I know, I know. You want to hike and travel on the cheap and the sheer price of the Machu Picchu tickets makes you dizzy. You usually avoid the gringo trail and sites packed with tourists. But hey, this is the Machu f%#king Picchu, one of the jewels of South America. So don’t think twice and dive in! In the end, I swear, the splendour of the “Old Mountain” will make you forget all the rest. So avoid the train to Machu Picchu and other tourist traps. We’re telling you everything about how to get to Machu Picchu by hike, in the cheapest way possible.
How to book your ticket to Machu Picchu
There’s no bypass here, unless you get quickly naturalised Peruvian, you’ll have to pay full price. The 1st thing you need to decide is what you want to see (we include the cost per person here):
- Only the main ruins (called ‘llaqta‘): 152.00 soles (40.00 € / $ 44.00 USD)
- The llaqta + Wayna Picchu: 200.00 soles (52.00 € / $ 58.00 USD)
- The llaqta + the Mountain: 200.00 soles (52.00 € / $ 58.00 USD)
- Only the Manuel Chavez Ballon museum (well, why not…): 22.00 soles (6.00 € / $ 6.40 USD)
Note that for Wayna Picchu, you need to book loooong ahead, especially in high season (from April to October).
What we advise is to check availability and book your ticket on the official website: https://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/
Once you’ve booked, you have 3 hours to go to the nearest Banco de la Nación –there’s one in every town– to pay for it in cash. It’s not possible to pay online with credit card (any type of credit cards).
You will need to print out your ticket to enter but they can print it for you for free at the Ministry of Culture in Aguas Calientes (open 5:30 am to 8:30 pm). Also, don’t forget your passport!
The cheapest ways to hike to Machu Picchu
If you decide against the several day Inca Trail hike, the Salkantay trek or the Lares trek, no one forces you to buy the scandalously expensive train tickets. There are 2 other cheap ways to reach Aguas Calientes, the nearby village that serves as a base for your visit. They both follow the train tracks and will both need a bit of effort.
This first option requires spending a night in lovely Ollantaytambo and walking the rails for 8 hours. It’s a long walk (28 km / 17.4 mi), although not very demanding, so it’s important you start as early as possible. On the day before, buy all the snacks & water you might need for the trail; there’s no shop along the way. A first aid kit might not be a bad idea either.
The second option requires less hiking to Machu Picchu than the other one. But considering the several bus journeys –and especially the waiting time in between– all in all it also takes about a full day. You’ll cross and even stop at villages, so there’s no need to pack with food.
Both options can be done as a round trip, or each of them one way to see even more landscape.
1. Day hike from Ollantaytambo
There are frequent minivans reaching Ollantaytambo from Cusco or Urubamba. It’s a pretty, albeit rather touristic, little town with a colourful central square, 3 Inca sites (2 of them free to visit) and several trekking options. So make sure you don’t just go through, but spend a couple of days here.
Look for an accommodation in Ollantaytambo that can keep your luggage for the couple of days you’ll be away. As an alternative, several shops and restaurants do it for a reasonable price.
You need to take a colectivo bus to “Km 82” past the Ollantaytambo train station. The 1st one leaves at around 6:00 am, next to the market entrance, and it takes about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on your offline map to feel reassured; but the driver will tell you if you ask him for “kilómetro ochenta-y-dos“.
Important notice. Walking along the rails is forbidden and there might be guards preventing you from accessing them. The best thing is to start on an uphill trail that goes parallel to the rails for the 1st km. You should be able to bypass the guards before joining the rails. There are several portions of the way where you can leave the train tracks and follow a parallel trail; do that as often as you can.
Second notice, just as important: this hike incurs a few risks. Those risks take the shape of passing trains that you’ll have to avoid; slippery slopes where you can slide; groups of dogs that can bite (according to some accounts). Be careful, don’t run and don’t be a daredevil. It will take one accident for the authorities to prevent access to everyone.
