Machu Picchu is probably one of the finest Inca archaeological sites in all of South America. The problem is that because it’s in such high demand, many people (myself included) are willing to pay exorbitantly disproportional prices (for Peru) to visit the site. Someone is charging and making a lot of money here. To put things in perspective, when we visited the almost-as-spectacular archaeological sight of Kuelap in less-visited northern Peru, the entry fee was 12 soles, or $4 per person ($1 = 3.10 Peruvian Soles). Machu Picchu currently costs 124 soles for a three day pass, which is about $40. For Peruvians and students with an International student ID card, the cost is half (62 soles). A typical salary in Peru (restaurant waiter, security guard) is 45 soles per day ($14.50). That means that for a Peruvian with a steady job, you need to pay a day and half’s salary to visit the sight. If you work but your income is a bit less regular (taxi driver, bus driver), you make about 30 soles per day. If you’re an indigenous person making a lot less per day, forget about ever visiting the premier archaeological sight of your ancestors. For the foreigner price, I wouldn’t mind paying so much money if I knew the funds went back to the Peruvian people or to other archaeological conservation efforts, but I really doubt this is the case. Someone is making a lot of money off Machu Picchu and it isn’t the Peruvian people or the indigenous descendants of the Inca site.
With that being said, here’s how we found to get to Machu Picchu as cheaply as possible, avoiding the equally expensive tourist train. Take the 0530 or 0730 bus from Cusco to the town of Santa Maria. The bus is a comfortable coach-style bus and takes about 5-6 hours and costs 20 soles per person. The morning we went, anyone who showed up before the bus departed could buy a ticket. If you’re concerned about the bus being full, you may want to buy the ticket the day before. The bus station is located in Cusco about 2 km southwest of the Plaza de Armas, across the railroad tracks in the Santiago neighborhood. It’s the bus station with buses headed to Quillabamba as it’s final destination. The station is in a slightly sketchy part of town so you’ll probably want to take a taxi there in the morning. A taxi from the Plaza de Armas at 0430 in the morning should cost about 6 soles total (not per person, 4 soles during the daytime), more if you’re located further away. The day before you leave on the bus, stock up on snacks and maybe a meal you can bring to Aguas Calientes. Food prices in Aguas Calientes and at Machu Picchu are “disproportionately high.”
The bus has lots of storage underneath and initially follows the same railroad tracks that the tourist train takes from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The considerably more expensive tourist train is half-owned by an international company and costs $48 or $71 each-way, depending on the time, for the 4 hour journey between Cusco and Aguas Calientes. After 1 ½ hours the bus stops in Urubamba, and at 2 hours it stops in Ollantaytambo. Both of these towns looked really cute, with lots of surrounding archaeological sites, attractions and tourist accommodations. You might consider staying for a night or two here and continuing later on the bus towards Santa Maria. Continuing on though, from Ollantaytambo, the road splits off from the railroad tracks and starts a steady climb northwest into the mountains to get you nearer to Aguas Calientes from the west side. The bus ride has some pretty spectacular scenery, and although it will take you a full day to get to Aguas Calientes this way, it’s a lot cheaper and was a good experience.
5-6 hours after departing Cusco, you’ll get off the bus at the small town of Santa Maria. Don’t worry about missing your stop – the conductor announced the stop for us and probably half the bus passengers got off there. In Santa Maria, you’ll be met by a group of collectivo van drivers who are waiting to take Machu-Picchu seekers to the Hydroelectrico plant on the road beyond another town named Santa Teresa. The collective van trip takes about 2 ½ hours and costs 10 soles. If a smaller car is going that way for the same price – take it. We took the 0530 bus out of Cusco, but then had to wait until the 0730 bus from Cusco arrived so that our collectivo driver could fill his 15 seats and depart.
The collectivo trip to the Hydroelectrico winds its way up a narrow, dirt, single-lane mountain road. If you have motion sickness or a fear of heights, you might want to take the train from Cusco instead. The scenery was great however. Remember that the driver has a vested interest in not driving over the edge also, and he drives this road all the time, so even though the road is a lot sketchier than what you may be used to, it’s probably “relatively safe”. In the collectivo, you’ll pass through the small town of Santa Teresa, where there are a few small hostals to stay at if you’d like. Most people stay with the collectivo, and then another 15 minutes up the road you’ll arrive at the Hydroelectrico plant. You now have two options. You can either walk up the railroad tracks for 2 ½ hours (it’s free), or take a $7 each way train from the hydroelectrico plant to Aguas Calientes. We walked up the railroad tracks and it seemed pretty safe as there were a lot of other backpackers walking down from Aguas Calientes. It’s not a hard or steep walk, but it will take about 2 ½ hours. If you walk up the tracks make sure you have an umbrella or some rain gear handy. It rained the last hour we were hiking up the tracks.
