The Cheap Way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes | The Inca Trail for Free
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This article is part of the FitnessTexter travel series. A collection of posts that highlight one of the main benefits of online entrepreneurship, traveling abroad.
Here’s how to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu for $7. It’s not free, but it’s $173 cheaper than the train.
When Marianna and I decided to hike Machu Picchu, we elected against doing the Inca Trail. Though we had heard many good things about it, it was just too expensive. The going rate these days is $650 per person. That’s insane! There was no way we were going to spend that much money on the trek. If you’ve got money to burn, give it a shot. If not, our version would be called The Poor Man’s Inca Trail.
The only other option, so we thought, was to take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. There are only two companies that provide train transportation from Cusco and Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, PeruRail and IncaRail. I refuse to hyperlink their websites because I don’t think they deserve the traffic benefits. They have a duopoly over the entire train network to Machu Picchu and treat the Aguas Calientes locals like garbage (They have to sit in the back of the tourist trains in rundown carriages).
That said, we didn’t know there was another option. We purchased our Machu Picchu tickets for Nov 16 and decided that we would purchase our train tickets in Cusco. Well, as it happens, there was a two day strike by the citizens of Aguas Calientes against the train companies for, you guessed it, mistreatment, two days before our Machu Picchu entrance date. Even if we had purchased train tickets, no one was getting into Aguas Calientes during the strike and no one was getting out. The city is only reachable by train…or so they tell you.
Unbeknownst to most, it’s 100% legal to hike the train tracks to Machu Picchu. Some business owners might tell you otherwise, but that’s because they want a finders free if they get you to do their friend’s brother’s cousin’s guided tour. We passed police officers and train officials along the route and they all waved at us an encouraged us on our journey.
Hiking from Cusco to Machu Picchu would be ridiculously stupid. However, if you get as close as possible by car (Kilometro 82 near Ollantaytambo), it’s only a 28 kilometer hike along the tracks. It’s also the chosen return path for nearly all of the ass-busting Inca Trail porters and many of the locals that live along the tracks. They don’t take the train, they hike the tracks (in flip flops!). Here’s how to do it (in hiking boots).
Your first task is to get from Cusco to the city called Ollantaytambo (OH-YAN-TEH-TAHM-BOW). Say that name five times fast. I’ve said it nearly 100 times and I still think it’s a mouthful. This part of the journey will cost you $10 or less. To get here, you’re going to head to the red dot on the map above. It’s the bus station (read street corner) where the combis (mini buses) leave for Urubamba and Ollantaytambo.
There are going to be at least tree different buses from as many different companies going towards Ollantay with a stop in Urubamba. They usually hold about eight people and they don’t leave until they fill all eight seats. If you get into on that is just filling up, you’ll have to wait quite awhile. If you’re lucky and jump into one that is almost full, you’ll be on the road in minutes.
They seem to leave about once per hour from 8am until the evening. Ask ANYONE in Cusco to point you in the direction of the combis to Ollantaytambo (Dónde están los combis que van a Ollantaytambo?) and they’ll point you in the right direction. If you’re going to try to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes in one day, you’re going to want to take the earliest possible bus to give yourself ample travel time.
I put all this effort into making my graphic above and it’s already off by $250. The cost of doing the Inca Trail is $650 per person. That’s a lot of cheddar if you ask me. Our version cost $7 and we got to see some pretty gorgeous scenery along the way. I can’t compare it to the Inca Trail, but I know that we were both very pleased with our little journey along the train tracks. It was exciting and gave us a little glimpse into the lives of the locals that live along the tracks and travel up and down them instead of using the horribly-unjust trains. Locals pay $3 for the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Tourists pay $150. The train operators despise being forced to make room for the locals and therefore treat them like cattle.
The ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo takes something like three hours. The van is super comfortable and you’ll be treated to a wonderful assortment of American pop music, European trance and some Peruvian/Colombian cumbia. It’s a win-win situation.
After you arrive in Ollantaytambo, your next mission is to find the Mercado de Abastos. This is the main produce and meat market in Ollantaytambo. Outside of this market you’ll find the last combi van that you’ll need to take on this journey.
Once you get to the plaza outside the market, you’re going to see a big gaggle of combi vans. These vans take the locals all over the place, so make sure you get into one that is going to Kilometro 82. What is this mystical Kilometro 82, you ask?
There are 112-ish kilometers of train track between Cusco and Aguas Calientes. Ollantaytambo is located at KM59 (around there). Kilometro 82 is the last train stop for locals to get on before the train makes the non-stop journey to Aguas Calientes. From here you’re able to hike along the train tracks all the way to Aguas Calientes. It’s a 17-mile journey but it’s slightly downhill the entire way. Easy peasy!
