If you’re ever in South America it would be criminal to leave without seeing Machu Picchu.
These ruins sit high in the Andes of Peru, almost 2,500m above sea level. You might think of it as the Incan version of Dubai, or perhaps even the Playboy mansion: an exclusive hideaway for the Incan Empire’s rich and famous. Whatever it was it was certainly well hidden; so high up in the clouds that the even the Spaniards, who pretty much wiped the Incan Empire clean, never managed to find it.
What can deter some low budget travellers from seeing this place is the price; some tour companies will charge up to $500 to get you there from Cuzco and back. I’ve seen some 4-5 day tours as high as $1,000. However, what I discovered on my journey there in 2011 is that you don’t need the help of a tour company or a guide at all. The journey is remarkably simple to arrange yourself, and you should be able to get there and back from Cuzco for under $200.
The trip will look something like this:
- Bus from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo
- Train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu town
- Buy Machu Picchu entrance tickets for the following day in Machu Picchu town
- Spend the night in Machu Picchu town
- Early wake up and hike up to Machu Picchu
- Spend the day in the ruins
- Come back down and spend a second night in Machu Picchu town
- Bus from Machu Picchu town to Ollantaytambo
- Taxi or bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cuzco
There are other cheap ways of getting there, but in my mind this is the most economical and fuss free way to get to Machu Picchu and back. Here’s how you’ll do it:
Step 1: Get your train tickets
The nearest airport is Cuzco, so I’d assume most travellers will be using this city as a base.
To get your train tickets in Cuzco, head to the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco town and look for the Peru Rail office (it’s beside the KFC). This shouldn’t be hard to find. It’s the main plaza in town and your hostel will probably be pretty close to it.
Ask for a return ticket from Ollantaytambo (also known as Sacred valley) to Machu Picchu town (formerly known as Aguas Calientes).
I would suggest giving yourself two nights: the first night is so you can get a good night’s sleep before your climb up the mountain, and the second is for a good night’s sleep to rest your weary legs before your return journey to Cuzco. It also gives you plenty of time to get there and back, so you can spend a whole day in the ruins and not have to worry about rushing back down to catch a train etc etc.
It’s a good idea to book your ticket for late to early afternoon. This is because you need to catch a 90 minute bus to the train station, which won’t always run on time. The cheapest ticket might not always be at the most convenient time, so be prepared to shell out an extra $5 for a more welcoming schedule.
The train tickets during high season will cost you around $100 USD return.
You can get a better indication of pricing for your travel dates and even book your tickets at the Peru Rail website.
Step 2: Bus to Ollantaytambo
On the day of your journey, get in a taxi and ask him to take you to Calle Pavitos (in Spanish: Quiero ir a la Calle Pavitos, por favor). Alternatively, you can walk. The taxi ride will cost you no more than 3 soles (around $1) and is just a couple minutes drive within town. The taxi driver will almost certainly know that you’re heading to Machu Picchu and will take you right to the vans. The guys there will be screaming “Ollantaytambo Ollantaytambo!”, and will usher you on board.
The buses don’t run by a strict timetable; they just leave when they’re full. Therefore it’s a good idea to get there early (give yourself plenty of time to get to Ollantaytambo before your train leaves!) The last thing you need is a full bus leaving just before you get there, meaning you’ll be waiting a good hour or so for another one to fill up. If your train ticket is booked for 12pm, I’d probably head to Pavitos at around 8am, just to be safe.
The bus ride is around 1.5 to 2 hours and will cost you around 10 soles ($4).
Step 3: Get on the train!
Once you arrive in Ollantaytambo you’ll probably have a bit of time to wander around. There’s some nice restaurants there for you to catch up on breakfast (or lunch) and it’s a good place to buy stuff you might have forgotten to bring (I bought a goofy looking full brim hat which saved me from some hefty sunburn).
Then, make sure you get to the station early so you don’t miss the train! It’s not hard to find, the massive crowd of gringos will give it away. If you can’t find it, just ask someone (Dónde está la estación?). From memory it was only a 5 minute walk from the where the van stopped.
Step 4: Accommodation
Your train will stop at Machu Picchu town, formerly known as Aguas Calientes. This is a massive tourist trap (obviously) and everything is mad overpriced. However, I did manage to find a pretty awesome hostel called Supertramp, which was rather new at the time (no one knew where it was). The beds were comfy and the staff were great, but most importantly they had a fantastic hot shower and clean toilets. Perfect essentials, no frills; a budget traveller’s dream.
Step 5: Buy your Machu Picchu tickets
This is probably the most important part of it all – remember to buy your tickets beforehand! So many people get to the Machu Picchu entrance all the way at the top of the mountain and then realise they can’t buy tickets there. Stupid.
To get your tickets, you need to go to the Machu Picchu office in the centre of Machu Picchu town. It’s not hard to find, Machu Picchu town is pretty tiny, and the staff at your accommodation will surely be able to help.
I highly recommend paying the extra to get a pass up to Huayna Picchu (sometimes spelt Wayna Picchu). This is the peak that stands behind Machu Picchu and the views from the top are breathtaking. Only two groups are allowed in; one at 7am and one at 10am. If you want a decent night’s sleep, book for 10am.
The ticket price for both Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu together is 152 soles ($55).
Remember, the visitors allowed into Machu Picchu are limited to 2,500 per day, and for Huayna Picchu the limit is only 400 per day. For this reason, if you’re going during high season it might be wise to get your tickets online. Alternatively, some agencies in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco will be able to help you out (for a fee).
