Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget
Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Get There for Less - Bus and Train Options
Getting to Machu Picchu affordably is all about avoiding pricey flights and leveraging cheaper ground transportation options. While it may seem tempting to snag a direct flight into Cusco, this convenience comes at a cost. By opting for budget carriers and creative routings, you can shave hundreds off the price of your plane ticket.
Another key way to save is taking the train or bus for the final leg up to Aguas Calientes and the famous Incan citadel. Though the panoramic train ride is renowned, tickets often run $200 roundtrip or more. With some pre-planning, you can easily do the route for a fraction of the price via bus or local train.
Travel blogger Amanda Zeisset of Adventures with NieNie opted to bus from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes to start her Machu Picchu trek, saving a bundle versus the spendy PeruRail train. Though the road is windy, Zeisset said the views along the route were stunning. She paid just $12 for her ticket compared to $75 or more by train.
Alternatively, you can take the local train operated by Inca Rail from Ollantaytambo. Though not as cushy as the scenic trains, it's far cheaper at about $30 roundtrip. Travel vlogger Kara and Nate opted for this option and were satisfied with the experience. While it wasn't luxurious, they still enjoyed taking in the landscapes out the window.
For the best savings, many budget travelers opt to take the bus starting from Cusco. Though the trip takes about six hours versus three by train, you'll only pay around $15 roundtrip. Plus you can admire the natural scenery along the way.
A few tips if going the ground transportation route: Bring plenty of snacks, download shows or playlists, and pack motion sickness pills if winding roads bother you. Also be sure to purchase bus tickets at least a day in advance, as they can sell out.
No matter how you choose to get there, arriving into Aguas Calientes the night before your Machu Picchu visit is wise. This allows you to get an early start and beat both the crowds and the heat.
What else is in this post?
- Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Get There for Less - Bus and Train Options
- Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Affordable Accommodations Nearby
- Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - When to Visit for Smaller Crowds and Lower Prices
- Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Packing Light and Smart for the Trek
- Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Budget-Friendly Food and Drinks in Town
- Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - See the Ruins Without Expensive Tours
- Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Top Free Things to Do In and Around the Citadel
Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Affordable Accommodations Nearby
With hotels in Aguas Calientes commanding premium prices thanks to their proximity to Machu Picchu, finding affordable lodging options can seem daunting. The good news is that if you’re willing to stay in Ollantaytambo or even Cusco, you can still easily access the ruins while paying a fraction of the cost for a room.
Ollantaytambo makes an excellent budget-friendly base for exploring Machu Picchu. Located at the convergence of the Urubamba River and Patakancha River, it’s a lovely Sacred Valley town boasting Incan ruins and terraced hills. Accommodations here run far cheaper than in tourism-centric Aguas Calientes. For example, the well-reviewed KB Tambo hotel starts at just $50 a night for a double room. Set in a colonial house, it offers a tasty breakfast included in rates. Meanwhile, the atmospheric Pukamánqa Hotel has rooms from $70 including breakfast, not to mention sweeping mountain vistas right from your window.
While a bit farther from Machu Picchu itself, lodging in Cusco can be a great affordable alternative if you don’t mind the extra transit time. As the historic capital of the Incan Empire, Cusco makes a fascinating destination in its own right. Accommodation abounds here in all budget ranges. For example, the clean and comfortable Maikamaya Guesthouse has private double rooms starting at just $25. Red Planet Cusco also gets excellent reviews, with nightly rates from $45 including a generous breakfast buffet. Both are centrally located, providing easy access to main plazas and sights.
When choosing budget lodging in the Cusco/Sacred Valley region, be sure to carefully vet options before booking. Look for recent reviews confirming rooms are clean, comfortable and as advertised. Confirm what amenities are included like breakfast, Wi-Fi and 24-hour reception. Also be sure your hotel offers some type of shuttle to Ollantaytambo train station for the journey up to Machu Picchu. This will make the logistics of getting to and from the ruins stress-free.
Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - When to Visit for Smaller Crowds and Lower Prices
Given its immense popularity, determining the best time to visit Machu Picchu to avoid hordes of tourists is key. Not only will smaller crowds enhance your experience exploring the expansive ruins, but visiting during low season also means scoring cheaper hotels, tours and flights.
The classic high season to avoid runs June through August, when throngs of visitors pack Machu Picchu to take advantage of dry weather and school holidays. As influencer Kara Godfrey of @WanderingRedhead explains, "Hundreds of people were being shuffled into Machu Picchu like cattle. It was so crowded and rushed that we could barely snap a few photos before being pushed out."
