Machu Picchu

Travel to Machu Picchu Cheap, Without a Tour

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.

Huayna Picchu

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.

Leave Your Daily Hell   Filed under: Peru

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is the author of 1088 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


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Hira June 29, 2012 at 12:36 am

YOUR BLOG IS AMAZING!!!! thanks sooooo much for documenting and giving tips!!!!!! its really changing up my trips for the better 😀

But, I have one question that I can’t seem to get the right answer to, do I need to be part of a group to enter Machu Picchu? I know you say I do not, however, i wasnt sure when you wrote this. HELP!

Be well, fellow traveller!

Robert Schrader June 29, 2012 at 1:35 am

You do not need to be part of a group to enter Machu Picchu. You do, however, need to buy a ticket which, as I mention, you cannot do at the entrance gate, but rather at the ticket booth in Aguascalientes (the town at the base of the mountain)

Sandra March 27, 2013 at 11:46 am

Robert, thank you for sharing your experiences!!! coming across your site was like finding a cool glass of water in the desert. (ok in my case that would be a Crown & Diet Coke). Your writing is inspirational AND informative! I want to take my mom & dad to Peru for their dream vacation but we are extremely tight on funds and was petrified to attempt doing this without booking a tour. They are older now so will need to make this as ‘comfortable’ for them as possible so an even greater challenge. But with your wonderful information here, I now feel much more informed and believe it’s possible! I will keep you posted and thanks again. I am off to go find your book now 🙂 PS I love your comments about how our perception changes when we travel. We can’t help but be limited to our small reality in whatever town we live in, whatever country….once we open our minds to the reality of others in other places, our hearts expand and our understanding, gratitude and ability for compassion is forever changed.

Neal July 25, 2013 at 12:36 am

Thanks Robert! There’s so much superfluous information on the web about Machu Picchu, but your blog really made it easy for me to plan my independent trip. You, sir, are amazing!

Robert Schrader July 25, 2013 at 10:03 am

You are amazing too, Neal! I hope you explore the rest of my blog, too, and pass it along to your friends. Read my entire Perú travel guide:

John Parker March 15, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Do you know how long it would take to drive from Cusco to Santa Teresa? via taxi and any decent place to stay. I will be traveling with my 16 year old daughter this June. We want to Zip line there. Thanks

Robert Schrader March 17, 2014 at 8:29 am

From Cusco to Santa Teresa, it depends on the driver and on the road conditions. It could take as short as four hours or much longer.

Hilary April 13, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Hey Robert, your blog is great. Thanks! I’m planning a trip to Machu Pichu and have a question about your travel tip. Why do you say to take a bus from Cusco to Santa Maria and then a taxi to Santa Teresa? I’m looking at Google maps and Santa Maria is SE of Cusco but Aguascalientes is NW of Cusco. Is there something about Santa Maria I should know about or can I take a taxi straight from Cusco to Santa Teresa?

Robert Schrader April 15, 2014 at 9:44 pm

I think you could take a taxi straight, it’s just cheaper to do it the other way. Also, some of the strange directional changes are due to the mountainous terrain – keep this in mind!

Matt June 17, 2014 at 11:56 am

How about getting back from Aguas Calientes to Cusco? What’s the best/cheapest way? The reverse of the way there?

Robert Schrader June 18, 2014 at 10:49 am

Matt, it depends on how tired you are. The easiest way is to take a train direct via Peru rail, or you could take a train part of the way to Urubamba, then a bus/collectivo back to Cusco.

Diane Saladin January 11, 2015 at 9:01 pm

what are the bare essential (clothing & gear ) for solo senior, and how safe would this trip be for me?

Robert Schrader January 13, 2015 at 8:29 am

I think this trip would be totally safe for you, pending of course your level of fitness. As far as clothing and gear, it depends on the season, but as long as you have a good pair of hiking boots, a waterproof jacket and potentially a walking stick, you’ll be fine. Not an extreme trek at all!

Meagan Ephraim de Rios February 12, 2015 at 10:50 am

Hello! My husband and I are traveling to Peru and Bolivia late September and although we are going directly to Cusco, we don’t know whether to start our trip there and go to Machu Picchu right away or go to Bolivia first and save Machu Picchu for the end. We appreciate your advice!

Robert Schrader February 16, 2015 at 7:05 am

Hi Meagan:

I think you should do Machu Picchu first, to be honest, if only to get slowly acclimated to the high altitude! If you go straight to Bolivia, you could more easily succumb to altitude sickness.

ANTONY March 5, 2015 at 10:09 am

my name is ANTONY VARGAS I’M a Tour guide

in Machu Picchu and CUSCO and i would say this

is a exellent blog about things in my town

if is posible for new visitor i recommend also

go to San pedro MARKET , it is just few block from

main plaza de armas , there are lots of things you

can learn and buy for a good price and people are very nice.

also make sure to book in advance hostels,train tickets and machu picchu fee , huayna picchu need to

book in advance , apoximatly 3 months before you visit machu picchu.

if you want to contact someone to help you make a good plan in

cusco my small company we will be happy to help.

Sean Scully August 12, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Very cool. I’ve always wanted to go but was turned off by the tour. And here it is! How many days should you plan to arrive in country and then do trip? 1 day in Lima, 1 day in Cusco, 1 day in Santa Teresa. Then up and down from Aguas Calientes to overnight again in Santa Teresa? and one day back to airport so 5-6 days? Also do you know what time the ticket booth closes in Augascalientes? thanks!

Stephandrach September 2, 2015 at 3:43 pm

So my friend and I are planning on a retreat in tarapoto, but we want to go to mach picchu before we leave, and we are single moms so the most inexpensive and adventurous route sounds like the best thing for us! The only thing is…. We want to ride a damn llama…. How do we go about riding said llama????

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