Machu Picchu on a Budget: 5 Essential Things to Know Before You Go

Rediscovered by an American explorer in 1911, Machu Picchu catapulted from relative obscurity to international stardom ever since it was named one of the seven new wonders of the world in 2001. Many magazine covers and documentary specials later, Machu Picchu is threatened by its own skyrocketing popularity, with tourism now being tamed back by visitor quotas and exorbitant fees.

Visiting Machu Picchu today isn’t cheap, but with a little creativity, a visit to Machu Picchu doesn’t have to break the bank.

(1) The Entrance Ticket

The entrance ticket is the one inescapable cost that you can do nothing about. If you are not Peruvian, Colombian, Bolivian, or Ecuadorian, you’ll have to fork over $70 for Machu Picchu alone (unless you’re a student).

You’ll notice in the chart below the option to include Huayna Picchu, Motaña, and Museo in your ticket for a bit extra. Huayna Picchu is the iconic mountain in the background of the classic Machu Picchu photo, but spaces are extremely limited and you have to book several months out if you hope to climb it. Montaña is just a regular mountain nearby that does not offer a view of Maccu Picchu, so save your money and ignore this one.

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You do not need to book your tickets to Machu Picchu in advance. I got mine in Aguas Calientes the night before. You must present you passport when you buy your ticket, so there’s no way around the steep price for foreigners unless you have a valid student ID.

There are two shifts at Machu Picchu: morning (6:00 AM – 12:00 PM) and afternoon (12:00 PM – 6:00 PM). The morning shift has better lighting and fewer people. Buy your ticket the night before, to be in line for the bus by around 5:30 AM.

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(2) Food

Meals at Aguacalientes are triple or quadruple the normal price in Peru, unless you eat where the locals do: on the second floor of an indoor market (“el Meracado”) just steps away from the main plaza.

There you can choose among a myriad of cafeteria-style stalls serving trout and chicken dishes for just 6 sol. You may also find cheap fresh fruits and vegetables for sale on first floor of the market.

(3) Accommodations

There’s no need to book a hostel ahead of time. You can get a simple hotel room in Aguas Calientes with WiFi and hot water for just 30 sol ($9).

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Getting to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is both the name of a historic site and the name of a small modern town a few kilometers from it also known as Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is where you will sleep and eat before/after visiting the famous historic site, so the first thing you need to sort out is how to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes.

(4) Getting From Cusco to Aguas Calientes

You cannot drive or be driven to Aguas Calientes. There is no road. The classic way to reach Aguas Calientes is either by hiking the Inca Trail, which requires booking a tour months in advance for upwards of $500 and trekking for 3 to 4 days, or by Inca Rail, a monopoly rail company which charges foreigners at least $150 for round-trip fare from Cusco.

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If Inca Rail is out of your budget, then you have to walk. Some people walk all the way from Ollantaytambo (28 kilometers), which takes 8 to 9 hours, but that’s not necessary. An easier approach would be to take a collectivo from Cusco as far as you can – a rail stop called Hydroelectrica – and then walk the rest of the way to Machu Picchu following the rail tracks (2.5 hours).

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You can catch the collectivo to Hydroelectrica from a street in Cusco called Calle Pavitos at 7 AM. You’ll be charged 30 – 40 sol and ride 6 hours before arriving. From Hydroelectrica, follow the rail tracks until you reach Aguas Calientes.

For more details on how to get to Aguas Calientes or advice on what to do if you can’t find a direct ride to Hydroelectrica, take a look at this page.

(5) From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu

You can get to Machu Pichu from Aguas Calientes by bus (15 minutes) or by foot (1.5 hours). The bus operator has a monopoly, so they charge 84 sol ($24) for round trip bus fare. This is purportedly the most expensive bus ride in the world on a per kilometer basis. If you’re not physically fit or not keen on waking up at 4:00 AM, then you may find it worthwhile to take the bus up and walk the way down.

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Visiting Cusco before or after Machu Picchu? Check out my Cusco Guide for idea on what to do there.