Whether you’re a long-term traveler or a short-term vacationer, there’s a good chance Machu Picchu has made it onto your bucket list. Many people feel the only “right” way to do MP is to hike the four-day Inca Trail as part of a mandatory tour group. But what if you just don’t want to do a strenuous, multi-day hike? Or what just don’t have the time?
I found myself in the latter situation, after my school decided to send me to a conference in Lima. This meant free international airfare but limited free time. Still, I wasn’t about to squander a free flight and immediately started researching the cheapest way to see Machu Picchu independently.
Here’s what I learned:
Trail or Tracks
There are only two ways to get the ruins, either by hiking or taking the train. The train isn’t cheap, and if you are traveling during high season (as I unfortunately had to do during Easter week) you had better book your tickets in advance. I stupidly waited until 3 weeks before, and while I was able to buy tickets TO the ruins, the return trains were all sold out on Peru Rail. I further compounded my idiocy by waiting until I arrived in Cusco to see if I would have better luck at the Peru Rail office in person. If you have limited time, do not make the same mistake I made! This option is only good if you are flexible and have time to kill.
The Peru Rail folks recommended that I go to Inca Rail across the street, where I was finally able to buy a return ticket. However, Inca Rail had far less options for the return trip than Peru Rail, forcing me to spend one extra night in the overpriced Machu Picchu town (Aguas Calientes). As I had to be back in Lima for my conference, I had no other option.
We also met tons of people who were taking shared taxis from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, which is the half-way point of the train ride to Machu Picchu. Many of the sold-out tickets are roundtrip to Cusco, so you might have better luck getting a roundtrip to/from Ollantaytambo instead. We used this option on our return, booking a train from MP to Ollantaytambo, rather than all the way through to Cusco.
Another travel note: My husband and I flew to Cusco from Lima because of time restraints. Had we more time, we would have taken the bus, despite several first-hand testimonies from other travelers that the ride is a torturous 22+ hours of twisty, bumpy roads.
A Test of Patience
For a substantial fee, many companies will buy your tickets to Machu Picchu. However, we wanted to save money and buy them ourselves on the government-operated website. Initially, this seemed to be a big mistake. While there’s a lot of information online about the buying process, my transaction continued to be declined without any explanation.
Until I learned two important pieces of information:
*This site doesn’t accept MasterCard
*If you only have a MasterCard, you must make your order, and once you get an error message, email someone at the call center office to have your transaction approved.
I emailed all three addresses, and received a response from Mario within 24-hours, which is pretty fast for South America. He did some kind of magic on his end, told me try the process again, and it worked. The credit for my discovery in how to circumvent this inefficient system goes to The Reward Boss:
While his instructions were helpful, it was the reader comments below that helped me discover the trick of emailing the call center. Thanks Reward Boss!
One Full Day Really IS Enough (for Most People)
There are countless discussions online about how many days are really enough at MP. We got up at the suggested 4am and took the first shuttle bus up the mountain 6am. There is also an option to hike up to the ruins, but as cranky and exhausted as we were, we never even considered it. To save time, we also bought our shuttle bus tickets the day before.
The tip to do the early morning slog is spot on. Why?
Because starting at 10am, busloads of tourists start arriving, turning Machu Picchu into a Disneyland-during-Spring-Break hot mess. Besides, watching the morning clouds burn off to reveal the ruins really is worth the early wake-up call.
Many visitors are fanatical about getting one of the 400 coveted tickets to hike up Wayna Picchu, which towers over the ruins. By the time I booked our tickets, those 400 slots were gone. I was really depressed about missing that opportunity and considered hiking the opposite facing Machu Mountain instead. In the end, I decided against it because while it’s considered less strenuous than Wayna Picchu, it also takes about 4-5 hours roundtrip, and because I only had one day, I didn’t want to spend three-quarters of my time there hiking away from the ruins.
In the end, I didn’t feel a loss in not hiking either mountain. While I’m sure the views from both are spectacular, the view from the highest point within Machu Picchu doesn’t suck J and you do get a complete view of the ruins from there as well as the surrounding mountains and valleys.
MP is enormous, and no matter how big you think it is, it is larger than that. We spent hours climbing up and down the site and no matter how in-shape you might be, the combination of the high altitude and the large, uneven Inca steps make it quite a workout. While it’s true that I could have sat and gazed at the beautiful scenery all day, by 1pm my husband and I were comfortable calling it quits. We chose to hike down the mountain and back to town.
Obviously, how much time you spend at MP is a personal chose. I am notorious for overspending time at places, but I honestly didn’t feel like I had missed anything in our visit. In fact, had we been able to get return train tickets that day, we would have been comfortable leaving later in the afternoon, rather than waiting until the next morning.
Give Some Love to the Sacred Valley
Machu Picchu is all most people know about the Sacred Valley and many skip the villages scattered throughout the valley because they are either hiking past them on their way to MP, or they don’t have the time. Some people actually do a day-trip from Cusco to MP, which I wouldn’t recommend because it would be too rushed. Machu Picchu is just one of dozens of Inca ruins that litter the Sacred Valley, some of which are actually more impressive than MP in construction, if not in size or surrounding scenery.
