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For months I had been planning to do one of the alternative treks to Machu Picchu, having mostly decided on the Salkantay Trek after reading great reviews of it and hearing equally good first-person accounts as well. Of course, being a backpacker, plans change. Arriving in Cuzco in the low season I started looking for an agency to use for the trek. What I found was surprising. First, nobody seemed overly interested in doing this or any of the other alternative treks (e.g., Lares). A few agencies I visited were organizing a Salkantay Trek but wouldn’t be leaving for up to a week. Other agencies were leaving in the next few days but had only one or two people signed up to do it. As someone traveling alone, I was thinking that doing a four or five day trek would be much better with at least a small group, so doing Salkantay with just two hikers seemed less than my ideal.
In the end, I think I know why so few were doing the alternative treks. When investigating the agencies, I learned from one of them that there were actually quite a few Inca Trail slots available and so they were pushing those hard. I was even offered an Inca Trail tour for only $315. I think most people, when presented with the option to do the famous trek cheaply, abandoned plans to do an alternative trek.
Note about prices: I noticed there seems to be two basic price points, at least for the Salkantay Trek. First, a lot of agencies price around the $200 point, some as low as $165 and others up to about $230. In theory the differences will be a result of how well the porters are paid, the quality of the gear used, the quality of food, the extra amenities (e.g., toilet tent), the size of the group, etc. BUT, there is another group of agencies that charges around $450 for what appears to be the exact same trek. I still cannot figure out why there is such a discrepancy. I also don’t know if this situation exists for the other treks or not.
Why I chose NOT to do the Inca Trail
Arriving in low season to find Inca Trail slots available is in contrast to what one normally reads on the Web about it being impossible to do the trail without reserving weeks or even months in advance. Naturally, you don’t want to consider this a likelihood if you are backpacking and trying to keep a flexible schedule, but keep in mind that it might be a possibility. So, why didn’t I choose that option? One reason in particular. By doing the traditional four-day Inca Trail, there is no option to visit Waynapicchu, that small mountain you always see in the famous Machu Picchu pictures. To make that climb you basically need to arrive very early at the entrance (typically before 6:00 a.m. when the site opens) and get in line to receive a stamp. 400 people are allowed to climb Waynapicchu each day, 200 beginning at 07:00 and another 200 beginning at 10:00. I had wondered why this limit exists and thought perhaps it had to do with conservation, but the guide I had for the Machu Picchu tour later explained that it was for safety concerns (apparently tourists have fallen to their death or been injured climbing, mostly due to the steepness and narrowness of the path at certain points near the top).
Note: I did meet other travelers who were doing an Inca Trail with an extra day in Aguas Calientes so they could climb Waynapicchu. One agency explained that this was actually illegal since the Inca Trail ticket is only valid four days. But, these other travelers had booked from home with reputable agencies so I don’t fully believe that. It might be that there are two types of tickets and only the four-day type were still available or perhaps that agency just didn’t want to make accommodations for one person who wanted to do something a bit different. I really don’t know.
Multiple Poor Man’s Routes
After being disappointed by the options for Salkantay and deciding against the Inca Trail, I decided to go with a friend who was budget challenged. Being very budget limited she decided to go by bus, but you can also go by train or by a bus/train combination. Below I explain each option.
Bus / Walk
The cheapest option for getting to and from Machu Picchu is the bus from Cuzco to Santa Maria. This bus leaves from Terminal (estación) Santiago, not the main Terminal Terrestre, and costs S/.15. The company is called Turismo Ampay and, in theory, leaves at 07:00, though ours left closer to 07:30. Also, in theory, the trip is about five hours, though our trip lasted closer to seven, thanks to construction delays and some needlessly long stops.
From Santa Maria, you must take a taxi or collectivo to the hydroelectric station. We were told we would have to go first to Santa Teresa (about one hour) and, from there, continue on to the hydroelectric station (about thirty minutes), but we found most of the taxis and collectivos were offering rides directly to the station. Almost all were charging the same price, S/.15, though a larger group of us bargained down to S/.13 via a mini van.