2. Half-day hike from hidroeléctrica
- take a bus to Santa Maria (20 or 15 soles, 6 hours from Cusco)
- find a minivan or a taxi to Santa Teresa (15 soles, 1h20)
- take a taxi to the “hidroeléctrica” (5 soles, 45 min)
- walk 2 hours along the rails. It’s a beautiful walk along the river and surrounded by mountains. It’s not dangerous, not forbidden, and you’ll surely have company.
That’s how to see Machu Picchu for a total of 40 soles (10.40 € / $ 11.60 USD). Even cheap Machu Picchu tours cannot be that cheap!
Being in a group of 4+ reduces waiting times, as taxis and minivans don’t leave until they reach that number.
And that’s it, you’re in Aguas Calientes! You’ll have to overnight there for an early start on the next morning, but lodging and shops are not overpriced. It is not possible to visit Machu Picchu as a day trip from Cusco or Urubamba.
Hiking up to Machu Picchu
The small nondescript town of Aguas Calientes is also known as Machu Picchu pueblo. It was built to cater to the herds of tourists visiting Machu Picchu, but its central square doesn’t lack charm. It’s also not particularly expensive, contrary to what we expected (and feared). There is a gazillion of hostels and hotels, and that offers 2 advantages: no need to book in advance; and the possibility to haggle the price for the night.
When booking your tickets online, you’ll have to choose a time to enter the site (probably between 6-8 am) and a time to start climbing the mountain of your choice (Wayna Picchu or the Machu Picchu Mountain -between 7-8 am, 9-10 am or 10-11 am).
I really recommend you skip the (yet again) expensive bus from Aguas Calientes to the entrance, and rather hike up. That’s the cheapest way to get to the Machu Picchu entrance. It should take you all in all 1,5 hour from the town and you’ll walk into the steps of the Incas. And incidentally save 34 USD, the price for the bus tickets. Taking the bus is the only way how to visit Machu Picchu without hiking. But once inside, you’ll have to walk quite a lot anyway.
Therefore an early start is of the essence!
What to hike: Machu Picchu Mountain or Wayna Picchu?
Unless you pay double price (and I mean 400 soles!), you’ll have to choose only one of those. Which one to go for? Well, there are pros and cons for both hikes on a Machu Picchu trip. They are fully and clearly explained on this blog post.
Keep in mind that Wayna Picchu (I write it with the official spelling) is the most famous and is therefore very sought-after and terribly crowded. The Mountain on the other hand will take longer but is not as steep and will offer you the famous view on both the llaqta and the Huayna Picchu.
In both cases, the Machu Picchu hike (pronounce ‘pikchu‘ if you want to sound Quechua) will be demanding but the view rewarding. That’s unless you’re unlucky losers like us and are surrounded by clouds the whole time!
Rules to visit Machu Picchu in 2020
Much is said about more-or-less new rules to visit the site. In reality, those are not enforced, and they probably never will be, for lack of practicality.
It is said that you cannot bring food inside the site, but when you see the queue to get in (especially in the morning) you’ll understand that nobody checks. The unwritten rule is not to eat on the llaqta –even though I saw someone do it and no guard said anything– but rather on one of the peripheral sites. When we reached the top of the Mountain, everyone was having breakfast!
According to the official website, you have 4 hours to visit the site (or 6 hours if you’ve booked the Wayna or the Mountain) but in reality, nobody checks your entrance time. It would be greatly unpractical. We spent around 7 hours there and have met people who stayed the whole day.
No, you do not have to hire an official Machu Picchu guide. Like on every other site, there are guides politely offering their service at the entrance. If you politely decline, you may politely visit the site on your own. Notwithstanding, if you decide to hire a guide, you should pay no more than 25 soles/person for a tour in English, or 20 soles for one in Spanish.
One important thing though: in the llaqta, you will not be allowed to wander about as you want. There is a set route that you have to follow (even without a guide). You won’t be able to go back, so make sure you don’t miss any part. I’m thinking especially about the Inca Palace and the Sun Temple, which can inadvertently be skipped.
I hope you now feel better prepared and ready to travel to Machu Picchu. So put on your hiking boots and enjoy the jewel of the Incas, a top UNESCO World Heritage Site! But if you prefer a less crowded adventure, consider hiking the Choquequirao trail.
Curious? Read about our trek to Choquequirao
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