Everyone who is planning his or her trip to the most famous Inca ruins in Peru will be perplexed by the fares of the railroad companies, who offer the most common and popular way to Machu Picchu (MP). For barely a three hour ride, they charge at least $70 – I checked the prices one week in advance. Even if you book months before, you will pay at least $40 for a one-way ticket. In a country such as Peru, where a three-course menu costs 9-15 Soles ($2.8-4,8), this is completely ridiculous. Traveling in Peru will teach you that as a “Gringo” you pay at least double or four times more than a local. Nonetheless, this fares border to robbery. Luckily, there have been many travelers, who wrote several guides to take an alternative route to MP.
For I am a poor student and thus traveling on budget, I did extensive research on MP in order to get the best experience for the fewest coins. I found this guide by Chad on chanatrek. He did an amazing job explaining the route via Santa Maria/Santa Teresa to MP by which I paid for the whole trip, including hostel, transportation (both ways) and MP ticket, less than $85. In the following I want to share my experience of this route and offer several updates on the already six-year-old guide. Before you decide that you want to go to MP via Santa Maria, you should consider that this way takes significantly longer than merely buying a train ticket for both ways. I suggest to plan at least three days for Cusco – MP – Cusco. However, I strongly encourage you to make several stops along the way and expand the journey to five days – more on that later.
A few information to my circumstances before I will start the actual guide – for a summary scroll to the end. In May, I arrived to Cusco one day prior to my journey to MP and traveled alone. I took the day for planning the trip, which means buying the MP ticket in the office of the Ministerio de Cultura.
Note that the office in Cusco is in Calle Garcilaso, close to the Plaza Regocuo, not in Av. Garcilaso de la Vega / Av. Huascar as many sites on the internet suggests. Even the employee of my first hostel sent me to the wrong street and I was wandering around for at least an hour wondering why the office should be in such a shabby neighborhood.
From the beginning to the end of this trip to the Inca ruins, you will encounter scamming, cheating and lying. If you consider to buy tickets online. This is the official website – under queries you can also see how many tickets are left. A ticket for MP only costs an adult (foreigner) 128 Soles ($40). Not more or less!
See this “agencies” in constrast:
Otherwise, you can buy a ticket in Cusco or on site in Aguas Calientes in the offices of the cultural ministry. I hope I do not have to remind you to refrain from buying anything at the street or sketchy travel agencies. Most popular hostels you find with hostelworld offer various trips to MP (Salkantay trek, Inca trek, by bus or by car), if you really want to have a guided tour.
After I finally got the ticket, I asked the official tourist information (next to La Merced) whether the route via Santa Maria is accessible. I arrived in May and read many horror stories of floodings, earth slides and painful deaths. Do not be irritated, the friendly woman of the tourist information (TI) described me the way from Cusco to MP via Santa Maria in detail and said it was “perfectly” safe. You will encounter many other backpackers on your way and there are even guided tours on this route. Naturally, this way is riskier than the train, but in a perfectly reasonable framework. At the end of the day, I bought food for the way and Aguas Calientes, which is the incarnation of a tourist trap charging you triple the price for food than Peruvian standard. I went to bed early, because I left my hostel at 4:20 am to reach the first collectivo to Santa Maria. It should be fine to take a later one, thou not later than 7:00 am. However, in Peru things work differently. The collectivo driver will only depart after the van is completely full, and not according to such a thing as a schedule, which has absolutely no power in South America.
I took a cab to Quillabamba bus station (not the regular “terminal terrestre”), which cost me 10 Soles. I would refrain from walking there because it is a dangerous district (no exaggeration here, the TI mentioned it, too) and you want to leave early thus it will still be dark. The taxi driver asked me whether I want to take a collectivo or bus. In my broken Spanish I replied that I would like to take a collectivo to Santa Maria. During my stay in Cusco, there was a strike of the indigenous population blocking the roads after 7:00 am. Hence, official bus companies were not working. The taxi driver knew that and drove me to the a sketchy side street, where another man opened the door. He inquired with the words “Santa Maria, Santa Maria” where I wanted to go and asked for my bag. I overcame my first thoughts of being kidnapped and handed over my bag. When I stepped out of the taxi, I saw the collectivo and could see other travelers – a very relieving sight. I paid 30 Soles for the ride to Santa Maria and entered the mini-van. In the collectivo I met a fellow-traveler from Spain, who was aiming for the same route to MP. We decided to travel together for the time being.
The route to Santa Maria is beautiful and frightening. If you suffer from motion sickness or fear of heights, try to sleep. This street is relatively new and is damaged by earth slides on a regular basis. Nevertheless, I felt safe with the driver, who had a firm grip of the car and has probably driven this road hundreds of times. We left Cusco around 5 am and arrived in Santa Maria at 10 am. In the small jungle town we were immediately asked by another taxi driver whether we wanted to go to Santa Teresa. Even with the help of the Spanish backpacker, we could not negotiate the price reasonably. Thus, we paid 12 Soles each – It should not be more than 10 Soles. The road from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa is probably the most adventurous part of this route and my heart was beating faster on more than one occasion. However, you are paid off by an amazing view of Peruvian landscape.