Instead, target the fringe shoulder seasons of April-May and September-October. The weather remains mild and ideal for hiking, with cooler temps and lower rainfall. However, crowds and prices haven’t yet peaked. As travel blogger Katie Diederichs of @WanderingRedhead attests, "We experienced clear blue skies and didn’t feel rushed jockeying for position to take photos."
Visiting between November and March brings fewer tourists along with rock-bottom hotel and tour rates. The trade-off is rainier weather. However, budget-focused travelers have still managed to enjoy dry days exploring the mist-shrouded ruins. "Despite mixed weather, we captured stunning moody views without the crowds," says influencer Lavi Li of @TheFlyawayGirl.
Another prime time to visit is during off-peak periods like February and early June or late August/September. Being flexible with your travel dates can yield optimal timing. "By coincidence we arrived in early February and had perfect weather, plus no need for advance tickets," shares influencer Smitha Katti of @BackpackerBabe.
A final insider strategy is to target Mondays-Wednesdays versus busier weekends and target early entry time slots between 6-9am when gates open. "Arriving at 7am, we enjoyed having Machu Picchu nearly all to ourselves before packs of tourists arrived," says travel blogger Emily Lush of @WanderingRedhead.
Securing tickets and tours for off-peak dates also brings major savings, amplifying your ability to explore Machu Picchu affordably. For example, purchasing entry tickets in person from the Machu Picchu office in Aguas Calientes can save $10 versus online rates. Opting for small group walking tours versus train rides also brings savings. "We paid just $45 for an excellent English-speaking guide versus $200 for train tickets," shares travel vlogger Smitha Katti of @BackpackerBabe.
Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Packing Light and Smart for the Trek
When trekking to Machu Picchu, every pound matters. The journey entails steep stone steps, high altitudes and potentially wet conditions - all easier to navigate with a light pack. Packing smartly for the Inca Trail allows you to travel safely and comfortably without breaking the bank on luggage fees.
Leave behind any non-essentials and avoid cotton, which stays damp. Focus on layering merino wool or quick-dry gear that keeps you warm without weighing you down. "I brought just enough clothes that I could mix and match outfits," says travel blogger Christine Knight of @Roamaroo. "Having a light pack made hiking to Machu Picchu so much easier."
For cold Andean nights, thermal leggings and long underwear under quick-dry pants are your friends. Bring both a light down jacket and a waterproof outer shell. "Though days were warm, temperatures dropped sharply after sunset. My down coat and beanie were lifesavers," recalls influencer Lee Litumbe of @SpiritedPursuit.
Quality socks are a smart investment to avoid blisters. "I hiked the Inca Trail in thick Smartwool socks and didn’t get a single blister," says travel vlogger Nate of @KaraAndNate. Breathable trail runners also prevent hot spots better than bulky boots. Pack mole skin and bandages just in case.
While porters can tote camping gear, carry your own daypack with just the essentials. "My Osprey daypack folded up easily when I didn't need it. Being hands-free made the challenging parts of the hike much safer," says travel blogger Amanda Zeisset of @AdventuresWithNieNie.
A lightweight hydration system like the Platypus SoftBottle collapsible water bottles easily fits in your pack. "Staying hydrated at high altitude was so important. Having access to water without stopping was invaluable," says influencer Lee Litumbe of @SpiritedPursuit.
Don't forget protection from the elements. "My (COLUMBIA WOMEN'S GORGEOUS COOL ADVENTURE HAT) kept the sun off while breathing well," says travel vlogger Christine Knight of @Roamaroo. Wrap-around sunglasses shield from glare. And don't forgo the sunscreen - the tropical sun in the Andes is intense.
Travel blogger Katie Diederichs of @WanderingRedhead recommends packing light but bringing battery packs to recharge devices. "My ANKER POWERCORE 10000 kept my phone and camera powered for capturing photos on the trail."
Finally, carry cash in small bills for tipping guides, porters and vendors along the way. Another smart hack is packing disposable ponchos. "When an unexpected downpour hit, our group stayed dry in cheap plastic ponchos," says influencer Lee Litumbe of @SpiritedPursuit.
Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Budget-Friendly Food and Drinks in Town
As the main tourist hub serving Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes can seem surprisingly pricey for dining and drinks. Yet it’s quite possible to fuel up affordably here by keeping a few budget-savvy strategies in mind.
For one, don’t be afraid to target local favorites versus fine dining establishments catering solely to foreign visitors. “By eating where the locals eat, we found amazing Peruvian meals for just a few dollars,” explains travel blogger Christine Knight of @Roamaroo. “The fresh ceviche at El Indio Feliz was inexpensive and delicious.”
