Several Peruvian train employees and I stood on the train tracks at the mouth of a tunnel, some of them continued to pick up trash off the ground while others stopped what they were doing to stare at me curiously.
“Are you Peruvian?” one of them asked.
I didn’t want to lie, but the night before I had stayed at a guesthouse where I was asked the same question by my host.
“Are you Peruvian?” she had asked.
“No,” I had answered honestly.
She smiled widely, “Oh, but you look Peruvian.”
I awkwardly glanced over at her child throwing her toys destructively and muttered in bad Spanish, “Yeah, that’s what everyone tells me.” So as the local train employee waited for my answer, looking into the distance for the oncoming train– and it seemed to be a lie I could get away with– it slipped out, “Yes, my family is from Pucallpa,” before I realized my large, purple backpack was sitting on my back.
He nodded, not really caring.
“Are you alone?” He looked around to see if I was hiding anyone underneath a rock.
For a split second, I thought of my safety, but there was no use in lying and we were surrounded by male and females alike, so I answered truthfully this time, “Yes.”
“Good,” he stated, “because if you were in a bigger group, they would make you turn around. One or two people is ok, but three or four is more dangerous. The only way to Machu Picchu is through the Salkantay trail or the Inca trail, or take the train. No other way…”
His accent was difficult to understand as he spoke softly and quickly. Many words became lost to me and I started to worry that this train employee was going to report me to the authorities or escort me the 2 hour walk back to Ollantaytambo, the city I started my journey on. Then there was a short silence when I realized he had stopped talking.
He finally looked over at me, realizing that I hadn’t really been listening. He shifted his weight, ready to leave and warned me to stay off the tracks, don’t smoke while walking, and always pick up my trash and continued on his way with the rest of his coworkers.
A horn blared in the distance.
“A train is coming right now, so watch out,” was the man’s final warning before wishing me luck. He didn’t say goodbye, but I thanked him anyway. He nodded and waved me away, with better things to do.
Finally free of the disciplining tone and curious stares of the train employees, I continued my cheap journey along the forbidden train tracks to Machu Picchu.
The Cheapest Way to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu can get expensive. The cheapest train ride is $50 ONE WAY and that’s for only 2 hours (normally a $50 bus ride could get you to the next country). The cheapest hike along the Salkantay trail is about $220, and the hike along the Inca trail is around $650. On top of all that, the entrance fee for the ruins of Machu Picchu is $44. Not very encouraging is it? Well, don’t worry, because there is another way.
What I’m about to tell you is not for the faint of heart. People who have done this walk previously have reported walking from 6-10 hours, depending on their level of fitness. It took me 10 hours, as I’m not physically fit myself, so I actually had a hard time following this route.
What I am about to tell you is not exactly allowed. It’s not illegal, but there are signs and security guards which prohibit the use of this path.
What I am about to tell you comes with certain risks, all of which I was aware of before beginning my journey. Think you’re ready? Then continue on…
Risks you should know
Walking for up to 10 hours
Being bitten by stray dogs
Being hit by an oncoming train
Spraining an ankle
Crossing through dark train tunnels
Being caught by the train guards and having to turn around and take a different route
Still want to know more? I will now tell you the steps to take and share my mistakes and what you could do instead. Continue on…
Decide whether you want to store your luggage in Cusco or in Ollantaytambo. Your decision should be based on whether you want to return to Ollantaytambo or go all the way straight to Cusco after you are done with Machu Picchu and the costs of storing. I stored my luggage for free at the hostel that I was staying at in Cusco and locked my valuables in a locker and they didn’t have a problem with it. In Ollantaytambo, the more pricey hotels and hostels will hold your luggage, but if you can’t afford those hostels there are restaurants that will charge a small fee to lock your luggage up, just ask around.
