Updated June 22nd, 2020.
Nestled high in the Selva Alta (high jungle) mountains of Cusco, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, sits the magnificent Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Getting well over a million visitors each year, The Lost City Of The Incas ranks highly on the bucket list of many a backpacker.
But what’s the best way to get to Machu Picchu?
Whether you want to trek on a backpacker budget, hike in style, arrive in comfort aboard a classy train, or make the most of just a couple of days, there’s an option out there for you.
We’ve also got something for those of you on really tight budgets… keep reading to find THE cheapest way to get the Machu Picchu!
If like me, you tend to travel by the seat of your pants and don’t know what you’ll be doing one day to the next, you’ll be relieved to hear that most trips to Machu Picchu can be booked when you arrive in Cusco. However, some like the Inca Trail or Hiram Bingham Express need to be reserved months in advance to ensure your spot!
We’ve taken the hard work out of this research process so you can make the most of your time in South America. Sit back, grab a brew (or beer) and check out the most popular options for getting to Machu Picchu!
8 Most Popular Routes to Machu Picchu!
1. The Inca Trail – THE CLASSIC TREK
- Duration: 4 days
- Cost: $500 – $2000 USD depending on the tour company
The Inca Trail was built by the Incas in the 15th century, linking the Incan capital Cusco with the spiritual city of Machu Picchu. The Classic Inca Trail Trek uses a 43km long (26 miles) section of the original route and undulates through amazing mountain scenery, jungle, cloud forest, past ancient Inca ruins, paving stones and tunnels along the way.
Due to concern of erosion on the world-famous trail, authorities have limited the route to 500 trekkers daily, which means about 200 trekkers and 300 guides. You need to book ahead of time and pay your entrance fee to Machu Picchu in advance if you want to trek the Inca Trail.
The waiting list is currently around 6 months and you can apply for a permit on the official government website. You cannot trek the Inca Trail independently and must be accompanied by a licensed trekking guide. Sure, you can pay for a private guide to take you but this costs an arm and a leg (trust me you’ll need all your limbs to finish the trek) so it’s much better value to book onto a group trek through one of Cusco’s many tour companies.
Due to poor weather and also to give the trail a chance to recover from the countless footsteps, the route is closed in February.
Find out everything you need to know about planning your Inca Trail Hike here.
2. Salkantay Trek – BACKPACKER FAVOURITE
- Duration: 5 days
- Cost: $225 – $700 USD
Probably the most popular route for backpackers, the classic Salkantay Trek is an awesome 5-day adventure. You’ll walk approximately 70 km through a range of ecosystems. Day two is arguably the highlight that will see you traversing the snowy Salkantay pass at 4600 metres above sea level! The following day is a stark contrast as you make your way through humid cloud forest down to the valley floor.
After four days of hard trekking, you have the option to take a dip in the natural hot springs at Santa Theresa (this does come with a small extra charge) where you’ll feel your strength return ready for the final approach to Machu Picchu!
On the final day, you’ll wake at 4 am to start the epic climb to Machu Picchu for sunrise. If you still have any energy left you can hike up Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu for incredible birds-eye views of the ancient ruins.
Be warned – this trek is hard and you need to be fit and healthy as you will hike around 8 hours a day.
The price includes all meals along the trek, accommodation (tents or huts for three nights and a backpacker hostel in Aguas Calientes the night before you climb Machu Picchu), your entrance fee into Machu Picchu, plus train and combi back to Cusco – all in all, the Salkantay Treks are excellent value for money.
Accommodation quality varies along the trail and in Aguas Calientes, depending on the tour company you book with. Often the more expensive tours offer significantly nicer places to lay your head each night, which is a welcome relief after what can be some cold, wet days hiking! Just make sure you find out exactly what you are getting beforehand!
3. Inca Jungle Trek – ADDED ADRENALINE
- Duration: 4 days
- Cost: $150 – $600 USD
The second most popular choice for backpackers to reach Machu Picchu is the Inca Jungle Trek which as well as trekking includes rafting, mountain biking and zip-wiring if you so wish! (The activities are priced separately.)
