Our Journey to Machu Picchu

Our Journey to Machu Picchu

Lynn Travel South America, Peru, Aguas Calientes Leave a Comment

When Andy and I discussed what we wanted to see and do in South America, Machu Picchu was on both of our lists. We have had friends visit it before, all of them raving about how amazing it was. One thing that we did not hear though was just how expensive it is to get there.

Machu Pichhu Panorama

I want to write about how it is expensive since there is very little that either Andy or I saw on the internet about the price to go to Machu Picchu. Hopefully people searching for Machu Picchu pricing will come across this post and not be as surprised at the costs as we were.

Trains vs. Hiking to Machu Picchu

Many of the backpackers that we met along the road do the Salkantay trek to get to Machu Picchu. This is because the Inca Trail is booked months in advance. We saw a 5 day Salkantay trek advertised for as little as $200 including food and lodging. I’m not much of a hiker, neither of us felt like roughing it and we didn’t want to devote a full 5 days so we decided to take the train.

We then looked into taking the train. It was at this point that we realized why all of the backpackers hike and just how much price gouging there is for foreigners visiting Machu Picchu.

Alternatives to the Train

Once we saw how much the train was, we figured that there had to be an alternative such as a bus. We did quite a bit of research and came across several sources that all said the same thing.

You can hire a van which will drive you up an extremely windy road on the side of a mountain, then hike 2 hours along the train tracks to the town. Since every post talked about how crazy and dangerous the road was, we decided that even though it sucked to pay so much, we should stick with the train.

Getting to the Train

The cheaper train left the Ollantaytambo train station. This is in the Sacred Valley, a good distance from Cusco where we were staying. We read online that we could take a colectivo or shared van from Cusco to Ollantaytambo for only 10 sols or $3 for a ride that was just under 2 hours. This is an absolute steal since a private taxi would have cost us 90 sols or $27. We looked up where we needed to be to catch the van and walked through the local part of town to get there.

Colectivo Station in Cusco Peru

Once we arrived we noticed that only 2 people were in the van. Knowing that the drivers never leave before the van is completely full we would have to wait for 11 more people before it left. We sat for about 40 minutes until this happened. While it was annoying to have to wait, that is the price that you pay to save money.

Spending the Night in Ollantaytambo

We arrived in the afternoon but our train didn’t leave until late the following morning. This meant that we had the day to spend in Ollantaytambo. We had a great time exploring this cute little town before catching our train.

Inca Rail from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes

We looked into all rail options to see which was the least expensive. The best option was the Inca Rail train leaving at 11:15am for $75 per person. This was for their executive class train, a premium seat.

Inca Rail Train to Machu Picchu

The same train company offers tickets for economy seating for the same price every day at 7:20am. Since everyone wants to get to Machu Picchu as early as possible, the earlier trains fill up quicker and typically cost more.

Once we boarded the train we were surprised with the setup. All of the seats were grouped into 4 with a table in the middle. This meant that we had to sit directly across from strangers for the 1.5 hour train ride. The couple across from us was nice enough, but I think that everyone would have preferred having their own space.

Table Style Seats on the Inca Rail Train to Machu Picchu

Part way through the ride we were given a menu. Our ticket included a drink as well as a snack. It was a nice touch but personally I would have rather just paid less for the train ticket instead.

We were seated on the wrong side of the train to see much, but it was a pretty uneventful ride. The train followed the river, cutting through a few tunnels along the way.

On the Inca Rail Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes

While the ride was nice, it is certainly tourist pricing. To put the price gouging into perspective, Andy and I took the top Peruvian bus line 10 hours in their best seats and only paid $23 each. The train is more than 3x as much for a ride that is a fraction of the length.

Getting Our Tickets to Machu Picchu

You are able to purchase your tickets to Machu Picchu online. One would think that since it is the main tourist attraction in Peru that the website would be very easy to use. That is not the case at all.

Since we weren’t able to hike the Inca Trail, Andy really wanted to do some level of hiking. We decided that hiking up Huayna Picchu to get a different perspective on the ruins would be really cool. It was more expensive, but we would also get to hike a trail that only 500 people a day can hike.

The earliest that we were able to book tickets to hike Huayna Picchu was a little over a week out. We decided to purchase these tickets and then back our trip to Machu Picchu into these dates. I entered our passport information (since the tickets are non-transferrable) and was surprised when there was nowhere to pay.

As we were around town trying to figure out our logistics of getting to Machu Picchu, we also tried to pay our reservation. There were addresses online where you could pay your reservation. I had my reservation number and wanted to get it taken care of as early as we could. One of the women that we talked to told us that the reservation is only valid for 3 hours, after that, if you do not pay, the space is open to the public again. She showed me on the site that you have to take your reservation number and click on another tab to pay. I was shocked as I have been purchasing things online since the 90’s and have yet to encounter a website that doesn’t allow you to pay easily.

