Traveling to a Wonder of the World or any other highly touristic place for that matter is generally quite expensive. But if your determination to visit is greater than your need for comfort and luxury, you should have no problem with getting the full Machu Picchu experience without blowing your budget.
The most common way to get to Machu Picchu is by train all the way from Cusco or from the smaller, very quaint Ollantaytambo. As you might have guessed though, this is by far the most expensive way to get there. Don’t despair. If like we did, you have a ride of your own you can get to the hydroelectric power plant (the last point accessible by car) without much trouble. Otherwise, you can bus to the town of Santa Teresa, where you can cab or share a van to the hydroelectric plant.
This is where the fun starts. Hopefully, you have a sturdy backpack to pack anything you might need for camping the next two days. You can find grocery stores and restaurants in Aguas Calientes, the village closest to the Machu Picchu archaeological site and accessible only by train or foot, but you’ll want to take your camping and any other gear with you. From the power plant, you will be walking along a path next to the railway for about 10 km. The walk is mostly flat and if it’s still daylight you’ll be able to see Machu Picchu mountain and a hint of the ruins. You’ll be walking along a river and surrounded by the beautiful flora of the area, it’s a great prep for the grand finale.
Before you hit the town of Aguas Calientes, you will see the municipal camping site, which is where you’ll be spending the next couple of nights for USD$5 per person. Don’t let the cheap price deceive you, you’ll have the best view in town: the stunning towering mountains. The site is equipped with bathrooms and some tables, but you’ll have to bring cooking gear or risk your budget by eating out.
From Aguas Calientes there are two ways of reaching the ruins: you can buy a bus pass that is about USD$30 for a fifteen-minute ride, or tough up and climb the stairs used by the Incas years back. The last option, however, is not for the faint-hearted as it is about an hour climb up a flight of steep stairs surrounded by a thick, humid rainforest. You’ll feel proud when you get there, but also sweaty and infinitely more tired than the picture-ready tourists walking around with a selfie stick. You just saved yourself the thirty bucks that a sandwich from the only cafeteria will cost you, so if you value your hard work pack yourself a meal.
I had been hyped about Machu Picchu for months, so I didn’t waste my opportunity to keep climbing all the way to Huayna Picchu, the iconic mountain seen behind the ruins. To do so, you must buy tickets in advance as only 400 visitors are allowed per day. I say ‘only’ because it’s a small number compared to the thousands of visitors that swarm the place each day, and although they only allow 200 at a time that number will feel way too large with respect to the size of the rock where you’ll be standing at the peak. You’ll barely have a place to sit and you’ll want to, considering the fact that you’ve been climbing stairs too small for the size of your feet for the past two hours. But let me tell you: when the clouds over the ruins begin to clear you won’t want to be anywhere else. Being on top of Huayna Picchu will give you a privileged view of the site, as well as the majestic surrounding mountains. If it’s clear enough you’ll even be able to spot your tent pitched on the camping site.
Machu Picchu is a sacred site brimming with energy and history. You’ll be in awe at the ingenuity and tenacity of the Inca civilization and will understand why the ruins remained unknown to the Spaniards during their conquest as well as to the outside world for about 400 years. As was customary in Inca culture, Machu Picchu has temples for their most important deities and the architecture and position of the structures always bare the surrounding nature in mind. Take your time exploring the ruins, meet people, and walk close to guided tours because your tight budget can’t afford you one. Unless you want to hire one, of course, but then you wouldn’t be reading this post. There’s plenty to see and even more stairs to climb, but you’re already here so make it worth it.
Remember the walk down though, and save some energy.
Before hitting the sack, make sure to stroll around Aguas Calientes, a quaint town built on both sides of a river with multiple bridges to get from one side to the other. You’ll find bars, restaurants, hotels and many, many souvenir shops. Get a well-deserved rest as you’ll likely head back down to the hydroelectric plant the next morning. Or spend the whole day in Aguas Calientes, there’s plenty to do.
You made it to Macchu Picchu with under $250 USD, be proud! Oh, and make sure to stop by Ollantaytambo on your way back to Cusco, you’ll likely not want to leave.