The “Lost City of the Incas” is one of the most frequented sights in South America due to its enormous importance to the Incan Empire, which reigned for about 100 years under different emperors. Their history brought up many myths which evolve around the the Virgins of the Sun the Sun Gate & guinea pigs. Yes, guinea pigs. Still, many backpackers leave out Machu Picchu because of the comparably high cost to even get there. This blog post will show ways to get off the grid on your way to the touristy Inca ruins.
The touristy ways
There are still many travelers visiting Cuzco and Machu Picchu without too much spare time at hand, which is why two types of reaching the Lost City of the Incas have evolved into very popular ways. As you always have to pass through the city of Cuzco, a beautiful place full of indigenous and Spanish history, a clash of the two cultures from the time when the Conquistadores arrived, you will always start from there.
The city is located on 3.400m of altitude, which means you will need some time to get used to the place, which is why staying in the city for a few days is absolutely vital. 😉 Also, as just mentioned, this is your starting point to reach Machu Picchu – on the touristy, but also non-touristy, way.
Train from Cuzco
If you would want to follow the money-spending, mainstream tourist you would get yourself train tickets to Aguas Calientes, and enjoy the trip there with the speed of a limping alpaca and then spend the night in this “Machu Picchu Pueblo” at the foot of the Incan citadel. The next morning you ascend the hill to the entrance with the bus leaving from there. You might have bought your ticket to Huayna Picchu, in order to hike up to the mountain in the back of every postcard-like picture of Machu Picchu and leave again by taking bus and then train back to safe and touristy Cuzco.
The problem here is that the slow train is expensive, and the bus tickets up to Machu Picchu’s entrance gates cost money again. As you have already paid $46 (or $54 if you want to hike up Huayna Picchu) you might want to try and opt out of the other expenses that evolve around a trip to Machu Picchu.
Tip: You will still need to get the tickets before arriving at the site, the easiest way is to buy them online.
Another option that is wildly beloved and crazily overpriced is hiking to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail. While admittedly this is the only way you can enter the Inca’s Lost City through the Sun Gate, you will have to book months in advance, because the spots sell out quickly and the paths are trampled on by way more tourists than you want to imagine. Oh, and also the 4-day-hike will set you back a few hundred dollars.
If you still want to put in a few days to hike around the marvelous region of the Sacred Valley, there are other options you can go for, which lead you through quieter landscapes and along other interesting Inca sites and are also often cheaper than the Inca Trail and can be booked right in Cuzco, just before leaving. Here, the best option is to visit many different tour operators and compare prices, as well as haggle them down.
1. Salcantay Trek
The Mount Salcantay was one of the holiest peaks in the Incan history and is a wonderful point along this hike, which is assisted by mules due to the high ascends and the longer duration (between 5 and 7 days). From the high peaks the trail also leads through subtropical cloud forest and along the Inca highway – even visiting the ruins of Llactapata. From there you can enjoy the rare and stunning sidelong view of Machu Picchu when gazing across the valley before the trek leads you up along the Urubamba river right towards Aguas Calientes.
2. Lares Trek
The Lares Trek is a bit shorter (between 3 and 5 days), but leads away from the crowded Sacred Valley through little villages, along farms and artisan markets in the Lares Valley. Along the way you only meet herds of llamas and alpacas and can enjoy the view of many high-altitude lakes because you will ascend to the high peaks various times. The hike ends in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley again, giving you the opportunity to explore the other Incan sites scattered around the Valley before hopping on the train to Aguas Calientes from there.
3. Vilcabamba Trek
The most challenge trek is the Traverse Route of Vilcabamba. It is also the longest hike and takes you between 7 and 13 days, depending on the exact route chosen by the tour operator and the fitness level of participants. After crossing the mile-long Apurimac river canyon, you are even able to visit the ruins of Choquequirao, which are supposed to be similar to Machu Picchu, but are located in a far more remote location and only reachable via a long hike, which is why they feel untouched and are definitely not even crowded during high season. The hike also leads through all kinds of Peruvian climate and vegetation zones before ending close to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu.
Then there is the cost-saving way of reaching Machu Picchu via the “Backpackers backdoor”. This little detour involves driving by bus or minivan (colectivo), some fun activities and even a little hiking before arriving to Aguas Calientes.
Cuzco – Santa MarÃa – Santa Teresa
From Cuzco you can catch a bus for about 15 Soles or a colectivo for about 30 soles in order to get to Santa MarÃa. The journey involves a scenic route – it leads over a high peak and descends into the subtropical cloud forest. The drive will take about 4-5 hours.
