Backpacking to Machu Picchu is a must-do and one of the highlights in South America – but it can easily get confusing due to the various options to reach this wonder of the world.
Before and after visiting Machu Picchu, you will most likely spend a few days and nights in Cusco (one of my favorite places in Peru!). I recommend to stay at least 2-3 days in town to explore Cusco.
Let me break down your different options to backpack Machu Picchu!
The first step is getting to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist village on the foot of Machu Picchu:
Backpacking Machu Picchu – By yourself
Bus + walk (no train): Take a minivan from Cusco, which you can easily book and organize directly in the city. The journey takes around 5-6 hours and the road is windy, but the scenery is nice. You’ll be dropped off in Hidroelectrica. From there, walk along the train tracks to Aguas Clients. The hike is flat, you’ll have a nice landscape and it takes only around 2 hours. It is very easy and straightforward. This is your cheapest option, but you do need to organize and pay your accommodation in Aguascalientes, your food and the entrance to Machu Picchu on your own. In the end, you will pay slightly more for the tours (see below: Jungle Trek or Salkantay Trek); but you’ll get a lot of extra activities and great experiences.
Bus + train (no walk): Take the minivan from Cusco to Hidroelectrica (see above). From there, take the train to Aguas Calientes instead of doing the hike. The train journey will take only 30min, but it’s overpriced and will cost you around 30$.
Train (no bus, no walk): Take the train directly from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The fastest and most convenient, but also most expensive option. There are different train types, but don’t expect to pay less than 80$ for the journey (one way!).
Backpacking Machu Picchu – With a tour
Salkantay Trek: If you’re into hiking, this is the way to go. The trek takes in total 5 days, you’ll hike through the beautiful Andes in a guided group, finishing at Machu Picchu on the last day before returning back to Cusco. You can get the whole tour including food, accommodation, Machu Picchu entrance, transport and guide for as little as 160$!
One very important remark: Don’t book this tour online in advance – you’ll pay A LOT more. I’ve heard of people who paid online 700$ and ended up in a group with people who booked directly in Cusco for 160$ – for exactly the same tour. There are plenty of tour operators and there’s always enough availability; even in high season and even if you just book a day in advance. So my advice: Don’t book anything, arrive in Cusco, walk around comparing different tour operators and prices, and then do your booking.
Inca Jungle Trek: If you’re into adventure and a nice mix of activities, this is the way to go. The tour takes 4 days and is full of fun activities – mountain biking, ziplining, rafting, hiking, and finally the visit at Machu Picchu on the last day. Make sure that all activities are included when doing your booking and don’t pay more than 150$ for the whole deal; including transport, activities, food and entrance to Machu Picchu.
Same remark as above (Salkantay Trek): Don’t book in advance! Do your reservation directly in Cusco, it will safe you a lot of money.
Inca Trail: This is by far the most expensive option and the one which requires the most planning – expect to pay a couple of hundred $ and expect to book at least 6 months in advance! I never looked into it, since I couldn’t commit to a certain date that far in advance and I didn’t want to give up my flexibility. Hiking the Inca Trail is a major bucket list item of many people and everyone who did it confirmed that it would be worth the money.
I did not chose the Inca Trail, because I personally didn’t want to spend that much extra and couldn’t restrict my schedule so far in advance. In the end, you’ll see the same landscape as you’ll see with the other treks. On one day of the Inca Jungle Trek you’ll even walk on the proper Inca Trail for a few hours. The big selling points of the Inca Trail are “you won’t see any other tourists” and “you’ll see some other smaller ruins which no one else can see”). It’s up to you to decide if that’s convincing enough to spend hundreds of dollars extra.
How to get to from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu?
You’ll probably need to spend a night in Aguas Calientes before visiting Machu Picchu on the next day. The town is nice, but super touristy and full of restaurants, hotels and guest houses. Aguas Clients is on the foot of Machu Picchu and you can reach the site either by bus or by walk.
Walk: The hike up to Machu Picchu is very straightforward – just walk out of the village, cross the bridge and you’ll see the signs. The hike is steep and takes you around 1,5 hours (less on the way back down).
Bus: There are public busses leaving Aguas Calientes every few minutes which take you directly up to the entrance for 12$ one way.
What to do at Machu Picchu?
Most people get up extremely early (around 4am) to make it up to Machu Picchu right in time for sunrise. If you’re lucky and the sky is clear, this must be beautiful. However, when I was there, it was extremely foggy and I couldn’t see anything for the first few hours. The sky luckily cleared up later in the day.
If you choose one of the tours I mentioned above, you’ll have a tour guide included which will lead you around the ruins and will explain you some background information. Afterwards, you’ll have some free time to walk around and take some pictures.
Important: If you want to go back to Cusco on the same day, you need to leave the site already around 11-12am; since you need to hike back to Hidroelectrica from where minivans leave back to Cusco around 2-3pm (not later). If you want to have some more time and maybe hike one of the peaks (see below); I highly recommend staying another night in Aguascalientes. When I booked the Jungle Trek, I asked if they can book an extra night in the village (10$ extra) and reserve my transport back to Cusco for the following day, which was no problem. This will also give you higher chances for great views, since during my visit, the sun only came out in the afternoon.
Besides the ruins, there are two extra hikes you can do, but you need to get a permit in advance:
Huayna Picchu: The mountain in front of the ruins, which you can see in every classic Machu Picchu picture. The hike up there is steep and short, but access is limited and you need to book your permit online (15$) a few weeks before – so not the best option if you don’t like planning in advance.
Machu Picchu mountain: This confuses many people – the Machu Picchu mountain is not the same as the Machu Picchu ruins; it’s a high and steep mountain directly behind the ruins (opposite of Huayna Picchu). It’s a little bit higher then Huayna Picchu and you do need a permit as well, which can be easily booked right before your trip. I asked the agency where I organized the Jungle Trek to book it for me (15$ extra) only few days in advance. The hike is steep, but the views are great if the sky is clear (otherwise you won’t see anything).
UPDATE: Since July 2017, your entrance ticket is only valid for the morning or the afternoon. Therefore, you need to decide. While I was there in June for the whole day, the morning was very foggy and crowded; whereas the afternoon was very sunny and empty. This might be different in different seasons so it’s difficult to give a clear recommendation.
Backpacking Machu Picchu – What do I recommend?
I certainly don’t recommend using the train; since you will spend a lot of money for slightly more comfort and a faster trip. I also wouldn’t recommend the classic Inca Trek; because of its high cost and the need to plan ahead for several months.
Organizing the trip by yourself (minivan + walk) is the cheapest option; but if you calculate all accommodation, food, transport and entrance, you will end up paying almost as much as you’d need to pay for the Jungle Trek or the Salkantay Trek (150-160$, all included). Therefore, these two tours offer certainly the best value and will make your trip unforgettable.
If you’re more into proper hiking, choose Salkantay. If you’re more into action and fun activities, choose the Jungle Trek. Both are awesome and offer great value for your money! As mentioned earlier, just make sure to book directly in Cusco. These tours seem to be crazy overpriced if you book online in advance. Enjoy backpacking Machu Picchu!
By the way – Machu Picchu might be the big highlight in Peru. But don’t forget – there’s also more to see in the country!