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.
What are we talking about when we say getting to the base of Machu Picchu?
We're talking about the town of Aguas Calientes. Whether you take the train, trek, or go by local transit, your journey to Machu Pichu begins in Cusco and leads you to a town called Aguas Calientes. This town is at the base of Machu Picchu. It's quaint, remote and you can only get to it by train or by walking. Thus, it’s a bit pricey.
Tips for Experiencing Augas Calientes on the cheap:
Accommodation: Hostelworld advertises the cheapest bed 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.
Eating: The town is a mix of high-priced tourist restaurants and affordable hidden spots. You can locate appropriately priced food if you leave the main strip. Most restaurants advertise great drink specials like 3 drinks for 20soles ($6USD) or even 4 drinks for 20soles.
Grocery Shopping: Aguas Calientes doesn't have is a good supermarket, but you can get your basic necessities (snacks, drinks, substantial food, etc.) and any supplies you may need for the journey up Machu Picchu, at any tienda.
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 (We don't get paid to promote IncaRail, we just believe in supporting local).
Take Local Transportation to Aguas Calientes
Cusco—Santa Maria—Santa Teresa—Hidroelectrica—Aguas Calientes 5 1/2 hours by van + 2 hours walking
How to catch a local van to Aguas Calientes:
All local transport departs from Plaza de Armes, Cusco around 8:30am daily
Most common transportation is a 15 passenger van
The average price is 40soles one way ($12 USD) or 70soles return.
Vans don't leave until every seat is filled
You can buy tickets from tour companies, hostels, or just head to the square and negotiate with a company looking to fill seats
We had a good experience with Mach Picchu Express. We were able to negotiate 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 as you'll be returning most likely on a different day than your departure with different van drivers and guides (it gets a little chaotic and unorganized so it's better if you're prepared).
All vans travel from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, the closest town to Aguas Calientes by car.
Inform your driver upon exit at Hidroelectrica of when you plan to return, especially if it's the same day return. This helps them know how many open seats and vans they need to ensure all passengers a return to Cusco.
The journey to Hidroelectrica is 5-6 hours with a bathroom break roughly every 2 hours
From Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes it's a moderate 2hr walk (not hike) along the train tracks
While in route, most likely you’ll make a stop in Santa Maria for lunch. It’s a little over halfway and each driver has a preference for where they stop. From there the journey through Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica is a bumpy drive on a rugged road through the mountains so be prepared if you easily get car sick. It’s beautiful and entertaining as you follow along the river and drive within small communities remotely hidden in the Andes.
Finally reaching Hidroelectrica, it will appear that you’ve landed in the middle of nowhere. It is 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 checkpoint where you’ll be asked to “sign in.” This is so they can track the number 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 backside of the mountain that holds Machu Picchu. Looking up you can see the outer edges of its fortress.
Ready To Climb Machu Picchu?
Tips for getting to, entering and enjoying 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.
The hike to the top from Aguas Calientes 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 and they only let in 2,500 visitors a day in attempts to keep congestion down and help maintain the UNESCO site.
Purchase your tickets for Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes, in Cusco, or at the entrance to the site. You run the risk of no availability if you buy your tickets at the top.
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!
An "after hours" ticket to the park is only $13. The ticket allows entrance to the park any time after 1pm until the park closes at 5pm allowing you time to explore in the afternoon when the morning hikers have already explored and most likely headed back to Aguas Calientes.
Entrance tickets don't include hikes to the peaks (the iconic photos you see any time you google Machu Picchu).
There are two different peaks (Montana Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu) on either side of Machu Picchu that overlook the entire valley and that you have to pay for in order to climb. 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 Huayna Picchu
*Doesn’t sell out like Huayna Picchu does
*You either enter the hike between 7am-8am OR 9am-10am depending on your ticket
Inca City of Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu = $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
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.
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.
Good walking shoes are advised.
Sunglasses, sunscreen, and other sun accessories as you're at high altitude and exposed when the sun is out.
Walking stick if you have trouble with uneven surfaces and unstable rocks.
A camera with well charged batteries- oh the views!
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
Whether it's a life time goal or a passing fancy that you visit Machu Picchu, everyone should have the opportunity to see one of the world's seven wonders. Don't let cost be the reason you miss out on the Inca magic. Learn how to find the cheapest flights, how to build a realistic budget, and the best places to stay so that you can scratch your worries and just enjoy your trip.