Words itself cannot describe the boundless beauty, delicate details, and haunting history of this ancient world wonder.
When I first came to Peru in 2014, I definitely wanted to go to Machu Picchu. But everyone I met that went to Machu Picchu warned “it’s expensive”, albeit stunning. So with my tight budget, and thirst for the sun and waves, I decided to stay on the coast. I figured Machu Picchu wasn’t going away or disappearing any time soon (hopefully!), so I tucked it away for another trip.
Just over a year later, I got that second chance to go back to Peru, and this time with my boyfriend. Our only plan: Machu Picchu.
Before setting off on our travels, we did extensive research on Machu Picchu. We had a pretty tight budget, so we had to see what was available. We were keen to do the Inca Trail, the ever popular 4-5 day, 26 mile trek through lush cloud-forest and tropical Andean jungle, but decided against it when we found out that it had a months-long waiting list, and that each company charged quite a hefty fee to go (which didn’t include any extra camping gear that would most certainly be needed).
Another option we found was to take the train to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes…. but one-way tickets (for tourists) start at $82 – one way…. and so we discarded that option quickly.
We knew that the internet only gave us so many options, so we decided to do the rest of our research on Machu Picchu the old-fashioned way: by asking other travelers who had done it. And then we did it ourselves.
It’s so worth it, and I think going to Machu Picchu on a budget actually makes the whole trip a lot more authentic. When you arrive to Cusco, there are signs and people nagging you to pay an absurd amount of money to be stuck to a tight schedule, and traveling with a group. Doing Machu Picchu on a budget and taking our time, camping out, mingling with the locals… it just added to the authenticity.
Not to mention, if you’re traveling for a long period of time, you want to really sustain your budget so you can do everything. It’s super easy to spend half your budget on Machu Picchu. I’m here to tell you: don’t. It’s not necessary!
Machu Picchu on a Budget: The Budget
I began to keep track of our budget the day we left Cusco. This is the budget for the 5-day trek we did, not including airfare, not including any of our costs while we were actually in Cusco.
Transportation (including bus to Machu Picchu): S/.255
Accommodation (camping): S/.50
Food (eating out, snacks, beer): S/.293.50
Tickets to Machu Picchu: S/.192 (as an Ecuadorian citizen, my boyfriend got the discounted fare of S/.64, which is only available to nationals of the Andean Pact countries)
Total: S/. 790.50 ~ $235.12
No, that is not a typo. Between two people for a 5 day trek we spent only $235. That’s $117.56 PER PERSON. Remember, this doesn’t include the airfare or bus fare getting to Cusco. From Lima, we found flights for $160 round trip, per person. Bussing is definitely cheaper (though the nicer companies like Cruz del Sur aren’t that much cheaper), and to take the bus from Lima, where we were, to Cusco, takes a good 24 hours. We weren’t about to do that, and we surely weren’t going to take a more economic bus ride because we tried one of those and had a horrible experience (stay tuned for a bussing in Peru post next…)
And clearly, we spent most of our money on food. But if we would have had a camping stove, we would have saved even more money..
Anyhow, in total, including our flights, we spent about $555 between two people for a five day trek to Machu Picchu.
So there’s the Machu Picchu budget. Let’s continue on with the journey.
Machu Picchu on a Budget: The Itinerary
We did the entire trek in five days. It is possible to do it in three, if you get transportation direct from Cusco to the Hidroelectrica. Our Dutch friends who we met camping in Cusco, Evita and Willem, did this instead. They found a company around the Plaza del Armas in Cusco that charged them about $70 USD round trip. This definitely saves time if you don’t have it; but if you do have time (and you should make time for Machu Picchu) support the local economy and take the local buses.
Day One [travel from Cusco to Santa Teresa]
We left Cusco in the morning around 10:30. It would have been earlier, but the first cab we got in took us to the wrong bus station. (Pro-tip #1: be sure to tell the taxi to take you to Terminal de Quillabamba.) We told our taxi driver to take us to the terminal where the buses go to Santa Maria. Instead, he took us to the bigger, interregional bus station. It was further away, and thus it was more expensive to take us there. Pro-tip #2: from the Plaza del Armas in Cusco, your taxi to the Terminal de Quillabamba should be around S/.7 – any more than 10 soles, and you know you’re getting ripped off.
