Andean Explorations – 20: The road to Machu Picchu

This post is part of my Peru travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

Machu Picchu (माचू पीचू*) is a pre-Columbian Inca site located 2,400m above MSL. It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley, Often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu probably is the most familiar symbol of the Inca Empire. In Quechua, the language of Incas, it means “Old mountain” (Wikipedia).
* ‘‘ as pronounced in Hindi, not Marathi.

Visiting Machu Picchu is not cheap.

There are three primary ways to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco:

Route Duration Cost
Inca Trail 4 days $400-$500 one way, includes entrance fees
Peru Rail 4 hours by train + 1 hour by bus $110-160 return + $50 entrance
Hopping across villages 6-8 hours $50-$80 return + $50 entrance

Oh, and if nothing works, you are welcome to see pictures of MP on the internet, my website for example. 😉

For days and weeks prior to my trip I was worried about these costs. These are too exorbitant – no wonder ordinary Peruvians cannot go to Machu Pichu. Heck, the place appears almost exclusively for rich people / people from rich countries / rich people from some countries (sorry, don’t know how to put it politically correctly, but you know what I mean!)

  1. Inca trail: This is a lovely way to go to Machu Picchu. A four-day trek through ancient Inca trail (Incas built many paths all over the Andes, wow) passes through a number of historic, architectural and phenomenally beautiful natural views (or so I am told). Concern about overuse leading to erosion has led the Peruvian government to place a limit on the number of people who may hike this trail per season, and to sharply limit the companies that can provide guides. As a result, advance booking is mandatory. A maximum of 500 people, including guides and porters, are permitted to begin the trail every day. As a result, the high season books out very quickly – often months in advance.
  2. Peru rail: I thought that the Perurail is nothing short of a complete scam to squeeze money out of you. Pretty bold statement, but when I make that comment, I am looking at staggering $150 for a 70 km, 4 hr journey. Why? Monopoly. Currently there is no other option available for majority of the visitors. I feel like writing a huge paragraph about monopolies, esp the ones like this that are government imposed. There are two types of trains: The Vistadomes (super expensive) and the Backpacker (expensive). I should clarify – I have nothing against luxury trains (example: Palace on Wheels or Deccan Odyssey in India), they have a target market for sure. The problem arises only when taking the luxury train is the only option you have, and as a backpacker on shoestring budget, I think that’s unfair.

  3. Village hopping: The third option is not an option really but a workaround, quite funny and smart. It requires taking a 4 hour ride in combi from Cusco to Santa Teressa, then a 20 minute taxi to Santa Maria, crossing the river to the hydroelectric station, taking a taxi again, and finally walking for 8 km to Aguas Calentes. There are several websites, blogs and guidebooks explaining the process in detail. Unfortunately due to lack of time I couldn’t do this, and with the student discounts on partial train journey it worked out almost the same cost.

Machu Picchu is in the middle of the Andes and the town at the base of the mountain is the little town Aguas Calientes (अगुअास् कालीअांतेस्). There is no approach by road to Aguas Calentes, and the only way to reach there is by train or a long trek. So people usually do the option #1 Inka trail – for which booking is required months in advance, or they have to take the option #2 – overpriced Perurail train. As a result, Aguas Calientes is outrageously expensive and touristic. There is nothing to do here and people are forced to be here only for the purpose of visiting Macchu Picchu. Afterall its the entrance to one of the new 7 wonders of the world!

Statue of the ‘First Inca’, Plaza de Armas, Aguas Calientes

There’s more. From Aguas Calentes, Machu Picchu is 500m higher. This means one has to hike or take the bus. The bus takes 20 minutes and the company has a monopoly, so no points for guessing how expensive it is. If you decide to hike but you also want to see the sunrise, then you have to start walking at 4am. Good luck.

Finally the MP site itself. Entrance ticket for Gringos (i.e. foreigners) is S/. 122 i.e. approximately $47.

Where does all this money go? The Peruvian friends I met were highly critical of this blatant money making business. They say its a government scam and the money goes to Spain and Chile (?). That is also a reason why Peruvians themselves cannot afford to go to MP! Sunday, the day I went there, is discounted by 50% for locals, so there were many domestic tourists.

I did a partial train journey from Ollanteytambyo for $62 return. Still wayy too high, but a smaller hole in my pocket anyway. Students get discounted price – you will need a university student id or the ISIC (International Student Identity Card). Yes, all this sounds frustrating and cumbersome and it is to an extent if you are not prepared. But at the end when you reach Machu Picchu, suddenly it’s all worth it. 🙂

This post is part of my Peru travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery