We did quite a bit of research when planning our visit to Machu Picchu. We knew it was not going to be easy to get there because the ruins are located in a very remote location in the Andes, only accessible by train or foot. There were a multitude of options ranging from high end organized tours to do-it-yourself options.
The full do-it-yourself option seemed a bit daunting so we ended up settling on a standard organized tour called the 'Jungle Trek', which is a 3 days, 2 nights tour allowing tourists not only to go visit the Machu Picchu, but also to go downhill on a mountain bike for 55km, do some pretty solid ziplining and soak in thermal waters. The whole activity cost us 170$ per person with Conde Travel which is not too bad considering the amount of stuff we've been able to do, all inclusive of food and accommodation. This tour is offered literally everywhere in Cusco by a seemingly never ending amount of tour operators.
Now that we've done the organized tour, we know it's much easier to get to Machu Picchu than what we thought. We now also have insights that we wanted to share with our fellow travelers about a way to go to Machu Picchu in a fully "do-it-yourself" manner. As of this writing, the plan described below allows to visit the Machu Picchu for just under 100 USD per person.
Here's a summary of what the journey looks like to visit Machu Picchu from Cusco on your own:
- Day 1: Reach Aguas Calientes by bus (6-7h) and walking (2-3h)
- Day 2: Wake up early and go up to the Machu Picchu entrance, hire a guide and visit Machu Picchu all day
- Day 3: Go back to Cusco by walking to Hidroelectrica (2-3h) then by bus from Hidroelectrica to Cusco (6-7h)
Aguas Calientes is the nearest town to the Machu Picchu, its only existence seems to revolve around the Machu Picchu so it's very touristy. This town is very remote in the mountains and can only be reached by train from Hidroelectrica (50 soles, departs at 4:30PM) To save money, it is possible to reach Aguas Calientes by foot by following the rail way. It's a 11-12km walk that takes about 2-3 hours depending on your physical condition. This is detailed below.
Day 1: 07:30AM-14:30PM - Bus from Cusco to Hidroelectrica (direct bus, 16USD)
A company called Caracol offers a direct bus service between Cusco and Hidroelectrica for 16USD per person with departure from Plaza de Armas in Cusco at 7:30AM every day. Our bus was a nice Mercedez-Benz with 19 seats with plenty of room.
The journey is about 6-7 hours and brings you up to 4400m high in Abra Malaga then down to a little more than 1000m high, then up to 2000m. Quite a ride but with breathtaking views of the Andes! You should be in Hidroelectrica at around 2-3PM.
The bus drops you just beside the beginning of the train line from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. Since it's now 2-3PM, you'll probably want to have something to eat. There are a few small restaurants selling almuerzos (cheap 2 services set menus) for a few soles beside the railway. Another option (which we recommend) is to go up the hill and stop at a nice restaurant that is located beside the railway about 10 minutes into the hike (read on to the next paragraph for details).
Day 1: 14:30PM-17:30PM - Walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes (free)
From Hidroelectrica, you now need to start your 9km journey following the railway to Aguas Calientes.
You have 2 choices here:
- Start walking along the railway from the Hidroelectrica bus drop off point for about 9km
- There are 3 parallel railways at different levels in Hidroelectrica; go up the hill (see picture below) for about 5 minutes and reach the third railway, start your walk towards 'Machupicchu' (there are signs) beside the railway and stop at a nice little restaurant called 'Intihuatana' to have a nice lunch with friendly service and good food for 10 soles. The restaurant is located at km #120 and has colorful hammocks just in front of it so once you start walking on the third railway you'll see it for sure. When done, just resume your walk beside the railway...
With either options, you are now walking in direction to Aguas Calientes and you'll be doing so for about 2-2.5 hours or 11km of flat surface (it's going slightly up from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes but you don't really feel it)
You could walk all the way to downtown Aguas Calientes on the railway but we do not recommend doing so as the last part has 2 rather long tunnels which, if a train was to pass, would be very dangerous for you to venture into.
Instead, after about 9km of walk, you'll reach what looks like a small train station for dropping cargo off the trains. From that station, you can go down on a dirt road that you can follow until you reach Aguas Calientes (about 2.5km uphill). If you look on your right at the beginning of this dirt road, you'll see a bridge which is the first checkpoint leading to the Machu Picchu entrance 400m above in the mountain. You'll need to come back here tomorrow morning to start your day at Machu Picchu!
Arriving in Aguas Calientes, you should see the town appearing in the mountains:
Day 1: ASAP - Buy your tickets to Machu Picchu
This is very important as there is no way to buy tickets at the entrance. Tickets must be bought in advance. There is an official ticket office in both Aguas Calientes and Cusco. If you're in high season, you might want to buy your tickets more in advance while you're in Cusco instead of waiting until Aguas Calientes.
Day 1: 17:30PM - Find a hostel or check-in at your hostel
Once you reach Aguas Calientes, you'll see many, many hotels and hostels of all kinds along with many, many restaurants. Unless you're in the high season, I don't think reservations are required but you still might want to book your hostel in advance if you don't like uncertainty!
Book for 2 nights as this will give you the most time to visit the Machu Picchu on day 2 and it will also allow you to leave your unnecessary stuff at the hotel while your visiting.
We strongly suggest going to the market to buy some snacks and water as the cost of food at the Machu Picchu is prohibitively high (read 40$ US for a lunch at the restaurant and 10 soles for a small bottle of water).
Go to bed early as you need to be off to the Machu Picchu at 4:15-4:30AM on day 2...
Day 2: 04:30AM-06:00AM - Reach the Machu Picchu entrance by foot
Wake up early to reach the Machu Picchu entrance by the opening at 6:00AM as this is where you'll get the most stunning views with the early morning sunlight to admire Machu Picchu. It is also less crowded (but still crowded!) in the early morning.
To reach the Machu Picchu entrance, you have 2 options:
- Take the bus from downtown Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance for 12USD - which takes about 20 minutes.
- Walk your way up for free - which takes about 1.5h from Aguas Calientes
If you decide to walk up, you need to walk to the first checkpoint to Machu Picchu (this is at the bridge you saw on your way in from the railway). A guard will control your ticket (remember, you must have pre-purchased your ticket!) and your passport, and let you cross the bridge. Right after the bridge, there are clear signs showing the way up to the entrance. It's a 45-60 minutes hike with a 400m slope that is quite steep so can be challenging for some.
Day 2: 06:00AM and after - Enjoy Machu Picchu!
You can optionally hire a professional guide for about 25USD per person (yes, expensive but almost a necessity!) just before the Machu Picchu entrance.
You have the entire day to visit the Machu Picchu so enjoy it!! For the nicest postal card style pictures, we suggest following the way to the Inca Bridge (there are signs on the site). On your way to the Inca Bridge, just after the small house up the hill, you'll reach the highest terraces where you'll get the nicest viewpoint for photographing the ruins.
Once you're done, just come back to Aguas Calientes from where you came!
Day 3: 10:00AM-12:00PM - Walk back to Hidroelectrica
You need to be in Hidroelectrica before 2:30PM as all the buses leave for Cusco at that time.
We suggest leaving Aguas Calientes around 10AM as to give you some time to eat lunch when you're back in Hidroelectrica.
You can easily buy your way into a bus to Cusco once you arrive in Hidroelectrica, no need to book anything in advance. The Intihuatana restaurant sells tickets for Caracol for 40 soles, which might even be negotiable. You can have both lunch and buy your bus ticket at that restaurant at km 120 beside the railway (look for the colorful hammocks on your left side!) which is 5-10 minutes walk from the Hidroelectrica train station.
The above plan ends up being not very much lower than taking an organized tour with some additional activities (tour operators get better deals on everything they organize) but if you're the DYI kind, it's nice to know the option to organize yourself is there and very much possible!
The entire journey will cost:
- Bus from Cusco to Hidroelectrica on Caracol: 16USD per person
- Hostel for 2 nights in Aguas Calientes: 20-30USD
- Entrance to Machu Picchu: 50USD per person
- (Optional) Guide for Machu Picchu: Around 25USD per person
- Bus from Hidroelectrica to Cusco: 16USD per person
Total: Just below 100USD per person, or about 125USD if you hire a guide, excluding the food.
There are probably ways to visit Machu Picchu in a slightly less expensive way but this seems one of the easiest options.
- Buy your tickets to Machu Picchu in advance before reaching the entrance (either in Aguas Calientes or in Cusco)!
- There's a fee to go up the Machu Picchu mountain to reach the viewpoint, and this option needs to be purchased with your ticket.
- IMPORTANT: Bring some insect repellent: we both had hundreds of bites even if we were using insect repellent so I can't imagine without. This place is home to the most voracious and evil bug ever. It looks like a harmless fruit fly but really is a bug that came directly from the darkest corners of hell...
- If you have a smart phone, use your GPS and a maps app (we suggest the free Maps.me) to locate yourself along the way.
Things to bring:
- Try to bring the bare minimum clothes you need for 3 days, 2 nights as you'll be walking a fair bit with your stuff.
- Your passport at Machu Picchu, they ask for it along with your ticket!
- Food and water for the day at Machu Picchu as the cost to buy these up there is just crazy.
- Solar cream as the Machu Picchu is at 2800m high and the sun hits hard up there, even in the early morning.
- Stuff to protect your gear from the rain: rain occurs often and unpredictably in these mountains.