Since travel in South America tends revolve around organized tours, it wouldn’t be surprising the only way to travel to Machu Picchu was on a tour. Unlike other South American attractions like Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats, however, it isn’t necessary to book a Machu Picchu tour if you want to see the ancient Inca city in the High Andes.
One option for tour-free travel to Machu Picchu is to take a series of buses and taxis from Cusco (the major city closest to Machu Picchu) to Aguas Calientes, the town located at the base of Machu Picchu. Alternatively, travel by bus from Cusco to the town of Ollantaytambo, then take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguascalientes.
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Machu Picchu, the Cheapest Way
If you wish to travel to Machu Picchu completely independently — in other words, without taking an organized tour of the popular “Inca Trail” or riding an expensive tourist train — you must follow these instructions exactly.
1. Take a bus from Cusco’s Santiago station to the town of Santa Maria
2. Hire a taxi from Santa Maria to the town of Santa Teresa
3. Hire a different taxi from Santa Teresa to the hydroelectric plant near the town of Aguas Calientes
4. Walk along the train tracks until you reach the colorful town of Aguas Calientes itself
The first step is the most important: You can only travel to Machu Picchu independently if you make it to Santa Maria. If you don’t — and I didn’t — you’ll have to travel to Machu Picchu using a combination of bus and train transport. Traveling to Machu Picchu using the independent method costs about 20 soles per person, depending on your bargaining skills.
It’s important to note that it isn’t really feasible to reach Machu Picchu (or even Aguascalientes) in one day using this method. Although the specific amount of time each leg of the journey requires depends on road conditions and the sanity of your driver, it’s unlikely that you will reach the hydroelectric plant before nightfall, even if you leave Cusco early in the morning. As a result, if you plan to travel to Machu Picchu independently, I further recommend renting camping gear before you depart Cusco.
Machu Picchu, the Slightly Less Cheap Way
If you tell the staff at Cusco’s Santiago bus station that you want to travel to Machu Picchu and don’t specify that you want to go to Santa Maria, they will put you on the next bus to Ollantaytambo, a town from which the only option to travel to Machu Picchu is via an expensive tourist train.
Of course, you could also opt to travel to Machu Picchu this way by design, if hopping from taxi to taxi and camping along train tracks isn’t your cup of tea.
Bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
If you wish to travel to Machu Picchu using a combination of bus and train, your first step is to travel from Cusco to the town of Ollantaytambo, located about 60 km northwest of Cusco in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The easiest way to reach Ollantaymbo is by taking a share van from Cusco’s Santiago bus station. The van takes about four hours and costs 10 soles per person. Vans leave the station only once they’re full, which generally doesn’t take very long.
Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
Since I was hungover (or, more likely, still drunk) when my Ollantaymbo-bound van departed Cusco, it wasn’t until it pulled up to the PeruRail station in Ollantaytambo that I realized I’d made a grave error — namely, not heading straight to Santa Maria — and would have to take the train. Worse still, the afternoon train to Machu Picchu had already left. I booked a ticket on the 11:00 p.m. departure and headed to a local hotel to get some sleep.
Trains to Machu Picchu leave Ollantaytambo frequently, although the classes of service offered — and, consequently, the price you pay — vary extremely. PeruRail is the the cheaper of the two companies who operate services on the route. As of January 2012, a one-way train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes costs $31 on PeruRail. A ticket on the swankier IncaRail, which has higher availability thanks to its higher price, costs a cool $50. You should book train tickets in advance, either online or at a hostel in Cusco, to guarantee seat availability on the cheapest train.
The journey from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu takes about 90 minutes and travels along the rough, angry (but beautiful) Urubamba River. If you travel during the daytime, your train will probably be equipped with skylights that also allow you to look up at the mountains that tower around the train tracks. These are the same train tracks you would walk along if you’d chosen to travel independently to Machu Picchu, as I detailed above.
Hiking Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes
No matter which method you use to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, you must hike from Aguas Calientes town up to the top of Machu Picchu. You can also take a tourist bus to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, but that’s lame. The entrance at the base Machu Picchu opens at 5:00 a.m. and it takes about 30 minutes to hike there from the center of Aguascalientes — just walk away from the city along the river and you’ll eventually get there.
Tickets to Machu Picchu cost S/.126, or around $40. It’s important to note that they don’t sell tickets to Machu Picchu at the entrance to the park, so you need to buy them in advance, either in Cusco or at the official ticket booth in Machu Picchu. From the entrance at the base of Machu Picchu, it takes between two and four hours to hike to the top of Machu Picchu, depending on how fast you go. The path is clearly marked with a series of arrows and signs — it’s literally impossible to get lost.
If you arrive at Machu Picchu after the ticket booth closes for the day, you must wait until 5:30 a.m. the next morning, when the ticket booth opens for the day. This might seem early but if you remember that it takes a minimum of two hours to hike to the top of Machu Picchu, you’ll realize that getting tickets at this late hour prevents you from seeing the sun rise over Machu Picchu.
Another drawback of having to wait for the ticket booth to open is that you’ll likely miss out on a ticket a scale Huayna Picchu, the taller mountain that stands over the main temple complex. You must be among the first 200 to enter Machu Picchu to get a ticket to Huayna Picchu — I wasn’t, so I didn’t. If you don’t think you’re going to make it to Aguascalientes before the ticket booth closes in the evening, you should buy Machu Picchu tickets in Cusco.
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