The combi from Ollantaytambo to KM82 costs around $3. It might be cheaper, but I can’t be sure. It’s a bumpy-ass bus ride, so the $3 is a very honest price. I’m sure they have to replace the shocks and struts of those vans quite often. You’ll get an up close and personal view of how the locals live while you drive through the winding roads to get to KM82. Once you get home, you can brag about how the profound poverty really made you respect what you have in life. Maybe you can even take a picture of yourself doing a yoga pose with the poor kids in the background. (Actually, since you’re reading this post about doing it for cheap, I’m sure you’re not that type of traveler. They’re the ones paying $190 to take the train.)
Sorry for that last bitter remark. I’ve been getting fed up lately with the Instagram travelers who seem to be traveling with the sole purpose of taking selfies for their profile or the yogis that find it necessary to take a picture of them doing a sun salutation at every mountain lookout. You’ll get to see your fair share of them at Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, making a friend take their picture 10+ times until they get just the perfect one while everyone else patiently waits for them to move along (I’m talking to you French girl on November 16, 2017 at 8am at Huayna Picchu).
Okay. Back to business. This next part is the only area where you need to really pay attention. Once the combi drops you off at KM 82, you have two options. You can walk down towards the tracks (the left road) or you can walk up the hill (the right road). TAKE THE RIGHT SIDE. If you walk down to the tracks on the left side by the train station, you’re going to meet a friendly security guard that tells you to get off the tracks. After this embarrassment, you’ll have to walk back up the hill to where the combi dropped you off and take the right side road UP THE HILL.
Taking the road to the right instead of the left, you’ll start walking up a slightly-inclined dirt road. You’ll eventually cross a little bridge and a gulley and then have a slightly-more-inclined hill to walk up. After about 20 minutes, you’ll be about 50 meters above the train station and it’s smooth sailing from here on out. Even if the security guard saw you up here, they wouldn’t do shit. Their job is to keep people off the tracks at the station. They know what you’re doing and they’re silently congratulating you on fucking the (train) man.
From this vantage point above the train station, you’ll probably get some stares from the Inca Trail hikers gathering at their checkpoint on the other side of the river, preparing for their $650 three-day hike. No worries, you’ll be at Aguas Calientes in six hours or less. Just keep following the super-visible foot path for another couple hundred meters. Eventually the path is going to drop down to the train tracks right through to some Inca agricultural terraces I called them steppes in the graphic, sorry.
Once you get to the tracks, you’ll see the KM 83 sign almost immediately. You’re officially one kilometer past the train station and you’re in the free and clear. You’re around a little bend in the track from the train station so they can’t even see you from the station anymore.
From here, it’s a pretty easy hike and impossible to get lost You simply walk along the train tracks for 28KM (17 miles).
Even though there was a strike and no trains coming from or going to Aguas Calientes, Marianna and I were both a little nervous about running into trouble along the way. We were pretty well-convinced that it was legal to walk along the tracks, but we still didn’t how the hike would pan out. Maybe it WAS illegal like one business owner told us. On the contrary, the guy at IncaRail’s ticket window in Ollantaytambo told us that walking the tracks was what all the locals did, so it couldn’t be illegal.
Let me tell you, it was one of the best hiking journeys I have done. Our worries were pointless, as you’ll soon learn.
The hike along the track is pretty simple. For most of the way, there will be a well-defined walking path along one side or another. Before you head out, you’ll want to buy some provisions. Marianna and I planned ahead and brought 2 liters of water, some fruit, a can of tuna, bread and a packet of mayo. We left at noon and had at least eight hours of light for hiking, but make sure you have a flashlight if you plan on doing any of the hike in the dark. We budgeted 6 hours for the hike from starting on the tracks to finishing and we did it in just about that exact time, at a brisk pace. If you were taking your time, it could easily take 7 or 8 hours to complete the hike.
You will see signs that warn you to pay attention when you’re walking along the train tracks. None of the signs say anything about it being illegal to walk along the tracks. In fact, we actually have an encounter with some police officers. They were stationed along the tracks because of the strike, making sure that no one threw stones/debris onto the tracks. As we approached the group of maybe five cops, we assumed that we had run out of luck and that they were going to arrest/fine us. The exact opposite! They told us how many more kilometers we had until the end of the tracks and even suggested a little bed & breakfast along the tracks if we decided we didn’t want to complete the whole hike in one day. Super friendly! Along the tracks you’re going to pass a lot of locals. Some will be Inca Trail porters that are returning home after doing a trip. Others will be children walking to school along the train tracks, while others might be tiny little indigenous women walking to the market. Everyone smiled at us and, I think, admired us for making the long hike to Aguas Calientes and not supporting the train companies.
