If you’ve opened this then you’re probably planning to visit the majestic former Inca retreat, Machu Picchu (MP). When I went in September 2015, I was oblivious as to how far Machu Picchu was from Cusco and I underestimated just how remote this location is. I had just finished a three-month backpacking trip through Europe and assumed that getting to Machu Picchu was going to be as easy as getting to any major landmark in Europe. Give me a break, I was so naïve then lol. WELL that certainly turned out to NOT be the case and when I got to Cusco I was freaking out about my options. I COULD shell out $175-$200 (which I didn’t have) for a RT train ticket that would take me from Cusco to the Machu Picchu’s base city of Aguas Calientes. ORRRRRR I could do a multi-day trek on the Inca Trail that could cost anywhere between $500-$1,000 (DEFINITELY DID NOT HAVE and definitely did not have proper gear/physical endurance for THAT). I’ll admit, I came to Peru ill-researched and unprepared. BUT I did manage to find a third, less discussed option that turned out to be, the cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu.
I was three days into my trip and being as it was my first solo trip, was feeling lonely in this new country. I decided to shoot a message on a Facebook group I’m part of (SHOUTOUT TO GIRLS LOVE TRAVEL) and see if any ladies happened to be making their way to MP. One of the girls who replied turned out to be an angel in disguise. She and her husband were staying in Cusco and planning to make the trip to Machu Picchu in a few days. I needed friends, they enjoyed company, it was a match made in travel heaven. In the same financial bind as me, she was also freaking out about the cost of transportation but then managed to find the third option I mentioned above.
The third and extremely inexpensive option to get to MP is to grab a seat on one of the caravans that make the 10hr journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu every day. A seat on this caravan at the time ran about $14 which was significantly more in my price range. The caravan drops you off in a “town” which is not really a town called Hidroelectrica. From Hidroelectrica, it is about a 10km hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes.
The train tracks are up a hill from where the vans drop you off. Almost everybody getting dropped off is going to the exact same place that you’re going so you can absolutely follow the crowd in this situation. It’s about a 2-3 hour, easy hike from there. The hike follows the Urubamba River and the views really are incredible. At one point if you peek up just at the right moment during your hike you’ll be able to catch a view of MP high up on the tip of a mountain. By the time the van drops you off and you get through this hike, it’s likely going to be nighttime. Consider staying in Aguas Calientes for the night and head to Machu Picchu bright and early in the morning. There are two ways to reach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The 1st is hiking up what seemed like a million steps to the entrance. This is most certainly the option I did NOT opt for. ORRRRRR you can take the cheap bus ride that will drop you off right at the top. You can purchase your bus ticket in the center of Aguas Calientes or from the link I just dropped.
SOME PRACTICAL TIPS:
- The ride from Cusco to Hidroelectrica is unpredictable. The switchbacks are no joke, the altitude is super high and your driver will probably make random stops in towns without warning. He might pick a few people up, he might stop to have a new tire put on. You never really know. Make sure you pack for these situations. Snacks are a must and bring something in case you start to get a bit nauseous. Personally, I always carry peppermint oil when I travel for this very reason.
- The minute you get off the caravan at Hidroelectrica, DOUSE YOURSELF IN BUG SPRAY. I can’t stress that enough. Everyone gave me this warning when I was leaving Cusco but I didn’t realize how serious they were. The bugs there will literally swarm you the minute you step off the van and the next thing you know you’re covered in bug bites.
- There is a restaurant which is more like a shack that sits along the tracks. Over the one burner a beautiful abuelita cooks the best stew. The van trip we took included a free meal. Which after 10 hours on a bus I would have eaten my left arm. I absolutely recommend stopping here. The meal was perfect for the hike I was about to take and was SO GOOD. The restaurant doesn’t have a name and only accepts cash, so keep that in mind.
- If you’re worried you’re going to get run over by the train, don’t be. It’s REALLY loud and REALLLLLYYYY slow, you’ll see it coming and have enough time to get out of the way. I promise.
- The terrain can get a little rough, make sure you pack proper footwear. Leave your heels and white canvas sneakers at home for this one.
- There are parts of the walk where you have to walk narrow boards crossing a river which, for clumsy people like myself can be a little nerve-racking.
I really loved the option that I chose for getting to Machu Picchu. The ride would hop along mountaintops and gave me views of Peru that I never thought existed. I was treated to intimate views of the Andes and the Peruvian rainforest. If you are looking for a budget-friendly option for getting from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu then this is your best bet!