The Alternative Route to Machu Picchu

alt route machu pichu

Frequent flyer miles can take us just about anywhere, but there are a few adventures for which frequent flyer miles can offer nothing.

For instance, a year and a half ago we visited Machu Picchu with my twin sister….but we took the back way.

See, there are several ways to get to Machu Picchu.

1.)  You can take the train, which I hear is wonderfully direct, but expensive unless  reservations are made well in advance, and even then it’s expensive compared to the alternatives.  Around $70 a person if you book 6 months in advance.

2.)  You can also do the Incan trail adventure.   There are a slew of options for this multi-day hike costing anywhere from $400 to $4,000.  Honestly it would be neat to do this someday, but a year and a half ago when we were in Peru, we were averaging a budget of around $7 a day, not $100.  So $400 sounded impossibly expensive for a 4 day trek.

3.) Then there is the “alternative” way which I believe is mentioned in the current Lonely Planet, though we heard of it from a traveler who’d done it before the Lonely Planet ever mentioned it (…y’know…before it was cool.)

The “alternative” route is uncomfortable, grueling, hair-raising, tedious and yet probably one of the coolest adventures I’ve ever experienced.  After all, often the “uncomfortable” and “adventurous” overlap for me.

To help explain this adventure, I’ve drawn out a little diagram you can use to help you picture the 5 steps involved in the “alternative route”.

alt route machu pichu


1.) Passenger van from Cusco to Santa Maria
On a specific street beside the bus station in Cusco, there are passenger vans (“collectivos”) lined up and waiting for passengers.  Each collectivo seems to have a person dedicated to the task of filling it up.  We didn’t have to bother finding the right van or the right representative however because as soon as the locals saw a group of tourists step out of the taxi, they guessed which van we wanted.  In no time we were swarmed with people shouting their offers for a ride to Santa Maria.  The price we settled on? $9 per person.

The van ride was uncomfortable to say the least.  We were squeezed tightly together and it was clear that the driver had no intention of stopping at all throughout the day-long trip.  That is until the brakes started smoking.  THEN we pulled over for a break.

2.) Taxi from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa
Santa Maria looks to be nothing more than an empty street and a hybrid corner-store/restaurant.   It looked fearfully empty and yet, luckily, a few taxi drivers were waiting for the collectivo’s arrival.  The taxi drive from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa was much shorter…and much more harrowing.  We spent the whole drive at the mercy of our fearless driver who seemed quite unconcerned about the sheer cliffside and narrow road.  The view would have seemed amazing had it not looked so much like certain death.

3.) Taxi from Santa Teresa to Hydro-electric plant
After spending the night in Santa Teresa, we woke early the next morning and grabbed a taxi to the hydro-electric plant where we could hop on a train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of Machu Picchu.  Well…we would have been able to hop on the train if we had arrived in time.  But we didn’t.  If my memory was better, this would be more helpful, but I believe the last train left just before 8 a.m. and we arrived just in time to see it leave.

4.)  Walk (or train if you arrive in time) from the hydro-electric plant to Aguas Calientes. 
So instead of taking a brief train ride from the hydro-electric plant to Aguas Calientes, we took to the train tracks by foot.    It was roughly a two or two and a half hour walk and I must say, even if it wasn’t entirely intentional, it was beautiful.

5.) Bus (or walk if you want) from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of Machu Picchu. 
Finally once we arrived at Aguas Calientes, we bought our Machu Picchu tickets (you can’t buy them at the peak entrance) and took a brief ten minute bus ride to the top of Machu Picchu.  After our two and a half hour trek, we were ok with skipping the many stairs involved in walking up the mountain.


Why did this chaptered alternative method feel like such an adventure?

I guess because it felt like a journey.  An honest to goodness journey.  By the time we stood at the top of that incredible mountain we felt like we had worked our way there one little segment at a time.


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2 Comments on “The Alternative Route to Machu Picchu

  1. Excellent post. We hiked the Inca Trail many moons ago when you just did it without any permits. I’m so glad there is an alternative way to get there. Peru has been overrun by what I call “affluent backpackers” who don’t blink an eye to laying out hundreds of dollars for any experience whatsoever.

    • I bet the Inca Trail was an awesome experience. It’s on my bucket list.
      Yes, I think you’re right there are lots of travelers who don’t mind sacrificing authenticity for a more comfortable experience. That is fine I guess, but it’s not what I love about travel.

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