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Day 7 Bonus – How to Get To Machu Picchu Without Taking The Train

October 17, 2010

The following is a guide on how-to travel from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (the gateway to Machu Picchu) without taking the train. You may also be interested in reading Mervyn’s account of his trip here which includes pictures of the route. If you have any questions, you may e-mail Mervyn directly at mervyn at theoverpacker.com.

There are many ways to get from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. You can book a trek on the Inca Trail (or one of the alternates). You can take the train either directly from Cuzco or via Ollataytambo. This is a guide for those who don’t feel like a full on Inca Trail trek, want to spend as little as possible, and want a bit of adventure to boot. It describes how to get from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (the gateway town to Machu Picchu) in one or two days via Santa Maria. Read on.

The Route

Cuzco => Santa Maria (6 hours via bus)

Santa Maria => Santa Teresa (1 hour via collectivo)

Santa Teresa => Hydroelectrica (30 mins via collectivo)

Hydroelectrica => Aguas Calientes (2 hrs 15 mins via foot)

Estimated Travel Time: 10 – 12 hours including wait times and delays

The Good

This is the cheapest way to get from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (35 soles v. somewhere between 105 and 162 depending on how you catch the train). It also offers some memorable views, an exciting one lane cliff side road, and a walk through the jungle along train tracks. Also, if you want a more leisurely journey, you can spend the night in Santa Teresa and take in the hot springs.

The Bad

The bus and collectivo rides are all along winding mountain roads—this route is not for those easily motion sick. It’s also not for the faint of heart as the roads can be sketchy, especially the one between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. Also, this route is longer; it will take you one full day whereas the train routes only take half a day.

The Skinny

CUZCO to SANTA MARIA – Buy your bus ticket at the Santiago bus station (Estacion de Santiago). If your accent confuses the cab driver, tell him you need to get a bus to Santa Maria. The cab ride should cost no more than 3 soles.

At the bus station, go to the Tourismo Ampay ticket counter at the bottom of the stairs. Buy the earliest ticket possible (20 soles). I traveled on a Sunday and the earliest I could get was an 8:30 a.m. You may be able to leave earlier if you travel on a weekday.

Whenever your bus leaves, you’ll need to get to the station a half hour beforehand. It’s a bit confusing, but the ticket taker won’t take your ticket until you’ve paid a 50 centamos departure charge. You can pay this at a little booth that’s on the right wall as you walk into the station.

The bus ride is eventful. The road winds its way up and down the mountains and the drivers can be aggressive. The views are as breathtaking as the ride. You’ll end up going down a dirt road used by “adventure” Machu Picchu package tours; keep an eye out for tourist mountain bikers. When I went, there was a lot of road construction.

About five and a half hours in, start looking for the Santa Maria stop. The bus will stop a couple times in the 30 minutes before you hit Santa Maria. When in doubt, ask if the stop is for Santa Maria. The locals are quite helpful.

SANTA MARIA to SANTA TERESA – You’ll need to catch either a taxi or collectivo to Santa Teresa. When I went, the collectivo driver charged us 15 soles each to go all the way to Hydroelectrica. It’s possible that your collectivo driver will only charge you to get to Santa Teresa and you’ll be on your own from there. Be sure you and your driver are clear on your final destination. If you can only get to Santa Teresa, no problem; getting to Hydroelectrica should be easy because the collectivo drivers all hang around the same spot in town.

SANTA TERESA to HYDROELECTRICA – Our collectivo driver collected payment here and handed us off to a buddy of his who took us the rest of the way to Hydroelectrica. If the collectivo driver in Santa Maria only agreed to take you to Santa Teresa, you’ll have to negotiate a ride. Regardless, the total cost to get from Santa Maria to Hydroelectrica should not exceed 15 soles.

HYDROELECTRICA to AGUAS CALIENTES— This is a solid 2+ hour walk. Walk past the train stop (too sparse to call it a train station) and all the waiting locals, tourists, and snack shacks and follow the well-worn path. Once you near end of Hydroelectrica’s building complex, look to your right for a sign directing you up a short path up the hill to the upper train tracks. If you miss it, no worries; a guard will likely correct your mistake.

From there, the path will follow the upper train tracks all the way to Aguas Calientes. The path will hop back and forth between the left and right hand sides of the tracks, depending on the terrain. Occasionally, you will have to walk on the tracks themselves to cross small streams and ravines. Nothing dangerous; these sections last less than 25 feet and the train doesn’t travel that fast. Just listen for the train whistle.

Be sure you bring a flashlight. If you’re trying to get to Aguas Calientes in one day, it may be dark before you hit town. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you pass the following: a steel train bridge with pedestrian walkway; a garden house (on the right), probably with barking dog; a set of tracks that veers off to the left (which you should not follow); basketball/football courts; something that looks like a fake train station but is unusable because it smells so badly of chemicals (this is a train maintenance area).

When you hit the train maintenance area, start looking for a fire road to your right. To the right of the road, you should see a bridge across the river; that bridge goes to Machu Picchu itself. To get to Aguas Calientes, your home for the night, follow the road that goes along the river. In about 1.5 km, you’ll be in town. Find a place to sleep before your big day at Machu Picchu.

Bonus Tips

If possible, head directly to the train station and buy a ticket back to Cuzco (expensive) or Ollataytambo (less expensive) if you want to take the train back the next day. Tickets sell out fast. If you plan on getting up early to go to Machu Picchu (recommended) be aware that the ticket office doesn’t open until 8 a.m.

Buy your ticket to Machu Picchu, too, at the ticket office near the town’s main square. This is essential if you plan on climbing Waynapicchu—you’ll need your ticket to get it stamped at 6 a.m. when the gates open.

Accommodations in Aguas Calientes are relatively expensive. I split a double room with a friend for 30 soles a piece.

Food isn’t cheap either. Look for where the locals eat. There are a couple little places in an alley just south of the town square where you can select from an el menu or ofertas for 10 to 15 soles.

If you’d like to see pictures of the route, click here. With this route, the journey can be nearly as memorable as the destination.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. sally permalink
    October 21, 2010 11:04 pm

    Mervyn Mervyn Mervyn. Be careful.

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