Is it really worth it?
Since we entered Peru I've got several messages from different people saying how much they have always dreamed about going to Machu Picchu. It has become an incredibly famous and touristic place. An absolute must-see in South America. So we went. And, well, it is a very beautiful spot, especially considering its location. It's also mysterious and full of quite an interesting energy. But there are few things which make it very difficult to fully enjoy it.
First of all, the crowd. An unbelievable amount of people. With the new rules, Machu Picchu can host every day up to 7.000 visitors. It's hard to enjoy, meditate, stop for a calm moment and even take a good picture, with all those people around.
Secondly, it's super-pricey. It's literally the most expensive place we visited during our 3-year journey. And, all in all, not the most beautiful one. For example, Angkor Wat is arguably more impressing for just about half the price.
Thirdly, there are maaaany amazing places in the Sacred Valley and around, which are less known, but still outstanding. Overlooked by most, they lie calm, empty and free of charge (or reasonably cheap).
And lastly, reaching Machu Picchu could be even more expensive than the site itself and absolutely crazy. There are many options, none of them seems to be good:
The zillions travel agencies in Cusco offer you very different possibilities. You can choose to walk through the Inca Trail, which you can enter only with a guide and a plethora of porters (but there are other routes you can hike alone, if you wish). You can choose a 2-day trip, but it means you will have very limited time in Machu Picchu itself (about 3h, and forget about going to Montaňa or Huayna Picchu). Whatever you choose, they can organize everything for you: transport, hostel in Aguas Calientes, entrance ticket, and so on. If you decide for a travel company, NEVER book it before coming to Cusco, unless you don’t mind paying five times more. You will get thousand offers as soon as you set foot in the city. We were in Cusco in high season - end of June - and organized everything (ticket to the site included) just a day before the trip.
Almost forgot. As a general rule, if you go for a tourist agency try and pick a sustainable one, such as Amazonas Explorer.
There are no direct roads, so the easiest way to reach Machu Picchu is by train. But it's also ridiculously expensive. If you go from Cusco, you will pay around 80-100 US$ to cover the 100km. For us that’s a non-sense, but many people do it. If you start in Ollantaytambo, it cuts down to 60US$. For the same distance local people pay 10 soles (3US$)!!! The train is slow, taking about 3h30 for the whole journey, but the view must be breathtaking.
You can take a bus to Hidroelectrica, and then either take a train to Aguas Calientes (35 US$ for foreigners, 2 soles for locals) or walk along the railroad. This is actually what we did.
How did we reach Machu Picchu?
After much searching and pondering, we believe we found one of the best and cheapest ways, given that it was high season. That's how we did it:
1. We bought the entrance ticket ourselves, firstly booking it online and then going to an office in Cusco, which provided us the print-out (you can also pay online and print it yourself, but it cost 16 soles extra for the transaction).
The basic ticket costs 152 soles (50$). We additionally bought the access to Montaňa (17$). The site has the possibility to hike up to one of the two peaks around it, which offer a superb vista from above. Huayna Picchu is fancier, easier and with some ruins right at the top, but it is usually booked far in advance. Tickets to Montaňa can be bought even one day ahead.
2. Initially we planned to get to the main square in Cusco the very same day of the trip and catch any minivan/bus going to Hidroelectrica or anywhere in that direction. Finally, though, walking out of the ticket office, a guy offered us a good deal to Hidroelectrica, saving us the pain of going around for a bargain with the backpack at sunrise.
3. Next morning, around 7am, we showed up in front of the agency, got inside the minivan and after 6-7 hours (the driver got lost on the way because of a detour) and many, many, many curves, we reached Hidroelectrica. The road is stunning, crossing over 4000 msl, but it will put your stomach through its paces.
4. From Hidroelectrica we walked around 7 kilometers along the railroad till the camping Los Jardines de Mandor, where we stayed for the night. All the other people walked 4 km more to Aguas Calientes, where are the hostels. Also our camping offered rooms and it was very nice and quiet place. The entrance to the road that leads to Machu Picchu lies right in between our camping and Aguas Calientes. To be honest, I don't see much reasons to get to Aguas Calientes, unless you plan to reach Machu Picchu by bus next morning (12 US$ one way).
5. Next morning, around 6am, we started toward Machu Picchu. It took us slightly more than 1h30 - 2km along the railroad and then a steep hike up to cover the 400m difference in altitude - to get to the site entrance.
6. We arrived at the gate around 7.30, when most of the crowd was already inside. Many try to be there around 6am, when it opens, for few reasons. Mainly, to see the sunrise - It is not that special there, unless you attach a spiritual meaning to it – but also because they don't have much time to visit the site if they want to be back to Cusco the same day.
7. The first hour we just walked around to try and understand how things work, but we didn't really go too far (Machu Picchu has a clockwise flow system; you have to walk on a one-way path and guards will stop you if you want to come back). We started from climbing Montaňa, as we bought the 9am-10am shift. We arrived at the entrance around 8.30 and they let us go without problems. Getting up and back took us around 4 hours and was pretty exhausting. Was it worth time, effort and money? Well, not sure we would do it again. There are other vantage points over the citadel and after climbing up to Machu Picchu first and then to Montaňa we were almost too tired to visit the rest of it.
8. We came down from Montaňa around 12.30 when most people from the morning shift already left. At 12 starts the afternoon shift, but there are usually way less people. Officially, our ticket was valid up to midday but nobody checks it and we stayed in Machu Picchu till 5pm. Being one of the last to leave the spot, by the tired light of a dale sunset, we enjoyed a bit of a calmer atmosphere. We walked around a lot. Seeking for some rest, we had time and space for meditation and reflection. The only thing is, within the site there is no food, no water and no toilet, and if you go out for any of them, they most probably won't let you enter again.
9. We came back walking to the camping, reaching it when it was already dark. We stayed one more night.
10. The day after we followed the rail tracks back to Hidroelectrica, took our minivan, and asked the driver to leave us in Urubamba, where we started discovering the amazing Sacred Valley.
How much did we pay per person?
200 soles (around 67$) – ticket to Machu Picchu + Montaňa
50 soles (around 17$) - bus to Hidroelectrica
20 soles (around 7$) - two nights in camping
20 soles (around 7$) - food and water brought from Cusco
10 soles (around 3$) - lunch in Hidroelectrica
Could it be cheaper?
Yes. If you want to make it cheaper you can:
Buy the ticket only to Machu Picchu, without going to Montaňa. The iconic view of the citadel is probably worth the price, but the hike up it’s not easy and a panoramic view can be get from the path leading to Puerta del Sol, which is included in the basic entrance fee.
Use only local transport. From Cusco or Urubamba take the bus to Quillabamba, get out in Santa Maria, take a minivan to Santa Teresa, then hop on a shared taxi to Hidroelectrica. It should save you quite a few soles, especially if you are good in negotiations.
Some take a bus to Ollantaytambo (2$ from Cusco) and then follow the railroad about 30 km till Aguas Calientes. We seriously considered this option, but finally changed our mind over the idea of meeting a train in one of the tunnels. It's also illegal on this side and officers may complain. Plus, we heard about aggressive dogs. We did the math and picked the other option, but if that sounds appealing to you, there are detailed information in the internet.
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