This post has been updated in May 2019 to reflect the new shuttles available to transport backpackers directly from Cusco To Hidroelectrica, in order to walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes.
With no direct road access in or out of Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu, many travellers are forced to dig deep and pay for a round-trip train journey of at least £90/$140 if they want to tick off that big bucket list item.
However, there is another way.
In our previous post, we outlined how you can make it to Machu Picchu for $1 however, we know that option may not be for everyone. So, here's our guide to the next cheapest route to Machu Picchu - transport to Hidroelectrica, and then a two hour walk along the train tracks.
Since we made our first journey to Machu Picchu, things have changed a little, and there are now two options for completing this section of the journey; a shuttle that delivers you directly from Cusco to Hidroeléctrica or a variety of colectivos that follow the same route.
Whichever you choose, do note that you will still have to complete the same two hour hike from Hidroelétrica to Aguas Calientes.
Shuttle From Cusco to Hidroelectrica
In the past, if budget backpackers wanted to save some pennies but not walk the entire length of the tracks from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the only other option was a number of colectivos to Hidroelectrica (as you’ll read below); now however there’s the option of a shuttle all the way from Cusco to Hidroelectrica.
These can either be booked in advance, arranged via your hostel/hotel or sorted last minute by turning up to the departure point in Cusco’s Plaza de las Armas prior to the 8.30 a.m. departure and negotiating with a company looking to fill seats (note that the vans won’t leave until every seat is filled so there is room for manoeuvre on price).
A one way ticket bought in Cusco will cost 40 soles ($12 USD one way) or 70 soles return, and the journey takes 5-6 hours with stops every couple of hours, including a break for lunch, usually in Santa Maria.
If you choose to arrange your ticket in advance, be certain to get a receipt and wristband as proof of purchase - this will streamline things for your actual day of departure.
Public Transport from Cusco to Hidroelectrica
As we mentioned above, the shuttle option simply didn’t exist the first time we visited Machu Picchu, meaning that public transport was the only option. As it stands today, public transport is only marginally cheaper, but this information remains useful to those that plan on beginning their journey from Ollantaytambo or for those that have a little more time and would like to visit the thermal baths in Santa Teresa.
Cusco to Santa Maria
You have two transport options to make the journey from Cusco to Santa Maria.
The first is to take a collectivo minibus leaving from Calle Inca (25s./$8/£5) and the second is to take a slower bus (15s./$5/£3) from Terminal de Quillabamba (also called Terminal Santiago) on Av. Antonio Lorena. To reach either of these places, take a taxi (4s./$1.3/£0.8) to Plaza Almudena. From there, you'll find Terminal de Quillabamba on the street opposite or Calle Inca's collectivos one block away.
For both of the above option, the actual marked destination of the bus will be Quillabamba, so be sure to confirm that they stop in Santa Maria which is where you want to hop off.
If you want to take the slower but cheaper bus and your visit coincides with high season, it would be a good idea to purchase your ticket the day before, as demand for 7.30 a.m. bus may outstrip early morning supply.
If you're rather spend a few days seeing ruins and hanging out in pretty Ollantaytambo, rather than going bypassing it completely, then you are able to catch a bus from there to Santa Maria from the north-west corner of the main plaza for 15s/$5/£3, 3-4 hours. These buses are coming from Cusco so seats may be scarce and there is the chance that you will miss out. If that happens, you can go to neighbouring Uribamba and find a connection there or negotiate a group rate with the numerous taxis in Ollanta.
cost: 19-29 soles | time: 5-6 hours
santa maria to santa teresa
From where you're dropped off in Santa Maria, you'll have no problem find the buses to connect you to Santa Teresa. Indeed, touts for the buses will likely come to you before you even get off the bus. Collectivo taxis will also take you there a little quicker for a little more money.
Once in Santa Teresa, you have three options:
- Take a bus straight to Hidroeléctrica from where you will have to immediately start the walk along the train track to Aguas Calientes in order to make it before darkness falls. In all likelihood, the bus you take from Santa Maria will be heading to Hidroeléctrica, so you may not have to change.
- Start the walk along the train tracks from Santa Theresa itself, which will take around 4-5 hours. We really wouldn't recommend this option if you've just spent the day travelling on buses and time is against you - if long walks along the train tracks are your thing, then you would be better taking the $1 route.
- Stay the night in order to rest up, have some food, hang out in thermal baths and split up the journey. This is the option we'd recommend.
cost: 10 soles | time: 1.5 hours
Santa Teresa to Hidroeléctrica
The same afternoon or the following morning, take the collectivo from Santa Teresa to Hidroeléctrica. (5s./$2.6/£1, 45 minutes). This are very easy to find, and as a backpacker, you’ll likely have people coming to ask you if this is where you’re headed.
cost: 5 soles | time: 45 minutes
Hidroeléctrica to Aguas Calientes
Hidroelectrica isn’t so much a town or village (it is, in fact, just a hydro-electric plant), and the only indication you’ll have that you’re in the right place is a row of stands selling drinks and snacks. You’ll find a clearly signed check point to sign-in so that the authorities have some idea of how many people are walking the tracks, so drop your signature and head towards the tracks!
As this is such a popular way for budget-conscious backpackers to make their way to Machu Picchu, finding the ‘start point’ should be easy-peasy, but feel free to take a quick look at your GPS to make sure you’re going the right way.
From here, it's a pleasant 2-3 hour walk along the railway line to Aguas Calientes.
Just remember at all times that this is an active railway line in daily use - stay safe and don't be an idiot.
So, there you have it. Instead of a train ticket for around £45/$70, you've made it to Aguas Calientes for a fraction of the price. Our total costs exclude the price of accommodation if you choose to spend an evening in Santa Theresa, where you can pick up a basic room for 15s/$5/£3 per person.
Remember, it's not about rushing to get to Machu Picchu; it's about making the most of the experience. Therefore, do think carefully about trying to do too much in one day of travel from Cusco - you want to have some energy for the actual site itself!