Train Tracks to Aguas Calientes

How To Get to Machu Picchu Without Breaking the Bank

So many ways to get one’s tush up the hills to world treasure Machu Picchu exist, that when I saw my arrival in Peru getting closer my brain began to ache just thinking about it.

Apart from the heralded Camino Inca, other treks do exist; including the fast-growing Salkantay trek and the Inca Jungle Tour; a multi-discipline extravaganza involving trekking, biking, zip lining and rafting.

Non-walkers can also opt for hopping on a train; either arriving at Aguas Calientes from Cusco (the more expensive option) or from Ollantaytambo (making their way overland to the village first).

Machu Picchu: Main Court
View of the grounds…

Worth the cash?

As you research, you’ll notice your wallet begin to ache along with your brain:  Some of these tours are damnnnn expensive.  Many travellers – particularly students and those of us not yet making amazing bucks – freak out at the frankly quite enormous costs charged by some operators for treks and tours. “Ohh, look it’s just so touristy, I’m not going,” is a sometimes heard complaint along the beaten paths to Cusco.

But hold on:  Machu Picchu is mind-blowingly famous for a reason.  Something HAPPENED there.  It was DIFFICULT to create.  It’s not like ANYTHING humans do these days.  We don’t really know HOW they did it then.  So many sights in the world are like this:  Touristy for a reason.  Would you really find yourself near the Great Wall and not have a look?  Purposely not see the Eiffel Tower because 100,000 other people also saw it that day?

View of Machu Picchu from Machu Picchu Montaña
The whole valley view you’re rewarded with after slogging up Machu Picchu Montaña, an extra climb available from the main ruins.

Visit Machu Picchu without breaking the bank

Seeing Machu Picchu does not have to break the bank.  In this post, you’ll see a blow-by-blow account of how to arrive in Aguas Calientes via yet another option; making your way to the valley’s Hydroelectric Station by local transport, before following the train tracks in to Aguas Calientes.  Other blogs exist which describe this trip, though as prices have since changed (I will kill you, inflation!) it’s necessary to update it somewhat.

This way of reaching Machu Picchu is still challenging in its own way (you’ll have a very “local” experience on some of those buses!) and is one which is becoming increasingly more popular among travellers.  Importantly, it will allow you to save a few of your hard-earned soles for other Peruvian delights later along the way.

The destination is the same, after all.

GETTING TO AGUAS CALIENTES BY LOCAL TRANSPORT

This route will take you from Cusco to the Sacred Valley’s Hydroelectric Station by vehicle, travelling via some villages and making stops in both Santa Maria and Santa Teresa.  From the Station, you will follow the train tracks to Aguas Calientes.  All costs are in Peruvian soles unless otherwise specified.  At the time of publication, one sol was at US$2.60.

PART ONE:

CUSCO to SANTA MARIA via mini van:  Approx 4-5 hours and S/25 – 35.

  • Get up early and make your way to Cusco’s Santiago Estero bus terminal; a secondary terminal used mainly by locals.  A taxi from your hostel should cost about S/4.
  • Your transport will be an 11 seater mini van.  It will pass by villages (including Ollantaytambo) before arriving at Santa Maria’s main plaza.
  • The ride is very windy and curvy…so if you suffer from travel sickness, be sure to bring whatever medication you need to make yourself comfortable.  (I’m lucky enough to not suffer from travel sickness, but later my very nauseous friend informed me that the road wasn’t straight at all right from Cusco to S. Maria.  I hadn’t even noticed, which she hated!)
  • (NOTE:  Upon arrival at Santiago Estero, wou will be completely mobbed by transport providers waving papers and trying to convince you to hop into their mini van.  Stay firm, and negotiate.  Don’t go with anyone until you’re happy with the price they’ve offered you.  See pic below…)
Exhausted Already
This is how I looked at Santiago Estero, after being verbally accosted by a variety of ticket sales people, all pushing me (some physically) to get into their vehicle.

PART TWO:

SANTA MARIA to SANTA TERESA via mini van:  Approx 1.5 hours and S/10.

  • Your next bus to to Santa Teresa will leave from the exact same plaza where your first van dropped you.  If drivers don’t immediately come to you, wait a while and they’ll soon arrive.
  • The route takes you through some high, slightly hairy mountain passes, yet is no where near as stomach-wrenching as the the road from Cusco to S. Maria.
  • Drivers may not leave until their car is at near capacity.  If you are in a hurry to leave, be prepared to pay a little more…otherwise, use the waiting time to grab some fruit and snacks from the plaza’s mini markets (and recover from your windy trip from Cusco).
Santa Maria
Street in Santa Maria, where your bus from Cusco will leave you and the mini van for Santa Teresa will pick you up…

PART THREE:

SANTA TERESA to THE HYDROELECTRIC STATION via taxi:  Approx 30 mins and S/5.

  • Again it’s impossible to get lost:  Taxis leave from the same street your mini van driver will leave you on.
  • Drivers here will try to tell you that the cost is S/10, and that the 5 sol fare is for a bus which leaves (but conveniently, not for another four hours).  This is not true; other drivers will take you for S/5 per person.  Pay more if you want to leave immediately.
  • The road is dusty, and quite downhill, but not stomach-hurlingly high nor windy.  Views of the river and mountains are spectacular here.
  • When you are dropped off, you will sign in at the Hydro office.
Santa Teresa
Street where the mini van from Santa Maria will leave you, and the taxi for the Hydroelectric Station will pick you up.
Streets of Santa Teresa
Streets of Santa Teresa

PART FOUR:

HYDRO. STATION to AGUAS CALIENTES on foot:  Approx 2-3 hours (freeee!).