Rather than going over high mountain passes, this route takes you through misty jungle and coffee plantations where you can spot parrots, monkeys and all kinds of South American tropical fruits.
You’ll also get a chance to visit the hot springs in Santa Theresa which are a delight for all trekkers! Check out this itinerary with Loki Hostel for more detailed info. The price includes the entrance fee to Machu Picchu and transport back to Cusco on the fourth day.
4. Choquequirao Trek – SCENIC ROUTE
- Duration: 9 Days
- Cost: $700 – $1100
The longest and scenically most varied route to Machu Picchu, taking you on less-visited pathways and off the beaten track Inca trails.
During this challenging 9-day adventure, you’ll visit the ruins of Choquequirao – one of the most remote Inca ruins in the Peruvian Andes. Often referred to as Machu Picchu’s sister, large portions of Choquequirao are yet to be excavated.
Whilst the iconic Machu Picchu receives 2,500 visitors per day, Choquequirao (meaning ‘Cradle of Gold’) is practically deserted. However, there are plans to build a cable car up to the Choquequirao ruins so it may not stay this way for much longer. With that said, the plans appear to have been in place for over half a decade with very little actual progress being made. Maybe this gem will stay off the beaten track for a bit longer yet!
For now, the scene is a refreshing contrast to the tourist-laden Machu Picchu. After trekking through cloud forest and snow-capped mountain scenery, eventually, your trail joins the last section of the Salkantay Trek. You will arrive at Machu Picchu on the ninth and final day of your hike before heading back to Cusco via train.
This trek is a great choice for those with plenty of time on their hands to discover more about Inca culture.
There’s also the option on this trek to visit Vilcabamba (not to be confused with Vilcabamba, Ecuador – you’ve taken a wrong turn if you end up there), the last refuge of the Incas, famed for being a magical and spiritual place.
5. Lares Trek – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
- Duration: 4 days
- Cost: $450 – $800 USD
Peru’s Sacred Valley gives hikers a beautiful backdrop for their Machu Picchu treks but what if you could experience equally stunning vistas with way fewer tourists? Sounds like a dream right?
While the official routes vary depending on your guide or the company you book with, the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu takes you through almost 40 km of unspoiled landscapes in the Lares Valley before rejoining the crowds at Ollantaytambo.
Most Lares Treks officially end at Ollantaytambo but you should get a train ticket to the town of Aguas Calientes included in your tour price. If you are planning on taking on this route independently you should be able to pick up a train ticket on arrival, unless it is high season when booking ahead is recommended.
The Lares Trek is quickly becoming the fourth most popular route for backpackers looking to get to Machu Picchu but for now, it’s still super quiet compared to the Inca Trail or the Salkantay. You can expect to see only a handful of other travellers along the trail as it winds its way through traditional Andean villages full of smiling locals.
If you are looking for a real cultural experience away from the crowds, the Lares Trek might just be the one for you.
6. Hiram Bingham Express – POSH PICK
- Duration: 1 day
- Cost: $500 – $2000 USD
The obvious choice for flashpackers and luxury travellers – forget dirty trekking boots and achy muscles, this is the way to get to Machu Picchu in pure style! Sit back and relax as you travel from Cusco to Aguas Calientes before finally reaching the base of Machu Picchu.
The Hiram Bingham Express, named after the American explorer who discovered the forgotten city back in 1911, is an exclusive train service that was voted one of the best in the world by Conde Nast Traveller!
A trip on this luxury locomotive does not come cheap (return from Cusco to Aguas Calientes), but in exchange for your hard-earned money, you are made to feel like a real VIP!
On arrival at the station, you’ll be greeted with welcome aperitifs before you jump aboard… Then once inside your plush carriage, gourmet brunch, dinner and a selection of Peruvian wines will be served in utmost style.
7. Lodge Trek – THE FLASHPACKER’S TREK
- Duration: Usually around 10 days
- Cost: $2500+ USD
The Lodge Treks have been designed for flashpackers who still want the challenge of a Machu Picchu trek, without the cold uncomfortable nights of camping. Sure the Hiram Bingham Express is an option but in my humble opinion, the trekking is as good, if not better, than the destination when it comes to getting to Machu Picchu.