We made it to the Quillabamba station with just minutes to spare. When you walk in, people will be shouting “Quillabamba! Santa Maria!” The buses stop in Santa Maria on the way to Quillabamba, and should cost anywhere between S/.15 – S/.20 (we paid 20 soles each) and the trip itself takes about 4-5 hours, through the Sacred Valley.
Once in Santa Maria, there will be many colectivos that go to Santa Teresa for S/.10. These colectivos usually leave when they have a full car. It’s a 45-minute drive along a precarious dirt road along the cliffs of the Andes; but the drivers are fairly cautious in their 4 x 4 Toyota station wagons. Don’t be surprised when they lay on the horn before they round a sharp corner, as this is their way of notifying any on-coming traffic of their presence. It’s a funny, if not efficient, system.
We camped this evening in Santa Teresa at Don Moscoso’s place, for a whopping five soles, total (we left an extra 5 with him because he held some of our excess luggage that we didn’t take to Machu Picchu). Unfortunately, a huge tour group of about 30 or more people, arrived to camp at the same spot, and blasted reggaeton (and later some cool 80s hits) into the evening. That was fine and all, but the thing is, this campsite only had two toilets to share… between all of these people. Definitely one of the more, ah, adventurous place we have camped, but hey, that’s what traveling is all about, right? Adventure! That said, Don Moscoso is a wonderful, friendly human being who is seemingly well respected and well known in the Santa Teresa community. He kept a bag of our stuff safe while we left to do Machu Picchu – which was a good idea, because we totally overpacked.
Day Two [walk from hidroelectrica to campsite at Aguas Calientes]
From the mercado in Santa Teresa, we caught another colectivo to the Hidroelectrica (s/.10). Apparently there is a hike from Santa Teresa to the Hidroelectrica that takes about seven hours; but we decided to save time and energy. The Hidroelectrica is exactly what you think it is: a huge hydroelectric power plant along the Rio Vilcanota. This is the starting point for the ‘hike’ to Machu Picchu.
There are signs along the railroad that lead you to Aguas Calientes – look out for these signs. The hike 2-3 hour hike goes along the railroad tracks, except for a portion at the very beginning. We got confused and ended up right along the river in an lightly marked trail through the trees, and ended up scaling up a very sketchy pathway to the actual trail. Don’t do what we did: if you get lost, just ask the many food vendors that sit along the tracks at the entrance for directions.
The trail is pretty flat and has some stunning views. We took a few rest stops for snacks and water, but we did it all in about three hours. You can easily do the walk in two, even one and a half, if you have less luggage than we did.
The campsite is about 15 minutes before you arrive to Aguas Calientes on the main path, right after the Puentes Ruinas (the two bridges that lead to Machu Picchu). You are close when you get to the Machu Picchu train station. Camping here is s/.15, and there are clean bathrooms and even some exercise equipment, in case the walk wasn’t a good enough work out for you.
After setting up tent we walked into Aguas Calientes for dinner, and to buy our tickets to Machu Picchu. The little town, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, was formed during the construction of the railroad, which goes right through the city. Naturally, tourism makes up a big chunk of the economy in this town, which is represented by the abundance of overpriced hotels and restaurants. As the name suggests, there are thermal hot springs here; but that, too, is known to be touristy and crowded. Save yourself the money and wait to enjoy the hot springs in Santa Teresa.
Pro-tip #3: buy your ticket in advance to enter Machu Picchu. From what we saw it is heavily regulated and there is no way for you to enter the ruins without a pre-purchased ticket. Also, they allow at most 2,500 visitors per day into Machu Picchu, and during high season, this could mean that they sell out days before. Tickets can be bought in Cusco, or at the Machu Picchu Cultural Center near the main plaza in Aguas Calientes. The tickets you buy are only valid for the day you buy them for: they specifically state that there are no refunds or exchanges. You can also buy the tickets online.