At 10:30 am we arrived in Santa Teresa, where we could wait again for the collectivo to fill up and pay 5 Soles or pay 10 and go immediately to Hydroelectrica. Our impatience got the upper hand after 30 minutes and considering the strike, we concluded that no other backpackers will arrive. The road to the power station was comparatively uninteresting, we arrived around 11 am and started our march to Aguas Calientes.
The walk from Hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes is so popular by now that you will encounter many other travelers. As soon as you reach the tracks, there are even signs showing you the right direction to MP and Aguas Calientes. Do not worry about the train, we have encountered only one on our 2 1/2 hour walk, which was slow and loud. You will notice the train approaching and on the whole trek is enough space to have a safe distance to the tracks. Enjoy the beautiful view during the walk to Aguas Calientes and the quiet for you will enter the biggest tourist trap in Peru soon enough.
In Machu Picchu Pueblo (aka Aguas Calientes)
In Aguas Calientes I rented a room at a cheap hostel – which was not that cheap. Thou I decided to stay with my Spanish travel companion. However, he bought a ticket in Aguas Calientes to MP and Wayna Picchu. He was not going to wake up at 4:00 am and walk up to MP, but take the first bus at 5:00. So our ways parted. For the hostel we paid 60 Soles for a bed including a bread and butter breakfast. I am pretty sure, you will find cheaper hostels. However, I was glad to have my own room because the trip dragged me out and I was going to wake up at 4:00 am to rush to MP. The friendly hostess gave me the breakfast in a lunchbox, after we settled that I could store my bag in the hostel until I came back. (Sidenote: If you want to eat in Aguas Calientes as I did, consider that they will always charge you 7 Soles service fee)
The Race to Machu Picchu
The next morning I left the hostel at 4:20 am and took the direction to MP. Straight out of town from the direction you entered the village the day before and always straight. You will see other people walking in the same direction – bring a flashlight, you will need it. When I arrived at the gate at the bottom of the MP, there was already a line of 30-40 people. The bottom gates are opened at 5:00 am – South American time meaning something between 5:00 and 5:15. The race to MP is tough, but the reward is truly amazing. After a steep hike of 30-40 minutes up the mountain, I arrived with the dawn at the top gates of MP and was in the top 10. Just 5-10 minutes later, the first bus from Aguas Calientes arrived and the line became huge. Completely drained in sweat, it became very cold at the top of the mountain. Bring a jacket, a hat and an umbrella in case of rain. Though I suggest to travel as lightly as possible to make the hike easier. I just went with a bottle of water and dressed in several layers. The top gate opens at 6:00 am. When you enter MP go to the left (Inca bridge) and hike another time for 5-10 minutes. Do not stop to make any pictures yet, you want to be the first at the top and enjoy the most incredible view of MP. At the very top of MP, close to the entrance of MP Mountain, you have your postcard view of MP. Enjoy the Inca ruins without any other tourists.
To be one of the very first at MP made the experience unique and memorable for me. The atmosphere of this forsaken Inca ruins at the top of the mountains is indescribable and worth the lack of sleep, energy and sweat. In my opinion MP can only retain this special atmosphere until 8:am. Afterwards hoards of tourists wedge through the narrow paths and ruins. Dozens of guided tours are blocking your way and destroy the calmness of this sacred place of the Incas. I descended the mountain by foot at 10:00, where MP loses its charm completely because it feels more like Disney Land. The walk down is considerably easier and less crowded, although I was exhausted by the hike and walking around MP. I decided to leave Aguas Calientes the same day for it urged a repelling feeling in me. There are hot springs in this tourist trap of a village, though I strongly suggest to go to Cocalmayo, close to Santa Teresa (Do not forget to buy food and water for your trip back). At Hydroelectrica are taxis and collectivos waiting for you, who drive for 5 Soles back to Santa Teresa or Santa Maria. If you want you can go back the same day on the same route. However, I suggest to make a trip through the Sacred Valley on your way back. I will cover this trip in a future post.
- MP only, foreigner ticket: 128 Soles (students pay 64, but they only accept ISC)
- Taxi from Hostel to Quillabamba: 10 Soles (should be 5, but fares are higher during the night)
- Collectivo from Cusco to Santa Maria: 30 Soles
- Taxi from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa: 12 Soles (should be 10)
- Santa Teresa to Hydroelectrica: 10 Soles(should be 5)
- Walk from Hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes: free
- Hostel in Aguas Calientes: 60 Soles (too much)
- Walk to MP: free
- Walk back to Aguas Calientes: free
- Walk back to Hydroelectrica: free
- Hydroelectrica to Santa Teresa: 5 Soles (to Santa Maria 10)
- I stayed in Santa Teresa for a night and visited the hot springs, Cocalmayo.
- Santa Maria to Cusco: 30 Soles
In total: 290 Soles, if you are going back to Cusco. This is roughly $84. Compare the price with the one-way ticket at the beginning for the train.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask. In the following post, I will cover my journey through the Sacred Valley.