Whilst the trails vary considerably depending on which of the route options you take (most commonly trod treks to Machu Picchu will have a Lodge Trek variation), you can expect to spend your nights in comfort.
There is less walking each day than with the standard treks, as little as 3-4 hours a day in some cases, so the Lodge Treks do take considerably longer. When you see the amazing Andean lodges that you’ll be sleeping in, fully kitted out with jacuzzis and saunas, you certainly won’t resent having to spend less time on the trail each day!
8. Combi and Peru Rail – CHEAP DIY OPTION
- Duration: 2 days
- Cost: $70 – $165 USD
The DIY route to Machu Picchu involves combi bus journeys, travelling by train and trekking – but it is very doable. This is the cheapest and quickest way to visit Machu Picchu, whilst also giving you enough time to appreciate its glorious surroundings. If you are low on budget and time may just be the best option for you.
From Cusco, you can get the train direct to Aguas Clients which is the base for starting your trek to the ruins. There is a path which goes directly from the town and will take you up to Machu Picchu in about an hour and a half (uphill all the way of course)!
You will need to stay in a hostel overnight in Aguas Calientes, which should be booked in advance (around $20 USD), as it’s a bit too much to do in one day and you don’t want to feel rushed in experiencing The Lost City Of The Incas! Here’s a breakdown of the total $165 cost:
- Train: approx. $100 USD return from Cusco to Aguas Calientes.
- Entrance fee to Machu Picchu: $45 USD (or 50% off with a valid International Student Identification Card)
- Round trip in combi van: $20 USD
And if you think that’s cheap, keep reading to see how our friends at Two Monkeys Travel managed to cut the price of their entire DIY Machu Picchu trip down to just $70 USD!
Note: Prices for the Combi and Peru Rail trip may have risen slightly since Two Monkeys Travel wrote this guide in 2014!
Machu Picchu on a Budget
What if your budget doesn’t stretch to tailored treks and expensive tourist transportation? How can you visit one of the worlds’ most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites whilst spending as little as $70 USD including all of your transport and accommodation?
Starting from Ollantaytambo:
The authentic and picturesque Inca mountain town of Ollantaytambo is less than an hour journey away from Cusco in a Combi or Collectivo – shared minibuses or taxi – and costs as little as 10 Soles ($2.80) one way.
Located along the Patakancha River, the town was the site of a famous Spanish defeat by the Inca in 1536 BCE and is home to the Cerro Bandolista Sun Temple and stunning rice terraces adorning every hillside.
There’s so much history to see in Ollantaytambo and so many incredible hikes in every direction that you could easily spend a week here.
Whether you stay for one week or one hour, it’s only another short combi (minibus) ride to the start of your Machu Picchu trek.
For the princely sum of 2 soles, the ‘Veronica’ combi will ferry you the 30-minute journey to the Kilometre 82 train station, where you can pose in front of the world-famous Inca Trail sign before setting off on the 30km hike to Aguas Calientes!
Following the Train Line
Walk following the train tracks with the valley on your left until you see your first set of Inca Ruins on your right-hand side. Shortly after that, on your right-hand side, you’ll see a small trail winding up onto the side of the valley. There are many of these ‘goat tracks’ along the journey that help to keep you off the tracks and avoid most of the tunnels.
Starting high up in the Andean mountains and flowing down through the magnificent Sacred Valley you will experience every vista you can imagine, from dry, rocky mountain landscapes with fast-flowing white water in the valley below, to the luscious vegetation of the highland jungle.
You only have to follow the train line itself for about half of the journey, but when you do, the trains are loud and slow, allowing you plenty of time to get out of the way as they pass by with drivers waving and bemused passengers snapping photos of you!
As you wind your way down through the valley, you will find yourself wandering through Inca ruins that the trains just blow by in a flash!
Wild horses, cattle and the intriguingly comical Peruvian hairless dogs are interspersed with the occasional fellow walker and railway staff, but for the most part, you’ll be walking alone in almost complete peace.
