A Cheap, Adventurous Trip To Machu Picchu

Five years ago I set foot in Machu Picchu for the first time. I still remember how marveled I was as I saw the sunrise hit the ancient ceremonial city with first dim rays of light.

It’s a moment I will never forget.

This year, I returned to Peru and its ancient Incan capital, Cusco. I was traveling with a marvelous group of friends visiting Peru for the first time, and obviously, they wanted to see Machu Picchu.

For a while, I debated visiting the ruins again, but I got easily convinced by my friends to go with them. In truth, I wanted to see the ruins again to relive the experience. But, there was one condition. It had to be a cheap trip!

To my surprise, visiting Machu Picchu on a budget was easier than I thought, especially since I had the bargaining power of traveling with seven other people at the time.

Cusco in Peru
Cusco, Peru

Unlike what many people think, Machu Picchu is not that close to Cusco, even though the city is the main hub for hikers and people interested in visiting the ruins. In fact, the ruins are at least 6 hours away by bus and train.

We considered a few options, including taking the train (too expensive), and doing it all on our own (cheap, but there was some transportation hassle). In the end, we decided to take one of the typical 2-days/1-night tours offered in Cusco.

It ended costing us $85 (266 Peruvian Soles) and it included round-trip transportation by bus, accommodation, one lunch, one dinner, a breakfast snack, and the entrance to Machu Picchu.

Considering that the entrance ticket is already $42 (128 Soles), it made sense to take the tour. But, that tour came with an interesting twist. There would be a lot of hiking!

We began the first day with a 7:00 am pick-up to take us through the long and winding road that leads to Aguas Calientes – the base town right below Machu Picchu, also known as Machu Picchu Town.

It was seven hours of beautiful Andean landscapes, passing through some high snow-capped ridges, raging rivers, and unavoidably, some dangerous one-lane roads with nothing between you and a precipice. You should have seen our faces at every turn the driver came so close to the edge. We survived it, though.

The road to Machu Picchu
That road you see down there, that’s pretty much the kind of road we spent hours on.

The Hike to Aguas Calientes

The bus stopped at the end of the road, but we were not yet in Aguas Calientes. We had two options, either pay $24 to take the train (a ride that lasts no more than 30 minutes) or go along with the plan and hike for three hours along the train tracks. We decided to go with the plan.

Our guide instructed us, “follow the tracks and the signs, and once you see a pile of trash, turn to the right. DO NOT go into the tunnel. Understood?”

Bridge on the trail to Machu Picchu
Nice way to start the hike, with a welcoming shady bridge that only holds three people at a time!
Trail to Aguas Calientes
The signs along the trail.

We all nodded and started our pleasant yet somehow visually boring hike. Yes, apart from a few interesting scenes, most of the hike was adorned with rocky walls, forest trees, and lots of train track gravel.

Luckily, we were all hiking together, so we had each other for entertainment, talk, or to compete by figuring out who could walk the longest along a single rail without falling – let alone who could do a 360-degree turn while walking and not falling from the rail. I did it!!

Walking to Machu Picchu
“Danger: Do not walk on the rails.” Meh, we break the rules! Image by Jessica Glaister.
Riding the train to Machu Picchu
That’s how we ride our trains. Image by Anh Nguyet.

We arrived at the pile of trash and somehow missed the turn. We moved forward and eventually saw a local man walking along the tracks. We asked him if Aguas Calientes was ahead, to which he replied, “Si, en 10 minutos.”

According to him, we were just 10 minutes away from town, but we had discovered already that Peruvian time is never accurate. We had more to walk.

When we looked ahead, we noticed that we indeed reached the tunnel. So we asked him if it was safe to cross it, considering we were advised not to. He said it was though there was a train coming in just a few minutes.

Jessica, Alby, Henry, and I decided to wait for the train to pass and then go through the tunnel; while Tiffany and Tom decided to backtrack and turn right by the trash. Once Tom and Tiff heard the train horn in the distance, they did the funniest chicken run to get off the tracks in time.

The rest simply stood to the side and waited patiently for the train –which traveled slightly faster than our walking pace– to pass through the tunnel.

Once it was all clear, we passed through and lived to tell our survival of the forbidden tunnel. *That was sarcasm*

The train to Machu Picchu
Image by Jessica Glaister.
Running next to the train
Alby and Henry running next to the train. And yes, they ran faster than the train. Image by Jessica Glaister.
The forbidden tunnel
The forbidden tunnel. Image by Jessica Glaister.

Once in Aguas Calientes, we all had our dinner and went to bed early as we were supposed to wake up a 4:30 am to start hiking to the ancient ceremonial city of Machu Picchu.

Our Hike up to Machu Picchu

The first 30 minutes of the hike was cold, yet easy and flat, but once we crossed the bridge over to the mountainside, it was hell!

From that point on, the hike was all a steep uphill. We spent about one hour zigzagging up 1.7 km (1.1 miles) of winding trails or going through some steep, rocky stairs.

Trail to Machu Picchu
The face of torture. That’s our morning hike.

The morning was cold, but we were so agitated with that climb that our bodies produced enough warmth and sweat to keep us going strong. In fact, we were glad we hiked before sunrise; otherwise, we would have baked under the harsh Andean sun.

Oh, did I mention people threw up on the way up? Yup, that’s how exhausting it is! Luckily it wasn’t one of us, but we were then faced with an awkward moment when the guy who threw up asked Jess for a sip of water.

She agreed to help but didn’t expect to see the guy sticking his dirty mouth on the bottle. Um, you’re welcome? We were hiking as a group, so we didn’t mind sharing our “clean” water with our charitable Jess.

In a way, this morning hike reminded me of the last day on the Inca Trail. We woke up in the middle of the night to hike for a few hours and see the sunrise from Intipunku – the Sun Gate. This time though, there would be no sunrise for us in Machu Picchu.

