If there is anything that Machu Picchu is known for other than the impressive mountain top ruins, it is grossly overpriced monopolized transport. Taking the easy way to Machu Picchu from Cusco is very expensive, but with a little work, you can make it there for only $12.
Aguas Calientes, the base town for all Machu Picchu trips, is directly accessible only by the state sponsored railway line. The 3.5 hour trip from Cusco costs $65 on the low end and as much as $500 for higher end options, and that is only one direction. But what’s more, the only transport route to the ruins themselves is via the official bus line, which charges the grossly inflated price of $12 for the 20 minute one way trip.
But for anyone willing to do it the hard way, there is another option. To be fair, doing it on foot is challenging and takes time, but can save hundreds of dollars. Following these simple steps can get you to the gates of Machu Picchu for only $12.
As a point of reference, many people trek to Machu Picchu and take transport back to Cusco, or make stops in other areas such as Santa Teresa or Ollantaytambo during one leg of the journey. For that reason, these instructions explain the cost to get to or from Machu Picchu in one direction, but explain the route round trip.
To get to Aguas Calientes without taking the train, you must first get to the bus stop in Hidroeléctrica along the train tracks to the west of town. It is typically said that doing this requires a transfer from Cusco in Ollantaytambo, Santa Maria or Santa Teresa, but this is not always the case. While there are also these less direct options, this post focuses on the most direct budget option.
Getting From Cusco to Aguas Calientes Without Riding the Train
Step 1: Cusco to Hidroeléctrica
To get to Hidroeléctrica, simply take a collective van directly from the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. The vans leave daily between 8:00 and 9:00am (only when full) and cost 40 soles ($12) for a 6.5 hour one direction trip. You could also negotiate and get a round trip bus ticket for as low as 60-70 soles if you know your return date (we only took the van back after solo trekking Salkantay and booked on the spot). Once in Hidroeléctrica, you will be 11 kilometers from Aguas Calientes.
Step 2: Hidroeléctrica to Aguas Calientes
You now have the option of taking the train for the remaining portion, which will cost an arm and a leg (around $30), or you can join everyone else and walk along the tracks for free. The hike to Aguas takes around 2.5 hours, and is certainly not fun. There is not a continuous path, gravel along the tracks makes it hard to walk and the railroad ties are haphazardly spaced making that option difficult. Regardless of the challenges, we actually saw way more people hiking the tracks than riding the obscenely overpriced train.
For reference, most eight hour comfortable bus rides in Peru cost between 20-30 soles, or $6-9 USD). The Peruvian government is capitalizing on the popularity of Machu Picchu and limiting options to drive up the price.
The entrance to Machu Picchu is 2 kilometers before the town of Aguas Calientes. There are a couple of guesthouses and a campground available for use along or just off of the train tracks. If hiking, staying before the town has the benefit of avoiding a return hike to Aguas after a visit to the ruins to retrieve baggage.
Getting From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Without Riding the Bus
For those looking to avoid the expensive bus to the gates of Machu Picchu, you can instead hike for free. The ruins are several hundred meters above the town, so the hike is steep but well worth the effort. The stair path opens at 5:00am, a full 30 minutes before the first bus leaves from Aguas. This gives the motivated a chance to beat the buses to the entrance and be among the coveted first visitors of the day.
The entry to the walking path is located 2 kilometers west of Aguas long the river. We left our hotel at 4:00am and arrived at 4:20am, and were already the 30th in line. Not long after we queued, several hundred more hikers showed up making the line snake down the road.
At 5:00am sharp, the guard opens the gate. You need to have your ticket and passport in hand to be let through to the trail. We did the hike in 40 minutes, beating the first bus to the top by 7 minutes, and were at the front of what would soon be a gigantic line.
Total one direction cost to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco: 40 Soles / $12 USD
We purchased our tickets for Machu Picchu plus Machu Picchu Mountain from the official ticket site and picked them up in Cusco prior to our trek. It is also possible to purchase them in person in Aguas Calientes, although certain time slots have been known to sell out days in advance.
Getting from Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes to Cusco
To get back to Cusco after a visit to Machu Picchu, simply repeat the previous steps in reverse. The walk back down the mountain is a knee buster (especially if you’ve also done the 5 day Salkantay trek and climbed Huaynapicchu or Machu Picchu Mountain), and the railway hike is even tougher now that the highlight of the trip is over.
The van return takes the better part of a day, but it is possible to be back in the evening following a morning visit to the ruins. Collectivos wait in Hidroeléctrica at the same area, but only depart when full so there may be some waiting involved. It is said that these vans typically depart around 2:30pm, although this is not a rule (we arrived at 3:30pm and grabbed the last two seats on a van, and also had a friend arrive at 12:00pm who secured a ride back at 1:30pm). Again, this trip is 40 soles (unless you have already purchased a round trip bus ticket).
In fairness, we heard of several people intent on doing it the cheap way who decided to give up and pay for one of the easy transport options instead of enduring another hike down the mountain or back along the rails.
We solo trekked to Machu Picchu along the Salkantay trail instead of heading straight to Aguas Calients, and then returned to Cusco following our visit to the ruins using the route above. Since we were unsure of our return dates, we did not pre-purchase a bus ticket and instead found a collectivo when we arrived back in Hidroeléctrica. If you are interested in trekking this route without a guide (or a tent), follow these instructions instead.
If you are looking for more Peruvian inspiration, then you’ll love these other posts:
- Why Laguna 69 is the Most Underrated Hike in South America
- Colca Canyon Trekking: Complete How to Without a Guide
- 5 Ways to Break Up the Trip From Ecuador to Lima
If you are planning to continue on to Bolivia, you may find these posts helpful: