How to See Machu Picchu on a Budget
Traveling to Machu Picchu is expensive, especially compared to the rest of Peru. The journey to Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo since it's the gateway to the Inca city, is only about 50 miles from Cusco, but thanks to the incredibly mountainous landscape and lack of paved roads — or lack of roads in general — the trip can be time-consuming. Your options are limited and while the easiest way to arrive is by train, the ride isn't cheap. Opting for the four-day Inca Trail hike and camping adventure will run you a bare minimum of $600, while ticket prices to the ruins have risen in the past few years and are now almost $50 per adult before adding in the hikes that cost extra.
Luckily, there are some ways you can visit Machu Picchu on the cheap, so check out these tips if you're hoping to see the famous Inca ruins on a budget. Note that prices are all estimates and may change at any time.
Flying to Cusco vs. Taking the Bus
Your first step is getting to Cusco, the closest large city to Machu Picchu. From Lima, that means a bus journey of 22 to 23 hours. If you book with a company like Cruz del Sur, you can reserve VIP seats, which are similar the business-class seats you'll find on an airplane — they're large, recline and there's even an attendant who serves you meals. Flying is clearly the easiest option, and take just one hour. One-way flights start around $100, though you could get lucky and snag a cheaper fare every once in a while. Your best bet, if you'd like to save money but don't want to take the bus, is to fly on an airline like Peruvian, LC Perú or Star Peru, which are typically cheaper than Avianca or LATAM. Just be aware of the fine print, as these low-cost carriers love to nickel and dime you for things like checking a bag or printing your boarding pass.
Do the Inca Trail in One or Two Days, Not Four
Those short on cash or time — or who simply can't tolerate the thought of hiking or camping for four days — can opt to do a one-day or two-day Inca Trail hike, which often include an overnight in Aguas Calientes. These treks typically start at $250 and can run up to $700, so do your research to find the best price before you go.
Hike an Alternative Route
Other routes, such as the Lares Trek, the Vilcabamba Trek and the Salkantay Trek are often a better bang for your buck and can be much less touristy. Many tour companies offer anywhere from two-day to weeklong hikes, all running through incredibly beautiful spots in the mountains and valleys that surround Machu Picchu. Each one offers different amenities at a different price, so make sure to compare and choose the company that best suits your needs. Oftentimes, the cheapest options may not include everything you're looking for and you'll end up spending more in the end, so read all the details before you reserve.
For Adrenaline Junkies on a Budget
Loki Travel offers the Inka Jungle Trek, which actually doesn't involve much trekking — instead, you'll bike, zip-line and raft your way to the ruins. Starting at just $235 for a three-day, two-night package — you'll have to pay extra for some of the activities — this is one of the cheapest and most exciting ways to see Machu Picchu and its surrounding mountain and jungle landscapes.
For Those Short on Time
If you don't have the time or energy for a trek, heading up to the ruins for the day or spending just a night in Aguas Calientes is the best option, but train tickets, entrance fees, bus tickets and hotel rooms can really add up. A tour offering one or two nights in Aguas Calientes plus entrance fees, train tickets and a hotel room can easily set you back at least $600 per person when booked with a tour agency.
An alternative to the pricey train tickets that run from the Poroy station in Cusco to Aguas Calientes is to take a shared van or bus about five or six hours through mountain roads — some paved, some not — until you arrive at the Hidroelectrica train station, about a 20-minute drive from Santa Teresa. Shared transport between Cusco and Hidroelectrica starts at about $15 each way if you book the buses on your own and slightly more if you book through an agency. It's worth noting that the last few hours of this drive can be harrowing, through unpaved, narrow roads with steep precipices.
Once you arrive at the train station, pay about $30 to take the train, which is about a 45-minute ride to Aguas Calientes. Or you can simply walk the three-hour, level terrain along the train tracks — you'll have plenty of other backpackers for company — and take in the beautiful scenery until you reach Aguas Calientes. After all, it's free! Walking is a really nice way to appreciate the nature around you and have a mini-adventure with little difficulty. Be aware of oncoming trains, of course, and note that you might want to consider another option if you'd have to walk at night. Organize it on your own to save the most money or go through a tour company, whose packages typically include your Machu Picchu entrance ticket and a guide, a night in Aguas Calientes at a budget-friendly hotel and van transport to the Hidroelectrica station.
Beware of the Aguas Calientes Hotel Bait-And-Switch Scam
It's common knowledge that the village of Aguas Calientes is full of tourists who are staying there for just one night, and as a result, hotels have little motivation to keep prices affordable and offer top-notch comfort and amenities. After all, even if the hotels are terrible, people will still come to see Machu Picchu and stay overnight there, as it's really the only option.
Common complaints about hotels in the village include a lack of hot water, air conditioning and working Wi-Fi. I've heard countless stories of travelers arriving at a hotel tired from a long journey, only to find their supposedly pre-booked accommodations full for the night and that they'd been switched to another hotel, often worse than the original. Although there's not much you can do to control these these circumstances — especially if you've prepaid for a tour — stand up for yourself no matter how tired you may be. If you've been switched to another hotel, ask to see the room before committing to anything, and if it's not up to your standards, insist that they give you another. Confirm the day before if you've booked with a tour operator to make sure your hotel hasn't been changed — if you find out it has been switched ahead of time, check out your new one on TripAdvisor and complain if it has a bad reputation.
If Going by Rail, Take the Train From Ollantaytambo
If you're dying to take the train but just can't afford the prices from Cusco-Poroy, you can hop in a shared van to Ollantaytambo, which is about two hours from Cusco and a relatively straightforward drive — after this point is where you really get into the mountains and switchbacks. From there, you can take the train to Aguas Calientes at a cheaper price. On the way there or back, stop by and check out the ruins in Ollantaytambo, which are quite impressive. Be sure to book your train tickets in advance, as they often sell out.
Bring Your Own Water and Snacks to Machu Picchu
This trick isn't going to save you millions, but if you're on a really tight budget, bring your own water and snacks with you into Machu Picchu. Cusco is the cheapest spot you'll find water and food, followed by Aguas Calientes, so if you plan on purchasing from the snack bar or restaurant just outside the entrance, expect to spend three to four times as much as you would elsewhere.
Have you visited Machu Picchu on a budget? Share your own tips, below.
All images courtesy of the author.