Updated October 22nd, 2018.
Located high in the Selva Alta (high jungle) mountains of Cusco, in a high altitude hollow surrounded by snow-capped peaks, sits the magnificent Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.
It’s synonymous with the name ‘Peru’ and unarguably the country’s most popular tourist destination with more than 3 million visitors in 2013 alone.
There a several very well-known ways to travel to Machu Picchu; the Inca Trail ($600p/p); Salcantay Trek ($225US p/p); and the Inca Jungle Adventure Trek ($225US) are just a few of the options available for the more adventurous backpacker.
A much more relaxed and direct option is to take the train from Cusco (minimum $100US return) to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. From here it’s only a short bus ride (and another $10 return) up the mountain to the ruins themselves. Easy!
But what if you fall into neither of these categories?
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?
Machu Picchu on a Budget
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 minibuse or taxi – and costs as little as 10 Soles ($2.8) one way.
The beautiful mountain town of Ollantaytambo
Located along the Patakancha River, the town was also the site of a famous Spanish defeat by the Inca in 1536AD and is home to the Cerro Bandolista Sun Temple and stunning rice terraces adorning every hillside.
There’s so much history to see here and incredible hikes in every direction that you could easily spend a week here.
Friendly locals in Ollantaytambo
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!
Your transport awaits! The “Veronica” Combi
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.
Just keep following that train line!
Starting high up in the Andean mountains and flowing down through the magnificent Scared 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.
On the ‘alternative’ Inca Trail
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!
Stopping for lunch along the train track
As you wind your way down through the valley you will encounter many Incan ruins, sometimes entire villages that the train passengers rush 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.
The changing landscapes along the way
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-hiker then the prospect of walking 30km 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.
A diversion to some lesser-known Inca ruins just outside Ollantaytambo
On the final stretch of the journey, approaching the tourist hub that is Aguas Calientes, the tracks and trails become busier with local workers, lost tourists and Peruvian porters carrying impossible loads on their backs.
When you reach the town itself 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.
Coming into the tourist hub of Aguas Calientes
From anywhere in town it’s a short walk to base of the mountain and the start 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.
The steep steps up to one of the world’s most famous ruins
The Cheapest Way to Tackle Machu Picchu!
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!
Voila! The DIY Budget Guide to Machu Picchu!
Santa Teresa Hot Springs – Sure to be the most stunning setting for a natural volcanic hot spring you’ve ever seen and the perfect way to recover from a long trek to Machu Picchu!
The Santa Teresa Hot Springs are the perfect way to relax after your trek!
This article was written by South America Backpacker Ambassadors, Jon and Kach Howe, of Two Monkeys Travel. The adventurous couple, from the Philippines and the UK, have been travelling and working for 16 months; starting in South East Asia, via India and South America! You can follow the inspirational ‘Two Monkeys’ on Facebook here!