How to Get to Machu Picchu on a College Student’s Budget

machu-0048I’m not usually one to write a guide for travel (mostly because my travel instincts are heavily based on “well I guess we’ll see what happens when we get there”) but because this type of trip is so popular with students abroad in South America and because I was lucky enough to get more than one helping hand along the way, I figured I would lend my tips, tricks, and learn-from-this-mistake advice if you’re planning on making your way into Peru anytime soon.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, getting to Peru from Chile doesn’t seem very difficult, but when your budget is tight, you’re traveling with a large group, and you have absolutely no idea how to navigate the immense task of public transportation between countries, it can be a bit difficult, to say the least.

Before you leave: Assuming you’re coming from an area with a pretty good and dependable grocery store, I would recommend stocking up on a few food items to save you some cash. My backpacking go-to’s are: pancake mix, granola bars, popcorn, pita bread, and peanut butter. They’re all compact, they go through airport security on domestic flights, and it will save you some cash to have your own snacks in pricey areas. 

When we went: September 18-25. We wanted to take advantage of the time between high/busy season (June – August) and rainy season (October – April). It worked out well because we hardly had rainy days and weren’t sweating our butts off because because September is one of Peru’s winter months with temps ranging from 55-70 degrees fahrenheit (15-20 degrees celsius)

Packing Essentials: bug repellant, sunscreen (the sun is unforgiving even in their winter months), rain jacket or umbrella (in case you get a little rain on the mountain), sunglasses, a water bottle to refill with jugs of purchased water

Before I get into all the mess of bus companies and ticket prices, let me just say 36 hours of flights and bus-hopping is wild and it can get really rough, but it was one of the best parts of our trip because we were constantly on the move, we saved a ton of money by not flying into Cusco or Lima, and there’s something really sweet about sharing an overnight bus with all your best pals. Ok so here we go:

Our route: Santiago, Chile –> Arica, Chile –> Tacna, Peru –> Arequipa, Peru –> Cusco, Peru –> Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu)

To start it off, we snagged a cheap 2 hr flight from Santiago to Arica, the most northern airport in Chile. The flight cost us about $172 USD instead of $240 to fly into Lima or $500 to fly into Cusco directly. When we landed in Arica, which was the tiniest little airport I’d ever seen in my life, our next task was to get across the border. We were lucky enough to find a colectivo (taxi) driver who could get all eight of us to Peru for pretty cheap. The colectivo drivers usually have all the documents and customs forms for you to fill out before you even get in the car (thank goodness). About 30 minutes later, we were at the Peruvian border and our sweet driver helped us navigate our way through customs easily.

TIP: Try to get the earliest flight to Arica that you can, because you have a whole day of traveling ahead of you and it’s best to be guaranteed daytime transportation than to hope buses and colectivos are running at night or to need to stay in a hotel for the night. 

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Once we were in Tacna, where we realized we had a 2-hr time difference that nobody told us about, we had to grab a 6-hr bus to Arequipa. We used the Moquegua bus company and we paid a little more to sit on the bottom of the double decker bus because more space and comfier seats really do make a difference. That bus ticket cost about $25 and by noon, we were on our way north.

Three movies later and having burned through all our roadtrip snacks, we rolled into Arequipa at around dinner time.

TIP: It really does pay off to compare the bus companies for the best prices and times. We saved a few bucks and were often leaving right on time with a few spare minutes to restock on snacks for cheap.

We wandered around the bus terminal for a few minutes until we found the Excluciva front desk, which we had booked four weeks ahead of time for our 12-hr overnight bus to Cusco. The roundtrip ticket costs about $74 USD, which was a bargain. If you’re thinking “what the heck I have to book a bus ahead of time?!” we thought the same thing, but it was actually pretty nice to know we were covered for the next big chunk of this trip. They served dinner on the bus and played some good movies, so I was a pretty happy camper in my recliner-style bus seat.

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At around 7am, we rolled into Cusco with messy bedhead hair and sleepy eyes, but excited nonetheless. From the bus terminal, we got a taxi to haul us to our hostel, where we finally got to dump our stuff and find some decent food in the city. We stayed at Hitchhikers Hostel for about $10 USD/night, which I would highly recommend because the staff was very helpful and kind, breakfast was included, and it was a very calm and relaxing hostel right by the center square of the city, a rare combo in contrast to the nearby party hostels.

Thankfully we’d decided to head toward Machu Picchu the next morning instead of our arrival day, which gave us time to sleep and unpack and get a few groceries.

TIPS: 1) If you’re coming from Chile or from the U.S., Peru is SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper for almost everything, so enjoy it! The markets and the foods are high quality, but they let your wallet take a breather.  2) I recommend taking a free walking tour that leaves from the main square in Cusco. It gives you a good sense of direction for navigating later and provides some interesting history as well as suggestions for eating or visiting places later. 3) Most restaurants in both Cusco and Aguas Calientes, even the really fancy ones, offer economic menus for tourists, which will give you a lot of eating options without breaking your budget for food. In Cusco, our favorite restaurant was Saqrita, which was about a block from Hitchhikers. The guy who owns it would make a delicious 3-course meal for about $3 USD, which means we became friends very fast.

