The Champagne Life on a DIY Budget Since 2007

Machu Picchu on a Shoestring

Machu Picchu on a Budget

The dollar might be down, but that doesn’t mean you have to be down and out. Just because the New York Times heralded 2008 as the year of the “staycation” doesn’t mean you have to put your dreams of traveling and seeing the world on hold.

Dining, drinking, dozing, and discussing bygone eras can still be yours without going broke. It’s only a question of priorities. For the cost of just one night class on world history at your local university, you can traipse the ruins of an ancient civilization for a week. How? Forego frequent take-out meals, impulse shopping, or movie theater tickets and you can put at least $20 a week under the mattress for a trip sometime in 2009. An, for less than $5, you can also grab a guide to the Inca from your local used book store for more motivation to stick to your budget.

This year, instead of Euro-railing, baguettes, brie and Bordeaux in Parisian cafes, say hello to Peru-railing, hiking in the clouds, swilling pisco* and ambling through Incan ruins. (*Peru recently celebrated its Independence Day by filling the fountain in Lima’s Plaza de Armas with 2,000 liters of pisco, the “national drink.”)

Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and ever since historian Hiram Bingham discovered The Lost City of the Incas at the turn of the last century, it’s perennially appeared on most modern adventurers’ list of top things to do and see before they die.

Thousands of tourists pass through Machu Picchu’s trails each year, and services catering to them run the gamut from bed-bug-ridden hostel to hip hostel, bed and breakfast to luxury honeymoon suite. Avoid both breaking the bank and the tourist mobs at the same time with these tips:

The Inca Capital

If you’re able to sacrifice the classic Inca Trail, then you can get from Cuzco to Machu Picchu for under $200. Intrepid hikers bent on getting those high altitude thrills from the experience can also forego the Inca Trail in favor of alternative trails leading to Machu Picchu. To get to the iconic citadel, first spend a few days in Cuzco, the ancient seat of the Inca Empire. Cobbled streets and narrow passageways up steep valley hills that disappear into the clouds make Cuzco both quaint and mystical—you have officially arrived in the Sacred Valley. While Cuzco may serve as base camp for trekkers and camera-happy tourists, don’t just rush through it to get to the wonders that wait on the other side. Cuzco itself is a marvel of ancient architecture and city planning.

Those of you with only one week at your disposal (or for whom the words “desperately out of shape” resonate) will thank your lucky stars you skipped the hike. Take a few days to acclimatize and enjoy the city, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling winded after walking one Cuzco block: Cuzco looms at 3326 meters or roughly 10, 913 feet above sea level. You may be coming down with soroche, or altitude sickness. Don’t fret—this can be cured using an old Inca remedy: the coca leaf. Chew on a few or slip them into hot water to make mate de coca. (Just don’t try to bring them home.)

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

If it’s the journey you’re after (and not the destination), save up to $30 on the trip to Machu Picchu by combining a bus and train option by way of Ollantaytambo instead of the faster (but more expensive) all-train route. As the only still standing, fully preserved Inca town, Ollantaytambo is a worthy destination in and of itself. Direct buses run between Cuzco and Ollantaytambo in the mornings and evenings (at $1 each way and about 2.5 hours of travel time). From there, the Perurail train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes will set you back about $62 to $77 for a round-trip ticket at the backpacker rate if you spend a night in Aguas Calientes. (Or you can take the train directly from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes for $96 round-trip on the backpacker rate.) Don’t forget to book ahead to get the rate you want!

Whichever route you choose, don’t leave Cuzco without purchasing your entrance ticket or booking your guide for Machu Picchu! Self-guided entrance tickets run about $43 per person for adults, but require you to do your own research about Machu Picchu’s storied past prior to your trip; guided tours vary and can cost $20 to $40 per person for a two-hour private tour, but offer infinite details about the ruins and local history. The bus from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins is $6 each way, or you can get there via the “free route” like I did (also known as the path of blood, sweat and tears) by climbing an old Inca stair, cut into the steep mountain face. You’ll have to ask someone in town how to get there—we had a hand-drawn map that led us by the train tracks to the start of the stairs. The hike takes about 1.5 hours for fit people; two for asthmatics and gym averse folks like me.

Masochistic Mountaineers

If you’re in it for the challenge, at least the trail was paved for you hundreds of years ago by the Inca. Savvy backpackers and hikers have long been aware that there’s more than one road to Machu Picchu, and most of them cost less than the famous Inca Trail. Several different treks will take you to the summit, in addition to the train, bus-train, or bus-only options. Budget tour operators offer four-day treks on the Inca Trail via Lares for $200 to $300 and two-day versions for $200 to $250. The Lares Valley Trek winds between gorges, towns, and lesser ruins. Adventurous travelers may also want to check out the Inca Jungle Trail: an adrenaline-ridden four-day route including a downhill mountain bike to Santa Maria, a wade through the jungle, and a visit to local hot springs on the way to Machu Picchu. While it’s possible to go it alone on this route, most choose to hire a guide. Tour operators charge about $150 to $250 for this option.

Another added benefit to skipping the Inca Trail is that you won’t have to book far in advance, as the other treks don’t fill up as fast (and you can spend that time praying that prices on your Lima-bound international flight will miraculously drop!)

Starving (Conn.) Artists

Feeling so cash-strapped that you’ve considered brewing your own bathtub gin? Stay stateside and visit Yale University in Connecticut instead, which boasts the largest collection of Machu Picchu artifacts in the world. (Again, thank Hiram Bingham for this one: he led the team of Yale archaeologists who excavated Machu Picchu.) After that, toast your adventure and get the full Peruvian experience by heading to Machu Picchu Restaurant on 101 Farren Ave. in New Haven for authentic national dishes (and possibly some pisco).

Shoestring travel is about beholding the mystery of the Inca at a time when anything above and beyond the necessities seems unjustifiable. Make saving up for the trip of a lifetime the one thing you do justify—and scrimp on the rest of your impulse purchases. You’ll thank yourself for the self-discipline later. Machu Picchu tops the to-do-before-I-do list for frugal travelers, too, and now is a better time than ever to escape your comfort zone and gain perspective. You’ll learn not to take things for granted as you see how other cultures lead their daily lives on so much less.

Total Estimated Costs for a 2009 Trip for Two to Machu Picchu:

  • Airfare from Lima to Cuzco: $824 (round trip, not including airfare from your home state or country to Lima, Peru)
  • Machu Picchu: $130 to $350, depending on your mode of transportation (by foot, by train, or by bus-train combo.
  • Six (6) nights stay in Cuzco: $75 average for double occupancy at a budget hotel/hostel (about $12.50/night) or $125 for a mid-range hotel ($21/night).
  • Meals: about $30-60/day
  • Travel Insurance: $112 for two weeks through World Nomads ($56 per person).

Bottom Line: about $1171 to $1471 (plus airfare from your home state or country to Lima, Peru)

Group Tours & Group Rates

If the devil in the details outweighs the discounts for you, check out Gate 1 Travel, STA Travel, or G.A.P Adventures for value-packed guided tours and group trips. At the time of publication, these prices per person ranged from to $999 (no airfare) through G.A.P Adventures to $1148 with student discount at STA Travel or $1149 (including airfare from Miami) for all ages through Gate 1 Travel.

Have you been to Machu Picchu, or are you planning a trip? Love to hear your tips & experiences!

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