How to Visit Machu Picchu on the Cheap
A visit to Machu Picchu can very quickly spiral into a thousand dollar affair, even after you’ve arrived in Cuzco. If you’re okay with that, then fine. If you’re looking for a more affordable, and perhaps more genuine Peruvian experience, this page will describe how to get from Cuzco to Machu Picchu affordably, including meals and lodging. This is the route that we did on our trip to Machu Picchu, described here.
A typical trip to Machu Picchu is done in this way (prices are for one person). Afterwards I’ll tell you how to do it inexpensively.
The Expensive Way to See Machu Picchu
1. Tourist train to Aguas Calientes. It’s fast and comfortable, or so we’re told.
Price: $180 (round trip)
2. Hotel in Aguas Calientes. I assume you’re not doing the whole out and back in a day, so you’ll need a place to stay. There are affordable places to stay, so let’s assume you stay there.
3. You’ll need meals. I’ll assume you brought your own lunch materials, so this is the price of dinner for one.
4. Bus from Aguas Calientes to the ruins. It travels up a steep and long set of switchbacks, as the ruins are perched on a ridge.
Price: $18 (round trip)
5. Entry to the ruins. This one is unavoidable, and if you’re a foreigner you’ll have to pay the racism rate. The racism rate is a practice employed by many tourist attractions in South America, whereby foreigners pay around 10 times the price compared to locals. You know, kind of like how we charge Japanese tourists $2,000 to see the Grand Canyon.
TOTAL COST: $333 per person
For two people, this escalates to around $600. And perhaps you thought that hiking the Inca Trail to the ruins would save you some money compared to taking the train. You’d be wrong; a new law requires that guides receive $250 from each hiker goes to the mandatory guide. Thus, depending on the company you use, you will likely pay $500-$800 per person to hike the Inca Trail. It is not permitted to hike without an official guide.
Now for the inexpensive way. Our full experience with this method, again, is described in our blog.
The Inexpensive Way to See Machu Picchu
A. Bus from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo. It leaves several times daily from the bus terminal, and if you get it early enough you’ll be able to get all the way to the ruins in one day. This trip takes around 1-2 hours, give or take. We actually drove our own car to Ollantaytambo, so I can’t be sure.
Price: $10 (20 soles)
B. Bus from Ollantaytambo to Santa Maria. It picks up on the North side of the plaza, and only comes twice per day when there’s not a transport strike happening. Ask within one of the shops on the plaza what it looks like and when it will come. It should be around 10:00AM. Tell the driver to let you know when you’re at Santa Maria to avoid missing the stop. The trip takes around 4 hours.
Price: $10 (20 soles)
C. Collectivo van from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa. As soon as you get off of the bus, you’ll see a couple of vans waiting for enough passengers to make the trip to Santa Teresa. No advanced planning needed, just walk over to a van. The trip takes about an hour to an hour and a half.
Price: $5 (10 soles)
D. Death taxi from Santa Teresa to the hydroelectric dam (la hydroelectrica). As soon as the collectivo drops you off in Santa Teresa, there will be taxis waiting to bring people to the hydroelectrica. Just get in one, say a prayer, and hold on tight. The trip takes about 45 minutes.
Price: $2 (5 soles)
E. Walk to Aguas Calientes. When you’re dropped off you’ll see some train tracks leading into the trees. Start walking. Pretty soon these tracks will end, and you’ll have to walk up the embankment on your right into the jungle, where soon you’ll find another set of tracks. Turn left and keep walking. After 2 hours you’ll end up in Aguas Calientes.
F. Hotel, the cheap way. In my blog, I describe exactly how to get a nice hotel right on the plaza for less than half price. Do it exactly the way I did it and you’ll be home free.
G. Dinner, the cheap way. Now the fun begins. There are far too many restaurants in A.C. compared to the number of tourists. Knowing this means that you can get a really good deal if you try. I describe in my blog how I got two restaurants fighting over our business, and got our meal of trout and alpaca steak for less than half price. Also be sure to refuse paying the “fork tax” of 20%, but only after you’ve established that your price includes tax before you sit down. Again, read the blog for more details.
H. Walk to the ruins. The normal way to get from A.C. to Machu Picchu is to take the bus. We actually rode the bus because we were pretty worn out from our hike. However, if you’re more hardcore than we are, you can walk. Just head out the dirt road leading back the way you came when you arrived, and when you get to the bridge over the river just after the campground, cross it. From here the trail takes off, which goes straight up the ridge to the ruins. The hike takes 1 hour for the super fit, or 1.5 hours for the normally fit. The ruins open their gates at 5AM, so get up early. The first tourist train arrives at 9AM, so there’s time to enjoy it before the hordes arrive.
I. Entry to the ruins. This one, again, is unavoidable. This may be a bit out of order, but BE SURE TO BUY YOUR ENTRY TICKET in Aguas Calientes immediately when you arrive in town. The ticket office is near the plaza and closes at 8PM. If you miss it, you won’t be able to get up to the ruins bright and early in the morning.
TOTAL COST: $123 per person
The savings on a group of two traveling together, then, would be almost $400. Not too shabby! To get back to Cuzco, just do everything in reverse.