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Weeks before we’d even loaded our bags, we scheduled a 2-day, 1-night tour to Aguas Calientes/ Machu Picchu with Loki Hostel, who offered a pretty good deal on booking all of the necessary transportation (with a few extra perks) for about the same price as figuring out everything on our own. Basically, for about $250/person, we got them to take care of everything for us and all we had to worry about was if we brought enough granola bars (which was so nice considering transportation to this area of the country is pricey, limited, and difficult to navigate online unless you really know what you’re doing.)

TIPS: 1) Many hostels in Cusco offer similar tours for similar prices and perks, so I recommend shopping around for a tour that works for you. If you’re the type to fly solo, go for it, but it might be a trickier process for about the same expense. 2) If you’re a student planning to do this trip, get an ISIC card because it’s the only proof of student ID that will get you discounts on transportation. 3) Choose a tour that also provides some kind of packed lunch or snacks for the 2 days. It was nice not having to worry about a few meals during all of this mess.

A driver from Loki picked us up at our hostel the next morning and we made a few stops along the way to Ollantaytambo, Peru, where we had to grab a train to Aguas Calientes. Again, Loki had booked our train tickets for us, so all we had to do was be at the train station on time. The train ride through the mountains was BEAUTIFUL, so we didn’t mind the 2 hours one bit.

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Once we were Aguas Calientes, we met our guide, Elliott, who picked us up from the platform and got us to the hostel that Loki had booked for us. (I honestly don’t even remember the name.) After Elliott gave us our entrance tickets to Machu Picchu, we went to buy our bus tickets to Machu Picchu for the next morning. If you’re lazy like me, I bought roundtrip tickets up the mountain (which cost about $20 USD) because hiking in the dark of 4am has zero appeal to me, but if you dig that kind of stuff, I support you. It was a lot easier to buy the tickets the day before because there was no line in the late afternoon and we had time to go to the ATM. Plus, if you wait until the next morning, you’ll be waiting in line to buy the tickets and then waiting AGAIN to get on the next available bus up the mountain, which is basically like waving a flag that says “I’m clueless” to the growing-longer-by-the-second line of people who are going to get up there before you do. Good luck with that.

In case nobody tells you: If you get your ticket the day before you go up the mountain, you’re going to want to be outside and in line by about 3:30am if you’re determined to be one of the first people up there. The buses start rolling up the mountain at about 5:30am (they run in 5-minute intervals) but the line starts much earlier. Most of the little stores along the sidewalk will be open and selling coffee incase mornings aren’t your thing or you need a little breakfast. If you don’t get your bus ticket ahead of time, you’ll want to be out there and in line for a bus ticket (assuming you’re not hiking up) at about 4am because that line can become equally daunting, especially when you’re standing there watching the line for the bus stretch all the way up the hill. For my mountain goat friends: the trail to hike up to MP opens at about 4:30 or 5am (you should probably check on that time depending on what time of year you go, because that could change.)

TIPS: 1) If you don’t bring sunscreen or bug repellant, you’re asking for problems in Aguas Calientes. I walked outside for 5 minutes and had about 20 bug bites before running back inside to cover up again. Even if it’s roasting outside, don’t underestimate the mosquitos because you will immediately regret it. 2) Aguas Calientes is the last place to buy snacks before you’re at Machu Picchu, so stock up. If you’re coming from Cusco like we did, I recommend buying food in Cusco and bringing it with you because there are a lot more options in the markets there.

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Once you’re at the top, enjoy Machu Picchu. It’s an incredible thing to witness and by the end of the day, you’ll be in awe at how such an incredible little city could even exist on those cliffs. We stayed all day and even got to do some additional hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain. When you decide to come back down, enjoy Aguas Calientes. It’s a wild little town full of people from all over the world and we loved it.

We took our train back to Cusco that night and had two days in Cusco to make the most of our trip. We hit the San Pedro Market, which was truly incredible with its artisan crafts, juice  bars, and meat markets (where you’ll rediscover your inner vegetarian), the Chocolate Museum, which we all loved because it was free, brief, and provided chocolate tastings, and the Coffee Museum, which was great for its little cafe/restaurant that basically changed my life. Some other great spots were the cathedrals in the main plaza, art museums, and some neat music shops and bars. Basically, Cusco was a dream, so pony up and go enjoy it.

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When it was time to leave, we basically did our exact same route backwards until we landed back in Santiago. When you’re trying to figure out your timing, make sure you remember the 2-hr time difference between Peru and Chile (or whatever country you’re returning to) because that could affect whether you make your flights or get on the right bus.

Again, I was lucky to have the help of not only the seven other people I traveled with, but also my sweet sister here in Chile who helped us wrap our heads around this mess. Gosh, it was a lot to do and remember, but traveling with your friends makes even long trips like these incredible and worth every minute, so don’t let the timeline and all this information overwhelm you, but rather be glad that if I can figure it out, you can too.

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One thought on “How to Get to Machu Picchu on a College Student’s Budget

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