If you are traveling South America, Peru is one of those countries on your list to visit – possibly solely for Machu Picchu. Recently Aiko and I made the trip and we explored every option to do it cheaply as possible. We also got a realistic breakdown of the cost of a trip to Machu Picchu for a Peruvian and for a foreigner.
First things first, I read a lot, and I mean a lot, of posts on how to see Machu Picchu cheaply. The problem, almost every one of them didn’t actually make the trip themselves. They skipped a step or only heard about this route through the grapevine somewhere. Well I am here to tell you from a recent (May 2013) first hand experience of how to do this as cheap as possible.
When visiting Machu Picchu you stay the night in Aguas Caliente (also referred to as Machu Picchu town). This is the only way to visit Machu Picchu, and where you will spend the night before you visit the ruins. As there is no direct road providing access to Aguas Caliente you are stuck traveling via train or foot.
The primary route is by train via Peru Rail, either directly from Cusco or if you want to save you can take a taxi or micro to Ollantaytambo. A one way ticket from Cusco to Machu Picchu starts at USD $71 (S/205.90) and goes up to USD $452 (S/1310.80). From Ollantaytambo, also known as and listed on the Peru Rail site as Sacred Valley, starts at USD $53 (S/153.70) and goes up to USD $87 (S/252.30). This is based on purchasing your tickets 1 week in advance and doesn’t include your return ticket which typically must be booked in advance. You can check the Peru Rail site for the most up to date pricing. – In other words this is the expensive route.
The secondary route is by taxi or Micro to the Hydro-electric plant near Santa Teresa. In most cases, you will see people recommending hiring a taxi or catching a micro to Santa Maria, then once in Santa Maria you catch another micro or taxi to Santa Teresa and finally from there a micro/taxi to the Hydro-Electric plant. The cost varies by which option you take and also partially your negotiating skills. It is also important to know that this whole adventure will take you around 7 hours of travel.
How It’s Done – Getting to the Hydro Plant
First thing first, forget about Peru Rail, if you want to save cash then you have to take the alternative route. If you are Peruvian, this goes for you too. Peru Rail is no longer owned by a Peruvian company and so no longer has a lower price for the Cusco-Aguas Caliente route. Instead you need to figure out how to get to the Hydro-electric plant. The down side is, this pathway is only for the adventurous and energetic. Also, this probably shouldn’t be your first experience in a microbus in South America.
To be honest I didn’t want to try bouncing from vehicle to vehicle all day only to have to walk the train tracks to Aguas Caliente trying to beat the setting sun. So, instead we found a company that delivered you to, as well as picked you up from, the Hydro-electric plant for S/60 each. Which at a current 2.75 exchange rate equals to 21.80 round trip. Otherwise you risk not having enough time for the walk and having to find a place to stay or camping out overnight.
We arrived at the Hydro plant at around 3pm after leaving around 8am and stopping for a lunch break. You sit in a cramped micro-bus going up and down a mountain, turning sharp cliff corners with the hope that if there is someone coming the other way they will honk back so you don’t collide. In some cases, as we passed cars going the opposite direction, our tires were so close to the edge that at some points I wondered how we were still on the road. The drivers are oblivious to the precarious dirt road that at some places have caved in and are being rebuilt. If you sit in the back you can see everyone sway with the car. Sometimes we would round a bend just fast enough to make you hope everyone had a small breakfast so that the extra weight of their sway wouldn’t push us off the edge.
Walking to Aguas Caliente
Once we arrived at the Hydro plant you are off on your own to follow the tracks, only that about 50 feet from the last little stand selling snacks there is a sign that looks like Wile E. Coyote painted it that points uphill to continue the path to Machu Picchu (note it doesn’t say Aguas Caliente). The walk, as I read it is about 1 1/2, in reality it is somewhere between 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Aiko and I have a steady pace and we aren’t sure how you could make it in 1 1/2 hours. You have to criss cross the tracks depending on which side the pathway is. All the while, make sure not to run into any signs telling you not to cross the tracks. In some cases you need to walk on the rail-road ties in order to cross over creeks and rivers. There is one bridge that has a not so secure looking pathway for walkers as well.