Only Inca Trail hikers get to enjoy that unique sunrise spot. Besides, Machu Picchu opens at 6:00 am, so by the time we made the queue to enter the ruins, sunrise was long gone.

Revisiting Machu Picchu

Still, after going through the effort of hiking and sweating every step, once I entered Machu Picchu for the second time, I felt the same joy and appreciation I felt the first time after I finished the Inca Trail.

I admit I wished for a sunny morning, like the one I had during my first visit. But, that wasn’t the case this time. For most of the morning, Machu Picchu remained covered under a thick layer of fog and clouds that gave an eerie sense to the place.  To my surprise, I loved that sense!

A llama enjoying Machu Picchu

I guess that no matter how many times you visit Machu Picchu, it will always impress you with its grand scale, its artistic details, and its mysteries.

The rest of the day was all about walking around every space in the ruins, absorbing every view, enjoying the landscape, and playing with the llamas – of course! Well, I had to kiss one too! Now, every time I see this picture below I just sing, “I kissed a llama and I liked it” to the tunes of Katy Perry’s famous song.

Kissing the llama

A llama in Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

After spending the entire morning exploring the ruins, it was time to go back. We had a long day ahead backtracking our steps from the day before – a hike down the mountain, a three-hour hike back to the hydroelectric, and a 7 hours bus ride back to Cusco.

Walking on the rails to Machu Picchu
Image by Anh Nguyet.

It’s an exhausting trip, but it is worth every step, every penny, and every minute in transit.

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31 thoughts on “A Cheap, Adventurous Trip To Machu Picchu”

  1. Well, i always look for cheap traveling, because most of travelers shares their experience about their luxury trip.

  2. What a fantastic post! It has been written with a perfect language, when the author combines interesting fact, good sense of humour and useful info about cheap travelling! I think it’s impossible not to be charmed by Machu Picchu magic. I really,really want to visit it! But I’ll be smarter – I will create plan of climing into the mountain before even coming to Peru. So I may wake up later because there will be no need to seek a road ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hi Michael –

      Sorry for the delayed response. It was booked walk-in while in Cusco. There are dozens of agencies there with the exact same tour and similar prices. Most of them don’t even have a website, so it’s just a matter of hunting for good prices while in the city.

      1. I ended up booking through EcoTrek and they seem pretty great so far โ€” I’ll be hiking in September! Thanks for the info anyway!

  3. I was searching for the the adventurous places around the world and I found your blog. I’ve never been to this place before but it looks amazingly beautiful. Thanks for sharing. I’ll look forward to have a small adventurous trip to this place.

  4. Hello,
    Looks Great!
    Do tours sell out?
    I was looking online and it says one would need to book way in advance during the peak months (june-august).

    Is it possible to wait until I arrive to Cusco?

    Cheers!

    1. Hi Bobby –

      It depends on which kind of tour you’re interested in doing. If it’s just to visit the ruins, then you can just buy the tickets in Cusco a day or a few days ahead. If you’re looking forward to do the classic Inca Trail, then you need to book at least 5-6 months in advance with your company of choice.

      If Wayna Picchu is on your list, you should definitely book it at least 2-3 months in advance via the official website http://machupicchu.gob.pe/

      But, if all you want to do is exactly what I did here, then booking a day or a few days in advance is fine. In case you want to be sure you have an entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, you could consider buying the ticket online (ahead of time) and then just pay for transport once in Cusco – so it is cheaper for you.

  5. Hi Norbert,
    You are a very adorable person.

    I just loved the pic in which you are kissing that llama.

    Great tour you had.. wish for an enjoyable future ahead.

  6. Wow, Nice pics. By the way, I was completely unaware of MACHU PICCHU. Thanks for sharing such an excellent location for next holiday. And the best part is, you mentioned it as a low cost trip.

  7. Wow, nice information. This is a great place for spending holiday time. I already plan for my next trip to Peru with Green Peru Adventures. I got lot of information about this place from this amazing post. Thanks for sharing. Hope I will enjoy a lot there.

  8. Salkantay trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.

  9. Hi Norbert,
    There is no sense to travel if it is devoid of adventure and your expeditions have time and again made me realise the kind of excitement and fun which is there in you.
    I am also athletic but I do feel tired.

    What should I do?

    1. Start slowly. Get active and do a small adventure every time you can. Stay active and keep your body in action. Soon you’ll see that you’re capable of doing it.

  10. Hey!

    When you guys bought your tour packages, did you buy it the day before? Just wondering because I’m going this May!:)

  11. This sounds absolutely perfect for me! I’m a bit crazy, according to, well, everybody who knows me, so taking a “standard tour” would just bore me to tears. Going at it more like a local is way better in my opinion. Thanks for the tips. I’ll be going in July this year, independently, after a short missions trip in another city/town. I figure, since I’m going to be in Peru anyway…might as well! Plus, I’m the kind of athlete who needs a goal. I ran the Chicago marathon last year. Needed something new this year. Think I just found it! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. P.S. I noticed you didn’t remember prices/places you stayed. For anyone reading, there are cheap hostels in Cusco and the other places mentioned. You can do anything from $13 a night to well over $100, though, so just look at the prices. Use hostelbooker.com or hostelworld.com, and book in advance if you’re going in the busy season.

  12. The Inca trail system included a route to the Machu Picchu region. The people of Machu Picchu were connected to long-distance trade, as shown by non-local artifacts found at the site. For example, Bingham found unmodified obsidian nodules at the entrance gateway. In the 1970s, Burger and Asaro determined that these obsidian samples were from the Titicaca or Chivay obsidian source, and that the samples from Machu Picchu showed long-distance transport of this obsidian type in pre-Hispanic Peru.

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