Thursday, July 18, 2024

How to Visit Cusco & Machu Picchu on a Budget

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If you ever got astonished while watching a picture of Machu Picchu, I have something to tell you: Reality is 10 times better! 

No picture captures the spirit, energy and breath-taking natural surroundings of the ruins. That is why even if it wasn’t one of the top destinations for backpacking it would still be worth every dollar you spend on that trip. But the whole “adventure” point is to push some limits, for that reason I want to share with you the recommendations from my personal experience and my Peruvian friends so you can make the most of it.

Peru is perfect for travelers on a shoestring budget, and not just the backpacker hordes. Visiting Machu Picchu on a budget is totally possible!

Machu Picchu on a budget
Machu Picchu on a budget

How to Visit Cusco & Machu Picchu on a Budget

Peru’s currency is the nuevo sol (S/) and compared to other South American countries, traveling costs are low – it’s easy to survive on $30-40 USD a day. However, if your budget is slightly tighter, then here are a few tips on how to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu on a budget.

1. Bargain

Bargaining is almost a rule in every small community and town, and Cusco is not the exception. 

a. Hotel: 

If you arrive to Cusco by bus, on the terminal you’ll be approached by several “hotel representatives” that will harass you until you go to their hotel. This is good news for you, because if you play your cards right, they’ll fight against each other with the only competitive advantage they have: Rate. I managed to get a room with private bathroom 3 blocks away from the Main Square for U$D 4 per night (this was in 2007).

Bonus track: Most of them will pay for your taxi to make sure you go to their hotel. 

b. Tours: 

Regardless if you chose to go hiking the Inca Trail or going on a regular tour, you’ll have to go to one of the many travel agencies around the main square. All of them offer the same product, with that in mind walk around, asking and bargaining till you find the best deal. 

c. Handicrafts and regional products: 

I don’t need to explain how this works. Test your negotiating skills and you’ll get an average of 50 to 60% off. You’ll find the best product quality, variety and prices in the small towns along the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

2. Nightlife in Cusco on a budget

All the nightlife in Cusco happens around the main square, where you’ll find several pubs and night clubs. Just choose any random point and start walking around the square (clockwise or counterclockwise works!). Every bar will try to make you go in, that’s why they’ll offer you free admission and a free drink.

All you have to do is go inside, have your drink, spend some time if you like the place and move on to the next bar, where the same thing will happen again. When I and my friends got back to the starting point we thought “OK, that’s it”, so imagine our surprise when all the bars started offering the free drinks again! In our case, we just went back to our favorite, but in theory you can get drunk without spending a dime.

3. Eating in Cusco

Every wise traveler will tell you this “Stay away from the touristic places”. On this case, walking just 3 blocks away from the square will be enough. Find a “picanteria”, that’s where the locals eat. We had a (simple) 3 courses meal for U$D 2,50 (corn snack, soup and ceviche).

4. Churches

An important part of this trip, is visiting Cusco’s stunning baroque churches like the Cathedral, La Merced and Jesuit church to name a few. They boast an artistic patrimony of sculptures and paintings from the Cusco School (XVII century) and earthquake-proof architecture with fascinating shapes. You need to buy the “tourist pass” (U$D 10) to enter the Cathedral, and pay a small admission fee for the other churches, but if you go during the mass, you can enter for free. *

5. Sacsayhuaman

In the times of the Incas, the city of Cusco used to be shaped as a Puma. Sacsayhuaman, which are now beautiful ruins overlooking the city, used to be the Puma’s head. You can enter for free before the opening time (7am)… Of course my choice was to sleep an extra couple of hours!

Depending on how much time you have and which are your interests it may be worth to buy the tourist pass. A one-day partial Cusco ticket is $25 and includes entrance to Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay.

Sacsayhuaman in Cuzco, Peru
Sacsayhuaman in Cuzco, Peru

6. Train to Machu Picchu

At some point, you’ll have to take the train (even if you walk the Inca Trail, you’ll need it to go back). They’ll tempt you to buy the Deluxe Train instead of the backpackers’ one. It certainly is beautiful with those panoramic windows and first class service. But all the fun happens in the backpackers’ train… We found ourselves into a party (literally) with adventurers from all around the world. Don’t miss that experience!

7. Time is money! 

You want to arrive early to Machu Picchu; the deluxe train arrives about 10 AM, which means that that’s the time when everything will be crowded. I’d recommend spending the night in the close town of Aguas Calientes and waking up early in the morning. If you didn’t walk the Inca Trail, resist the temptation of walking up to the ruins just to prove yourself how adventurous you are. That’s a waste of time and energy. Go straight to the ruins by bus, and finish early enough to climb the Huayna Picchu for the most amazing panoramic view of the citadel. You can start your way up until 1PM and they have a limited space for the first 200 people.

8. Free souvenir

Take your passport with you when you visit Machu Picchu and go to the visitor’s center, where they’ll enrich it with a fancy rubber stamp of the ruins.

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