Walking to Machu Picchu without hiring a tour is possible. The ancient site has become the largest backpacking attraction in South America — and it’s no surprise. Despite the cost, getting there can be an adventure in itself and the rewards at the end of the leg burning walk are more than worth it!
I’m not going to waste your time with the history of Machu Picchu, Wikipedia beat me to it. Just know that it is very old, very big, and the views (not to mention the altitude) of its mountain perch in the Andes will make your blood tingle. While in Cusco, Peru, you will be inundated by offers for tours and there are a variety of ways to reach Machu Picchu for all levels of comfort.
One of the most popular options for backpackers incorporates busing, biking, hiking the famous Inca Trail, and climbing to the top before everyone else. Even if they are backpacker oriented, tours aren’t for everyone, so with the help of some friends, we made our own adventure getting to the ruins an alternative way. Nothing beats the feeling of doing it yourself!
Here’s how you can walk to Machu Picchu on your own:
In Cusco, Peru get a taxi to the small Terminal Santiago bus terminal — this is not the main bus station in Cusco and don’t be surprised if you are the only travelers there during the off season. Cost aound 3 soles.
There in the terminal buy an overnight ticket to Santa Maria (about 6 hrs / 15 Soles) Santa Maria is tiny and you will be arriving before daybreak. There is a market for fruit and water if things are open. You will probably end up waiting in a mini-bus or similar collectivo until enough travelers arrive to make it worth the driver’s time.
Take a collectivo from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is even smaller so don’t expect any amenities. In Santa Teresa, you need to wait around until a collectivo fills up with travelers or hitch a ride with the orange-jumpsuited workers on their way to Hydroelectrica. This is only a 30-minute ride (3 soles), and some travelers choose to start walking from here which can take around 2.5 hours on the steep road.
You will be deposited at HydroElectrica, a water power plant where workers mill around wearing hardhats and orange. From here just follow the fence to the start of the train tracks. About 100 meters down the tracks there is a metal sign and a set of partially hidden steps on the right side. Go up the hill using the steps, winding a little through the patch of forest until you reach a second set of railroad tracks.
NOTE: There is no official sign for Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu. In fact, although it isn’t enforced, you technically aren’t supposed to be walking on the tracks at all, so stay low key. Some travelers miss the steps and keep going on the first set of tracks — this doesn’t work!
You will pass some small stands selling water, foods, etc. At the second set of railroad tracks, start walking to the left past the sign that says not to walk on the tracks. This is one of the most enjoyable walks imaginable cut right through the Andes Mountains. You will cross small bridges and pass through a couple of tunnels as you make your way to the town of Aguas Calientes. If you don’t feel like a real vagabond walking down train tracks cut through the mountains with a bag on your back you never will!
NOTE: The train tracks are still active so watch out for trains when you walk through the small tunnels. Don’t irritate the train workers; get way off the tracks when the small train passes!
There are two nice places with a tin roof to get out of the sun or rain along the right side as you walk. As you near Aguas Calientes, part of Machu Picchu might be visible on the right if it isn’t too cloudy.
Walk into the small town of Aguas Calientes and find a place to collapse for a few minutes. Prices here are outrageous and are not fixed in shops, they make them up when they see you. If you plan to go to Machu Picchu the next morning and didn’t get your tickets in Cusco, make sure to buy your tickets as soon as you reach town! Get some rest, you’re going to need it to tackle all those steps to the top in the morning!
If you decide to walk back (there’s aren’t many options other than the very expensive train) make sure to reach Hydroelectrica between 11:00am and 13:00pm to hitch a ride back to Santa Teresa.
Enjoy your walk to Machu Picchu!