Machu Picchu: a cheap and sustainable way to visit

The most famous and spectacular way to reach Machu Picchu is hiking the Inca Trail: a path carved across the side of mountains that takes about four days, according to the route you choose. It recently became so popular that the maximum capacity is quickly reached and it’s quite hard to find a place in a tour, unless you opt for the high luxury range.

We got there from Cusco, in pure DIY fashion and keeping the costs to the bone. Here’s how we did it…

Machu Picchu

How to get access to Machu Picchu

The archaeological site, UNESCO heritage, has a limited number of daily tickets which are dealt with by the government. The tickets need to be purchased in advance if you want to guarantee your access on a specific day, and even more so if you want also to climb to Huayna Picchu, which is the peak visible in the most iconic photos. From up there you’ll have a great view on the site and you’ll have access to what remains of the buildings that the Incas thought well to build on those all but vertical walls at 2700m.
As an alternative the other mountain (which name is Machu Picchu but to avoid confusion is called montaña) can be added to the ticket. The view is less rewarding and the climb is tougher.

How to buy the ticket

Tickets are sold on the website machupicchu.gob.pe. The procedure is not straightforward but quite simple to sum up:

  1. Select site, ruta (route), date and number of people to proceed with the purchase;
  2. You’ll get a file with a booking code. Such code will be needed to make the payment in the “PAGOS” section of the website. The payment needs to be processed within three hours from the booking;
  3. Once the payment is confirmed you’ll need to check-in, in the “CHECK – IN” section of the website. Only now you well get the proper entrance ticket, one page per person.

You’ll receive in total three documents but the entrance will be only guaranteed with this ticket. Absolutely necessary to bring the ID specified in the ticket and the bank card used for the payment.

Hidroelectrica

How to get there

If you got this far in the page I guess you’re not considering taking the helicopter or the train to get there. Otherwise you’re on the wrong blog.
The Inka Rail trains have ridiculous prices, unless you are a Peruvian citizen. But for those who won’t make it to the Inka Trail there’s an alternative – and significantly cheaper – way to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco.

Any agency in Cusco can book the bus per Hidroelectrica, via Santa Teresa. It will be a small creaky 12 seater recklessly driving on dusty roads for 6 hours. The last part of this road is on the edge of a precipice and, obviously, two-ways. Make sure you have enough coca leaves and anything you might need for motion sickness.
After the bus starts a 13km walk along the railway to get to Agua Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. The walk takes on a pleasant path cutting across a strip of forest at the foot of the Inca mountains where you can see exotic plants such as mango, papaya and avogado, eat coffee beans straight from the plant and perhaps spot a flock of green parrots.
The next day will start at 4am, queuing up at the gate where the ascent starts. The gate opens at 5 and from there is a good hour of steps to get to Machu Picchu: 1.3km for a 500 climb.
We spend two nights in Agua Calientes, dedicating one day for each way of the trip and a whole day in Machu Picchu rather than having to run away at noon to catch the bus.

 

Suggestions

The worst mistake I made was the choice in clothing. Despite the high altitude the area is subtropical, hence warm and humid.
Another big problem is represented by insect bites: mosquitoes, midges, sand flies… whatever those beasts were they left conspicuous marks on arms, face and any other corner of exposed flesh.
Last thing about water and food provisions: the shops in Agua Calientes aren’t cheap but not exceedingly more expensive than the ones in Cusco. Just take the necessary for the bus trip and the hike and avoid taking on your shoulders, say, 6 litres of water. In Hidroelectrica there are several restaurants serving decent food for 10 soles.

To sum up:

  • Light / technical clothing
  • Long sleeves, long trousers
  • DEET repellents to soak your clothes in
  • Antihistamines in case of bites
  • Water and food for 6 hours on a but and 3 on foot

Sustainable tourism in Machu Picchu?

Turismo insostenibile a Machu Picchu

I have no doubts, tourism in Machu Picchu is unsustainable. As a UNESCO site the daily limit should be 2500 people, but it easily gets to 5000 or more. More than the 70% of those, according to our guide, don’t even bother walking the last bit of just over 1km and take instead one of the many diesel shuttle buses incessantly going up and down. Often they reach Agua Calientes by train which, as romantic as it might sound, not only is absurdly expensive but vomits on each trip thick clouds of black smog on the lush forest it crosses.
It’s also easier to observe that the less effort a tourist puts into reaching a place the least is their respect for it. The guides spend their time explaining facts and stories to deaf ears, mostly patiently waiting for each member of the group to take the perfect facebook photo, telling off those unlawfully feeding the lamas or putting their and others lives in danger with the ubiquitous selfie stick.

The government turns a blind eye for the sake of money and, as it usually happens, who pays the consequences are those who cultivate a genuine interest and want to experience a meaningful visit of Machu Picchu and the remarkable guides. But also the future visitors as with this reckless policy of overcrowding and pollution the integrity of the site itself is in danger.
If it was for me I would abolish all the buses, leaving a service only for those who are physically unable to walk, but this will just be a dream as long as short-term profit is the decisive factor.  I’m sure that these places need to be earned with time and sweat because, if its true that it’s everyone’s right to visit such an important site, it’s also true that everyone must also deserve it.

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After being in Rome a few times without even looking at the Coliseum I realised that there's more to travel than sightseeing: meeting the local culture is what, 10 years later, determined the birth of this blog.

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