This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Road to Ruins - the Cheap Way to Machu Picchu

Welcome to Disneyland South America

Let's face it, Machu Picchu is by far the most visited place on the entire South American continent. Thousands come daily to marvel at the incredibly well-preserved Inca ruins. And, believe me, they are marvelous. The best thing to do is to accept that the scene is what it is. Waiting in lines and shelling out some money are unavoidable. Just do your best to stay above the thick, heavy fog of uber-tourism, or if you're so inclined, dive head first into the fog and enjoy the heck out of your visit to Disneyland South America.

To get to Machu Picchu almost everyone starts in Cuzco and absolutely everyone has to pass through the town Aguas Calientes -- also known as Machu Picchu pueblo. There are no roads to Aguas Calientes so the only options are by train or by foot. The direct 112 KM (70 miles) train from Cuzco* costs between $56 - $300 one way. Any way you look at it, this is price gouging of the highest order.
Take a ride on Peru Rail
By foot the most famous route is the Inca Trail - a costly four day hike with guides, cooks and porters. Everyone we have met who hiked the Inca Trail has really enjoyed this trip, but they all seem to be people on short vacations who planned doing this well in advance and who also do not mind paying big bucks to walk for hours on end.

Other guided tours from Cuzco take a more circuitous route and include activities such as downhill biking, rafting and/or hiking and then culminate with a visit to Machu Picchu. Again this is probably fun, but it is not for us. Our goal is to see Machu Picchu, nothing more nothing less. Everything else for us is an unnecessary distraction.

Before heading out Mika spends hours scouring other people's blogs to find the most suitable path for us. For the record: suitable = cheap.

In the end we definitely choose the road less-traveled, but it is far from being off any beaten path. Unless you are going to hop there on a pogo stick or plan to fly on the back of a condor almost nothing you can do with regards to Machu Picchu is unique.
In case you're wondering...
 I found this condor finger puppet on the streets of Cuzco. Score!
 The Road to Aguas Calientes

As we are walking back from Machu Picchu Mika and I both decide to blog about our route for someone out there in cyberspace who is headed to Machu Picchu. I will now issue a thanks to all of the unnamed bloggers who we used as travel references.

Here is the easiest way that I can explain how we get to Machu Picchu on the cheap. A slight variance will depend on your bargaining skills and tolerance for sitting some extra hours. Our exact route is shown below:

A) Taxi from center of Cuzco to combi terminal (an eight passenger mini-van) = 3-5 Soles
A combi
We pay: S 3.5

B) 4 1/2 hr. combi leaves from Cuzco at 8:30 AM to Santa Maria = S 30 pp
We pay: S 55 for two people

C) Shared four-person taxi from Santa Maria to hydroelctrico train station = S 15 pp
We pay: S 26 for two people

D) Walk 10 km (about two hours) along the train tracks from hydroelctrico to Aguas Calientes = S 0
We pay: S 0

  Our total for two people from our hotel in Cuzco to Aguas Calientes = S 84.5 (US $30.18)

Follow the train tracks and you'll arrive eventually

Some other options you may consider:

A) Walk about 30 min. from Cuzco center to Santiago bus station or combi terminal = S 0

B) Take a seven hour bus (day or night) from Cuzco to Santa Maria = S 15

C) Shared combi from Santa Maria to hydroelectrico = S 10 (this option only good if with enough people, otherwise you can be waiting a very long time for enough passengers to fill the mini-van)

D) Train from hydroelectrico station to Aguas Calientes = US $12 one way for foreigners (yeah right!), S 10 (US $3.57) for Peruvians and S 5 for area residents.
The walk between the hydrolectrico station and Aguas Calientes is quite pleasant running alongside a river with mountains and cloud forest all around. The well-maintained trail is almost completely flat and there are only a few places that we need to walk across the actual train tracks. Coming Mika and I spot an agouti - a large jungle rodent, and the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock - the national bird of Peru. And I swear to Pachamama that I did not make up that name! On the way back a few days later we see and hear two squawking groups of green parrots, about twelve in all.
Getting passed by the $12 train

The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock
Photo from:
Click here to read about Aguas Calientes

If you can read Japanese or just like to look at some photos follow the link to Mika's blog about getting to Machu Picchu.