At this point, I knew that our tickets to hike up Huayna Picchu were long gone. While I was annoyed, I have become more calm and patient during our travels. I took this as a sign that the hike wasn’t meant to be.

A few days before our trip to Machu Picchu, I looked at the site again. This time looking at admission tickets to the ruins only. There are only 2,500 tickets a day released, but there were plenty still available. As soon as we reached Aguas Calientes, we purchased our tickets for 128 Sols or $38 each.

Spending the Night in Aguas Calientes

I was excited to stay the night in Aguas Calientes as I had booked a really nice room at Panorama B&B and was looking forward to some luxury. We didn’t have too much time to sleep in the room though – just before 5am, we were up and hiking to Machu Picchu!

Hiking to Machu Picchu

There are 2 ways to get up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, hiking or taking the bus. Since we didn’t do any hiking to get to Aguas Calientes, we figured that we would at least do some hiking to get to the site.

After breakfast we headed out to hike and were super bummed out that it was raining. Fortunately for us it was more of a drizzle and we had our ponchos packed into our backpack. we put them on and started walking. As you can imagine, wearing a t-shirt, jacket, backpack and poncho while hiking will make you sweat a little bit. Fortunately, the rain stopped about 20 minutes into our hike so I was able to put the poncho away. I was still hot and ended up hiking the rest of the way in just my t-shirt.

The trail itself is a bit of a challenge, especially since we were at almost 8,000 feet. It becomes even harder when you’re pushing yourself to go quickly so you can be at the gates as early as possible. The first 20 minutes is easy, just walking along a road. The following 50 minutes was constant stairs. Just when you think, there can’t be any more stairs, you see more stairs.

1 hour and 10 minutes after we left the hotel we were at the gates. There was quite a line as some buses and other hikers had beat us there. We waited in line with our passports and our tickets.

If we were to take the bus, it would have cost us $12 each for a 1-way, 30 minute ride. We saw people leaving the buses and weren’t surprised that many of them were older and/or less physically fit than we were.

Experiencing Machu Picchu

Once we were inside, we immediately headed to the best viewpoint of the ruins. Just about every single other person who was in line did the exact same thing. Since it was still very early in the morning there was fog that was coming and going around the ruins. The whole place looked whimsical and made for some great pictures. We even set up the tripod and created a time-lapse which shows just how the fog was rolling in and burning away.

Admiring Machu PIcchu from High Above

Once we got some pictures and time-lapses, we set off to see the Inca Bridge. We had read online there was a good view of the ruins from the trail. It was a narrow trail and by the time we hit the end, we were a little disappointed. Not only were there not views of Machu Picchu on the way, the bridge itself wasn’t too interesting. Either way, it was nice to get away from the crowds for a bit as not many people took this hike, plus, we were able to get some fun pictures on the trail.

Inca Bridge at Machu Picchu

On the Trail to the Inca Bridge at Machu Picchu

We then went down into the ruins to explore. On the map there are clearly marked routes to take so you can see everything easily. We don’t like to follow marked routes, always preferring to go where there are the least number of people at any point in time so we can get pictures without people in them. There was a lot more zigging and zagging than we needed to do, but we didn’t mind.

Piggyback in the Ruins at Machu Picchu

Standing Behind a Doorway in the Ruins at Machu Picchu

When we were in the Amazon jungle, one of the couples showed us a picture of their legs after their visit to Machu Picchu. There were small red dots all over his legs, it looked like the chicken pox. Since bugs always seem to bite me, I was extremely nervous about this. During our hike I wore socks that went up my calves, long pants and had the strongest bug repellent I could purchase sprayed all over my body and clothing. I was lucky that the bugs seemed to leave me alone. All of the bites that I got were when we were having lunch the day before our hike. The bites reminded me of the sand flea bites that I had in Caye Caulker which were small but itched like crazy.

Since the elevation is pretty high, when it is sunny, it is really hot. Around 1pm it had gotten extremely warm and there was little to no shade to rest under. We decided that since we had already spent 6 hours hiking around, seeing everything we wanted to see, that it would be OK to head back down. I felt a little bad that we weren’t spending more time after we spent so much money to get there, but after it started to rain, my guilt went away. The last thing that I wanted was to be stuck hiking all the way down to town in the rain, especially since there were a lot of uneven stairs that would have the chance to get slippery.

Lies We Read Online About Machu Picchu

You Can’t Bring Food In

There are signs at the gate that say no food is allowed. Nobody’s bags were getting checked and I figured if our B&B sold sack lunches, there is likely no issue taking food in.

Throughout the day we saw just about everyone pulling snacks or lunches out of their bags. Happily, I did not see any trash around the ruins, everyone was responsible and took their trash out with them when they finished.

You Can’t Take a Tripod

We did some research on where to take the best photos and read that Machu Picchu does not allow tripods in. This one made us a little bit nervous as we bring our tripod with us just about everywhere that we travel.