Once at the hydroelectric station, it is time to hike to Aguas Calientes, the village near Machu Picchu where most people stay. That hike is typically about 2 to 2 1/2 hours long, depending how fast you walk and mostly follows the train tracks. In the end, my friend and I arrived in Aguas Calientes at almost 18:00, for a total of about 11 hours travel time.
For people on a tight time budget staying just the one night in Aguas Calientes is the likely option, visiting Machu Picchu the next day and getting back to Cuzco after visiting the site. This can be done I believe by this same route, but keep in mind that the last taxi/collectivo back to Santa Maria (to catch a bus back to Cuzco) leaves the hydroelectric station around 17:00. The last option back to Santa Teresa apparently leaves at 18:00 so I don’t know if it would then be possible to get further transport back to Santa Maria or not. I also don’t know when the last bus for Cuzco from Santa Maria leaves so this is something you will need to investigate if you decide on a one-night option (we did two nights in Aguas Calientes).
The train company that operates to Machu Picchu is Peru Rail and you should check their website for accurate times and prices. There are multiple levels of service, each leaving at different times and having different prices. Some services run from the station in Cuzco (Poroy), most from the station in Ollantaytambo and a couple from the station in Urubamba. Current prices run between US$31 and US$71 with the most desirable times generally costing more. Below I reproduce the schedule and prices as of writing, though note no price was listed for the Hiram Bingham service.
To Machu Picchu
|Service||Train #||Arrival Station||Departure||Arrival||Price (US$)|
|H. Bingham||11||Poroy (Cusco)||09:10||13:09||???|
There is also an Auto Vagón bus (# 601) which leaves from Urubamba at 07:00, arriving MP at 10:06. No price for this service was listed when I checked.
From Machu Picchu
|Service||Train #||Arrival Station||Departure||Arrival||Price|
|H. Bingham||12||Poroy (Cusco)||18:07||21:59||???|
There is also an Auto Vagón bus (# 304) which leaves from MP at 15:20, arriving Urubamba at 18:42. No price for this service was listed when I checked.
Obviously, you can combine the two options listed above, choosing one for getting there and another for returning. In such a case, choosing the train to return home is probably the smart option based on the travel limitations mentioned as well as the fact that you will be probably be tired from a long day and much hiking at Machu Picchu.
Staying in Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is a town with seemingly only one purpose: to service the tourism created by Machu Picchu. As a result, there is no shortage of places to stay for all budget ranges. I believe I paid about S/.30 for a double room which was fine but not special. One warning: try to find a place that seems like it will be quiet so you can get to sleep early and wake up early. Our room was over a small side street and we thought it would be quiet, but there was a lot of activity and noise well into the night and I think that was the norm not the exception.
If you stay two or more nights, I would recommend a visit to the hot springs, especially good after a long day exploring the site. They aren’t the nicest you will ever see and they can be a bit crowded, but it was still worth the S/.10 investment. Save a few soles by bringing your own towel.
At Machu Picchu
I personally recommend purchasing a bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to the park entrance. The company is Consettur Machupicchu S.A.C. and the bus costs US$7 each way, which is a bit steep but worth the price, at least going up. Why? Well, the walk is 2-3 hours depending on your speed and it can be a bit steep. If you plan to spend a full day (which you should) in the park you will want to conserve your energy to do the various hikes that are possible. I personally walked back to Aguas Calientes after my very long day and it was OK, but for those not in good shape or just a bit lazy the bus back is probably a good option as well. I believe you can just buy the ticket back at the park so you can decide this later. For the ticket up to the entrance I recommend buying it early, either in Cuzco (ticket office is located on Avenida de la Infancia) before leaving or in Aguas Calientes the day before. The reason? Because you have to line up early in the morning (about 04:00 in off-season, earlier in high season) to make sure you get on one of the first buses to be able to get your pass to climb Waynapicchu. You may not be able to purchase a ticket at that hour, or you might have to wait on a long line to do so. Of course, if you don’t want to climb Waynapicchu you don’t have to worry about this.