Day Three [MACHU PICCHU]
We woke up to rain that lasted until about mid-morning. When the rain stopped, we walked to Aguas Calientes and ate lunch at the mercado (cheapest eats in town probably, a menú for only S/.8) before taking the bus up to Machu Picchu. Now, we could have easily done the walk up to Machu Picchu for free, instead of spending S/.40 each on a one-way bus ticket. But the morning rain delayed us, and we knew that once we got up to Machu Picchu, we would be doing our fair share of walking. So we opted to buy the bus ticket up, and do the walk down. This is an equally excellent option, and though the bus ride up feels a bit like you’re on a Disneyland ride, it’s worth it. We assumed the high price of the bus tickets is because 1) they use nice Mercedes buses, likely for their durability and safety, and 2) these bus drivers have a risky job, and we can only hope they are being compensated well for it. They drive these massive buses up and down the windy, zig-zaggy road to Machu Picchu several times a day, full of tourists… so in the end, we were happy to support them.
There are three different types of tickets to enter Machu Picchu: you can visit just the city (S/.128 ~ $38) , or visit the city and Machu Picchu Mountain (S/.142 ~ $42), or visit the city, Machu Picchu Mountain, and Waynu Picchu (S/.152 ~ $45). The latter is obviously the most expensive option, and would also require more time. Remember that Machu Picchu was once a city that was home to perhaps 1,000 people if not more; and though that doesn’t seem like a lot, it is a lot of people to house on a skinny mountain top, and you can easily spend five hours walking around just the city, from going to the Sun Gate and to the Inca Bridge.
We did just the city, and didn’t even make it to the Sun Gate, nor did we walk all the way to the Inca Bridge (my fear of heights got the best of me when I saw the narrow walkway to the bridge). We spent about three hours there, but could have easily spent eight hours… but because we went midday, our time was a bit limited. Nevertheless, we spent an enchanting afternoon getting lost in the land of the Incas.
The walk down from Machu Picchu can be done easily in 45 minutes. It’s an easy, 400 meter descent from the top to the Puentes Ruinas, and a thorough workout for your calves. When we got to the Puentes Ruinas, we enjoyed a celebratory cerveza at the foot of the mountain.
Day Four [travel from Aguas Calientes to Santa Teresa thermal baths]
We left the campsite around 9:30 a.m. to begin the walk back to Santa Teresa. This time we did the walk in just 2 1/2 hours, stopping a few times to rest and refuel with fruits and water. When we arrived to the Hidroelectrica, we found a colectivo right away to Santa Teresa.
From Santa Teresa you can walk to the thermal baths, or take a taxi for about S/.12. With all the stuff we were carrying, we chose to take a taxi. The cost to camp here is S/.5 per person, and that includes your ticket to the thermal baths. The baths begin to fill up around midday, as more people (many in large groups) begin returning from Machu Picchu. We chose to rest and relax in our tent (also hiding from those persistent sandflies) until around 8 or 9 p.m., when the air had cooled down, and most of the people had gone. There’s no better way to end a trip than to relax in a natural hot spring, relieving any aching bones and muscles from the long walk.
Day Five [travel back to Cusco]
We lucked out and got a colectivo from the thermal baths to take us back to the mercado in Santa Teresa in the morning (S/.8). We bought a couple of fresh papaya and aloe vera juice before taking a ride back to Santa Maria.
We had hoped to catch a bus in Santa Maria back to Cusco, but we were told that the next bus wouldn’t pass for another couple of hours. There were three other travelers heading back to Cusco from Santa Teresa, and we were able to find transportation in a van for S/.20 per person from Santa Maria to Cusco.
