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).
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?
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.
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…)
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.