After arriving in Santa MarÃa, the best way to get to Santa Teresa is taking a small bus for about 6 soles or a shared taxi for about 10 soles (they usually wait for arriving people from Cuzco), which will take about 1-1.5 hours.
In Santa Teresa there are a few possibilities to stay which are usually never full – just ask around for a hostel or a room.
Here you now have three options:
- Spend your morning going ziplining or relaxing in the closely located hot springs and then hike onwards to the Machu Picchu Pueblo, Aguas Calientes in the evening
- Do both (ziplining and hot springs) and spend another night in the small jungle town before starting the hike in the morning.
- Safe even more money, skip the side-activities and leave for Aguas Calientes right the next morning.
There are some organized tour groups always on the way towards Machu PicchuÂ too, which pretty much do this described route, but charge you a nice markup, for organizing everything.Â Still, most likely they will visit the Cola de Mono, the Ziplining (Canopy/Flying Fox) place, and can take you with them in their bus. In the morning when having breakfast just keep your eyes open for bigger groups. Alternatively you reach Cola de Mono without problems as well in a taxi or colectivo.
This Canopy was Peru’s first place for this adventure activity and still South America’s highest. The longest ziplining distance along a valley is 400m, the highest part is at 150m above the ground.
Hot Springs, BaÃ±os termales de Cocalmayo
You can reach this thermal springs via walking up the hill in the town of Santa Teresa and are perfect to relax your muscles after long colectivo rides, hikes or ziplining. The entrance fee is 10 soles and towels can be rented there.
Santa Teresa – Aguas Calientes
Now, if you decided to stay another night in Santa Teresa, you have two options in order to get to Aguas Calientes.
- Catch a bus (5 soles) to the HidroelÃ©ctrica, which takes about 15-20 minutes.
- Hike to the plant (let locals point you into the right direction), which will take you about 2 hours by foot.
Tip: Especially if you are not spending 2 nights in Santa Teresa I would suggest to take a taxi or catch a colectivo to the HidroelÃ©ctrica, so you make it to Aguas Calientes for sure before it gets dark.
The hike from the HidroelÃ©ctrica to Aguas Calientes leads along the railway tracks, but also through narrow trails in the forest, offering an exciting little trek. At last you walk along the Urubamba river and even get a first glimpse of the Machu Picchu ruins from below.
This truly is a tourist town, everything is catered to tourists and if you are not careful, everything will be cruelly over-prized. Still, even in high season you can find rooms without booking in advance, because of the sheer mass of accommodation facilities. The cheapest way to get yourself a place will be hiking up through the town towards the hot springs (yes, hot springs again, but very very crowded) and further away from the “center”. If you bargain a little and compare room prices you can for sure get a discount, because especially if you arrive in the evening, the owners are happy to have somebody occupying an otherwise empty room.
After securing a bed to sleep in, stock up on food and water – because you will start the next day very early in order to enjoy the sunrise in Machu Picchu.
Wake up at 4.30am and leave your hostel/hotel at 5am the latest. The gates to the magnificent Inca ruins open at 6am and you will want to arrive before the tourist crowds in buses are there. You can hike up to the entrance by walking towards the road, but then cutting the winding serpentines, the buses have to take and follow a trail, which leads straight up to the entrance. It will take about 1 hour. Don’t worry to get lost, there will be a lot of other travelers doing the same – but: less than will be arriving by buses about an hour later.
Up to Huayna Picchu
If you already agreed to spend money on Machu Picchu, I would definitely recommend to spend the $10 more, in order to be able to hike up Huayna Picchu and enjoy the view from above. Here the ticket which admits you to enter the trail between 7am and 8am is better, as most of the tourists arrive too late for this.
Later you can enjoy the lunch you brought, either up at Huayna Picchu or somewhere on one of the green terraces around the Machu Picchu territorium, watching the day-trip tourists from Machu Picchu arrive at the sight from a secure place further away from the stream of people.
Getting back to Cuzco
If you go for the cheapest train option, it does pay off to go until Ollantaytambo and hop on a bus or colectivo towards Cuzco from this town in Sacred Valley. If you have more time, staying a night and doing some more hiking around the ruins of Moras & Moray, as well as Pisac, is definitely a great option too.
Have you hacked the Machu Picchu destination in a similar way or found a cheaper way to do the hikes? Let us know!