The Cheap Way to Get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)
Think of this as your own little Inca Trail adventure, but without the $600+ price tag. You can also complete it in a day, as opposed to 4 or 5.
However, this trail is NOT for the faint of heart. In fact, it’s kind of a pain in the ass! But if you feel like taking a very long walk and saving yourself a whole bunch of money, this is the route for you.
What Is It?
This is a very low-cost way to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
Assuming you’re starting in Cusco, you’re basically going to take a colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, then a second colectivo from Ollanta to a small train depot nearby, and from there you’re going to walk about 17 miles (28 km) to Aguas Calientes. Yes, 17 miles. And much of that is going to be alongside train tracks. Honestly, the walking on railroad ballast rocks is the worst part of it all.
I know other websites have expressed caution over the presence of guards, but I had absolutely no issues on that front, neither from guards at the train track entrances nor from train employees I encountered en route. In fact, the guards were the ones giving me directions to the trail!
About 14 soles, or less than $4. Yep, you read that right: under 4 bucks.
This of course does not include lodging in Aguas Calientes nor snacks for the trip.
Things to Watch Out For
Aside from being a VERY long walk, there are going to be 2 main enemies on this adventure: trains and dogs.
The tourist and local trains use these tracks, and run approximately every 45 minutes. The tourist trains are the blue Peru Rail cars, and the local service are the gray cars. Sometimes there will be a single Peru Rail engine running at a faster speed to hook up with some other cars at the other end of the line, so definitely keep an ear and an eye out for these. You won’t get much warning, maybe just a slight vibration in the tracks, as the sound of the trains can often be obscured by the river rushing by you. Almost all of the trains signal their horns though, and if you’re going to Aguas Calientes then they’ll be going the opposite way, so you don’t have to worry about them coming up behind you, although I would still keep your head on a swivel.
Then there’s the dogs. You’ll find these guys at the entrances of the little farms and villages you’ll pass along the way, and while I usually love pup-pups, in this case I kept a few rocks in my pocket. I’d already been bitten by a dog once in South America and I read reports of another traveler using this route who got bit as well.
You don’t have to bean the dog in the head, but definitely throw the rock in the direction of the pack of dogs, since there will likely be 3 or 4 of them. They’re just defending their owners territory, so a well-placed rock or two will get them to scatter. The hot spots seemed to be kms 87, 91, 100, 101, and 105.
First of all, you’re going to want to get up pretty early for this. The idea is to get to Aguas Calientes before nightfall, which depending on what time of year you’re going, could be as early as about 5:30 pm. I went in May, the southern hemisphere winter, so it got dark much earlier.
You’re going to want to pack light. Unless you’re a very experienced backpacker, I would err on the side of carrying less, and so see if you can stash some of your non-essential belongings in Cusco or Ollanta. Having said that, you’re definitely gonna want to bring some snacks. It’ll be a long walk and you’ll need your energy.
Step 1: Getting from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
Go to the corner of Pavitos in Cusco where a dude will most likely come up to you asking if you’re going to Ollantaytambo (or Ollanta, as the locals call it). In this particular instance, don’t worry about haggling with them; this is a very popular route with locals and tourists alike and the price is set at 10 soles. Again I recommend leaving as early as possible (service starts around 6 am) because these colectivos, while cheap, don’t leave until they’re full up, and you could be waiting a minute.
The trip from Cusco to Ollanta should take about an hour and a half, give or take. Sometimes there is congestion on the highways, or even rock slides due to heavy rains. Leaving earlier will account for all kinds of contingencies and ensure you arrive in Aguas Calientes before nightfall.
Step 2: Getting from Ollantaytambo to Km 82
Once you arrive in the touristy mountain town of Ollanta, you can either wait for your next colectivo in the main square where you got dropped off, or you can head to the bus terminal in the northwest part of town. If you see El Mercado de Abastos, you’re heading in the right direction and very close.
Either way, you’re going to want to look for the buses that say “Veronica” on them. Sometimes this may be quite small so be sure to look closely. Where you’re actually going is called Kilometer 82 (Kilometro Ochenta y dos); yes literally just “Kilometer 82.” Speak with the driver and make sure he stops there, although just about all of them do. The ride should be 4 soles. I’ve read on other sites that it was 3 soles until recently, but I wasn’t able to get it any lower than 4.
This is a quick hop that shouldn’t take much more than 30 minutes, and will drop you off at the tiny little train depot of Kilometro 82.
Step 3: Getting Onto the Trail
From where the colectivo drops you off, continue along that road for a ways until you see signs pointing you to the entrance of the Inca Trail.
Here’s the important part: You’re NOT actually getting on the Inca Trail. You’re going to want to head to the right of the big sign and follow along the train tracks. If you do accidentally end up on the way to the Inca Trail, don’t worry; the guard will direct you to the other route.
Step 4: The Long Walk to Aguas Calientes
Congratulations, you’re on the Free Inca Trail! Your adventure has just begun.
From here on out, you’ll be following along the train tracks and along a footpath that sometimes goes through farms and through tunnels. I wish I could tell you it’s going to be an easy, pleasant stroll, but that’s just not the case here. This is an off-the-beaten path adventure where you will almost certainly be the only tourist. It is nothing like the hike from Hidroelectrica, which I will talk about here.
It’ll be a long day, so be sure to get in a hot shower and a nice meal at your hostel. You’ve definitely earned it.
End of the Line
Congratulations! You’ve made it to Aguas Calientes, and the start of your next adventure: Machu Picchu.