Things to bring:
extra change of clothes
electronics that you may need
chargers for said electronics
first aid kit
Let’s Get Started
Step 1: Start in Ollantaytambo, the last town that the train stops at on it’s way to Machu Picchu. It’s a 2 hour ride by minivan (aka colectivo) outside of Cusco and will cost only 10 soles (~$3) to get there. The colectivos going to Ollantaytambo are very easy to find and not a far walk from Plaza San Francisco. I walked there with my one backpack that I would be trekking 10 hours with.
Mistake I made: I tried waking up early enough so that I wouldn’t have to stay the night in Ollantaytambo, but the 2 hour ride to get there is windy and exhausting.
What you should do: I suggest spending at least one night in Ollantaytambo, not just because it is a cute little town, but also because you’re going to need your full energy for the trek that you will be taking.
Step 2: If you haven’t already in Cusco, stock up on food that you know you will eat. I ate a banana and some energy bars for breakfast and brought several more energy bars with me as well as a Snickers bar (small boost of sugar will help you keep going) and an apple.
Mistake I made: I had also packed a can of tuna, to-go packet of mayo, and some crackers to eat for lunch. I did not eat it, and ended up carrying more than I should have. My fear of dogs searching for the stench of the tuna scared me more than my hunger.
What you should do: Decide what you can carry, but make sure it is light, and that you will actually eat it. The extra weight will harm you more than your need for a full meal.
Step 3: Wake up early to catch the colectivo to KM 82. The first one leaves at 6 am, but they suggest to arrive around 5:30 am. The ride takes about 30 minutes and will cost 3 soles (~$1). KM 82 is the last stop where people can take the train to Machu Picchu– this is where you will begin your journey. The colectivos are located just outside the market behind the tourist office at the main square. You will recognize it as there will be several minivans parked outside. Just ask anyone, “Colectivo al kilometro ochenta y dos? (Colectivo to KM 82?)” and they will be able to point in the right direction.
Mistake I made: I had asked around to verify if I was still able to take this route as I didn’t want to be forced to turn back. Several people had asked me if I was alone and as a solo female traveler I started to get nervous that some people knew I was alone. It messed with my head, but I was never in any real danger.
What you should do: If you’re gonna ask around, don’t reveal that you’re solo. Also, realize that you will never get the same answer from anyone. Some people will warn against it, others will encourage it, and everyone will have different advice.
Step 4: Now for the most nerve-wracking part– avoiding the train guards. Have your 3 soles ready before the colectivo stops to pay the driver so that you can quickly hand him the money and book it toward your pathway before the crowd disperses and the train guard sees what you’re doing. When the colectivo arrives to KM 82, it will park between a couple of buildings and you will see a hill that goes down toward the train tracks where the train guard will be waiting for sneaky bastards like you and me. Don’t worry you won’t have to pass him. Locals use this route all the time, so there is a road that goes around the train making it easier to avoid an awkward interaction with the guard. Do not go down the hill, instead, if you are facing that hill, to the right of the building in front of you will be a road going uphill.
Mistake I made: Walking too fast. The altitude is different here and I started to run out of breath quickly, so try to pace yourself. No one will chase you and no one really cares once you’re up the hill.
Step 5: Stay on this road for about 20 minutes. At the end of the road, there will be a small pathway to the left that will lead down to an open area. Just keep going down and you will eventually find the train tracks.
Mistake I made: I thought that I had made a mistake, because it looks like you are entering someone’s farm, but as you continue along you will see that you are approaching an opening to get down to the tracks. You made it!
Take colectivo to Ollantaytambo.
Stay at least one night in Ollantaytambo.
From Ollantaytambo take collective to KM 82.
At KM 82, take path uphill, to the right.
Follow path for 20 min until you reach the train tracks.
Follow train tracks until Aguas Calientes.
As I said before, this route comes with some risks. Since you already know those risks and are ready to take them, let’s talk about the walk:
It is a gorgeous walk and you don’t have to stay on the tracks the entire time. Since several Peruvians take this route as well, there are several pathways that run alongside the tracks for safety. The only time that I didn’t take the safer path was when it went uphill so that I could save my energy.
