I spent an entire month traveling through Peru in 2018 — during which I was able to experience the historic Incan site known as Machu Picchu.
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Incan citadel has probably been etched onto just about everyone’s South America bucket lists, including my own. Aside from its incredible historical significance, much of which is still considered a mystery, Machu Picchu is breathtakingly beautiful.
The thing is, visiting Machu Picchu can be quite expensive. The famous archeological site lies high up in the Andes mountains, making it more difficult to access than other tourist destinations across Peru.
You can hike there, but the popular multi-day trek will set you back several hundred dollars. Since I was on a fairly strict backpacking budget at the time, I chose to skip the famous Inca Trail. And while several tour operators offer tours to Machu Picchu from Cusco, I ultimately decided that visiting the site on my own terms would be more affordable (and more enjoyable).
In doing so, I was able to make my visit to Machu Picchu a budget-friendly one. For the other budget travelers out there, this guide is for you.
| READ MORE: The Full Guide to Backpacking in South America
Where is Machu Picchu Located?
First things first, let’s talk location. Contrary to what you may have heard, Machu Picchu is actually not located in Cusco. It’s located in a tiny town called Aguas Calientes about 75 kilometers from Cusco. That being said, Cusco will be your point of entry to Machu Picchu.
You’ll most likely begin your journey in Cusco, wandering its picturesque colonial streets before heading to Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.
I suggest spending a few days in Cusco to allow your body to acclimatize to the altitude: At about 3,400 meters (11,150 feet), there’s a chance you may experience altitude sickness.
Fortunately Machu Picchu sits at a lower altitude, about 2,400 meters (8,000 feet), so if you adjust well to the heigh in Cusco, you should be find in Aguas Calientes.
How To Get To Aguas Calientes
There are a few ways to reach Machu Picchu, the most popular being the Inca Trail and other alternative hikes. The crazy thing is you can’t access the town of Aguas Calientes by car. One options it to take a colectivo taxi to a nearby village, from which you can walk the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes. Or you can opt for the fastest and easiest option, and the most popular, the train.
Your exact train route will depend on the time of year you’re visiting.
Trains to Machu Picchu generally leave from “Poroy station” about 30 minutes by car from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. But if you’re visiting during rainy season like I was, which runs from January to April, both train companies only operate from Ollantaytambo, a nearby town located in a region called “The Sacred Valley.” That means your train leaves from that town instead, so you’ll need to travel from Cusco to Ollantaytanbo to catch it.
Ollantaytambo sits about two hours away from Cusco and is home to impressive Inca ruins itself. To get there, you can either take advantage of the train company’s “bi-modal” service, in which a private bus will take you there on the day of your train departure, or you can take a cab. The first option will increase the price of your train ticket, of course, so I personally chose the much cheaper cab option.
On the day of my train departure, I got up early and caught a colectivo taxi on Cusco’s Pavitos Street. The cabs take up to four people at a time and leave as soon as the cars are full. The ride to Ollantaytambo was just under 2 hours long, and only cost $4.60.
I arrived well before my train departed to Aguas Calientes. I chose to ride with Inca Rail because at the time, their tickets were more affordable than Peru Rail.
The 1 1/2-hour long train ride took us deep into the Peruvian Andes, chugging slowly past giant green mountains and the endless Urubamba River. It was beautiful.
Purchasing Your Train/Machu Picchu Tickets
Make sure to purchase both your train and Machu Picchu tickets while you’re in Cusco. And yes, an entrance ticket is required to visit Machu Picchu.
You can easily find the Inca Rail and Peru Rail train offices by searching for them on Google Maps; they’re both located near Cusco’s Plaza de Armas.
As for the Machu Picchu ticket, you can purchase that at the Direccion Regional de Cultura office on Calle Garcilaso. Keep in mind that that there are only 2,500 spaces available per day — especially important during high season — so make sure to snag your tickets as soon as you get to Cusco.
It was February when I visited, and I had no issue securing a ticket two days before my visit.
When you’re buying yours, you’ll have to choose between a morning or afternoon session; I chose the afternoon (12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.) hoping there’d be less tourists around. I made the right decision!
There are also different levels of entrance tickets you can buy depending on what sites you’d like to visit once you’re inside Machu Picchu. There are three levels, each with separate price tags. There is just Machu Picchu; Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu (a hike inside the archeological site); and Machu Picchu + Mountain (another hike).
If you’re an avid hiker you may want to look into the two hikes you can do once inside. Both take you up the massive mountains surrounding the citadel, and I’ve heard wonderful things about them. It’s an additional cost, but each offers one-of-a-kind views over the ancient ruins.
Because I was trying to keep my visit as affordable as possible, I chose to skip the hikes and only visit Machu Picchu itself.
After You Arrive In Aguas Calientes
Once in Aguas Calientes, there’s still more work to be done before reaching Machu Picchu.
The town sits at the base of the mountain home in which the Incan citadel lives on, and there are two ways to reach the top. You can either take a bus up to the entrance or you can hike up.
At the time I was there, the bus was priced at $24 round-trip. Tickets care sold from a small stand within the town (not hard to find since the town is tiny). You can also purchase a one-way return ticket at the entrance of Machu Picchu if you choose to walk up and ride the bus down.
I chose to hike up and down to save those $24. The trek consists of hundreds of steep stairs within a jungle-like landscape. It took me about 1 1/2 hours and was certainly no walk in the park, but I was rewarded with beautiful views along the way.
Regardless of what method you choose, I recommend spending at least one night in Aguas Calientes. I can’t imagine visiting Machu Picchu and returning to Cusco on the same day. I spent all day visiting the site, and by the time I hiked back down, all I managed to do was eat and sleep — I literally fell into a 13-hour long, post-Machu Picchu slumber.
I personally found the town of Aguas Calientes adorable. It’s obviously touristy but there’s a certain charm to its small streets, restaurants and big artisanal market. I was surprised to see the number of bars lining the streets offering crazy happy hour specials like 4 for 1 pisco sours.
I suppose there’s a lot to celebrate after crossing Machu Picchu off your bucket list! It’s also sort of magical to know you’re in a small town deep in the Peruvian Andes with no access to the outside world except for a few trails and the train tracks that run through it. And there’s this atmosphere of camaraderie as everyone is there for the same magical thing.
The town’s natural landscape is also breathtaking. It borders the powerful Rio Urubamba and is surrounded by massive, green-covered peaks that truly make you feel like you’re in a mystical place.
- Colectivo cab ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo: $4.60
- Round-trip train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes: $113
- Machu Picchu afternoon entrance ticket: $42
- Colectivo cab ride from Ollantaytambo to Cusco: $4.60
*Prices are per person and based on the Peruvian Sol to USD exchange rate in February 2018.
LIKE THIS POST? PIN IT FOR LATER!