We deliberated so much about how best to approach Machu Picchu but couldn’t make a decision so we headed to Cusco without much of a plan. Cusco is the main town from which all journeys to Machu Picchu begin. Whilst in Cusco we recommend a stay at the wonderful Milhouse Hostel, built around an 18th century patio, complete with hot showers and boasting one of the best free breakfasts we’ve had in South America, it makes a perfect place to stay before and after Machu Picchu. Whilst in Cusco we used the time to do our research and speak to agents to make our decision. It is always much cheaper to book in store than online unless you are planning to do the Inka Trail which needs to be booked months in advance. Here are the main options we found for your trip to Machu Picchu...
The most renowned method of reaching Machu Picchu is the traditional Inka Trail. It’s a seven day hike along the original trail the Inkas used but with it being so sought after, you have to book at least six months in advance and pay around $500 depending on which company you choose.
If however, like us, you don’t know where your going to be in six months and can’t afford $500 then there is an alternative. The Salkantay track is a similar hike also partially used by the Inkas. The major difference being that you can book the day before you leave and only pay a fraction of the price. With some good haggling, we found ourselves paying $160 each including the rental of sleeping bags. The route begins with a transfer to the Humantay Lake, which is stunning, before hiking to your first accommodation under the stars in the valley below Salkantay. It gets down to -5 so be sure to bring your gloves and thermals. The next day you will hike up to nearly 5000 metres above sea level to the Salkantay pass, also known as the ‘gringo killer’. The hike is steep and quite hard in the altitude but you are rewarded with stunning mountain landscapes. The final day before Machu Picchu has completely different scenery as you venture into the jungle. The final part of the trail follows the same route as the unguided section except your meals, accommodation and Machu Picchu entrance ticket is all covered. You also have a 2 hour guided tour of Machu Picchu included to learn more about this wonder of the world.
You can opt to include fourth night in which you spend the extra day in thermal baths and zip lining through the jungle, which are not included in the price of the tour.
Time: 3 Nights 4 Days / 4 Nights 5 Days
Marginally the cheapest option is to go it alone. Catch a bus from Cusco to Hydroelectrica for around $25. It’s a six hour journey along a winding dirt path overlooking a jaw clenching cliff edge but boasting spectacular views. It’s not an enjoyable ride as the buses are uncomfortable and it’s impossible to sleep as the bus jerks around every corner. Once you arrive in Hydroelectrica, you walk for three hours along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes where you spend the night before heading to Machu Picchu in the morning. It’s impossible to get lost as you simply follow the train tracks along the easy flat terrain for two to three hours (although remember to go around the tunnel not through it or you may die!). The walk is pleasant and you can catch glimpses of Machu Picchu high up in the mountain tops. There are venders en route selling drinks, snacks and sandwiches if you need a boost. Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes, if you haven’t done so already in Cusco, purchase your Machu Picchu tickets for the following day for $45 from the authorised ticket counter and find accommodation for the night, we recommend the Salkantay Inn for hot showers and clean, comfortable beds. In the morning wake up at 4am and set off in time to reach the first checkpoint (a 20min walk) before it opens at 5am. Once through, hike up the 3000 steps to the entrance. You will find a queue but if you run up the stairs (like we did) you may find yourself first in line. When inside head directly up to the viewing platforms to get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu in all its glory before the hoards of tourists and flag bearing guides arrive.
Be sure to leave Machu Picchu before 12 to make it back to Hydroelectrica before 3pm, when most of the mini buses leave. Trust us, you won’t want to stay any longer as by this time it is not longer Machu Picchu it’s more like ‘Machu People’ (pun stolen from an overheard guide). When you arrive back at the first checkpoint you will notice a small staircase to the left which brings you back to the tunnel. Follow the tracks back to Hydroelectrica and jump on another bus back to Cusco.
Cost: $100 plus food
Time: 2 days 1 night
The best option for those short on time. The Inka Rail offers a stunning rail journey to Aguas Callientes for around $120-$200 depending on which class you chose. The train passes incredible views and offers a glass observation carriage to take it all in. The journey to and from Machu Picchu can be made in a day or you can spend the night in Aguas Callientes to be one of the first into Machu Picchu in the morning before taking your return train later in the day. Once in Aguas Calientes you can hike up the stairs to Machu Picchu or take the bus for $12 each way. Be aware the trains do not go all the way to Cusco and you may need to take a bus / taxi to and from the station.
Time: 1 day
Of the above choices we decided to take the Salkantay trek and were extremely happy with our choice. The camping was, what we considered to be, luxury with glass fronted pre-erected tents and fully functional toilets and showers. The food throughout the trek was great and meant that we didn’t have to carry all of our food. With the Salkantay we got to experience the unguided Machu Picchu and got that feeling of accomplishment once we reached the top. Be careful as the price varies massively from agent to agent so try not to pay more than $160-$170. As a part of the tour you are offered a guided tour of Machu Picchu but we decided to forgo the tour in favour of making it in first and exploring on our own.