Getting to and visiting Machu Picchu really isn’t a budget trip. Entrance alone is about $45 for the day. But it’s a world heritage site and a bucket-list destination so here are some tips that might make it a bit easier on the pocket book so it you can a “somewhat” affordable trip to Machu Picchu:
Affordable Machu Picchu
#1—Save up airline miles to fly for free. A single 50,000 mile American Airlines credit card bonus offer is enough for two people to fly roundtrip in coach from the U.S. to Cusco for free. You can apply for the card, or another card that can give you enough points for a free flight at the website: The Points Guy.
#2—From Cusco take a collectivo (bus) for $10 to Ollantaytambo. After a day or two in Cusco, go to Ollantaytambo for a night. The trip is gorgeous and only takes about an hour. You can pick up a collectivo easily from several places in Cusco and they leave often throughout the day. (Warning—when you return to Cusco, you will probably have to wait a while in Ollantaytambo for the collectivo to fill up. Plan on waiting at least an hour before your van is full and the driver will leave.) Ollantaytambo has several nice ruins and is a nice town to stay for a day. (We stayed at Tunupa Lodge for $50 per night, which was very nice but there are much cheaper options on Booking.com)
Another option of getting from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (or the other way) is to get a private driver for approximately $40 one way and he can take you to several sites along the way so you can make a daytrip out of it. This is a great choice if there are two or more of you traveling together. TIP FOR SACRED VALLEY—It is not easy getting to various sites in the Sacred Valley without hiring a private car, so combining it with private transportation to or from Cusco can make financial sense.
#3—Aquas Calientes is the town closest to Machu Picchu. Almost everyone takes the pricey Peru Rail to Aquas Calientes but there is a way of getting their without taking the train and using collectivos and then on foot. I found instructions on a few websites but it seemed too complicated and required several hours of hiking. We opted for the least expensive train option, the Expedition, for $52 each way. The train was much nicer than we expected with huge windows, including on the roof of the train, comfortable seats, tables and a free pastry and soft drink. I can’t imagine why anyone would need to take the more expensive options as you are looking at exactly the same scenery.
#4—Buy your Machu Picchu tickets online in advance. This is not a cost-saving tip but at least you will get points/miles and you will be assured tickets. The website is a little difficult to figure out and it took me several times. You must have a “verified” credit card. I happen to have an American Airlines “verified” MasterCard that I used. You can purchase tickets in Cusco and Aquas Calientes also but I wouldn’t risk the tickets being sold out. Also, we purchased additional tickets to climb Huayna Picchu, which DO require booking several months in advance. The trail up Huayna Picchu is a little scary but not as bad as I expected and it’s worth the money to take on the challenge and see MP from the very top.
#5—Stay in the cheapest place possible in Aquas Caliente. We did NOT do this and we regret it. We paid $70 per night in a 3-star hotel that looked great online but it was more like a crappy hostel. There was no shower water pressure and it was very noisy. The reason we chose this “nicer” hotel was to get a good sleep for our big day at Machu Picchu.
The town itself is actually pretty cute and there are lots of restaurants offering “tourist menus” of three courses for about US$15 and all bars offer 2-for-1 strong pisco sours.
#6—Take the bus up to MP—don’t hike—and don’t go too early. There is a hike from town up to MP and many people do this to save money but it is a long, steep climb basically along where the bus goes. The bus is $19 round trip and it’s worth every penny to save your energy for MP.
Also, there’s really no point getting to MP at the crack of dawn. I know people talk about getting there before the crowds but the tour groups didn’t get there until noon so if you get there at 10:00 you still have plenty of time. Additionally, the cloud cover is very thick most mornings so the best photo opportunities are in the afternoon. The crowds thinned out after 3:00 so our best pictures were late afternoon, then we took the bus back down to Aquas Calientes, had dinner and got on the train back to Ollantaytambo.
#7—Bring snacks and water to MP. The workers at the entrance didn’t even look in our bag. You are allowed a small backpack and you can find plenty of quiet corners to eat an apple, energy bar, sandwich, etc. It may sound crazy but we brought a couple of Cliff Bars from home just for eating at MP. It is a long walk from the ruins back to the entrance were the café and restaurant are plus they are expensive for lunch. Save your time and energy for exploring the ruins. (Unfortunately, the only bathroom is also at the entrance so use the toilet before you enter MP.)