Machu Picchu: The cheap way

If you’ve been to Peru chances are you will have been asked, “Did you go to Machu Picchu?” It’s definitely one of the must-see places, but it can be super expensive. After plenty of hunting around for information we think we ended up going to Machu Picchu almost as cheaply as it is possible to (short of cycling there, our opinions on this later). We did it using public transport, without a tour and without a guide. Read on for more details.

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Machu Picchu ruins themselves are situated in the mountainous region known as the Sacred Valley, around 75km (as the crow flies) from Cusco. Despite the ruins being on top of a mountain they are much lower than Cusco, as the city is on the altiplano. 

Cusco itself is a really nice city and a great place to hang out while you plan your trip to MP. For cyclists and moto overlanders the go to accommodation seems to be Hospedaje Estrellita; it’s cheap (s/20 pppn), has a large courtyard and bike storage, there’s a kitchen, and there are cheap food places on the same street. Address: Av. Tullumayo 445, Cusco.

Machu Picchu Tickets

To visit the ruins you must have a ticket and it must be bought in advance. It’s possible to buy online at the official government website machupicchu.gob.pe but if like us you use Apple devices then the site probably won’t work as it’s flash-based. The price of the basic Machu Picchu only ticket is s/152 (~£35/$45). Plenty of other sites offer tickets too, but these are all third party companies and the price is vastly inflated, sometimes as much as double. However many of these websites have a live(ish) ticket availability checker which is helpful for working out when you want to go. We used Ticket Machu Picchu for this. If you want to go up one of the mountains (Huayna Picchu or Cerro Machu Picchu) too then the ticket is more expensive and you will need to book further in advance as there is limited availability.

As of 2017 tickets are now only valid for half a day, and you have to decide whether you want a morning (06:00-12:00) or afternoon (12:00-17:30) slot. Mornings sell out a lot faster. When we were looking morning slots needed to be booked about 3-4 days in advance, afternoon slots could be booked the day before. Though this will entirely depend on when you are planning on going, high season tickets will need booking much further in advance.

If you feel like you want a tour guide to explain the ruins to you as you are exploring them but you don’t want to pay an inflated price for your ticket then you’re in luck. At the entrance to the ruins many independent tour guides hang around and you can pay one of them to accompany you if you decide that’s what you want on the day. No need to book anything in advance or be tied into a tour package.

Buying tickets in person in Cusco

We found several different addresses for the ticket office in Cusco, but they were all old/outdated. Finding the office wasn’t as trivial as it should have been. In September 2018 the correct address for the ticket office was: 

Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura Cusco,

Calle Maruri 324 (opposite the big Scotiabank building)

The office opens at 07:15 until around 17:00

Machu Picchu transport

There are many different ways to actually get to the ruins and which one you choose will depend on your budget, timescale and how long in advance you are planning your trip. The main options are:

One of the hiking trails – Inca trail (mandatory ticket/guide/tour) and Salkantay (possible to do it yourself) are the most popular. We did neither so you’ll have to look elsewhere for details. Less common ones are the Lares trek and Choquequirao. We did part of Choquequirao, to the ruins, but you can carry on all the way to Machu Picchu if you want a real adventure. Our Choquequirao experience in our blog HERE.

Train from Cusco – Probably the most comfortable and easy option but it’s not cheap and will need booking in advance. Perurail.com

Bus to Ollantaytambo then train to MP – Slightly more affordable due to doing a large section of the distance by bus. The train will need to be booked in advance too.

Organised minibus – Plenty of companies in Cusco offer a minibus service all the way to Hidroeléctrica. A nice and simple option, but slightly more expensive than the public transport option.

Public transport – The most complicated and uncomfortable option, but it is the cheapest. This is the way we visited the ruins so below are the details and costs for the whole trip from Cusco.

Machu Picchu in 2 days using public transport

Here is how we did our trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco. Ours was a little more stressful due to protests but overall it was similar, read details in our blog HERE. 

  • Step 1: Cusco to Santa Maria. Buses leave regularly, mostly in the mornings from around 6am, from Terminal Terrestre UTRASIC (aka Terminal Santiago, near plaza Almudena). Micros leave on the same route from 1 block up the main road. Micros cost s/30, buses are slightly cheaper. Micros take around 4 hours, buses take a bit longer.

  • Step 2: Santa Maria to Hidroeléctrica. Micros regularly leave from the main road in Santa Maria, they go once they are full. Cost is s/15 and it takes 1.5 hours. Hidroeléctrica is as far as you can go by car, from here you can get a train (around US$18, last one at 1630ish) or…
  • Step 3: Walk Hidroeléctrica to Machu Picchu Pueblo (aka Aguas Calientes). It’s a 10km walk but it’s predominantly flat/gentle uphill and easy, though there are some fairly sketchy bridges to cross. Follow the train tracks until just before the tunnel then follow the road up to the town itself. We took 2 hours at a reasonable pace to do the walk. There are a couple of campsites/restaurants along the route.