As you descend further down towards Machu Picchu your breathing becomes easier and the dry rocky landscape gives way to the green grass and leafy trees of the Selva Alta, with banana and avocado trees lining the tracks.
It’s worth saying that if you’re not an experienced long-distance hiker, the prospect of walking 30 km in a single day, at high altitude, might be a wee bit daunting. However, there’s no need to pass up this otherwise amazing journey as there are plenty of safe opportunities for pitching a tent for the night.
You could even camp inside the stone walls of an ancient, roofless Inca house within one of the many ruin sites that aren’t listed or signposted.
If you do decide the walk the whole distance in one day, you should bank on taking about 10 hours, including a couple of breaks for food.
On the final stretch of the journey, approaching the tourist hub that is Aguas Calientes, the tracks and trails become busier with local workers, tourists hiking the various trails towards the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu and Peruvian porters carrying impossible loads on their backs.
When you reach Aguas Calientes, you’ll find the ticket office located in the main square with a wide range of hotels and hostels to suit everyone’s budget, all within walking distance of Machu Picchu itself.
From anywhere in town it’s a short walk to the base of the mountain and the start of the steep, winding stone steps up to Machu Picchu. It may be far and it can take over an hour to reach the top, but the breathtaking scenery will make you glad you didn’t take the bus.
…And voila, you’ve made it! Your very own DIY Machu Picchu adventure for as little as $70 including your ticket, transport and accommodation.
DIY Machu Picchu Trek Costs (not including food and water):
- Machu Picchu Entrance – $45 USD
- Minibus – Cusco to Ollantaytambo – $2.80 USD
- Minibus – Ollantaytambo to KM 82 – $1 USD
- Hostel in Aguas Calientes – (from) $20 USD
- Total – $68.80 USD!
Best places to stay in Aguas Calientes:
- Machu Picchu Packer B&B ($$)
- Super Tramp Hostel Machu Picchu ($)
- Gea Lodge ($)
- Hostal Machu Wasi ($)
- Frontera ($$)
- Susanna Inn Machu Picchu Hotel ($$)
- Tierra Viva Machu Picchu Hotel ($$$$)
Machu Picchu FAQ’s
How long does it take to walk up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes?
There are two options to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes.
Walking: 45 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes.
The walk from town up to the ancient citadel is a gruelling climb up a series of steep stone steps carved into the mountainside. This is not for the faint of heart or for those who are already suffering after a long trek to Aguas Calientes.
Bus: 30 minutes.
Shuttle buses leave from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu roughly every 15 minutes and cost $12 USD each way. Tickets are only available from the ticket office in Aguas Calientes or in Cusco. Check with your hotel or hostel for the exact location of the ticket office.
Is it hard to climb to Machu Picchu?
In short, yes.
The hike up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes involves a strenuous climb up rough uneven steps. Unless you’re some sort of elite athlete, you will struggle but take it slow and it’s doable.
Trekking poles are supposed to be banned from the climb and Machu Picchu itself, due to the risk of damage to the site. Although this is rarely enforced, it is worth being aware that the guards are well within their rights to confiscate any hiking poles that you take with you.
Can you go to Machu Picchu in one day?
Machu Picchu can be visited on a day trip from Cusco but you will be flat out and not really have the time you need to enjoy it. If you are short on time, consider a two day trip. You can spend one day getting to Aguas Calientes and the following morning at Machu Picchu before heading back.
Are there toilets at Machu Picchu?
Yes but there’s a catch. Well two catches.
Firstly, as with most toilets in South America, there is a small charge to use the facilities.
Secondly, the toilets are actually located outside the entrance gates to the citadel so make sure you go before you enter. If nature calls while you are exploring the ruins you’re shit out of luck (excuse the pun). Sure you can leave to use the loo but you won’t be allowed back in!
Are there toilets on the Machu Picchu hiking trails?
Unless you have opted for some epic DIY trek through unmapped terrain, there are toilets available on the major hiking trails to Machu Picchu. Some, like those on the Lares Trek, might be portable toilets set up in little tents by your porters. Others, on treks such as the Salkantay or the Inca Trail, will be proper toilets but on some days these are few and far between. Many a hiker has had to squat behind a decent sized rock in the past so carry some toilet paper just incase – and remember to take your used toilet paper with you. Do not leave it for someone or something else to find!
