There’s no road access to Aguas Calientes; you must arrive by foot or train. Because the train is the most expensive part of a visit to Machu Picchu, and treks costs more, some budget-conscious travelers choose to walk the tracks, following these 7 steps to visit Machu Picchu as cheaply as possible:
Step 1: Pack a small bag, leaving the majority of your hostels in your Cusco hostel in luggage storage. Most hostels include this service at no additional cost (Pirwa’s Three hostels in Cusco certainly do!)
Step 2: Take a 7am bus from Santiago bus station to Santa María. Several different companies work this route, leaving every 15-30 minutes. It costs 25 soles (approximately US$ 8.00). The ride takes 6 hours under normal conditions and up to 8 hours during the rainy season if the road has suffered due to inclement weather. (If the trip is longer, you’ll be able to disembark for lunch around midday.)
If there are buses leaving for Quillabamba, you can buy a ticket at around the same price, explaining that you’ll disembark earlier, at Santa Maria.
Step 3: Upon arrival at Santa María, take one of the combis (shared taxis or microbuses) to Santa Teresa. It costs around 10 soles (approximately US$3) and takes around 45 minutes along a rough, unpaved road to arrive.
Step 4: Take a combi from Santa Teresa to the Hydroelectric station (la hidroeléctrica), which is the last station along the train line that goes from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. It will take 4 to 10 soles (approximately US$1.50 to US$3.70) and 30 minutes. You can also walk from Santa Teresa to the Hydroelectric station, which takes two hours and is perfectly free.
Step 5: From the Hydroelectric station, you have two choices as well: you can catch one of the two trains to Aguas Calientes, which take 30 minutes and cost 50 soles (approximately US$ 15), or you can walk the 10km to town, following the train tracks.
Step 6: Once you’re in Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), you need to buy your entrance ticket for Machu Picchu, which at 152 soles (US$50) will eat up a significant part of your budget, as will food and lodging. Because Aguas Calientes is a town in the middle of nowhere, which sprung up only to act as a gateway to Machu Picchu, all goods and supplies arrive by train. This makes everything cost more than in Cusco.
If you arrive after the ticket booth for Machu Pichu closes for the day, you must wait until 5:30 a.m. the next morning, which could inconvenience your plans. The optional Huayna Picchu climb might be sold out, or the tickets themselves. Thus, at least during the high tourist season, consider buying your tickets in advance in Cusco, at their booth or online.
Step 7: The following day, you will want to wake early. Many hostels, like Pirwa Machu Picchu, offer continental breakfasts as early as 4:30am, for guests who would like to reach the ruins before first light hits it. You can take a bus from bus station in Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Archeological Complex from 5:30am on, with buses leaving every fifteen minutes throughout the day. Or, you hike up, which takes around an hour.
If you decide to return to Cusco the same way you came, you can expect to arrive very late, in the early hours of the morning. Even those who take the train back from Aguas Calientes, and then microbus transport from Ollantaytambo Station to Cusco, tend to arrive in Cusco around midnight- and that’s the quickest route.
The do-it-yourself Machu Picchu trip will cost you as little as US$ 80 if you get a student discount for your entrance tickets, walk whenever you can, are ok with perhaps taking longer than planned to get to Machu Picchu and back to Cusco, and are lucky with lodging. If you’re willing to be a little more indulgent with food and lodging, and need to make sure you don’t exceed two days, up to US$ 130.00 is a realistic and safe expectation.
You can book a tour known as 2-Day Machu Picchu by Car (contact email@example.com for info), which amounts to the same thing and doesn’t cost much more. It includes shuttle service to the hydroelectric station outside of Santa Teresa, a night’s stay in Aguas Calientes, three meals, entrance, a guided tour, and return transport to Cusco. These tours sell for around US$150, add in a guide and lower your stress.
*In Pirwa Colonial a couple of months ago, a group of German guests informed us that they had been robbed while walking to the Hydroelectric Station from Santa Teresa. Also, there was a recent article in a local paper about fake return buses from Ollantaytambo Station for those returning by train and expecting transport arranged by an agency: fraudsters and possible thieves may copy your names from the sign of your legitimate travel agency, hoping you’ll see them first! If you see more than one sign with your name on it, ask questions to make sure they know what agency you are with, etc. We haven’t heard of this happening to any of our hostel guests or agency clients, and it’s quite rare for tourists to be targeted by thieves (because Cusco imposes 3 times the standard penalty if the victim is a foreigner, to defend its vital reputation as a travel-friendly city). We just mention this because it’s good to be alert.