Everything about the Machu Picchu experience is meant to part visitors with as much cash as possible, and the transport bringing you there is no exception. You cannot take a bus, car, or van to Machu Picchu’s base town Aguas Calientes. Instead, the traditional journey to Machu Picchu from Cusco involves either trekking the Inca Trail or riding Inca Rail. Prices for both have skyrocketed in recent years leaving both routes well out of reach for budget backpackers. Below I explain an affordable and adventurous alternatives that will get you to Machu Picchu for a tiny fraction of the price.
The Traditional Routes
Inca Rail tends to be the transport mode of choice for those who can afford it. The short 28 kilometer ride costs $150 round-trip – enough to fly you to another continent!
The Inca Trail is a scenic path connecting Machu Picchu with Cusco since the time of the Incas passing many ruins and holy sites. You must book a tour months in advance in order to walk the Inca Trail. The trek takes 3 to 4 days and costs from $500 to $1,600.
An Economic Alternative
If you’re not willing to shell out $150+ on a short train ride, you’ll be happy to hear there are some affordable alternatives. While you can’t drive or be driven all the way to Machu Picchu, you can still get pretty close and then walk the rest of the way. More on this below.
- First, go to Calle Pavitos in Cusco at 7 AM sharp and grab a collectivo headed to Ollantaybamba (1.5 hrs / 10 sol), a splendid historic village along your route with some impressive Inca ruins.
- Spend an hour or so exploring Ollantaybamba or even stay the night if you want to use it as a base to visit nearby sites, such as the Mara Circles.
- When you are ready to continue on your way, you can catch a collectivo headed to Hydroelectrica (s/30). Note these only leave during the morning.
- However, if you don’t mind walking and are up for an adventure, you can actually just walk the rest of the way to Machu Picchu (28 km) by following the railroad tracks for 8 to 10 hours. More on this later.
- Once at Hydroelectrica, follow the railroad tracks on foot for 2.5 hours until you reach Machu Picchu. There are restaurants, stores, and hostels along the railroad for people walking the tracks.
- However, if you don’t want to walk, you can buy a train ticket to Machu Picchu from here for $33 one-way (expensive but still much cheaper than if you had rode the train directly from Cusco).
- Note that if you are walking the tracks, you will need to detour briefly in the beginning where you see a sign pointing up a hilly jungle path. The path reemerges onto the railroad tracks further up hill, and the rest of the journey is very straightforward.
Can I just go directly to Hydroelectrica from Cusco?
Yes, you can skip Ollantaybamba if you are in a rush. Apparently, there are direct collectivos to Hydroelectrica from Calle Pavitos in Cusco, but they leave at 7 AM sharp. The journey last 6 hours and costs 30 – 40 sol.
What If I Can’t Find a Ride to Hydroelectrica?
Personally, I couldn’t find a direct ride to Hydroelectrica because I arrived in Calle Pavitos much too late (9 AM). I went to Ollantaytambo instead, but I couldn’t find a direct ride from there either, so I had to transfer again in Santa Maria and then Santa Theresa. I ended up arriving at Hydroelectrica at 5 PM. The sun set halfway through my walk to Machu Picchu. Not ideal. But realize you may have to do something similar if you can’t come by a direct ride.
The Cheapest Route ($3)
As I mentioned earlier, its possible to walk the 28 kilometers to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo by following the rail tracks for 8 to 10 hours. I met many people who did this and loved it. Spend the night before in Ollantaytambo and set out early at 6 AM with food, water, your passport, and a change of clothes. Leave everything else behind at your hostel.
From Machu Picchu Pueblo to Machu Picchu Proper
All of the options described above are meant to get you the base town of Machu Pichu (a.k.a. “Aguas Calientes” or “Machu Picchu Pueblo”). This is where you will sleep and eat, but the actually historic site of Machu Picchu is up a steep hill a few kilometers away. You can get there from the base town either by bus (15 minutes) or by foot (1.5 hours). The bus operator has a monopoly, so they charge 84 sol ($24) for round trip bus fare. This is purportedly the most expensive bus ride in the world on a per kilometer basis. If you’re not physically fit or not keen on waking up at 4:00 AM, then you may still find it worthwhile to take the bus up and walk the way down.
For more information on doing Machu Picchu on a budget, including food, accommodations, and entrance ticket, check out my Machu Picchu Guide.