2017-05-08 11:00:03
Frugal Traveler: Conquering Machu Picchu, the Cheap and Quick Way

“Was it worth it?” That’s the most common question I’ve fielded since I visited Machu Picchu, the ruins of a 15th-century Incan estate that sit almost 8,000 feet above sea level. Thrust back into prominence when the American explorer Hiram Bingham “discovered” it in 1911, it was used, by some accounts, as a palace, a retreat for the wealthy, a religious sanctuary or all three. Today, the photo-friendly ruins (popular with tourists and Obamas alike) receive thousands of visitors daily and are the engine that drives Peru’s tourism industry.

But the question is understandable: The trip is not a simple one, and can quickly become expensive and time-consuming. Hiking the Inca Trail, the classic journey from Piskacucho to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu, is popular with students and backpackers (there are many tour operators, including SAS Travel, PeruTreks and Llama Path). It costs about $700 before incidentals and gratuities and sells out months ahead of time. What’s more, it’s a four-day journey — a chunk of time I wasn’t able to set aside during my visit to Peru.

And yet, my response: It’s absolutely worth it, provided you’re prepared to do a bit of planning. Below, I’ve outlined how to make your visit to Machu Picchu a day trip from Cuzco. It requires a little extra forethought, but you can do it, unrushed, in a day — saving you both time and money.

Even though Machu Picchu is a mere 50 miles from Cuzco, it’s not the simplest place to get to; your trip will probably involve travel by plane, train and bus. The flight part is the easiest: Nonstops into Cuzco are frequent. You’ll probably be arriving from Lima, but there are also direct flights from La Paz, Bolivia, and Bogotá, Colombia. Avianca, Latam and Peruvian Airlines all service the area. Expect to pay $90 to $190 for a one-way flight if you go during the high season (July and August).

The next step depends on what time of year it is — trains don’t run directly from Cuzco from January through April during the rainy season. If you go then (as I did), you will have to take a two-hour bus ride from Cuzco to the train station in Ollantaytambo. (A taxi is a viable option if you travel with a group.) From there, it’s an hour and 45 minutes by train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

I left Cuzco at 4:50 a.m. and found myself in Aguas Calientes around 9 a.m., leaving me about seven hours to explore Machu Picchu and before my train left at 4:12 p.m. The round-trip cost was $155 via Inca Rail (the other big operator, PeruRail, also offers an upscale train called the Hiram Bingham, for six times the cost of its regular trains).

If you’re going in dry season, you’ll contend with more tourists but you’ll also have the option of a more direct journey. Instead of a long bus journey to the train in Ollantaytambo, you’ll be able to take a train directly from Poroy station, just 20 minutes outside Cuzco. I suggest leaving as early as possible to maximize your time at Machu Picchu.

If you’re planning to head to Machu Picchu the day after you arrive in Cuzco, it’s important to have enough time to stop by the train office to get your tickets — I received only a receipt for my online purchase, with instructions to pick up the tickets in person. The Inca Rail office opens at 7 a.m. daily and closes at 9 p.m. on weekdays, 7 p.m. on Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. If your journey begins before 7 a.m., as mine did, leave time the day before to go to the office.

You currently have four ticketing options: entrance to Machu Picchu (152 Peruvian soles, about $46); entrance to Machu Picchu after 1 p.m. (100 soles); entrance with access to Machu Picchu mountain (200 soles); and entrance with access to Huayna Picchu mountain (200 soles). (Why climb one of the two mountains? For the challenge and, naturally, for the views at the summit. Note that mornings can be foggy.)

There are 2,500 tickets allotted per day for Machu Picchu, 1,000 for afternoon entrance, 800 for Machu Picchu mountain and only 400 for Huayna Picchu. The tickets with mountain access are timed; you will have an hour window to enter. There are multiple ways to buy the tickets, but I opted to buy them directly from the official Peruvian government website. (Note that beginning July 1, the system is changing and visits to the main site will be divided into two shifts, from 6 a.m. to noon and from noon to 5:30 p.m.)

Regular entrance tickets should be bought ahead of time, but with 2,500 available per day, you don’t need to plan quite as carefully as with the other options. I chose to climb Huayna Picchu (in the classic Machu Picchu pictures, it’s the big mountain towering in the background), where visitors can enter in two groups: at 7 a.m. and at 10 a.m. It’s a popular ticket, especially during high season, and I recommend buying well in advance — I got the last ticket for the day I went.

While at a lower elevation than Cuzco, Machu Picchu is still at a considerable altitude. Being in peak physical condition is not required to visit, but visitors who wish to challenge themselves will find plenty of opportunities to do so. Huayna Picchu, the mountain I hiked, is a challenging but eminently doable climb. Take your time, bring plenty of water and pace yourself during the hourlong uphill climb. I would not recommend this option for those with a fear of heights or vertigo, as there are very steep sections.

From Aguas Calientes, you can take a bus to the site ($24, round-trip) or you can hike the switchbacks all the way up. The moderately challenging uphill climb should take around 90 minutes. One important thing to note about the bus up to Machu Picchu — the operator accepts American Express and MasterCard, but not Visa.

Bring sunblock, a hat and plenty of water (don’t bother with a poncho — you can pick those up for a few soles at the train station if needed). Print out all of your receipts and tickets in advance, bring the credit card you used to make any online purchases, and keep your passport on you — you will need this to enter the site (I’ve never had my passport checked and rechecked so many times in my life). Water gets progressively more expensive the closer you get to Machu Picchu — a bottle on the street in Cuzco will run you around 2 soles; by the time you get to the site, it’s 8 soles.

If you’re continuing travel within Central and South America, you will need proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter certain countries if you’ve been to Machu Picchu. I saw a man denied access at the gate to a flight from Lima to Costa Rica because he had been to Machu Picchu and did not have proof of vaccination. How did the gate agent know? The man had gotten a Machu Picchu tourist stamp in his passport — there is a place near the entrance to get this done.