If you took the 0730 bus from Cusco, you’ll probably walk into Aguas Calientes right about the time it gets dark. You’ll walk through 2 short railroad tunnels before the tracks lead you right into town. If you want to go back by train, I suggest getting your return ticket right now, or even better, before you left Cusco (most tickets were sold-out when we went to buy our return ticket for the next afternoon at the train station in Aguas Calientes). The train station closes its ticket office at 7 PM. We purchased the still quite expensive “backpackers train” from Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo. It cost $34 per person which is the most expensive 2 hour “backpackers train” I’ve ever been on. The train ticket office doesn’t even list prices in soles which is somewhat telling.
I researched the Cusco-Aguas Calientes train after returning from Machu Picchu and here is what I found. The train is operated by Peru Rail, which is owned approximately 50/50 by the Peru government, and Orient Express Hotels – a self-proclaimed high-end luxury hotel and travel experience company. According to Orient Express Hotels’ website, they “own or part-own and manage, 51 businesses operating in 25 countries.” (source: http://www.orient-express.com/web/luxury/investors/investors_corporate_overview.jsp). Furthermore, they operate 41 deluxe hotels, two restaurants, six tourist trains and two river cruise businesses. Orient Express Hotels trades under the stock ticker OEH on the New York Stock Exchange and last year they had total revenues of $550.7 million USD. Their corporate headquarters is conveniently located in Bermuda. At least Orient Express is a publicly-traded company adhering to rules of transparency. You can at least see where your money is going. The other train half-owner is the Peruvian Government, which doesn’t have quite the same set of fiscal reporting requirements.
I think it’s great that the rail line employs mostly Peruvians. However, the problem is that almost all of them earn a normal Peruvian salary. There is a large gap between what the ticket probably should cost and what the standard tourist must pay. Once again, someone is making an awful lot of money here, and it’s probably not your train conductor, ticket seller, or track worker. There are several ATMs in Aguas Calientes if you need more money for the “backpackers train”.
The other thing you’ll want to do right away in Aguas Calientes is buy your entry ticket to Machu Picchu for the next day. There were no lines at the ticket office the night before – I’ve heard the line can be long the next morning however. The ticket office is located just uphill from the town plaza on the pedestrian street. Prices are 124 soles for foreigners, 62 soles for Peruvian citizens with ID, and 62 soles for students with the official International Student ID card. The office only takes cash (no credit cards). Note: the cost of your ticket doesn’t include the bathroom located at the park entrance. You’ll have to pay an additional 1 sole each time you use the bathroom. Paying to use the bathroom is pretty common in Peru. However, if the Machu Picchu businessmen are going to charge me “Gringo” prices for entry, then they better give me “Gringo service” (aka: a free bathroom). Anyway, having to pay even a small amount for the bathroom was pretty insulting considering every-last dime was already being extracted from my rapidly thinning wallet. The bathroom attendant almost sounded apologetic explaning that it was because the bathroom is owned by a different company. Maybe the Machu Picchu mafia could subsidize the use of the bathroom?
Next up you’ll want to buy one of the $7 (each way) bus tickets to take you from Aguas Calientes in the morning up to Machu Picchu. We walked the free 1 ½ hours trail the next morning so I’m not sure where you buy the bus tickets. The 1 ½ hour climb up is somewhat strenuous, so don’t attempt it unless your physical state allows. It had nice scenery, was well marked/maintained, and lots of people where on it in the morning. The trail starts at the bottom of the switchbacks that the bus takes on its way up to Machu Picchu. To get to the trail, just walk down the road that heads towards the river directly below the Aguas Calientes town plaza. After about 10 minutes, the road crosses the river via a bridge. Walk across the bridge and you’ll see a trailhead sign pointing to the right. It’s all uphill from there. If you choose to take the bus, keep in mind that the 6 hour bus ride from Cusco to Santa Maria costs less than the 20 minute bus ride up to Machu Picchu. Once again, someone is making a big stash of money. I guarantee it’s not your Peruvian bus driver. Ask him how much he makes per day and you’ll probably be shocked.
For budget lodging in Aguas Calientes, I recommend the “El Tumi Hostal.” The El Tumi is located about 5 blocks up the pedestrian walkway from the main square, on the right side. Our friends John and Lesley gave us a heads up on the El Tumi. They stayed 2 people, private room with private bath and hot shower for 40 soles total (20 soles each). We told the desk clerk at the El Tumi that our friends recommended we stay there and that they were charged 40 soles. We asked if we could get the same price and the clerk immediately said no problem. The El Tumi is located towards the top of the pedestrian street where a lot of hostals are located, so I think they’re just happy to get your business at a price that still works for them. Our room was basic but actually really clean and orderly. There weren’t too many other people at the El Tumi when we stayed but the hot water worked great and it was quiet in our room that night. You can also leave your luggage in a room near the front desk the next morning if you don’t need it while you’re at Machu Picchu. We heard stories of people making reservations for $60 for a hostal in Aguas Calientes. Don’t do that, even in the high season I’m pretty sure there are more rooms in Aguas Calientes than bodies to fill them. You can always show up and bargain.