Speaking of Waynapicchu, I highly recommend climbing it. I further recommend not just climbing the main route but also the much shorter one as well. It only takes about 15 minutes to do the shorter hike but the views are different and worth the extra effort. Besides Waynapicchu, I recommend trying to do some of the other hikes available, including to the Sun Gate and Montaña Machu Picchu. I didn’t do and didn’t meet anyone who hiked to the Inca Bridge, but that might be a good option as well. The Montaña Machu Picchu is definitely the longest of the hikes and the most arduous but also the least crowded. Still, you may not have time for the others if you do this one so choose based on your own personal tastes and interests.
Finally, I recommend taking an organized tour. The one I joined cost only S/.10 and lasted about two hours and for that price was worth it. I believe they are organized to begin regularly throughout the day so you can just choose a time that suits you.
Buying Your Tickets in Cuzco
I was advised by the owner of my hotel that it is better to purchase the entry ticket to Machu Picchu and the bus ticket to ride from Aguas Calientes to the MP entrance ahead of time in Cuzco. A lot of people don’t realize this is an option but it is. His reasoning was that you are likely to arrive a bit late to Aguas Calientes and the ticket offices will be closed. I can’t say how late the bus ticket office remains open but it was still open when we arrived around 18:30 and I was told the ticket office for entrance to Machu Picchu is open until 20:00 so perhaps this isn’t the concern the hostel owner thought. Nevertheless, if you are interested in buying your tickets in Cuzco, here are the places:
- Machu Picchu Entrance Ticket
Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INC) – close to the Estadio Universitario (apparently there is more than one stadium so check your map). The building is very nondescript, so much so that I passed by it twice without realizing and had to ask someone on the street where it was. If you do ask as well, ask for INC (ee-enay-say) because nobody knows it by the full name. Also, be aware that if you purchase the ticket using a student discount you should bring your student ID to the entrance as they supposedly check there as well. The cost when I purchased was S/.126 for an adult and I believe S/.65 for a student.
- Consettur Macchupicchu S.A.C.
This is the company that runs bus service to and from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance. Their ticket office in Cuzco is found at Avenida de la Infancia 433.
- Peru Rail has an office as well where you can buy your tickets and it is probably a good idea to do so at least a day before, especially in the high season. It should be listed on all tourist maps and isn’t hard to reach walking from town center.
Timing Machu Picchu with the Boleto Turístico
For those who don’t know, there are a lot of interesting archaeological sites that can be visited near Cuzco besides Machu Picchu. Supposedly, they can only be entered by using a boleto turístico, which costs S/.140 for an adult ($/.70 student) and which provides entrance to ten archaeological sites as well as four local museums, the Qosqo Center of Native Art (for a showcase of local music and dance) and the monument to Pachakuteq. The ticket is valid for ten days but you should consider your timing of purchase along with your plans for Machu Picchu to decide if you will have time to see what interests you and whether it is worth the cost.
- I have read elsewhere that you should definitely wear long pants no matter the weather when you visit Machu Picchu, due to the mosquitoes. I don’t recall having a problem with them, but I did wear convertible pants to be safe.
- Bring food! The entrance to MP is not so conveniently located if you are deep in the site exploring and there is absolutely NOTHING you can purchase inside the site. There is a very expensive restaurant at the entrance but I heard it wasn’t even very good. The entrance ticket and signs say you are not allowed to bring food or drinks into the site, but I didn’t see any evidence of a check being performed and I haven’t met anyone who had problems. Since you will likely be spending a VERY long day (especially if you line up at 04:00 for the bus) you will want some nourishment.
Useful Related Links and a Video
- HOW TO: Make the Most of a Visit to Machu Picchu
- Packing for Peru’s Salkantay Trek
- How to… Pack for the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu
- Inca Trails to Machu Picchu: The Alternative Treks
- Andean Travel Web Guide to Peru
- At various points in my online research I read good reviews about the following tour outfits:
perutreks.com, qente.com, unitedmice.com, llamapath.com
- Hiking The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: An Experience Like No Other