Up to the Entrance

If you are following our plan you must buy your ticket to Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes. They do not sell them at the site entrance. For foreign adults it costs S 126 (US $45) for a one day visit. The price used to be for a multi-day visit, but unfortunately that changed this January. From Aguas Calientes there are buses (US $8 o/w) that take people to the entrance of the site. The first bus leaves at 5:30 AM and people line up much earlier to get on the first buses.

People hanging around the entrance around 6:00 AM
The hotel is in the background
We elect to walk to the Machu Picchu entrance. For those taking the dark, steep, sweaty 45-90 minute walk up to the Machu Picchu entrance the trail opens at 5:00 AM. We get to the trail head at around 4:30 AM with about 50 people already in line ahead of us. This trail used to not be controlled and people could come up earlier, but guests at the US $800 ++ a night hotel next to Machu Picchu's entrance were complaining about the early morning ruckus caused by the hikers loitering around. So since eight months ago 5:00 AM is the earliest you can start to go up.

Wayna Picchu Is Why

Apart from catching the beautiful sunrise and beating the 10 AM - 1 PM Machu Picchu tour group rush hour, the reason most people head up to the site so early is to get a stamp on their ticket to climb Wayna Picchu. They only allow 400 people per day to hike this mountain with a shift at 7:00 AM and at 10:00 AM. All early AM hikers and the first few bus passengers have their choice of time, but people on the buses a bit later get stuck with the 7:00 AM slot and then soon all 400 places run out while people are still in line.
Bus passengers in line to get their Wayna Picchu stamp
If you miss the chance for Wayna Picchu you can still climb Montaña Machu Picchu to get in some spectacular views. Several Peruvians, including the woman at the Aguas Calientes tourist office, tell us that this hike is better and much less busy than Wayna Picchu.

The Rules of Food and Drink

In Cuzco Mika and I buy our own aluminum canteens because we read and hear that plastic bottles are forbidden at Machu Picchu. This is false. Not only are people allowed to bring in plastic water bottles, they also sell them at the entrance to the Wayna Picchu hike in the back of the park.

It is forbidden to bring food into Machu Picchu. Some people have snacks, including us. Exploring the far reaches of the site is quite tiring and nourishment is completely necessary. Schlepping all the way back to the cafeteria and picnic area outside the entrance gate just to eat a granola bar is not feasible. I say quietly eat your snacks. Just don't be a pig. Do not feed birds and be sure to carry your garbage with you until you get out of the park.

I hope that this has been helpful. Remember that all the information above is up-to-date as of 5/5/2011. But things here seem to be able change often -- especially price increases.

The bus to Machu Picchu's detailed price chart
My next post will be about our actual visit to Machu Picchu, so stay tuned....

*As of this writing there are problems with the tracks from Cuzco due to floods so people have to take a bus to the town Ollantaytambo or Poroy (depends on which rail company) and catch a train from there to Aguas Calientes. They are trying to fix it before high season starts in June 2011.


  1. Hola amigo,

    Do you think it would be dangerous for me (I'm a 23 year old gringa) to do your version of this trek to Machu Picchu by myself? I'm comfortable with the idea, but I don't know if i'm being naive or not... I speak conversational spanish and took a short course on Quechua.

    Gracias por su ayuda!

    1. Hi,
      Sorry for the delayed reply. Well as you know there is always some risk involved traveling on your own. However, that being said, there are others who go this route and there is a good chance you will run into other travelers on the way who you could walk with. Or maybe find someone in Cuzco. Or if at the trailhead it feels sketchy you could pay to take the train. Good luck and happy travels!