
Transportation to Hidroelectrica from Cusco and back: $19 x 2
Getting to Aguas Calientes: FREE... by walking
Inca City of Machu Picchu + Montaña Machu Picchu: $42 x 2
Because of injury, bus up to Machu Picchu: $12 x 2
Two night stay in Aguas Calientes: $24 x 2
Two Rain Ponchos: $3
Food for two people for two days: $45
Emergency local train ticket back to Hidroelectrica: $25