For many people this is fine, as they have been saving up all year to spend a weekend in Peru seeing the sights, and the train is certainly the quickest and most comfortable way of getting to Machu Picchu. But for long-term travelers trying to keep to a budget, getting there can be such a headache and a dent in the wallet, that many are now missing it simply for the cost involved. And that is a real shame.
Unfortunately, this is not possible for Machu Picchu. In order to visit the site, we have to give up our vehicle, which is our home on wheels and is not something we do lightly. But the good news is that if you have a few days on your hands and are up for a hike, then there is a way to cut out the cost of the train rides.
This is what Tim and I did, along with our fellow motorcycle friend Aditya. We didn't invent this route and there are plenty of others who take it every day, but it's a complicated process, so I wanted to lay out in detail how we managed. Hopefully this can help and inspire anyone else who wants to visit one of the most difficult to get to, but rewarding wonders of the world.
Step 1: Drive to Santa Teresa
The last real tourist outpost before Santa Teresa is Ollantaytambo, which is a lovely traditional Incan village with a set of ruins nearby, and also has a nice market. And since we knew things were going to get more expensive the closer we got to Machu Picchu, we bought three days' worth of food and supplies there before leaving.
From Ollantaytambo the road was paved and fast, going up into fairly high altitudes with snow-capped mountains on either side. That high up, the weather turned cold and rainy on us, but soon we dropped thousands of feet in elevation until we were in the heat of the humid Amazonian region. There was a lot of putting on, and taking off, rain gear and layers that day.
But if you do survive this road, then you'll easily get from Ollantaytambo to Santa Teresa in the same day.
Step 2: Get to Hidroelectrica
Colectivos are usually white taxis and vans that take people to places as a public service. But this means they may not leave until they fill up, and it can become a game of patience to see who will break first: either they'll leave without being full, or you'll pay for the empty seats. As motorcycle overlanders, we were not used to this game, and I found it frustrating, but we did our best to be patient.
Our driver to Hidroelectrica was fine (I don't even want to talk about the driver back, he was a nightmare), but to save yourself the hassle, you can drive to Hidroelectrica yourself if you want. And if you have a car or RV-type setup that locks and is secure, you'll probably want to. But Hidroelectrica is a bustling parking lot with people coming in and out all day, and we did not feel comfortable leaving our bikes there.
Step 3: Walk the Tracks to Aguas Calientes
Amazingly, there are tons of other people hiking along the tracks as well (they either take buses to Santa Maria and then transfer to Hidroelectrica, or they get bused in to Hidroelectrica directly from their hostel). And there are even stores built beside the tracks, campgrounds, and restaurants selling burgers, cold beers, and ice cream! Some of what they're selling isn't all that expensive, so even though we packed everything we'd need, it's good to know we were never too far from affordable provisions.
The last bit of the hike turned away from the tracks and headed up to Aguas Calientes, and was the steepest part of the trek. Once in town, we walked along the thoroughfare until we found a cheap hostel for the night. No reservation was needed, but we came in the low season (Dec-Feb).
Step 4: Buy Your Tickets
The Machu Picchu ticket office in Aguas Calientes is open until 10 PM, and the cost was 152 Soles a person (~$45) without the extra hikes. Be warned, they were only taking cash in Soles when we went, and we had to each present our passport when purchasing the tickets.
Finally, we headed over to the bus ticket office.
So there are buses that leave Aguas Calientes and bring you up to Machu Picchu or back down every 10 minutes all day long, starting at 5:30 AM. It takes about 25 minutes and costs $12 each way (you must buy these tickets the day before and only from Aguas Calientes at this office, closes at 9:00 PM). But there is also a trail that runs straight up the side of the mountain, and many people swear by the unforgettable experience of actually hiking up to Machu Picchu.
Because I had recently hurt my foot in a fall, I knew I was taking the bus, at least for the ride up. But Tim and Aditya weren't sure which would get to Machu Picchu first, the hikers or the bus? Being at Machu Picchu for sunrise and before it got full of tour groups was extremely important to us. And even though the hike supposedly took an hour or more, hikers were allowed to start the climb a half hour earlier than the buses. And while they said the first bus would leave at 5:30, would we get on the first bus? And even if we did, would it really leave on time? After all, this is Peru.
So what to do?
Step 5: Get up the Mountain
We ended up being very happy with this decision to take the bus up as we saw plenty of hikers along the road staring at us with forlorn expressions. Maybe they were simply catching their breath from the grueling hike, or maybe they just hated watching busloads of tourists beating them up there. But I'm pretty sure not a single hiker could have gotten up the mountain before the buses.
That being said, if hiking up to Machu Picchu is your dream, then don't let me talk you out of it. Not only is it cheaper, but I'm sure it is much more rewarding and impactful to arrive via your own two feet. Some people say it was what made their time at Machu Picchu particularly special.
Step 6: Enjoy!
Big duffle bags or backpacker packs are not allowed into the park, and many people were forced to check them in. But day backpacks seemed to be fine. And food, walking poles, and selfie sticks are technically not allowed either, but if it's hidden in your bag, you should have no problem.
Once inside the gates, we were confronted with the postcard view of Machu Picchu that everyone loves. Thankfully, the Inca built terraces that are perfect selfie-taking platforms where everyone can all spread out and take pictures of the same view (well planned, Inca!). We climbed up to the House of the Guardian and the Funerary Rock to get some elevation for our shots, and it was as perfect as I could have ever hoped.
There are two paid hikes that you have to buy with your ticket if you want to do them: Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, and then there are two free ones: Inca Bridge and Sun Gate. Huayna Picchu is the steep peak you see behind the ruins in every picture, and it's the most difficult hike in the park, usually taking many hours to complete. Machu Picchu Mountain is behind where everyone takes pictures, and it's not as strenuous, but offers fantastic views of the ruins below. I've heard the extra cost of these treks is 24 Soles each (~$7.50).
For both of these you can choose when buying your tickets between going at 7:00 or 10:00. People have said good and bad things about both timings, but many people claim that it's too foggy at 7:00 AM to see anything on top of those peaks, so 10:00 may be better. Needless to say, because of my foot, we did not do either of these hikes.
Afterwards, we made our way down through the ruins of Machu Picchu along with the rest of the tourists, which was starting to become more like a moving herd of people.
One of the last things on the route was the Temple of the Condor with a large condor sculpture on the ground (I needed to use my imagination a bit), and then we were out of the park. We made sure we didn't forget to have our passports stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp right as we exited.
In total, we spent about four hours in the park and felt very satisfied with our time there. Those who do Huayna Picchu hikes and other trails might spend all day there.
Step 7: Reverse it all back to Santa Teresa
The hike down was fine, though some of those stone steps are huge and I just could not imagine having to climb up it. Bravo to anyone who does!
If I had to do it all again, and did not have the time crunch, I would reserve a day for hiking the railroad tracks in, a day for Machu Picchu, and then another full day for walking the tracks back to Hidroelectrica. For Tim and Aditya, doing the park and the train tracks in one day was fine, but for me and my recovering foot, I was in a bit of pain by the end of it all. Plus, my legs felt like iron the next day. So it's all up to your personal preference, and being back with our bikes in Santa Teresa that night was definitely doable. But I would have preferred a more relaxed time-frame where I could've enjoyed the scenery a bit better.
So is it worth it?
Safe journeys to all, and I hope if that you ever enter the magical world of Machu Picchu, you find it as gloriously mysterious and enticing as I did.