A Totally Unconventional Guide to Cusco & Machu Picchu

While Machu Picchu was one of the most anticipated places we wanted to visit during our backpacking trip in South America, we knew we wouldn’t be able to splurge on a guided Inca Trail experience or the luxurious train ride (who knew those things would be so expensive?!)

For someone planning a trip to Machu Picchu, those are undoubtedly incredible ways to make it a one-of-a-kind experience. However for budget travelers like ourselves, it meant that we had to figure out how to do Machu Picchu on a budget.

If you’re in a similar situation where you want to find the cheapest alternative in terms of accommodation and transportation (and still have an incredible time), then this Totally Unconventional Guide to Machu Picchu is for you.

Here are my top money-saving tips for the budget travelers visiting Machu Picchu.

Take a minibus from Cusco to Hidroelectrica and hike to Aguas Calientes

This has to be the cheapest way to reach Aguas Calientes (a touristic town built at the foothills of Machu Picchu). There are plenty of companies offering shuttle services daily-usually mini-buses that can fit 15 people. They pick you up from central Cusco at 7:15am and usually arrive at Hidroelectrica around 3pm.

From Hidroelectrica, you basically trek for 2 hours alongside an active railway. The walk is flat and surrounded by a lush forest. Be ready to sweat as the climate is tropical and some areas have no shade. Many people do this so you will not be alone.

We spent the night at a modest hostel in Aguas Calientes and the following day we hiked all the way to Machu Picchu’s entrance. It is an uphill hike of around 1.5 hours to 2 hours. Browse accommodations in Aguas Calientes with glowing reviews here.

Savings

  • By not taking the Inca Rail from Cusco to Aguas Calientes: more than $100 USD (for two people)
  • By trekking instead of taking the train between Hidroelectrica and Aguas Calientes: $50 USD (for two people)
  • By not taking the bus from Aguas Calientes to Macchu Picchu entrance: $48 USD (roundtrip for two people)

Buy a single-day ticket to Machu Picchu 

In our experience, one day was enough to take in all the beauty Machu Picchu has to offer. Unless you want to do some of the hikes (e.g. Huayna Picchu), a single day ticket should be more than fine!

Also, another thing we weren’t sure about was whether to buy tickets for the morning or afternoon shift (they cost the same). In the end, we went for the afternoon shift because we knew we wanted to hike from Aguas Calientes but dreaded the idea of waking up at 4 am to hike in the dark. The afternoon ticket allowed us to set our own pace and the extra bonus was that there were fewer crowds inside the site. Having just visited in the afternoon it is hard for me to say which one is better but I can certainly say we don’t regret going in the afternoon one bit. We had an amazing time and we were able to take lots of beautiful pictures even when it suddenly got gloomy.

FYI, the afternoon ticket grants you entry from 11am onwards.

Don’t hire a Machu Picchu Guide

Unsurprisingly, there are no signboards inside Machu Picchu or pamphlets that explain the significance of each of the sites. Obviously you’d want to learn as much as possible about Machu Picchu and when you see that most tourists at the entrance hire a guide to accompany them, you’ll feel you need to do that too. However, it’s not really necessary. With a bit of preparation by way of watching documentaries on Youtube or dowloading free books/travel guides, you’ll understand the basics and make it a meaningful visit. Trust me! Also, you’ll be able to visit the site at your pace and take as many pictures as you want, when you feel like it.

Tip | If you opt to hire an official tour guide on the spot, bear in mind that the language skills and knowledge of guides can vary greatly, so pick carefully.

  • Money saved by not hiring an official tour guide: $50 USD (for two people)

Skip the Boleto Turistico and enjoy the free activities in Cusco

Once you arrive in Cusco, you’ll quickly find out that major tourist landmarks can only be visited with the purchase of this bundle ticket called Boleto Turistico, which is supposed to be a good deal (I believe it was around $38 USD per person). For budget travelers like ourselves, it just felt a bit too expensive. There, I said it! 

To our surprise, there are plenty of things to enjoy in Cusco and if there’s a specific place you don’t want to miss you can simply organize a visit or a tour just for that (Rainbow Mountain or Maras Salt Mines, for example).

Some of our favorite free things to do in Cusco:

– Buy exotic fruits & snacks at Mercado San Pedro

– Visit Santo Domingo Church

– Go cafe hopping in San Blas Quarter

Learn about the Quechuan culture at Museo Quechua

Enjoy some people-watching at Plaza de Armas

Indulge in a delicious vegetarian lunch set meal at El Encuentro

We also heard there are free walking tours every day (they are not technically free since you’re expected to tip the tour guide). It could be a good way to get a better grasp of the history of Cusco and I would assume they take you to landmarks without an entrance fee.

  • Money saved by not purchasing the Boleto Turistico: $80+ USD (for two people)

There you have it – my top tips for visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu on a budget. I hope you found this guide useful and remember, do whatever suits you best. You don’t have to follow all the recommendations from the travel guidebooks. There’s no right or wrong – that’s the beauty of traveling.

Questions? Please leave them down below or connect with me via Instagram @inbetweenlattesblog

Backpacking in South America? Check out these travel guides to help you plan your trip.

PERU TRAVEL GUIDES

BOLIVIA TRAVEL GUIDES

CHILE TRAVEL GUIDES

ARGENTINA TRAVEL GUIDES

ECUADOR TRAVEL GUIDES

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