We would have loved to spend more time in the Sacred Valley – at least one overnight in one of the smaller villages – but our schedule didn’t allow for it. And while the Scared Valley is manageable by local bus and collectivos (shared taxis), this method only works if your timing is flexible and not if you’re on borrowed time.
Because of our tight schedule, we decided to book a one-day tour with a private guide and driver, Oscar Guevara. His English is great, his prices are reasonable and he responds to inquires within 24-hours. I again credit The Reward Boss, who used Oscar himself, as did many of his readers.
My husband and I paid US$100 for a tour of the valley that included a pick-up at the train station in Ollantaytambo and a drop-off in Cusco. On the way, we saw the amazing ruins in Ollantaytambo and its old-town that’s built on top of Inca ruins, the salt pans at Maras, the strange ringed remains of Moray and the hilltop town of Chinchero. While we had enough time for everything, we reached Chinchero at sunset when it was getting dark and we were tired. If I had to do it over, I might have stayed overnight in Chinchero and walked around the lovely city in the daylight, before hoping a bus or collectivo back to Cusco. We both felt the US$100 was well-spent, both in timing, Oscar’s skills as a guide, and the added benefit of transportation back to Cusco.
Cusco is worth at least 2 days
While two days was enough time, the charming cobblestone streets, Spanish-inspired cathedrals, picturesque squares and fairly decent cuisine of Cusco made us wish we had an extra day or two.
We happened to be in town during Good Friday, and while it was interesting to see the religious processions, it was hard to find a restaurant that was open for dinner. Stumbling and starving, we ran into an English-speaking native who recommended Los Ninos
Los Ninos was started by a Dutch lady who adopted 12 Peruvian orphans started the hostel and restaurant as a way to support their education. Today, this business funds more than 600 orphans. In addition to helping a worthy cause, the food is delicious and the rooms looked lovely. Even if you don’t stay here, don’t leave Peru without eating in the restaurant.
I also took a free walking tour through the city, which led our group up and down steep stairways for three-hours, to three different viewpoints above the city. We visited a man who created handmade musical instruments out of his little shop and got to taste a bite of llama. Our guide was great, but of course, free walking tours live and die by each guide. While the tours are free, you are encouraged to give a tip based on what you think the tour was worth. I gave about US$10.
Don’t blow off Lima
It’s unclear to me while all the guidebooks and websites insist Lima isn’t worth the time, because I really enjoyed Lima. The city is often referred to as the gastronomic capital of South America. I can confirm I never had a bad meal here and if you love ceviche, you will think you’ve died and gone to heaven.
For a reasonable price, I had a lovely private room in the charming hostel, El Patio in the Miraflores district. This neighborhood is filled with cafes and is only a ten-minute walk to the cliff-side promenade that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Even if you aren’t into shopping malls, check out the one built below street level into the side of these cliffs. It promises interesting construction and stunning views.
I took another free walking tour of Lima’s downtown; this guide wasn’t as good as the one I had in Cusco. However, he did show us how to take the local bus system from Miraflores to the downtown area. Here we saw the lovely Plaza des Aramas and presidential palace, which holds a very impressive changing of the guards every midday.
Give yourself a day or two in Lima, stay in the Miraflores district, wander around and have at least one good meal, and you won’t consider it time wasted.
My international flight was paid for as it was work related
Domestic flights: US$337, R/T Lima-Cusco (Prices depend on season. There are a few airlines fly this route, among them Peru Air, Star Peru, LAN and Avianca)
Tickets to MP: US$45 per person, ruins only
Shuttle bus to MP: US$12 pp, one-way
Peru Rail: Cusco to Machu Picchu: US$47 pp, one-way
Inca Rail: Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo: US$70, pp, one-way
Guide –Sacred Valley: US$100 for 2 people, Oscar Guevara: email@example.com
Cusco arrival/first night: EcoPackers Hostal
We paid about US$20 per person for a 4-person shared dorm, which we shared with two young girls from Columbia. While this is a crowded, party-type hostal, our stay here was comfortable. The only mention is that the staff really doesn’t do much to go beyond the basis services. We were leaving early the next morning, and they wouldn’t provide us with even fruit for breakfast, even though breakfast was included in our stay. They also ran out of towels, so we weren’t able to rent one.
Machu Picchu: Hostal Intiquilla
US$40 for a private room for 2 people. This place has a great location and was comfortable, and has a lovely rooftop breakfast area. However, sound travels horribly here, so if you are a light sleeper, beware.
Cusco/Return: Hostal Qorichaska Cusco
We paid about US$40, for 2 people, for a private room and bath. While it looks super cute on the website, it is actually fairly run down and in desperate need of a renovation. I wouldn’t recommend a private room here for this price – there are nicer places in town (see Los Ninos above) However, we did notice that a new wing has been built in the back, and those rooms look nice – so ask for one of these if you stay here!
Lima: Hostal El Patio
US$40 for 2 people for private w/bathroom. I can’t say enough good things about this place. It’s peaceful, has beautiful gardens, is centrally located and has extremely helpful staff. Totally worth the price for something in the middle of all the action. The breakfast is sparse, as is the custom in Peru.