Once you near the very end you will see people trying to offer you a deal at their hostel, we decided to take their advice and not continue on the final 10 minutes of the walk as you have to walk through a 2 pitch black tunnels. We followed them past a campground and what we later discovered was the road to the entrance for Machu Picchu We agreed to check out one hostel, after talking the guy down to S/40 but only after we bought our tickets to Machu Picchu and train tickets. The guy took us to the Machu Picchu office and then to the two different Peru Rail offices as there is a different one for Peruvians and foreigners – as well as a price. Our hostel wasn’t worth S/40 but we were tired and they guy saved us from a terrible rainstorm by taking us directly to our three stops. Tickets to Machu Picchu are S/ 128 for foreigners and S/65 for Peruvians. It is significantly cheaper if you have an ISIC card. There is also a secondary option to visit Machu Picchu town for around an additional S/40-60 but we chose to skip it. There is also the infamous Huayna Picchu, which is the big hill peak that you see in the photos of Macchu Picchu. I’ve read that if you are one of the first 400 you can visit this peak for free. This is no longer true you must pre-purchase your tickets far enough in advance, if you are nearing the peak season of June-July and you haven’t booked reservations – give up the hope.
Note: You must purchase your tickets for Machu Picchu the night before they do not sell entry tickets at Machu Picchu. Also, if you decide to walk up to Machu Picchu you would first have to wait to the office opens at 5:30am which may not give you enough time if you purchase the to and return tickets for the hydro-plant.
Walking up to Machu Picchu
The next day we walked up to Machu Pichu in order to save money on the bus rides up. Note that the one way fair is more expensive coming down then going up, to take advantage of tired trekkers. Since our bus was picking us up from the Hydro plant at 2:30 we needed to leave Aguas Caliente by 12:30 to ensure we had enough time to reach the plant. This meant we needed to get to Machu Picchu early, very early. So we left our hotel at 4am to head up to see Machu Picchu. You walk along the river, past where the camp ground is, in order to reach the gate for Machu Picchu, make sure you have a flash light or head lamp as it is dark. Once you reach the gate you start walking up the zig-zag path for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, again all the things I read told me it was 1, maybe 1 1/2 hours. This is uphill, around 1749 steps (I counted) which doesn’t include the parts of the road you have to walk on. You will stop and catch your breath numerous times which means unless you actually continued with some exercise routine while traveling your out of shape butt is going to need a break or two.
Walking Back to Aguas Caliente Then The Hydro Plant
Once you reach Machu Picchu you realize one important thing – it is all walking up and down more stairs. It was a wonderful experience but by the time we walked back down those 1749 stairs our legs were shaking, so wobbly that we could barely stand. We stopped at the first restaurant, haggled for a discount on our meal and “free” beer that was included, just because we needed a rest – and a beer.
I highly recommend splurging on the train ride back to the Hydro-plant. There is no way we could have walked it, and we realized this before hand which is why we purchased the tickets the day before. Aiko and I had to ride in separate carts as there is a different pricing for Peruvians and Foreigners on this train ride. My ticket cost me USD $15 (around S/41.28), Aiko’s was S/5. Once you get back to the Hydro-plant you catch your bus back to Cusco and celebrate getting to see one of the great wonders of the world for a fraction of the cost.
|Bus to Hydro Plant||S/60 each|
|Lunch Day 1||S/ 10|
|Train back to the Hydro Plant||USD $15 + S/5|
|Water for our Hike||S/5|
|Machu Picchu Enttry||S/ 128 + S/65|
|Lunch Day 2||S/ 20|
|Celebratory Beer||S/ 10|
The Prices listed in USD, based from my understanding, are a fixed price and they just adjust the Peruvian Nuevo Soles accordingly. At the time of our travel the exchange rate was 2.64, although I calculated everything using the current 2.75 exchange rate.
Also, we ordered a second 1.5 pint of beer as we waited for the train ride back for extra celebratory reasons.
Some Final Things To Consider
Unless you are also traveling with a Peruvian, you will have to pay a little bit more for your total adventure. Also, please take into consideration the ride to the hydro-plant and the walks along the train tracks as well as up to Machu Picchu. If reading about it makes you think, “Oh hell no!” Then you might want to fork over a little extra money for that added security and comfort. However, if this sounds like a fun challenge then you just may be up for the adventure. Best of luck on your travels and if you have any questions just comment below.