One of the seven wonders of the world and by most accounts the most popular tourist destination in South America for foreigners, Machu Picchu is on the list of almost every first-time visitor to Peru. If you look at Peru’s advertising campaigns you’d think it’s the only thing to see in the country.
Each time I’ve visited the region it seems to get more crowded and the town of Aguas Calientes at the base has gone from dumpy little mish-mash to a thriving place where you may actually want to hang around more than one night. None of this comes cheap, however, partly because the site is so isolated. That’s one element of its appeal of course and the main reason the Spanish invaders never found it. It’s at the end of a narrow valley, sitting on top a mountain.
Machu Pichu Entrance Ticket
The entrance fee itself is a little higher than other wonders of the world, but not unreasonable. You have to buy tickets in advance now: the number admitted each day is capped at 2,500. You can see the available number remaining for the day you choose in that box in the screenshot below, by the Book Online box. That’s a good thing because more than that would put additional stress on the historic citadel plus it’s already pretty damned crowded in the morning. The price for foreign adults is 128 soles as of the end of 2015. As I write this the U.S. dollar is strong and this equates to a shade over $38. It’s around 36 weak euros at the moment. Both of these figures will change over time; a few years ago when I was there the price was closer to $45 in U.S. currency. You have to buy the ticket through an agency (usually with a very hefty extra fee) or direct through the government site with a credit card.
It’s another $3 or so if you want to visit the museum, more than that if you also want to climb Huaynu Picchu. (Be advised that’s a really tough hike, especially if you’ve just spent four days on the Inca Trail.) Students pay half price, but you can’t buy those tickets online because you have to show a valid student ID. Here’s where to go in Peru to get it done.
A Bus up the Mountain
But wait, there’s another mandatory charge you can’t get around: a bus ticket. See all those switchbacks on the left of the photo below? You’ll be riding on that road.
It would be logical for this to be part of the entrance ticket since there’s no way to get from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town) to the site without taking a bus up the steep road, but it’s not. You need to pay another $9.50 each way or $18 round trip. The only reasons you’d want a one-way ticket is if you either arrived via the Sun Gate on the Inca Trail and just need to get down, or if you rode the bus up and are walking down. I’ve heard the path down is hard to find in some places though and…have you looked at that photo above? The path goes down the middle of those switchbacks and you’ll be dodging buses that are kicking up dust. The bus is air-conditioned and comfortable.
Getting to the Base and Back
The charges above are just the beginning. You still have to get to the site and back. There are no roads to Aguas Calientes, only a train. There’s sort of a budget traveler workaround that will cost you about $50: you take a bus from Cusco to the hydroelectric plant near the town and then take a local train from there. (This is where the Salkantay hikers often get on as well after ending their trek.) This method is not one the government wants you to take, however, so the agencies selling this option are the only ones that will give you information on it. Watch for signs as you walk around Cusco.
Here’s how one backpacker managed the whole Machu Picchu visit for $109 total (with lodging) by walking along the train tracks from the hydroelectric plant.
What you’re supposed to do is take a very expensive train ride from Cusco (231 to 351 soles each way on Peru Rail) or take the train from the last major stop of Ollaytantambo, which will still cost you more than US$50. You can get to Ollaytantambo by bus.
If Grandma is paying, you can splash out on the fancy Hiram Bingham train for a mere $795 round trip from Cusco. Hey, it includes some food and drinks…
If you’re going legit, I’d recommend just riding the train from Ollaytantambo and taking your time getting to that point. You’ll be rewarded financially and in experiences if you don’t rush through Peru. Some of the car routes through the Sacred Valley are actually more scenic than the train views.
Lodging Near Machu Picchu
In theory you could leave Cusco in the morning, tour the citadel in the afternoon, and return back to Cusco that night. But it would be a real shame. The best option would be to spend the night in Aguas Calientes so you don’t have to rush, but you could also return to Ollaytantambo, where the hotels tend to be a little cheaper. Either way though, lodging won’t set you back as much as some of the other options. On Trivago you’ll find plenty of hotels for $40 double or less in both places and there are a few hostels around, most priced $10 to $16 for a bed on HostelWorld.
You can spend a fortune if you want—there are hotels going for $500 or more per night. But keep in mind that this region gets loads of travelers from all over the world and the vast majority of them are not rich retirees. You’re likely to hear as much Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese while walking around as English.
So how much should you budget for your visit? If you add it all together, this is going to blow your “$5o a day around the world” budget no matter what you do. Suck it up and figure you’re going to spend $200 or more each on this experience, adding another $150 or so if the Inca Trail is in the mix. This will not be an ordinary few days though and it’s not likely that you’ll look back in 20 years and say, “I wish we had skipped Machu Picchu so we could have traveled for another week longer.”
This is one of those trips in the world where it’s not a bad idea to buy a package tour, especially if you get it locally in Cusco. That’s because there are a lot of moving parts involved and a scarcity factor with some items. If an agency takes care of everything they’ll have your tickets secured, they’ll get a good deal on lodging, and you’ll have one flat rate to put on your credit card. No surprises.