October 2, 2006

Machu Picchu on a Shoestring
Cuzco, Peru

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.

Walkin' the rails

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

Related Writings

Comments:

Mikael Blom

November 11th, 2006

Yes, saving money on transport and travelling the back door route via Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes is a smart and interesting way to save money and gain an experience. Sneaking into the archeological site without paying the entrance fee is not. It's just cheap and emberassing.

element

December 25th, 2006

anyone want to do this with me?

leaving cusco aroudn 30th dec 2006

not 100% sure about sneaking into site but definately about getting there.

Evan

January 4th, 2007

I did this and thought it was for sure worth the work to save the money. However be careful because the road to santa maria is very prone to landslides and I was held up sitting in the bus for 9 hours for them to clear the road. And basically I had taken the 9 pm bus and the slide had happened at 3pm earlier that day. They knew about it and several people on the bus were already aware of it, so ask before you eave if the roads are clear. I wanted to arrive in Machu Picchu on Christmas day and ended up spending most of it cramped in a smelly bus. Best of Luck.

Anonymous

September 4th, 2007

Came across the site while researching my own Christmas trip to MP. I was wondering if the evening backpacker trains do run during the holidays per usual?

Jig

October 2nd, 2007

I went this way, loved every minute, digging landslides out to get the bus past, making friends in Sta Teresa, I stayed there for nearly a week! I paid to get into MP having saved the money on the train, and it is worth it not to be hiding, and to be able to go up to Waina Picchu which is stunning. Everyone to their own adventure though. Buy stuff from the locals, and bargain to a price you can afford or if you do it for sport give a 'tip' afterwards!!

Neeraj

October 3rd, 2009

Whao, this is awesome - will try it one day… :)

The United States

mitchell toole

February 19th, 2010

are these routes still operating? im booked to go from Australia on the 11/3/2010 - 14/3/2010 and dont want to miss this oportunity…
Please let me know if there is anyway… unimitch@hotmail.com

Peru

Carlos

April 3rd, 2010

Does anybody have any current info? Would be extremely helpful…

Peru

Laura Stuntebeck

June 5th, 2010

We just got back from doing it this way. Here's how it worked:

1) 7:30am bus to Santa Maria. It took 5.5 hours but left 45min late so we arrived at 1:45pm. Cost: 20soles
2) Shuttle to Santa Teresa 10soles/person
3) That same driver was able to drive us all the way to the hydroelectric station. He charged us 7 extra soles/person to get there. They just started going all the way to the hydroelectric this week. However, it isn't consistent- the water was too high for cars to get through the next day. If this happens, they will drive you to the river crossing and you can go from there.
4) There is now a nicely groomed trail next to the railroad tracks. It took us a little over 2 hours to walk to Aguas Calientes. We spent 2 nights in Aguas Calientes because you really need a full day to appreciate the ruins and we didn't want to rush back.

The hanging basket over the river no longer exists! They have built a nice suspension bridge over the river. Not as adventurous but much easier!

On the way back, we were lucky enough to hitch a ride on some hydroelectric workers' little car that goes along the tracks in exchange for a "propina". There were no shuttles waiting so we walked to the river crossing (45 min) and crossed the river on the suspension bridge and walked up the stone steps. There was a driver there waiting and he took us all the way to Santa Maria for 15soles/person.
From Santa Maria, we took a colectivo back to Cusco for 20soles/person. He made it in 4 hours.

The road between Cusco and Santa Maria is now paved for 70% of the way. They are planning to pave it all the way, which will make it even faster to get there.

Tour agencies now sell "Jungle Treks" that go this way. They mountain bike downhill to Santa Maria from the top of the mountain and then walk 2 days on the same road into Aguas Calientes.

Peru

Craig | travelvice.com

June 5th, 2010

Fascinating Laura — sounds like the accessibility of this route made some remarkable leaps and bounds since 2006. Finally, a more affordable path for the masses that doesn't cost you your first born (I'm talking about the train, here). Great info.

The United States

Julio

March 19th, 2011

The regular train to Aguas Calientes is an excellent "adventure". I did it one time be accident… I was traveling with my oldest daughter, her sister, (7 yo and 2 yo at the time) and my VERY pregnant wife. We had "standby" reservations for the "suite" in Machu Picchu. The Cuzco travel agency assured us that if the suite was not available, the new hotel in Aguas Calientes was available… Machu Picchu had no room, so we walked back (2 km on the railroad tracks to find that the “new” hotel was not finished construction!

We stayed at the best hotel (in 1983) in Aguas Clientes. The hotel clerk was amazed that we wanted to spend $3.10 to have a room with a bathroom, instead of the $2.65 without one. It was an memorable ordeal!!! Our children, years later, returned to Machu Picchu… on passing by that hotel on the train, they still refer to it as the “stinky hotel” (referring to the sewer gas from the bathroom).

We continued on to the hotel in Machu Picchu and had a wonderful time in the suite! As my wife is Peruvian and I lived there for many years, we had no problems with the language (including Quechua and Aymara, in which I am fluent). Staying over night at Machu Picchu is highly recommended rather than the “day trip” on the “autovagón!

Ollantaytambo is a place that should not be missed. The San Blas church in Cuzco should be a must, also. The baroque woodcarving inside is marvelous! Everyone should plan on the train trip from Cuzco to Arequipa, with a layover in Juliaca or Puno. If you have to… fly from Arequipa to back to Lima (I recommend the bus–you see so much more!).

The United States

Christopher Moore

May 16th, 2011

Here is a short video (2 minutes) I made about this route. Pretty fun and easy.
http://youtu.be/f-KU4WGln3M

The United States

Edwin

May 24th, 2011

This sounds like fun and economical at the same time. I do have a question. How safe is it to travel through these back roads? are there any robbers to worry about? has anyone done it recently?

Thanks for the feedback…

The United States

risa

August 12th, 2011

Does anyone know if there is a road that goes from Santa Maria to Ollantaytambo? Or Santa Maria into the Sacred Valley at all?

Thanks,

Welcome | Itchy Feet on the Cheap

Pingback on January 30th, 2011

Touring the Tourist Track | Madi Meandering

Pingback on January 9th, 2012

Welcome « Itchy Feet on the Cheap

Pingback on February 4th, 2013

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.