The next morning we left our hostal by 4:20 AM in the dark to make sure we could hike up the mountain in time to be in line for a 0600 Machu Picchu opening. We made it to the Machu Picchu entrance around 5:45 AM, and there were probably 20-30 people ahead of us. At 5:50 the first two buses showed up and added their passengers to the opening queue. At 5:58 the gates opened and we all got our ticket stamped as we entered the park. Most of the early crowd is there to get one of 400 tickets given out for the day to climb Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu is the mountain on the far side of the Machu Picchu park grounds. It has some temples on top but most people do the 1 hour climb to see the view back towards the main part of Machu Picchu. The tickets don’t cost anything, but you probably need to be at the Machu Picchu entrance right when the park opens if you want to have a chance of getting one of the 400 tickets.
Once the park opens, you need to walk directly through the park to the far side where the gate to Wayna Picchu is located. There you’ll wait about 20 minutes until a park guide comes by and attaches one of the 400 tickets to your main Machu Picchu ticket. The number of people on Wayna Picchu is limited to 400 each day because the trail is steep and narrow. I think they are trying to limit wear and tear on the trail, and avoid congestion or people getting hurt maneuvering around each other. There are 200 tickets for a 7:00 AM climb, and 200 for a 10:00 AM climb. Regardless, you have to wait in line right after the park opens to get one of the 400 tickets. Once you get your ticket you can walk around the grounds at your leisure until it’s time to climb at 7:00 or 10:00. Ana and I walked across the park for a Wayna Picchu ticket along with everyone else as soon as the park opened. We then waited for about 20 minutes at the Wayna Picchu entrance until a worker came by and stapled a little numbered ticket onto our big Machu Picchu ticket. We then walked around the park until 10:00 AM when we climbed Wayna Picchu. If you don’t get a ticket or don’t feel up for the climb, don’t sweat it. Wayna Picchu was nice, but I think the classic views you get inside the normal Machu Picchu park are actually better than what you see when you get to the top of Wayna Picchu. Do it if you have the time, but don’t feel bad if you don’t get to.
At 1230 we started walking down the trail to get back to Aguas Calientes for a 1400 train departure. It took about 1 hour and was considerably easier going down the trail. We boarded the train at 1400 and off we went. 2 hours later the train stopped at Ollantaytambo where we got off and joined the throng in the parking lot looking for a bus or taxi back to Cusco. Here are the prices:
Big bus back to Cusco: 5 soles per person
Collectivo van back to Cusco: 10 soles per person
Taxi back to Cusco: 12-15 soles per person
If you can, strive to be in the front of the throng getting off the train in Ollantaytambo. You’ll be able to get one of the cheaper 5 soles tickets back to Cusco on the big bus. If you miss one of these cheap seats however, the other options are only a little more expensive. When we got off the train, there were more taxis than passengers, so you should always have an available ride back to Cusco. The 12-15 soles per person cost for a taxi was based on 4 people in the taxi. Maybe make some friends on the train and pair up if you want to take the taxi ride option. Regardless of your method of travel back to Cusco, plan on about 2 to 2 ½ hours travel time.
I hope this post was helpful for anyone planning a trip to Machu Picchu who wants to save a little money. My goal isn’t to cheat the people of Peru out of any revenue they might earn from tourists visiting Machu Picchu. I do however want to provide information on other forms of transportation so that travelers on a reduced budget can also get to Machu Picchu. By skipping some of the high-priced transportation options where the main profiteers are non-local companies and individuals, my hope is that you might have a few more soles left to buy a lunch, some handicrafts, or a souvenir from a local person who can directly pocket that money. Hopefully you’ll get to interact a bit more with the local population, and they can see that tourists also care about saving some money, just like them.
Our total costs for getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco for 2 people were:
Taxi to the Quillabamba bus station at 0430 in the morning: 9 soles
Bus Cusco to Santa Maria: 40 soles
Food at bus stops: 14 soles
Collectivo Santa Maria to Santa Teresa Hydroelectrico: 20 soles
Walking from the Hydroelectrico to Aguas Calientes: free
Food in Aguas Calientes: 54 soles
Private room with bathroom in Aguas Calientes at the El Tumi Hostal: 40 soles
Walking from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu: free
Entry tickets into Machu Picchu: 248 soles
Bathroom 2x at Machu Picchu: 2 soles!
Train ride Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo: $68 (the station didn’t even post prices in soles, all prices were listed in dollars. $68 is about 210 soles)
Taxi from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco: 26 soles
Total cost for 2 people was 663 soles or $214
For a photo gallery containing more pictures of the trip to Machu Picchu, click here: Trip to Machu Picchu
Interactive map of our trip to Machu Picchu. Larger map here
View Our Trip to Machu Picchu in a larger map