Machu Picchu on a Budget
Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most famous ancient sites. Hidden high within the Andes, the sheer size of Machu Picchu combined with architecture that would have been seemingly impossible in the times of the Inca civilization (particularly in its mountain-top location), is both beautiful and mysterious.
It’s no wonder why thousands of people from around the world come to take it in every year.
There are a number of different ways to do Machu Picchu but this guide is geared towards people who are either on a budget or short on time. With Cusco as your base you can access virtually all of the major tourist spots in the area, Machu Picchu included. Most hostels will be able to sort you out and answer your questions or you can walk in to any tour agency on the street and take a look at what they offer.
MACHU PICCHU OPTION 1: Bus + Mini Hike
Route: Cusco – Hydroelectrica – Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu
Time: 2 to 3 Days
Bus: 7 Hours | Hiking: 3 Hours
Price: ~ $135USD including bus to Hydroelectrica and back to Cusco, 2 nights accommodation, entrance fee, tour guide
You’ll head to a designated meeting place in Cusco to catch a minibus that will take you all the way to a little place called Hydroelectrica. The bus journey is an interesting 7 hour drive. The first half of the drive is pretty average, nothing too crazy. But eventually you’ll hit the mountains and next thing you know, you won’t even be able to see the edge of your mountain “road” (if it can even be called a road) when you take a peek out of the window.
I took a look out the window and instantly wished I hadn’t, only to look around me to realize that nearly everyone else on the bus was fast asleep, blissfully unaware of our driver’s erratic driving skills and to how terrifyingly close we were to falling over the mountainside. I actually had a moment where, fleetingly, the thought of my family hearing about my death from a news headline that read “26 Backpackers Perish When Bus Falls Off A Mountain” went through my mind.
I don’t pray, but I prayed on that bus.
It was nothing short of a miracle when our bus finally pulled to a stop in Hydroelectrica and we all, a bit nauseously, stumbled off of the bus in search of food. Hydroelectrica isn’t much more than a little restaurant and toilet stop for people to have a break at before beginning the hiking portion of their journey to Machu Picchu.
Once you’re fed and watered, follow the trail to the sign pointing you in the direction of Aguas Calientes, the little Machu Picchu pueblo. Here, you begin a quick three hour trek along the train tracks that will take you all the way to Aguas Calientes. The walk itself was fantastic and, luckily for me, there weren’t too many people around as everyone walked at their own pace or with their own group of friends, so the majority of the way my new friends and I had the trails to ourselves to soak in all of the nature around us.
Before you know it, three hours will have flown by and you’ll enter a strange little town built in the middle of the mountains: Aguas Calientes, the town that grew rapidly into a bustling, ultra-touristy town to accommodate visitors going up to Machu Picchu. Here, you’ll find restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, hostels and hotels. If you have the time to spend two nights in Aguas Calientes, I would recommend it. I met a lot of people who were only doing one night, which meant arriving one evening, waking up early to see Machu Picchu and having to rush through it in order to make the walk back to Hydroelectrica to catch a bus back to Cusco in time, all in one day! We stayed for two nights and it was perfect.
MACHU PICCHU OPTION 2: Inka Jungle Trek
Route: Cusco – Santa Maria – Santa Teresa – Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu
Time: 4 Days, 3 Nights
Price: ~ $150 USD to $230 USD (prices vary depending on if you want to participate in optional activities like ziplining, rafting or hot springs)
The Inka Jungle Trek is a popular pick for people wanting to add a whole lot of fun adventure activities into their trek to Machu Picchu. Over the course of 4 days, you have the option of adding whitewater rafting and ziplining into your trek.
Day one of the Inka Jungle Trek starts off on a three hour mountain bike ride to Santa Maria, where you have the option of going rafting (for an additional price). Day 2 is all about trekking – a 16 km hike to Santa Teresa, where you have the option to chill in the hot springs.
On day three, you either continue trekking or can go on a zipline adventure instead! You finish off the day with a three hour walk from Hydroelectrica to the Machu Picchu pueblo, Aguas Calientes, where you can spend the night. Finally, day 4 is Machu Picchu itself – climbing up the steps before sunrise and spending the day seeing the ruins.
MACHU PICCHU OPTION 3: TRAIN
Time: 2 Days
Route: Cusco – Ollantaytambo – Aguas Calientes
Price: ~ $243 USD
More expensive than the bus, but undoubtedly faster and more comfortable, this is the best option if you have limited time and don’t mind spending a bit more money. First, you get a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and from there, you can rest in luxury on the train that will take you straight to Aguas Calientes!
*Prices vary depending on which tour agency you choose as well as your bargaining skills*
General Machu Picchu Tips
- Bring snacks and water (not so much if you’re taking the train) for the bus and/or hike
- Pack sunscreen and bug spray
- Additional costs include a shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
- You can walk about an hour uphill/up steps from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu for free
- Book tickets for the shuttle bus the day before you plan to take it
- Wake up EARLY so that you can arrive up at Machu Picchu early in the day (we were up at 4am and arrived to the top of Machu Picchu at around 7am).
- For awesome Machu Picchu photos, walk up to where you can see a little house and then keep walking up – you will eventually reach a less busy platform with great photo opportunities.
- If trekking or taking the bus, stay in Aguas Calientes for 2 nights instead of 1.
- Note that entrance guidelines have changed as of July 2017 (visitors are allowed in two different time slots – AM or PM – and you must leave the site at the end of your time slot)
Being able to visit Machu Picchu was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s one of those places that have been on my list of things I had to see in my lifetime and to be there was a little surreal. Despite the mass of tourists, Machu Picchu has an extremely serene feeling to it and is buzzing with a deep energy.
We arrived early and all of Machu Picchu was hidden beneath a cloud of fog, casting an eerie and mysterious feeling about the entire place. Our tour guide walked us through the ruins, pointing out spots of significance and telling a story here and there, and by the end of the tour the cloud had lifted and Machu Picchu was radiating beneath a bright sky and hot sun. No matter what the weather, Machu Picchu is truly a magical, powerful place and one that is well worth the trip to reach.