Along the way from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, you’re going to have to pass through about seven railroad tunnels. The shortest is probably 10 meters and the longest 50 meters. They’re pretty narrow. The one in the picture above is one of the shorter ones, but you get the drift. As I talked about above, you’re going to need to pay attention when you’re traversing these tunnels. If there was one part of the trip that could be mildly dangerous, going through these tunnels would be them. There is adequate space along the tracks inside the tunnel, but it would be a nerve-wracking experience to be inside one of the tunnel and have to squeeze up against the wall while the train passed by. Don’t wear headphones when you’re doing the hike. You’ll hear the trains coming from a long way, either from their whistle or from the track vibrations that make a high-pitched sound as the train gets closer.
The hike is gorgeous, but don’t get me wrong, it’s LONG. When you need an energy boost, look no further than chewing on cocoa leaves. They sell a large bag of dried leaves for about 50 cents. That bag will last you couple days of constant chewing. The trick to good cocoa leave chewing is the put them in your mouth and soak them in spit for awhile to soften them up. If you start chewing them up before they’re wet, you’re going to be sucking on a ball of grainy cocoa leaves instead of a nice hard ball of intact leaves. If you chew enough of them, you’ll even get a slight bit of numbness in your tongue.
Walking the tracks is a mixture of decent walking path along the side of the tracks and walking on the tracks themselves. The stones they used on the base of the tracks are very sharp, so you’ll want to try to walk on the railroad ties instead of the stones between the rails. However, if you’re my height (6ft/1.85m), you’re shit out of luck. The railroad ties are too closer together to make them “stride-distance.” So, you’re either stuck taking tiny little strides to make sure that your feet land on the railroad ties every step or you’ll have to deal with walking on the sharp stones. I was walking in jogging shoes, but a pair of hiking books with thick soles would have made the experience much better.
The tracks from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes follow a river the entire way. When we were talking to a local business owner about hiking the tracks, he warned us about the flood that hit Aguas Calientes a few years ago. He said that the flood washed out some of the train tracks along the route to Aguas Calientes and that a tourist drown in the river. We couldn’t find any information about that online, and no one (police or railroad workers) told us not to walk the tracks. I don’t remember there being any dangerous sections along the journey. A few times in the tunnels there wasn’t much space between the walls and the tracks, but you’ll hear the train coming from a long ways away. I do remember crossing a 20M little bridge along the tracks, but it was quick as well.
We were 100% committed to taking the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, we just screwed up and didn’t buy our tickets in time. Luckily for us, there was a railroad strike the two days before our Machu Picchu reservation, so even if we had purchased tickets, we weren’t going to be able to use them.
When we started our hiking journey along the track to Aguas Calientes, there weren’t supposed to be any trains the entire day. The strike was going to last the entire day and hopefully finish the following day. Towards the start of our hike, we heard a weird siren sound and then saw a little tiny train track inspection vehicle filled with about six workers flying down the tracks towards us. We stepped out of the way and expected them to stop and fine us or tell us to get off the tracks and head back to the train station. To our surprise, they simply smiled and waved at us. Turns our they were inspecting the track for any damage or obstructions because the trains were about to start again (we had no idea at the time).
Flash forward another two hours. Marianna and I are making our way down the tracks when we hear what sounds like a train whistle. This can’t be, there weren’t supposed to be any trains today. We decided that maybe we were mistaken and kept on walking. Five minutes later, another train whistle, this time, MUCH closer. We would soon learn that the weird whining noise coming from the tracks was actually a train approaching from miles away.
Anyways, we got off the tracks and the train flew by. The conductor and employees waved and the people inside longingly peered out at us two backpackers working our way along the tracks, angry they had paid $170 for train tickets.
After two or three hours of warm sunny weather, where we enjoyed some canned tuna for lunch, the weather took a turn for the worse. I could see large clouds building up on the far side of the mountains and they appeared to be getting closer. GREAT!
We broke out our bargain-basement rain gear and suited up. My $6 rain jacket stayed dry for all of 15 minutes. After that, it was just a big wet jacket. Either way, the rain was warm and it never got scary bad. There was a little lightning and some thunder, but nothing that stopped us from continuing the journey.
Here’s one of the biggest train channels that you’ll see along the route. They did some pretty impressive blasting to build the train line and this is end result. In these channels, you’ll want to be just as vigilant as if you were hiking in a tunnel. Some of the train channels, as I call them, are rather long, and they can get a little narrow. Once again, there’s also room between the walls and the tracks, but it sure wouldn’t be fun spending some nervous seconds pressed up against the walls while a train passed. Be smart and make your way through the channels when you are sure no trains are going to be passing by for a few minutes.
Here we’re at Kilometro 108. Only 4 more kilometers to go. At this point, Marianna and I were more then ready to finish the hike. Our feet hurt from the sharp rocks and we had been hiking at a rather brisk pace for nearly five hours. I did non want to get stuck hiking in the dark along the tracks so I made it a point to keep up a fast pace to get to Aguas Calientes before sunset. She wasn’t good happy about it, but we arrived with a decent amount of light.