Nobody checked our bag when we walked in and nobody said anything about our tripod once we were in the park.

You Can’t Have a Zoom Lens Over 200mm

In the same article that said you can’t use a tripod, it said that you also can’t take any lenses that are over 200mm. For all you non-photographer readers, this is a zoom lens. Our zoom lens is pretty basic and goes up to 300mm.

I think that the only lens that may cause any issue would be an extremely long, very professional lens. Again, we didn’t have any issues because we did not use our zoom lens much as most of our photos captured the entirety of the ruins, not a small section of it.

Hiking Back Down to Aguas Calientes from Machu Picchu

After we had seen everything that we wanted to see, we decided we would try and escape the rain and head down. The hike down seemed so much longer than the hike up. Every time we connected with the road, we thought we were almost to the bottom but we were wrong. The trail kept going, and going, and going.

Ironically, it took us an hour to get down, just 10 minutes less than it took to get up. This was partially due to getting caught behind a group of people who were not going too fast nor letting us pass. Either way, I was impressed with how long we hiked and how quickly we were able to get up to the top in the morning!

Peru Rail from Aguas Calientes to Cusco

After grabbing a bite to eat, we headed to the train station. This time, we took the Peru Rail expedition train as it had the best timing for us, plus it went to Cusco, not Ollantaytambo. This saved us quite a bit of travel time, which at night after a very long day was nice.

Peru Rail Train from Machu Picchu to Cusco

The train had the exact same set up as the Inca Rail, with 4 seats around a table. When we went to board, we were confused when there was a guy in our seat. We showed him our tickets thinking that maybe he just read the numbers wrong. He said that he was actually in the seat on the other side of the table but wanted to switch. We thought it was really weird that he didn’t ask us first, but I didn’t push it. When an older man, who was due to sit where we were sitting arrived, he was also confused. We told him that the man wanted to switch our seats. The older man also seemed annoyed but just sat down.

I personally didn’t like Peru Rail as much as the Inca Rail. The seats weren’t as comfortable and didn’t seem to have as much leg room. I thought it was odd that the seats recline, but don’t stop at a certain point. That meant that since the people behind us reclined their seats, it was impossible for us to recline at all.

Similar to the Inca Rail train we also got a drink and snack. The drink was a standard beverage, not a mocktail like we had on the Inca Rail train. The snack was a small, very crumbly cookie that we had to peel off parchment paper, not nearly as good as the cookie/cracker sticks that we had on the Inca Rail.

Since this train went quite a bit further, we rode for 3.5 hours. Even though everything that Peru Rail prints says Cusco, the train station is actually in Poroy, a 20 minute drive from the main plaza in Cusco.

Once we arrived, I had grand plans of finding another group and splitting the 30 sol or $9 cab ride but it was complete chaos. Luckily a girl saw us and asked us if we wanted to split the cab. We of course said yes, then another girl also found us. We now had a group of 4 so everyone only had to pay 7.5 sols or $2.25, a much better price.

How Much Our Visit to Machu Picchu Cost

Here are the final numbers for us to visit Machu Picchu. I’m only including transportation and admission, not any lodging or food as those are costs that you have to pay anywhere that you would stay.

$3 – Colectivo ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
$75 – Inca Rail train ticket to Aguas Calientes
$38 – Machu Picchu entry tickets (most basic possible)
$90 – Peru Rail train ticket to Poroy
$2.25 – Shared taxi from Poroy station to Cusco city center
$208.25 per person

Since there were 2 of us, we ended up spending about $417 just to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back. This is not a small sum of money anywhere, let alone Peru, a country which is typically not expensive. Had we not taken a colectivo to Ollantaytambo, hiked up and down the mountain or found others to split our cab ride with, we would have paid even more.

Final Thoughts

Even though it was expensive, I am glad that we went to Machu Picchu. We were lucky enough to have beautiful weather, especially since we visited on the cusp of the rainy season. I’m not much of a morning person, but I am very happy that we woke up early and got to the front gates as soon as they opened. Getting a few hours of time at the ruins before herds of people arrived was a great advantage.

Sitting on a Rock with Machu Picchu Behind Us

I thought that we would be time crunched just having a day at Machu Picchu, but honestly you only need 5-6 hours to truly see everything, take lots of pictures and also add in a little time to sit and relax.

We were really nervous that Aguas Calientes was going to cost us a fortune as everything that we read online talked about how expensive it was. We actually found it to be less expensive than Cusco for most things – the only more expensive items that we saw being bottled water and souvenirs.

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About the Author

Lynn

Bitten by the travel bug during a semester abroad in college, Lynn was able to travel around much of Europe on a shoestring budget. Her travel motto is "If I haven't been there yet, it's probably on my list". When she isn't daydreaming about her next trip, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, reading blogs on how to travel the world on points or spending time with her fluffy cat Gingerbread.