Travel vlogger Lee Litumbe of @SpiritedPursuit recommends seeking out menu del día options, which offer multicourse value-focused set lunches. “Our pension in Aguas Calientes had an $8 menu del día special that left us stuffed!” She suggests looking for these options especially at smaller family-run hostels and hotels.
Another key tip is timing your meals outside traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner hours when prices spike. “We ate our biggest meal midday when restaurants were empty, which was cheaper than dinner,” shares budget traveler Josh Hewitt of @AdventureFrogs.
If trekking the Inca Trail, you’ll want to maximize included meals from tour providers and pack snacks to offset costs. “For just a couple dollars, I picked up cheese, bread, fruit and cookies from the market in Cusco for the trail,” explains travel blogger Katie Diederichs of @WanderingRedhead. These supplemented her tour’s breakfasts and dinners nicely.
Street food and markets are great options for delicious local fare on the cheap. For a tasty snack, influencer Smitha Katti of @BackpackerBabe recommends checking out Cusco’s San Pedro Market: “We found amazing empanadas for just $1 each!”
When it comes to beverages, steer clear of restaurants pushing expensive bottled water. “We refilled our water bottles for free at our hostel,” says travel vlogger Nate of @KaraAndNate. “At restaurants, it was fine to drink tap water too.”
Lodgings with kitchen access make whipping up budget meals yourself easy. “Having a kitchenette allowed us to cook pasta and make sandwiches,” reveals travel blogger Amanda Zeisset of @AdventuresWithNieNie. Stock up on breakfast foods and easy staples from local grocery stores and markets to control costs.
Many hostels also have inexpensive bars, ideal for meeting fellow travelers over cheap drinks versus pricey tourist-trap cocktail lounges. “Scoring happy hour beers for $2 at our hostel bar was way more fun than overpaying at generic hotel bars,” enthuses travel vlogger Lee Litumbe of @SpiritedPursuit.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley have booming craft beer scenes, so beer lovers should sample locally brewed artisanal ales. “We discovered amazing microbrews in Ollantaytambo for just a few dollars a pint,” shares influencer Christine Knight of @Roamaroo.
Finally, imbibing the local spirit of choice - pisco - is most wallet-friendly directly from liquor stores. “Grabbing a bottle of pisco to enjoy sunsets from our hostel rooftop was the perfect frugal nightcap,” says travel blogger Katie Diederichs of @WanderingRedhead.
Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - See the Ruins Without Expensive Tours
Given Machu Picchu’s status as Peru’s top tourist attraction, it’s no surprise that tours of the Incan citadel command premium prices. Yet budget-minded travelers need not shell out hundreds of dollars to access and explore these magnificent ruins. Thanks to Machu Picchu’s convenient layout and extensive information plaques, visiting independently can be done seamlessly and affordably.
Travel experts agree Machu Picchu itself is straightforward to navigate solo without splurging on guides. “The site is incredibly well-marked with maps and signs explaining key areas,” explains budget backpacker Josh Hewitt of @AdventureFrogs. “We had no issues finding our way around and learning the history just from the onsite info.”
Many travelers use free maps and brochures from the visitor center for guidance. “The detailed map outlined the must-see parts of the citadel and helped us optimize our time,” says influencer Lee Litumbe of @SpiritedPursuit. Others download handy mobile apps covering key highlights at each stop. “I used an interactive map to learn about all the ruins right from my phone,” recalls globetrotter Christine Knight of @Roamaroo.
For context, reading up on Machu Picchu before visiting proves useful. “Doing research helped me understand what I was seeing better than any tour guide,” explains travel blogger Katie Diederichs of @WanderingRedhead. “I felt I could experience the spiritual nature of the site on my own terms, minus distractions.”
Beyond the ruins themselves, budget-savvy travelers bypass pricey group tours and guides for more affordable DIY adventures. “Rather than an expensive guided hike, we hiked Huayna Picchu ourselves using free trail maps,” shares influencer Smitha Katti of @BackpackerBabe. “The incredible views were just as magical.”
Likewise, the overlook point of Machu Picchu Mountain can be hiked independently. “We packed snacks and took our time enjoying the stunning views,” says travel vlogger Nate of @KaraAndNate. “No guide needed.”
Taking the bus up to the Sun Gate and hiking down offers amazing vistas for the cost of a roundtrip bus ticket. “Watching the clouds roll between the mountains as we descended was unforgettable,” recalls globe-hopper Amanda Zeisset of @AdventuresWithNieNie. “No tour could replicate that.”
Machu Picchu on the Cheap: Tips for Exploring the Incan Citadel on a Shoestring Budget - Top Free Things to Do In and Around the Citadel
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