Backpackers DIY Guide on How To Go To Machu Picchu on the Cheap

Before most anticipating tourist have booked their flights to Peru, fear of how to reach the renowned Machu Picchu site creeps in. Rumors fly that you need to book months in advance to secure your ticket. Agencies claim the only way there is with an expensive group tour. Don’t be suckered by the hype. This places secures 6,000 visitors daily, raking in over $30,000.

The majority of tourist are shuffled in via Peru Rail. Some choose to suffer it out on the four day “traditional” Inca trail (there are 4-plus routes) paying $300-400. But what if you’re a backpacker on a shoestring budget? What if you know Peru holds many more exquisite vistas, but you don’t dare return home without that quintessential facebook pic of and you that lush Inca-faced mountain.

A group in the way to Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)
A group in the way to Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)

Although you DO need to nail the date and time of your ticket– passport in hand, the rest of the journey has more options than you are led to believe. Working as a summer guide I learned all the local short-cuts.

We all know it’s a traveler’s right of passage and the most famous world heritage site.

So here’s how to DYI on a budget

1) Do you want to summit Huayna/ Wayna Picchu?

This is actually the famous mountain from all the photos that towers above the untouched Inca city. It’s a brutal ascent that claims a few lives each year, but boast life-changing views for the 400 people who hike it daily. Good or bad, you must book tickets six months in advance to climb  the “young mountain” as it is translated from  Quechua. Most tourists don’t have the advanced notice or flexibility for this ticket. Don’t worry, hiking the “old mountain” Machu Picchu to the Sun Gate gives nearly as stunning a view for nothing and the sensation of both your legs at the of the day.

Life in Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)
Life in Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)

2) Make Your MAPI (Machu Picchu) Reservation

Jump online as soon as you can confirm your dates and or check out what’s available once you’re in Cusco. Use this official government site because there are many scam sites. I recommend at least a few days in advance to get a decent time table for the hike up and the return train. Make a reservation online and write down your code. Don’t pay online as the payment page is not secure and because you probably don’t have a printer for your ticket. Show up in person with passport and reservation code to this address:


Provincia del Cusco Agencia: Esquina Avenida El Sol y Almagro

Hours: 8:00 am to 5:30 pm y S: 9:00 am to 1:00 pm

Telephone: 084 262 668

Adult Ticket. 126 soles (unless from Bolivia, Colombia, Perú, Ecuador) Cusqueños get in free on Mondays!

Architecture in Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)
Architecture in Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)

3) How to Get There

Peru Rail: Buy ticket here $60-80 one way (depending on the hour) or buy at Av. Pachacutec S/N 7:00am-10:00pm

Bus: Grab a local bus or colectivo from Cusco to Ollataytambo to Aguas Calientes for the fraction of the price $18. Go for a dip in the hot spring, but a longer ride by from Cuzco via Santa Teresa to Santa Maria to Aguas Calientes.

Hike: Enjoy the lush three hours hike to Aguas Calientes along the railtrack starting at Hydroelectrica. The bus drops you off here!

The Beauty of Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)
The Beauty of Machu Picchu (Natalie Bankhead)

4) Camping Options:

You can grab hostel in Aguas Calientes or camp near the butterfly museum for $4. Aguas Calientes is warm during the day cold at night, but not nearly as cold as frigid Cuzco in winter.

5) The Ascent:

Hike: The BEST way to experience the site is to start in the early morning accompanied by starlight. Watch the sunrise while you hike the nearly two mile ascent. Its 1800 of thigh burning stairs! Bridge gate opens 5:00 am to hike up. Plan on a long line of fellow hikers. Walk slow and bring a flashlight. You’ll need your passport and ticket to enter. Also double check your ticket time. The time slots are semi-strict. If you have an 1:00pm ticket the earliest you can get in is 11:00am. Earliest entrance is 6:00 am.

Bus: The shuttle is $10 USD one-way 30 minute ride. Expect to wait in line. Buses leave to-and-from every 15 minutes. Ticket office: Avenida Hermanos Ayar S/N. Last bus leaves at 4:30pm.

WARNING: Often tourists feel the Disneyland-like crowds at MAPI ruin the magic. By starting early or skipping in right before closing you enjoy the mystery of the site before the 9:00am Inca trail tourists file in.

A view of the mountains (Natalie Bankhead)
A view of the mountains (Natalie Bankhead)

6)Should I book a tour?

Most guides don’t offer much more information than what you can find on Wikipedia. However, it’s nice not to have your face in a book while you’re taking in the view. You can find a guide outside the entrance day of. Expect to pay $30-50 for a private tour.

7) And that shopping Spree?

There’s not much to do in Aguas Calientes expect explore the endless market.  Just know the prices here are high and the  quality low. Most foreigners don’t believe the quality of the natural dyed, handmade textiles. But believe me, WAIT until Ollantaytambo or Cusco or a small town to get something for the fraction of the price. Where your money goes really affects the textile industry and local artisans. With a little extra effort you can buy something truly authentic for fair trade prices.

In Machupicchu (Natalie Bankhead)
In Machupicchu (Natalie Bankhead)

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