The actual toilets along the trail are built and operated by enterprising locals to help supplement their income. Don’t forget to bring change with you so you can pay to use them!
Are there lockers at Machu Picchu?
Yes, there is a bunch of lockers outside the main entrance to Machu Picchu. These do incur a small charge to use.
How much does it cost to hike to Machu Picchu?
Hiking to Machu Picchu is likely to be one of the biggest expenses a backpacker faces on their trip around South America. Costs vary greatly depending on which trekking route you take, which company you choose to guide your trip, the level of luxury you opt for, or whether you take on the challenge independently.
At the cheapest end of the spectrum you can expect to pay less than $100 USD but that would really be slumming it. The top end of things can run into the thousands of dollars but the average cost would be between $350 – $700 USD.
Does my travel insurance cover a trek to Machu Picchu?
No probably not. Most travel insurance policies do not include cover for treks over 3000 metres above sea level. On a trek to Machu Picchu you will often be above this elevation.
Make sure you read the small print on your policy and get additional cover if required. A rescue team high into the Andes does not come cheap!
Check out this guide to travel insurance for more details on what to look for when buying travel insurance.
Can I hike to Macchu Picchu alone?
Hiking to Machu Picchu alone is possible but it depends on the route you take. The Inca Trail must be done with a guide but you can pay for your own guide as opposed to going as part of a group. Be aware that this will cost significantly more than a group trip.
Other trails can be done completely independently but make sure you do your research on the trail conditions and places to sleep each night!
What footwear do I need to take to Machu Picchu?
Picking out shoes for travel can be a challenge at the best of times. Throw in a tough hike of rocky terrain and all of a sudden you’ll be throwing a pair of bulky hiking boots into your pack. Whilst hiking boots do work well for Machu Picchu treks, many hikers choose lightweight trail runners or walking shoes. They don’t offer the same level of support and are prone to getting wet quickly but they are also much lighter and dry out quicker.
As long as the shoes you choose are comfy, well worn in and offer good grip, you’ll be fine, so wear whatever you find most comfortable.
What should I take on a Machu Picchu trek?
There are a huge amount of Machu Picchu packing lists available on the internet but all you really need is:
- A pair of good shoes
- Waterproofs (poncho or trousers and jacket)
- Clothes for walking
- Warm clothes for the evening
- A comfortable backpack or daypack (depending on the trail you are taking and whether there are porters)
- Sun protection (sun cream, lip balm, sunglasses etc)
- A camera
- Walking poles, sleeping bag and tent (these are usually provided for an extra fee if you go with a tour company)
- Your passport (you will need this to actually get into Machu Picchu and get a stamp)!
- Cash for extras and tips
Do I need to acclimatise before going to Machu Picchu?
The best practice is to acclimatise to the altitude for at least a couple of days before heading to Machu Picchu. Don’t fly straight into Cusco and plan to start your trek the next day! Altitude impacts different people in different ways and if you have been at high elevations before without any problems, that is not a guarantee that you’ll be fine this time.
Cusco already sits at over 3000 metres above sea level so by spending a few days there before you start your journey, you’ll be setting yourself up for success.
Are there any additional costs involved with getting to Machu Picchu?
As with almost everything, there are additional costs involved with your trek.
Hiring tents, sleeping bags and trekking poles is usually extra but often cheaper if you get them as part of a package deal from your chosen tour company. Likewise, any snacks or extra food you want to take with you will have to be paid for.
Toilets along the trail will cost a couple of soles a time and don’t forget porters, guides and chefs along the trail will expect an “optional tip”. Whilst the companies stress that this tip is 100% voluntary, we have spoken to many backpackers (and experienced it ourselves) who have been put under a lot of pressure to leave a good tip. Remember, although the tour has already taken a big chunk out of your budget, by leaving a tip you are supporting local guides and porters. As travellers we do have a responsibility to help out where we can. Of course, if you really cannot afford the tip, or think the trek was particularly bad, don’t let yourself be pressured into giving one.