Machu Picchu on a Shoestring
A traveler's reference for how to economically reach Aguas Calientes from Cuzco.
You've made up your mind, you're going to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu—but how to get there without going broke? If you can't afford to fly there via the 24-passenger Russian Mi-8 helicopter—let alone take the ridiculously expensive train out of town—don't worry, discussed below are the two cheapest ways to reach Aguas Calientes from Cuzco.
The Ollantaytambo Train
This method is more expensive, but slightly more reliable. If you're pressed for time, or don't relish massive amounts of time spent on a bus, this is the way to go.
Once per evening, at 20:00 hours, a PeruRail "backpacker" train departs from Ollantaytambo, full of tourists, bound for Aguas Calientes. Tickets for this train are limited, and can only be purchased from the Ollantaytambo train station.
Plan on getting to Ollantaytambo by noon (at the latest) in order to secure passage later that evening, as the ticket office closes at lunch and doesn't reopen until mid-evening.
Buses from Cuzco, bound for Ollantaytambo, depart from the tiny Puente Grau bus terminal, and typically pass through the town of Urubamba. Catch a bus to Urubamba if you miss the direct transport at 07:45. It should take approximately 2.5 hours to reach Ollantaytambo, at a cost of S$5 (US$1.55).
Do yourself a favor while killing hours of time in Ollantaytambo, and stock up on food and drink. Everything will be twice as expensive in Aguas Calientes. If you visit the (popular) ruins in town, don't bother with overpriced entrance fee (that almost costs as much as Machu Picchu), the guards will happily let you slip by with a discreetly palmed wad of Peruvian soles.
When you arrive in Aguas Calientes, walk off the train confident that you will find a room for S$15/night/person (US$4.65). Just wait for the offer, and check for hot water/pressure in the shower when you arrive. A campsite is also available for 1/3 this price (bring your own equipment).
The same limited capacity train departs Aguas Calientes for Ollantaytambo at the break of dawn—05:45 each morning. Plan seeing Machu Picchu on day two, and returning to Cuzco via Ollantaytambo on day three.
Fixed travel costs breakdown:
- Bus travel between Cuzco and Ollantaytambo: S$10 (US$3.10)
- Train travel between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes: S$195 (US$60)
- Total: US$63.10, roundtrip
Santa Teresa: The Route Less Traveled
By far the cheapest way to travel to Aguas Calientes is via a pair of mountain villages, just to the north. I traveled from Cuzco up to Machu Picchu—and back—for less than US$20.
First stop is the town of Santa María, 6–7 hours north of Cuzco. Buses for Quillabamba depart from the Paradero de Paso Santiago bus terminal, and will make a stop (one of many) at Santa María to let you off.
Buses depart at 08:00, 13:00, 19:30, 21:00, and should cost S$15 (US$4.65). It is imperative that you only take the buses leaving at 08:00 or 19:30, otherwise there will be no transport available to shuttle you to the next town (and you'll be stuck in Santa María for many hours).
When you arrive in Santa María take a combi/collectivo (minibus) to the town of Santa Teresa. If taking the night bus and arriving in the early morning hours, a combi will wait from 02:00 until 04:00, or depart when full.
Travel to Santa Teresa costs S$6 (US$1.85) and takes about 2 hours during the day (slightly longer at night). Accommodations in town, if you need them, can be had for as little as S$4/room/night.
From Santa Teresa you've got to get to the hydroelectric power plant, several kilometers upstream, but first you've got to cross the Rio Urubamba.
Descend from town down a flight of dirt/stone stairs towards the river. Don't take the vehicle path/road, as it leads you in the wrong direction. Cross the fútbol field and prepare yourself for a slightly intimidating sight.
In order to cross the river you've got to balance yourself on a steel platform attached to a large cable, suspended above the raging river. Tug (hand over hand) on the rope to pull yourself across—free of charge. Try to put the crosses of those who have lost their lives in the crossing out of your mind.
Across the river you'll have to option to catch a 25-minute ride in the back of a large truck to the hydroelectric plant. The ride is fantastic, and well worth the S$4 (US$1.25). If you decline, the walk will take you at least 2–3 hours to complete.
Truck service begins between 07:00 and 09:00, but commonly starts around 08:00 in the morning. The last truck leaves from the power plant to the river crossing at 15:00.
At the power plant you'll have two options for getting to Aguas Calientes: Walk to town along the tracks, or take a ride in a boxcar for US$8. The train departs Aguas Calientes for the power plant between 12:00 and 13:00, and departs the power plant for Aguas Calientes at 14:30.
Walking the tracks to Aguas Calientes is enjoyable and rewarding. The journey is over a half a dozen kilometers, but takes only two hours at a steady pace. Walk 300-meters down the tracks and take a right up the stairs, opposite the guard station, and walk up the dirt/stone steps for 5-minutes to reach the primary tracks.
Long pants and insect repellent is strongly recommended, as the invisible sand flies can be quite savage. Also keep an eye out for snakes on the tracks; I had an encounter with a big, green one.
Look up the mountain to your right as you pass over the bridge—you're looking at the eastern side of Machu Picchu. Squint in the morning sun and you can see part of the ruins.
Save your feet from the jagged railway rocks and get off the tracks when you see the big white sign for Puente Ruinas—the base of path up to Machu Picchu. Follow the river upstream along the dirt road (and try not to get run over by one of the speeding buses)—you're just 25-minutes from town. The Municipal Campsite is just a few minutes walk up the road from Puente Ruinas.
If the weather is good, and it's still early enough in the day, drop your gear in a hotel room and head up to Machu Picchu—the whole sunrise thing is overrated anyways.
Reverse the path on the following morning. I departed Aguas Calientes at 08:00, was in Santa Teresa at 11:00, and in Santa María by 13:00.
Buses pass through Santa María, enroute for Cuzco in the morning, around 09:00; mid-day, around 14:00; and in the evening, between 19:00 and 21:00. Minibuses from Santa Teresa generally stop running around dusk.
Fixed travel costs breakdown:
- Bus travel between Cuzco and Santa María: S$30 (US$9.25)
- Minibus travel between Santa María and Santa Teresa: S$12 (US$3.75)
- Truck travel along the river: S$8 (US$2.50)
- Total: US$15.50, roundtrip