Visiting Machu Picchu Simply and Cheaply
The idea of visiting Machu Picchu was always overwhelming for both Martin and I. A quick internet search flooded us with expensive options, complex routes, and visitor limits. We were confused and unsure if we wanted to spend the time, effort, and money visiting this famous world site.
Ultimately, we did go, and I’m really glad we did. I had so much fun exploring the ruin, despite the rainy weather.
Machu Picchu is an Inca ruin in the southwestern part of Peru and is thought to be built around 1450. It is in the heart of the Sacred Valley, which includes a smattering of small towns, each with their own Incan ruins and tourist industry.
No one knows for sure for what the Incas used Machu Picchu, and the mystery is part of the fun. It is an expansive city with many architectural marvels.
One of the most popular ways to get to Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail, which typically takes four days. Only a certain number of people are allowed on the Inca Trail at one time, so if you want to do this option, you need to book a tour at least six months in advance.
We didn’t hike to Machu Picchu.
Instead, we took a 21 hour bus via Cruz del Sur from Lima to Cusco, the third largest city in Peru. The bus ride is hell. Fly.
Cusco is 3,400 meters above sea level, so it takes a couple of days to adjust to the altitude. While there, we ate at Green Point Vegan Restaurant as often as possible. Delicious!
From the Pavitos bus station in Cusco, we took a collectivo to Ollantaytambo, a small town 2 hours away. We spent the night there and caught an early morning Inca Rail train to Aguas Calientes, another 2 hour ride.
Once in Aguas Calientes, we were unsure where to go. This small town is a couple of miles from Machu Picchu itself and many people take an overpriced bus up to the ruin. We decided to walk.
Eventually, we figured out that the walking path follows the same route as the busses out of town. About 15 minutes later, we crossed a bridge and found the hiking path: 1.76 kilometers of stairs up. It took us 60 minutes of huffing and puffing to reach the top. While difficult, the hike was exhilarating. It was a great way to start our Machu Picchu adventure.
Many people hire guides to take them through the expansive site. We didn’t. We enjoyed exploring Machu Picchu on our own and when we were curious about a particular structure, we looked it up in our guide book (electronically stored on my phone and checked out from the library).
It took us about 3 hours to explore Machu Picchu. Some people choose to hike up one of the two mountains on the site; we were glad we didn’t do that. Our hike up to Machu Picchu was a perfect way for us to do some climbing and then we could focus solely on the site when we were there.
What to bring to Machu Picchu:
- Snacks and water. There is an overpriced restaurant outside the main entrance. While the rules officially say no eating inside, it is helpful to have some snacks. Just remember to leave no trace.
- Comfortable shoes. You will be climbing up and down a plethora of stairs, even if you take the bus up the mountain.
- Passport. You need to show it to get on the train and to get into the ruin itself.
- Rain jacket/umbrella/poncho. It rained off and on the whole time we were there.
- Sunblock and mosquito repellent. While we didn’t need these, on sunny days we’ve heard they are essential.
- Entrance tickets. You can’t buy them at the entrance itself. You can buy them online, at the ticket office in Cusco or at the ticket office in Aguas Calientes. Only a certain number of people are allowed to visit Machu Picchu every day, so if you are visiting in high season, buy your tickets in advance. The basic ticket is 128 soles/person ($41). You can’t change the date on your ticket, so choose your timing wisely.
After visiting the site, we walked around Aguas Calientes for a few hours until our train left for Ollantaytambo again. From there, we caught another collectivo to Cusco, where we spent the night. I would have loved to have spent another night in Ollantaytambo instead of rushing back to Cusco the same day, but we had an early morning bus from Cusco to Arequipa.
Our total transportation costs and entrance fees were $245/person.
We saved about $50/person by hiking up the hill and not hiring a guide. We also brought snacks and water to avoid the overpriced options at Machu Picchu. The entire trip took us 6 days, but I wish we would have allotted for 7 days. Flying from Lima to Cusco would have saved 20 hours but would have added $60/person to the cost. Looking back, I would have gladly paid the extra $60 than take that bus again.
While visiting Machu Picchu was a splurge in our budget and took considerable time and effort to do, I’m so glad we went.