When you tell your friends that you’re headed to South America, the invariable next question is: “Really? Are you going to Machu Picchu?” Machu Picchu is the Great Wall. It’s the Grand Canyon. It defines not just a whole country but an entire continent. You’ve got to do it. Blogs such as the so-called Thrifty Nomads have told their readers to expect to pay $650 plus for a “budget” Machu Picchu trip. This is obvious bullshit. The infamously-expensive Inca Trail, which limits the number of hikers, can be had for as little as $350 and other, unregulated treks, such as Salkantay can be had for $150 ($130 for students with an ISIC card).
Having already done Machu Picchu but with someone who had not on this trip, we arrived in Cuzco looking for something economical – top say we did the trek. We knew we wanted to the Salkantay (I had done it previously with Bamba Experience and had a great time). We knew we wanted it to be $300 or less. We wanted to leave on the trek as soon as we could.
I want to unpack a little bit of what you can expect if you book an extreme budget option for heading to this natural wonder of our modern world.
What you miss out on if you don’t take the Inca Trail:
The Inca Trail is a heritage trail that is focused on the cultural heritage of the region. The trail passes many ancient Incan ruins of villages, towns, settlements, etc., which you will only see on the Inca Trail.
Hiking directly into Machu Picchu
This is the cool one. As budget hikers spend a night in the overprice hostels of Aguas Calientes, you could be camping on the ridge above the ruins. As those same hikers trudge from the road at the bottom of the park up endless switchbacks to the front gate, you can be watching the sun rise over the spectacular ancient cities as the Incas might have a millennia ago. This is truly the big sell. But is it worth an extra 200 bucks? You decide.
The Inca Express Train
Do you like alpaca-themed fashion shows and ear drum-shattering Andean flute music? Then you need to take Inca Rail. It’s a must. If you could pass on all of the maddening kitsch when all you want to do is sleep, pass on the $150 train ride from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, then opt instead for a slightly-cramped but quiet van ride with ten other smelly hikers. Some tour companies will make a hard pitch for the train because it allows you to stay at Machu Picchu longer than the bus but if you plan your visit correctly. Those are two extra hours that you are sure not to need.
What Expensive Booking Companies Tell You
Their food is a lot better.
And that is probably true. However, if you’re looking to have a transcendental culinary experience, you should probably head to Lima. Budget tour operators provide solid food for the price. Ours included fried chicken, ceviche, and an array of different cakes. However, we also had a meal that consisted of pasta, bread, and a thin tomato sauce. If it is the trekking you’re after, you can deal.
They are one of the 10% of guide groups that are registered with the Peruvian government.
This is also probably true and most of the budget carriers likely are not registered with the government. The Salkantay Trail, however, is unregulated. That means that neither the expensive companies or the cheap ones are paying anything just to put you on the trail. (Note: Salkantay traffic may be regulated soon, which would cause prices for all operators to increase significantly)
That they provide more accountability.
That means that, should you have a bad experience with a budget operator, you would not have the same recourse as someone who books with a top-tier operator. Our cheap trek had tents with broken zippers but this was not a big deal. Like renting a car, we determined that we didn’t need the insurance then went and did doughnuts in the parking lot.
What You Gain from a cheap trek
A big group of broke backpackers.
Our group was nearly twenty but there is no doubt that these cheaper treks send bigger groups – they have to. In our case, we determined that a big group of twenty-somethings was exactly what we wanted. If you’re traveling with family or a group of your own that may want to do its own thing, a private trek may be in order (can still be found for $200 per person).
Extra money to spend on the things you prioritize.
The difference between a $400+ trek and a $150 one is a lot of money. It leaves you with the choice to spend some of that savings on things you care about (i.e. extra food, bottled water, renting equipment, a horse ride for harder climbs, beers when they’re available) but doesn’t force you to pay for luxuries that you don’t need. This allows for a more tailored experience than you may have gotten with a pricer trek.
The kind of stories it’s most fun to share.
No one wants to hear about your luxury trek to Machu Picchu. Leaky tents. One cold shower. Broken-down buses. Long slogs in the sleet. These are the things that good stories are made of but that luxury treks will insulate you against.
On our trek, we spent nearly every day trekking through rain and snow. On the final morning, we trudged up to Machu Picchu in a dark and rainy mist with zero visibility. Around eleven, just as our muddy tour was coming to a close, the clouds parted and the sun came out. We spent the remaining hours in the park in perfect clarity, getting what everyone wants: the perfect photo. Nature has always had a flair for the dramatic.
If you go
Stay at Wild Rover Hostel
Cusco is not only the capital of the Inca Empire but capital of the Gringo Backpacking Empire as well. There are a lot of hostels. Of them all, Wild Rover stands alone on value and fun. What used to be a quaint pub-like setting at their old location has become a massive compound of buildings as their Irish hospitality brought them raging success. Has some of the old world charm been lost? Yes. Has it more than been compensated for with nicer showers, softer beds, and a bar that is not right below the bedrooms? Yes.
Pro Tip: At some point during your stay, grab the full Irish Breakfast. At US$6, it’s one of the best deals going.
Not interested in spending time amid so many people who rock out to the same pub party every night? Loki Hostel is right down the street. Their bar still goes hard but is notably more laid back that Wild Rover.
Book your trip on Meloc and Arones Streets
This unconscionable hill that makes Wild Rover and Loki almost not worth staying at is home to ALL the cheap tour agencies for Machu Picchu and any other trek you can imagine. At a small storefront called Peru Travel, we booked our 5-day trek for $150 dollars at 8PM and left the next morning at 5AM to hit the trail.
When to go
For best prices, go in February or early March. This is the rainy season and prices, especially for the Inca Trail, will be lower. Please note that the Inca Trail opens in early March.
For best weather, January, June and July are your best bets for clear skies and no rain. On my first Salkantay Trek, I went in July and barely saw a cloud.