James is a tight arse. This is a universal truth everyone who knows well him will attest to. He maintains he just doesn’t like being ripped off, but Chris knows James’ moaning about money is just one of his favourite past times!
So the thought of blowing nearly a grand for both of us to walk part of the Inca Trail and then visit Machu Picchu wasn’t the best introduction to Peruvian tourism.
Unlike our previous dilemma about whether we were too tight for not climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, there was absolutely no doubt our trip to South America wouldn’t involve a visit to Machu Picchu.
When you look at Tripadvisor – which we do now habitually to make nearly any decision, the stats would overwhelmingly suggest our certainty was justified.
But as you’ll perhaps also remember from our Sydney stinginess, it’s the bad reviews we really read. Admittedly there are very, but which all agree on one thing – that the whole enterprise is a rip-off. And unfortunately we came away after our 2 day hike feeling more out of pocket than spiritually moved.
But as arguably South America’s number one sight, the Peruvian tourism industry knows the masses will come regardless of how much they milk out of you, and know they’ve got you by the short and curlies.
What we ended up booking…
The first disclaimer here should be that the classic Inca Trail really does sell out at least six months in advance, so if you’re dead set on doing the 4D/3N trek, start looking at 2018 now, and be prepared for the price tag.
Having failed to get one of the 500 daily spots for the trail (and many of those spots are reserved for porters and guides, so getting a spot really is holy grail time), we panicked while in Melbourne in February, desperately scouring the internet for alternatives.
All of the wisdom suggested booking some kind of trail in advance; turning up in Cusco and hoping for the best really isn’t an option. So we opted for the 2D/1N trail, a condensed version of the classic trail, covering the final 10km on Day One with a hotel stay in Aguas Calientes rather than camping.
Inkayni Tours had great reviews and the price seemed to be somewhere in the middle – $425 per person, including a return bus from Cusco to the train station, return train to and from the start of the trail, trail permit, personal guide, some meals, hotel stay, bus transfers from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and entrance to the site.
We sucked up the cost, accepting it was just what people had to pay, and even forked out $85USD each extra to hike Wayna Picchu, the imposing mountain behind the site in all of the world-famous photos.
But there are many things we wished we’d known before we booked
1. You CAN wait until you get to Cusco
Unless you want to do the classic Inca Trail or the shortened version we did, you can book pretty much any alternative trek or organise your own day trip from one of the dozens of operators in Cusco when you arrive, for a fraction of the price you’ll pay online.
The popular 5D/4N Salkantay Trek was going for as little as $175 including entrance to Machu Picchu. It misses out the grossly overpriced train journey and bus from Aguas Calientes, saving about $200 in the process. It’s not a classic Inca Trail, but most people we spoke to told us the views are even more spectacular.
Various ‘Jungle Treks’ abounded as well, with zip lining, rafting and biking included for a similar price.
2. If visiting Machu Picchu is more important to you than the hike there, why spend 3 days walking?
We weren’t keen on 3- 5 days of trekking (and we were limited on time), so spending one day savouring the amazing views was enough. For us visiting Machu Picchu fresh was more important.
It was still tough, though. The first couple of hours included a very steep, winding path to the ruins of Winay Wayna, and from there to the Sun Gate which overlooks Machu Picchu was no walk in the park either. Three days of it and we’d have been tired, sweaty messes by the time we got to the main event.
Our guide, Edgar, really loves the trail. He clearly has a deep connection to the spirit of the Incas and made sure he explained why the trail is so special. He brought it to life for us.
The food was good, and our hotel in Aguas Calientes was modern, clean and comfortable (we expected a basic hostel).
3. The 2 day trek is your only chance to visit Machu Picchu twice.
We got our first awesome glimpse of this amazing sight late afternoon of day one as we descended from the Sun Gate.
The weather gods certainly shined on us, and we spent a good hour taking it in with relatively few tourists around. We were ushered away more quickly than we would have liked, though.
Day two starts at 5am with a few hundred others in Aguas Calientes who want to get in to Machu Picchu as it opens at 6am.
It’s so important you do this if you can; its busy at 6am but nothing like what it becomes come mid morning, when the fanny pack and branded baseball cap brigade will descend en masse.
We were lucky with the weather again, and got to see the sun rising over the mountains and through the nooks and crannies of the ancient settlement.
The incas designed Machu Picchu around the movement of the sun, so it felt special to experience it on a sunny day rather than the foggy, dreary scene most are met with. Our guide Edgar certainly hammered home the spiritual significance of it all!
4. Consider whether you want to hike Wayna Picchu
Only 400 people get to climb the mountain each day, but if you’ve just spent 3-5 days walking, you should seriously consider a) whether you’ve got the legs for another steep, arduous trek and b) whether you want to lose 2-3 hours from your Machu Picchu tour to climb it.
The site itself takes hours to fully get around and is arduous enough in itself without factoring in the mountain as well.
Having said that, the views down over the site from Wayna Picchu were pretty spectacular, and like nothing we’d seen online in the run up. Everyone has seen the classic selfie shot a million times.
Don’t bother walking around the back to find the ‘Temple of the Moon” though, it added 2 hours onto the ‘added extra climb’ but was quite underwhelming when you got there, and was further down the other side than Machu Picchu itself, which meant even more climbing back up again.
5. If you don’t want to hike, book everything yourself and save some money
We’ve spent 4 months fending for ourselves, so having a guide handing us our train tickets and telling us how long we had to spend in each place was a bit jarring at times. Doing it yourself means you can do things at your own pace.
If you’re not fussed on hiking, here’s how much it will cost you….
Machu Picchu Entrance – $47USD – More if you want to hike Wayna Picchu, and booking well in advance is necessary, there are only 2,500 people admitted daily.
Transfer from Cusco – taxi c. 20$USD pp return – You’ve first got to get to Ollanaytambo, where trains depart to Machu Picchu. If you don’t want to pay for a taxi, a collectivo bus would work out cheaper.
Train – c. $115USD – Unless you do the Salkantay or Jungle Treks, the only way to get to Machu Picchu is on one of the tourist trains, and they truly take the biscuit (but do give you one back for free on board too!).
We took Inca Rail, which was pretty plush. But it costs around $60USD each way for a 90 minute journey, and much more if you want first class. That made even us wince; two Brits used to exorbitant rail fares back at home! Peru Rail is the other operator, but more on that a little later.
Bus – $24USD – Unless you want to trek for 2 hours from the valley floor at Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu, you have to take a tourist bus, which takes 20-25 minutes and snakes around a very steep incline. There are plenty of them departing continuously.
Hotel – c. 20$USDpp – Mid range hotels are abundant in Aguas Calientes, but prices are kept up because of the captive audience. Expect to pay 40-50$ for a 3* hotel room.
Tour Guide – $25USDpp – Plenty of guides are available from the entrance. A private guide for 2 should set you back $50.
So is an organised tour worth it?
Difficult to say. We paid twice what we would have if we’d done it ourselves, without the one day of trekking.
Machu Picchu is a special place and deserves its popularity. But you get the overwhelming sense at every turn that someone is profiteering from the whole set up (including the British firm who half own Peru Rail). It’s a racket.
But once you get over that and appreciate the place for the wonder of the world that it clearly is, you accept that a country as relatively poor as Peru has every right to profit from wealthy western tourists, although reports have found very few actual locals are benefitting from the world famous ruins.
As with most things, if you shoulder the hassle of booking everything individually yourself, it can be cheaper.
But the constituent elements are all overpriced. So which ever way, it’ll dent your bank balance but you will still go, and don’t the Peruvians know it!
Just make sure you do it your way, and don’t pay over the odds unnecessarily.