The trains pass about every half hour. If you are approaching a tunnel and you haven’t seen a train in over half an hour, wait it out because that means a train is on its way and you don’t want to be stuck in the tunnel when the train is passing. As they pass, make sure to smile as you will see several people looking out their windows, taking blurred pictures of the landscape with their smartphone’s that you, my friend, will get to enjoy in person.
While walking, you will be surrounded by beautiful green hills and snow-capped mountains can be seen in the distance. You’ll see a river, cows and local people along the way. The local people are kind and smiley and are willing to help you, even guide you in the right direction. One man showed me a safer path to take and another told me to carry a stick in case of dogs.
While the route is flat (in fact, it slightly goes downhill) it is not a walk for everyone. The rocks on the tracks are large and difficult to walk along, which can cause a sprained ankle. I didn’t have the right hiking shoes (I was wearing running shoes) for this because I didn’t have time to buy new hiking shoes and break them in. If you are going to buy new hiking shoes, make sure that you break them in and use them several times before your trip, otherwise you will be in pain.
Let’s talk dogs
After I got past the train guards, my only worry was dogs. Several people taking this route consequently had been bitten by a stray dog. If you’re a solo traveler, you don’t want to get bitten and be left stranded in the middle of who-knows-where with no one to help, thinking, “Damnit, why do I prefer to be solo- dolo?” At that point, the fact that your travel insurance covers it wouldn’t even matter. You’re still stuck on some train tracks with no one to lean on, bleeding your own blood.
I am not a dog trainer or a dog whisperer, but what I do know, and after a bit of research, is that a dog that is barking at you will attack if they feel threatened or sense fear. Sudden movements, making yourself look bigger or looking them in the eye will edge them on and they will most likely attack.
The key to avoiding a dog bite is to ignore the dog. Don’t look them in the eye, don’t run away, and don’t talk to them. If you see one ahead, move at a steady pace to the other side of the tracks. Also, don’t pet the snarling ones. Fluffy may look like a sad, homeless dog, but he’s a survivor and survivors have defense mechanisms, such as biting.
During my walk along the train tracks, I encountered a few dogs: some alone minding their own business, others following me and barking until the end of what they considered to be their “territory.” And yes, it is terrifying, even while you are ignoring them to the best of your ability, your heart beats fast and a scream is stuck at the bottom of your throat as you prepare yourself for the oncoming attack. I had a stick with me the entire time, held close to my leg, but I continued to walk by the dogs as if I were just another butterfly passing through the sky.
How to get back to Cusco/Ollantaytambo
Congratulations, you made it to Machu Picchu and you didn’t have to spend the price of an airline ticket to get there. Now what?
Well, it’s up to you really. Here are the options:
Walk back: If you have the strength, save even more money and walk back to Ollantaytambo the same way you came.
Train: Since you saved on $50 to get to Machu Picchu, you can take the train back to either Cusco or Ollantaytambo, but you must buy your ticket early in order to get a cheaper seat otherwise you are left with first class.
Take the less cheap route, but still cheaper than all those other routes: Walk two hours from Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo) to Hidroelectrica along different railroad tracks (on the other side of the river). At Hidroelectrica there are direct buses to Cusco but they stop operating at 3 pm. If you are not there by 3 pm, there are several taxis or cars waiting for people like you and I but they don’t leave until the car is full. Negotiate a price– the more people the better. I paid 40 soles (~$12.50) without bothering with negotiations for the car to take me all the way back to Cusco, about a 5 hour windy ride. If you are prone to car sickness, prepare for this, as it is not a smooth ride.
And now you know! Machu Picchu is not completely inaccessible if you don’t have the funds! Just a little preparation and you’ll be chillin’ with the llamas amongst the ruins in no time!
So, are you planning a trip to Machu Picchu soon?
Pin it for later!