We made it back to our amazing campsite, Quinta Lala, below the Sacsay Huaman ruins in Cusco, in the late afternoon. Around the bonfire later on, sipping soup and swapping stories with our friends, we reveled in the glory and majesty of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu on a budget: The [bare] Necessities
What you have and bring with you is essential to maintaining the budget. Here are a few items
Tent – Camping in Peru is dirt cheap, and this is the #1 way to save money on your way to Machu Picchu; not to mention, there are some amazing views. Hostels in Aguas Calientes start at around S/. 30 (~ $10), but the most we ever paid to camp was s/. 15 for two people (~ $4.50). The campsite is at the base of Machu Picchu, with a stunning view of Machu Picchu (and quite frankly, a way better option than any of the overpriced hostels/hotels that make up the Disneyland-like town of Aguas Calientes). Just make sure your tent is nice and waterproof, and well ventilated. It is warm and humid in the Sacred Valley, and it could rain any second.
Water filter/water bottle – Seriously. I have the Sawyer Mini Filter, and it is a game changer. The Andes in Peru is studded with glaciers, and thus there is an ample supply of fresh (though untreated) glacier water. This is a good item to have in general when you’re traveling, but it’s worth mentioning for this, because it really came in handy for us (and saved us those extra soles that we’d be spending daily on water).
Bug repellent – As I mentioned, it’s fairly warm and humid in the Sacred Valley. However, it’s not mosquitoes you have to worry about, but the tiny, pesky sandflies. You won’t know they’re on you until you feel a tiny sting on your skin, that will have you itching for days after. Try to go for natural products, laden with citronella and lemongrass essential oils, rather than the poisonous DEET-infused sprays… but that’s just my opinion. (And if you’re in the Seattle area, stop by The Hidden Alchemist in Pioneer Square and get a bottle of bug repellent. It works like a charm and smells fantastic!)
Good pair of shoes/socks – Since we weren’t doing the super long and intensive Inca Trail hike, we didn’t really gear up. I had no hiking boots, just my Vans, and purchased a good pair of long socks before hand, and had absolutely no problems. The most walking you’ll do is from the Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, and then all of the walking in Machu Picchu. I saw people in flip flops, flats, even girls wearing wedges… so no, for this trek, you don’t need a pair of the latest and greatest hiking boots.
Rain gear – Poncho, rain jacket, umbrella, what have you… stay prepared and stay dry.
Camping stove – We didn’t have one, but could have saved even more money if we did. (Needless to say, it’s our next investment!) None of these camping spots had kitchens available (like I presumed they might), so we ended up eating out. Which, as you can see from the budget I’ve outlined, we spent the most on food, and surely with a stove, we would have spent less. If you already have one of these lying around, do not forget it! And if you are traveling for a long time and planning to camp… investing in one of these is a good idea.
Headlamp – Another one of those “always good to have wherever you’re traveling” items, but also one worth mentioning. When you’re camping, a headlamp or some sort of light is always essential. Do not pack your bag without it!
Toilet Paper – Many of the campsites have bathrooms, but no toilet paper (not paper towels/hand dryers). While this is surely the eco-friendly option, it can be an unfriendly surprise. Stay fresh and prepared, bring your own roll of TP. In fact, TP is good to have wherever you’re traveling, especially if you’re doing a long distance bus ride. Just trust me on this one.
Last thoughts on Machu Picchu
This was my first time going to Machu Picchu; but I know it won’t be my last. Even a month later, the sights and smells of the renowned World Heritage site stay clear in my mind.
It is, however, very crowded. We went in late October, which is technically the off-season, and though there were many people, I can only imagine what it might be like in the high-season. Plan your trip accordingly.. July and August, and December-March tend to be the busiest time.
Decide your route to Cusco in advance. If you are really short on time, chances are you’ll be flying into Cusco from Lima. Some of you might come from the south, likely from Arequipa by bus. Because of our time frame we chose to fly. We bought our tickets directly from the LCPeru airline website. Payment can be done online, or you can go to an affiliated bank in Lima and pay in cash within two hours of booking. LAN and Avianca also have flights from Lima to Cusco; we found that LCPeru was the cheapest and most efficient, with a wide variety of flight times.
We brought way too many things for this easy trek. Pack as light as you can: and if you can, leave some unnecessary items at your hostel/campground in Cusco, or somewhere safe. Now we know for next time 🙂
So there you have it. Machu Picchu on a budget. Now you have no excuse to skip Machu Picchu, no matter what your budget may be.