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A Budget Backpacker’s Guide to Visiting Machu Picchu

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is a deserted citadel once occupied by the Incas (pre-colonial Peruvians). Nestled high up amongst mystic clouds and towering rock formations, a trip to Peru would not be complete without ticking off Machu Picchu. 

However, planning a trip to Machu Picchu can be somewhat overwhelming. There are so many different options for so many different budgets that it’s hard to know, which option is best for you. 

When I arrived in Cusco, I had just over a week left of travelling and less than £100 in my bank account. Meaning, I needed to visit Machu Picchu as cheaply as possible. 

You can visit the wonder on a tour or, on your own. For the sake of this post I’m going to be explaining how to do it on your own, the cheapest way possible. The journey begins in Cusco and takes you to Aguas Calientes – the gateway to Machu Picchu. Here’s my step-by-step budget backpacker’s guide to visiting this gem.

Step 1 – Get to Cusco

Once upon a time, Cusco was the Inca capital of Peru. 

Today, evidence of the Incas is sprinkled everywhere. From the ancient Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman on the outskirts of the city to the pre historic buildings that give Cusco its intoxicating charm, most voyages to Machu Picchu begin here. 

I LOVED Cusco and would recommend staying there for at least 2-3 nights before heading off to Machu Picchu. This time in the city will not only give you time to explore its charismatic cobbled streets and eat and shop in its extensive San Pedro market but, it’ll also allow for you to adjust to the altitude. 

Step 2 – Buy your ticket to Machu Picchu 

Only 2,500 people are allowed to enter Machu Picchu each day and tickets must be bought for one of two slots (6am – 12pm) and (12pm – 5.30pm). 

You can buy tickets online or, at the Ministry of Culture building in Cusco or Aguas Calientes (note: it is closed on Sundays). Tickets cost 152 soles (approx £36/$46) for entry and you will need your passport to buy your ticket. There are different ticket options if you want to climb either Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu so check this out for more info on alternative tickets. 

When we arrived in Cusco we were informed by our hostel that the morning slot was sold out for the following five days so our only option was to visit in the afternoon. We bought our ticket the morning before we went to Machu Picchu and had no problems however, I would recommend buying your tickets ASAP to avoid disappointment. 

Although we were annoyed we couldn’t be at Machu Picchu for sunrise, we decided it was a blessing in disguise. The morning slot is when all the tours visit meaning, by the time 12pm hits everyone has gone back to Aguas Calientes. We had no problems having to queue or fight for photo spots, which is rare at a Wonder of the World. 

Step 3 – Book accommodation in Aguas Calientes

Once you have secured your ticket, it’s important to book accommodation in Aguas Calientes – a tourist hub at the foot of the entrance to Machu Picchu. We stayed for two nights in two different hostels – Hostal Machu Wasi ($15 a night each for a private room including brekkie) and Supertramp Hostel ($12 a night each for a dorm bed including brekkie), which I would both highly recommend.

The prices in Aguas Calientes are very inflated so expect to pay a little over the average for accommodation. 

Step 4 – Get a minibus to Hydroelectrica 

Aguas Calientes is only accessible by train or foot. The train is very expensive so, the cheapest option to get there is by a 7 hour minibus to nearby Hydroelectrica from Cusco, which costs approx 60 soles return (£14/$18). The minibus can be booked at any hostel or travel agent in Cusco and will pick you up from your hostel at around 7.30/8am.

Be warned, this journey is pretty terrifying so, if you’re scared of heights, try to tire yourself out before the trip so you can take a nap…

Photo credit: Dan Spence (@the_travelingsparky)

Step 5 – Walk along the train track from Hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes

Once you’re dropped in Hydroelectrica, head to the train track. Walking along the train track may sound weird/dangerous but it’s something that a huge number of backpackers and locals do and there is a path most of the way. The walk takes around 3 hours and is mostly flat.

Keep an eye out for the bottom entrance to Machu Picchu as you will walk past it on route.

Step 6 – Walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu entrance

From Aguas Calientes it’s a steep 2 hour walk to the entrance of Machu Picchu – it’s tough but bearable and treats you to some fabulous views along the way. Once you arrive at the entrance, there will be an abundance of tour guides offering their services so if you want a guide, here’s the place to barter a price and get one.

Top tip: to save money on grub, go to the local market next door to the bus stop in Aguas Calientes and get a meal to take away before you walk up. A local dish will cost between 5-10 soles (£1-3).

Step 7 – Getting back to Cusco 

When you book your minibus to Hydroelectrica, you will also have to tell the company what date and time you would like to return to Cusco. Most buses leave at around 2.30 – 3.30pm. We waited for our bus in the same spot we were dropped off and were nearly left as apparently we weren’t in the right place. Make sure you ask your bus driver where you need to wait to be collected so you don’t have the same problem as us – we’re going to blame it on the language barrier…

Planning a trip to Machu Picchu is a daunting task, but one you won’t regret.

When you’re soaking up the view with a llama by your side, the challenge and time it takes to get there on a budget only makes it that bit more rewarding! Have you ever visited Machu Picchu on a budget? Did you do anything differently? Let me know!

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