During low season you shouldn’t have any trouble just buying your tickets in Machu Picchu town the day before. I went in November and managed to get tickets for both Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu the day before at around 4pm with no trouble at all.
Step 6: The walk to Machu Picchu
The idea on the day of the climb is to start climbing really early so you’ll catch the sun rising over the ruins. However, for this to happen you’ll need a cloudless day which is not always likely. Nonetheless, climbing in the early morning cold is definitely preferable to climbing in the early afternoon heat.
I woke up at around 4am, along with the rest of the hostel, and we all had breakfast prepared by the lovely hostel staffer (I think she must wake up that early every day, poor girl). There’s actually a bus that will drive you up for around $10USD one way, however I can’t recommend it. Part of the beauty in seeing the place is doing the climb yourself, just the way the Incas did back in the day. As you trod up the stairs you can give a thought to the plebs who had to carry the royalty up there on their shoulders. Must’ve been a fit bunch.
The climb is pretty tough. At that early hour of the morning it will feel like a million stairs and a hundred hours, but if you move at a decent pace you should reach the top in around 60-90 minutes.
Finding your way will be easy enough, you’ll simply follow the road until you get to the Machu Picchu sign.
From there, signposts with arrows on them will point you in the right direction. If there are buses driving past you every 10 minutes, you know you’re on the right track.
Step 7: Enjoying the ruins
Once you get to the top you’ll realise why the Spaniards could never find the place. It’s so far up in the clouds that they surely would’ve given up climbing before they even made it halfway.
Them resting upon the clouds makes them appear that much more mystical. Before I got there I kept wondering “How cool can a bunch of ruins really be?” The truth is, this bunch of ruins exceeded every expectation. It’s pretty magical.
The postcards make the place look deceptively small. You can easily spend a couple of hours getting lost in the ruins and not even get through all of it.
I was also really amazed at the lack of safety measures. One wrong step and you could easily go tumbling to your demise. Take a peek over the edge and you’ll agree it’s a long way down.
If you woke up early enough, you should have at least 2-3 hours free to explore before your group’s timeslot for Huayna Picchu.
Step 8: Climbing Huayna Picchu
My best advice is to get to the Huayna Picchu entrance early. The climbing path is narrow and if you’re in the middle of the pack you’re bound to be stuck behind your fair share of oldies waddling up at 0.000004 km an hour. I was the 3rd person through the gate and legged it full speed, getting to the top before everyone else. That meant I had the peak to myself for a good 15 minutes! Definitely worth the extra effort. A couple of Aussies arrived next and we sat up there having a yarn, perched on the top of the world.
Note, if you have a fear of heights, you’re probably going to poop your pants up there. It’s so high up that it makes Machu Picchu look like a little Lego castle. There’s no safety railings or anything either. While it’s most likely just another tall tale, a couple of guys in Cuzco were telling me that two people went over the edge that year and never came back. While it may not be true, I can easily see it happening. Be careful!
There’s a little side journey on Huayna Picchu which I only know as “the cave”. Everyone kept telling me “Don’t go to the cave, don’t go to the cave.”
So, I went.
What a flop. It takes around 2 hours to hike down and around to the other side of the peak to where the ‘cave’ is, and when you get there it really is nothing more than a little cave. Coming to think of it, I’m not sure why I expected anything more than that. Apparently it was some sort of temple or something. Once you see it, there’s nothing to look forward to except the 2 hour hike back.
Your time in Huayna Picchu is limited to 3 or 4 hours, I can’t really remember. Just make sure you get out in time.
Step 9: Getting down to ground zero
Once you get back to Machu Picchu and decide to head home, you can either take the bus down for $10 or walk. In my best effort to be the toughest guy ever, I walked. What’s another zillion stairs at the end of the day. A quick tip here is to not buy the $5 waters that they sell at the entrance. Wait 5 minutes until you get out of the park and there will be some local hustlers selling snacks and water for much more reasonable prices.
It’s a long day; if you hike up, down, walk around Machu Picchu, climb Huayna Picchu, go see the cave, and hike all the way back down, you’ll probably rack up a good 8 hours+ of walking. Reward yourself with a hot shower and then head to an overpriced restaurant to treat yourself to the best crappy $30 pizza you’ll ever have.
Tips for Machu Picchu
- Take sunscreen, a hat, and lots of water. At this altitude you’re pretty close to the sun and he won’t take it easy on you.
- You don’t need hiking boots. One dude I climbed with was wearing flip flops and survived. I just had a pair of sneakers and didn’t die. The climb is not slippery or hazardous (unless it rains, maybe).
- Take snacks. It’s a long day and you can’t buy much food up there. If it weren’t for my cookies I might have died on Huayna Picchu.
- If you haven’t spent too much time in Cuzco or at altitude, your body probably won’t be acclimatised. You could get altitude sickness on the climb. You can buy oxygen in Cuzco for $10 a can, otherwise, get those anti altitude pills or whatever they are, ask your doc.
Using the above itinerary your bankroll should look something like this:
Bus from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo: $4
Train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu town and back: $100
2 nights at the Supertramp: $20
Tickets for Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu: $55
Bus (or taxi) from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco: $4
Total: $183 for a DIY trip to one of the world’s true wonders. Enjoy!
Heading to Machu Picchu?
- If you’re looking for affordable accommodation in Machu Picchu, I highly recommend using Hostelworld. I stayed at the Supertramp Hostel.
- For reliable and fuss-free travel insurance, I always book with World Nomads.
- For more useful websites for cheap flights, accommodation and other travel needs, you can check out my Resources page.