  • Step 4: Find somewhere to stay in Aguas Calientes. It’s a really touristy town with dozens of options for food and accommodation. We managed to find a nice hotel for s/50 per night for a double room, Hostel Dalila, just down from Puente Pantigoso.
  • Step 5: Walk up to the entrance for the ruins. Our alarm was set for 4am and we were on the way by 04:30. Town is already awake by then and you can buy food and supplies if needed. Walk back down the road you came in on for 2km, flat and easy. There is then a ticket check booth that opens at 5am. We arrived at 5 and there was already ~100 people queuing up. Once through the ticket check you start the final 2km walk to the entrance. It’s steep uphill steps the entire way, very tiring. It took us 1.5 hours from town to the entrance, including 20-30 minutes wait in the queue for the ticket check. The main entrance opens at 6am, we arrived at 05:50 and were near the front of the queue.
  • Step 6: Visit the ruins! Revel in it, the whole place is pretty amazing.
  • Step 7: Walk back down the steps, join the railway track and walk back to Hidroeléctrica. We didn’t go back to Aguas Calientes as we wanted to get back to Cusco.
  • Step 8: Find a micro back to Santa Maria. There will be plenty of them waiting at the train station at Hidroeléctrica, many will be for organised tours but it shouldn’t take long to find one, though it will only leave once it’s full. Price is the same as the way up, s/15, 1.5 hours.
  • Step 9: Find a micro back to Cusco. Again, these are quite regular and easy to find from the main road in the town, will only leave when full. S/30, 4 hours-ish. Depending on the time you arrive back in Santa Maria it might also be possible to get a bus back to Cusco for a little less money (it will be coming from Quillabamba so flag it down). But for convenience I would just jump in a micro.

Total cost per person: s/292 (£67/$87) including your entrance ticket and a night in Aguas Calientes, not quite as eye-watering as other options.

Some thoughts on the transport options: The way we did it would have been straightforward had there not been protests in the area at the time, but they turned the trips both there and back into a bit of a nightmare, so check local situation first. If the buses aren’t running it’s a good chance any micros won’t get through either, regardless of how optimistic the driver seems. Also, if you can afford it, get the train! It was way out of our price range but for the most hassle free (and fast) way to get to Aguas Calientes, with stunning views the whole time it’s got to be the winner.

Cycling to Machu Picchu: This option didn’t really appeal to us as you can’t reach Aguas Calientes or the ruins by bike, officially. You could ride the road, the same way the minibuses go, to Hidroeléctrica but you would not be allowed further than that by bike and you would have to leave your bike at the train station. Also, that ride from Cusco is 230km with a crazy amount of climbing. We heard of people going up to Aguas Calientes with their bike under the cover of darkness, but we also heard reports of people being turned around by officials/park ranger types. It is possible to do Salkantay (or even Choquequirao if you’re a bit mental) by bike too, you can even get a porter with a mule or horse to carry your luggage, but from what we heard it’s not a trail that’s great for bikes with plenty of tourists among the obstacles you’ll encounter. And again it would only get you as far as Hidroeléctrica. We’d love to hear from anyone that has any good options for getting there by bike, but our research generally showed us that it wasn’t a great option.

Exploring the ruins

Our very friendly hostel owner in Aguas Calientes gave us a few tips for exploring the ruins. We were advised to go to the top section first: the Sun gate, the Inca bridge and the upper terraces. These areas are a lot more open and you can explore them at your leisure, going back and forth as you please. Once you drop down into the lower areas, particularly once you go past the Sacred Plaza, you get funnelled into a one-way system that leads you towards the exit. Going back isn’t an option. If you do the lower section first make sure you leave plenty of time before your ticket expires to re-enter and do the top section. She told us if you have a morning ticket and you try to re-enter after 11:00 they won’t let you in.

Things to know: 

  • Take insect repellent, there are biting bugs around. 
  • Also, bottled water is fairly pricey in Aguas Calientes and ridiculously expensive nearer to the entrance of the ruins. But as with much of Peru drinking from the tap is a bit dubious so if you have a water filter take that too. You’ll also be using less plastic, which is always a good thing.
  • You can take your own food and drink into the ruins, just eat it discreetly and take any rubbish with you. The site is stringently monitored and the guards will probably notice a picnic!

All of this information was correct as of September 2018.

Have we missed anything? Do you have any additional information or can you update this article? Leave us a comment or send us a message.

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