  • Follow the office attendant’s directions to the small train station located nearby, and begin your walk to Aguas Calientes.
  • The way is completely flat, though very pebbly.  You’ll pass by creeks and be constantly at the base of some sort of craggy outcrop or ruin.  Cameras out here!
Hydroelectric Station
Where punters sign in at the Hydroelectric Station

THE WALK IN

As you are simply following the train tracks, again this is an idiot-proof step.  Just chug along…though obviously not walking on the tracks, as a train (filled with richer travellers than you!) will definitely pass you at some point.

Train Tracks to Aguas Calientes
The shade was very much needed that day – baking by the tracks was not an attractive option!
Train Tracks to Aguas Calientes
About half way there now…
Train Tracks to Machu Picchu
The one bridge you’ll cross on your way in…
Aguas Calientes
About to arrive, very hot!

ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD IN AGUAS CALIENTES

Aguas Calientes is known for being extortionately expensive…and yes, it is.  But there are still options available for you if your taste is more budget (or you drank your soul and soles away in the form of too much Cusqueña beer the night before).

On Avenida Pachacutec, you’ll find beds in twin rooms with private bathrooms going for S/15-20 per person (about $7.50).  On this street too, there are menús (soup and main style combo meals) for S/15, though nearby side streets also have them for as cheap as S/7.  For even cheaper meals (less than S/10), try the central market (mercado central) for similar menús.  Breakfast in the market will set you back around S/5 for a coffee and bread/toast combo, instead of the S/12-15 you’ll find in town.

Definitely recommended to bring your own snacks, fruit, nuts etc from Cusco…as those little bits ‘n’ bobs really do add up.

Machu Picchu

FROM AGUAS CALIENTES TO MACHU PICCHU

You have two options to get to the summit of Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes:  By bus, or a pata (walking).

Buses leave regularly from Avenida Hermanos Ayar and cost S/25 one way or S/45 return.

Walking will take you around an hour if you’re quick and healthy.  It’s an easy hike (in that you are simply following the road the bus takes and involves no navigation) though do remember that it’s relentlessly uphill.

COST BREAKDOWN PER PERSON

  • Transport in:  S/40
  • Transport out: S/35
  • Night in Aguas Calientes: S/20
  • Menú: S/7
  • Water:  S/4.50
  • Bus to summit: S/45 (my travel buddy was violently ill and couldn’t walk)
  • Breakfast: S/12 (we found the market option too late)
  • Entrance to Machu Picchu including Machu Picchu Montaña: S/140
  • TOTAL: S/303.5 or about US$116

This might not be for everyone, as some would argue that the experience of walking a trail in is well worth the cost (on average well around $500 if hiking the Camino Inca).  And to a certain extent, I do agree.  But I was keenly aware that this was not the only beautiful mountain top to see in Peru – and that blowing a large part of my budget on getting there wouldn’t make me happier than doing it myself.

While it’s usually the opposite, for me, this time the destination was the most important thing…and I figured that money saved here could go “241” style towards the journey to another mountain top: Of which Peru has so many that once again, my brain aches thinking about it.

Over to you…

Been to Machu Picchu? What route did you take and would you recommend it?

Huayna Picchu
Walls with Huayna Picchu in the background…
Machu Picchu Terraces
Terraces near the main courtyard…
Machu Picchu
Views of the main courtyard area…
Llama on Machu Picchu
As always, there are llamas strategically positioned to take piccies of…
Machu Picchu
The view’s its own reward…
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17 thoughts on “How To Get to Machu Picchu Without Breaking the Bank

    1. Thanks so much, it was a great experience – despite my friend’s horrific travel sickness/later flu!!

      PS: I’m really enjoying your blog too, beautiful photography and writing as always!

    1. Hi Chelsea! So glad you’ve found it helpful. It was seriously easy to do and muuuuuuuuuch cheaper than any sort of guided hike. In this case, as I said, I decided that the destination was more important than the route and I was ok with not doing the Camino Inca. Camino Inca converts may think I’m crazy…but I saw heaps of other beautiful places afterwards with the money I saved. I think you’ve got to pick your expensive battles, especially when on the road for a long time! Enjoy!!

  1. Hi there, many thanks for the detailed description. One question, can one do this journey in one day (leave Cusco 7ish arrive in AC around 8)? As many other bloggers have stayed over night in Santa Teresa. Many thanks – Alex

    1. Hi Alex!

      I did it in one day. We left Cusco at about 6.30 am and arrived as the sun was setting…

      We were a little slow, as my friend had a tummy bug and vommed the whole way – so you could be even quicker!

      (Just don’t forget to leave a couple of hours for the final hike in from the hydroelectric station, and you’ll be fine!)

      Have a great trip!

  2. Thank you so much for this very descriptive post! Do you know what time the minivans generally start running? I am looking to leave Santa Teresa as early as possible to have enough time to spend at Machu Piccu. Also, on the way back do drivers generally wait at the stops after dropping people off to take people the other way? Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Our minivan left Cusco super early in the morning – by 7am we were gone (and our hostel staff advised us to be there early, so as to have a chance of arriving in Aguas Calientes by late afternoon). From Santa Teresa, we had no trouble finding a taxi – our previous driver left us right by the taxi rank…

      I found that drivers waited. In Santa Maria, for example, we waited for about 40 minutes for the mini van to gather a couple more passengers. The drivers tend to want to fill their vehicles and so did hang around waiting for more travellers to arrive…

      Have fun!!

  3. Very helpful article! Is it safe to hike down Machu Picchu back to Aguas Calientes after sunset?

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