How to Visit Cusco & Machu Picchu on a Budget

If you ever got astonished while watching a picture of Machu Picchu, I have something to tell you: Reality is 10 times better! 

No picture captures the spirit, energy and breath-taking natural surroundings of the ruins. That is why even if it wasn’t one of the top destinations for backpacking it would still be worth every dollar you spend on that trip. But the whole “adventure” point is to push some limits, for that reason I want to share with you the recommendations from my personal experience and my Peruvian friends so you can make the most of it.

Peru is perfect for travelers on a shoestring budget, and not just the backpacker hordes. Visiting Machu Picchu on a budget is totally possible!

Machu Picchu on a budget
Machu Picchu on a budget

How to Visit Cusco & Machu Picchu on a Budget

Peru’s currency is the nuevo sol (S/) and compared to other South American countries, traveling costs are low – it’s easy to survive on $30-40 USD a day. However, if your budget is slightly tighter, then here are a few tips on how to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu on a budget.

1. Bargain

Bargaining is almost a rule in every small community and town, and Cusco is not the exception. 

a. Hotel: 

If you arrive to Cusco by bus, on the terminal you’ll be approached by several “hotel representatives” that will harass you until you go to their hotel. This is good news for you, because if you play your cards right, they’ll fight against each other with the only competitive advantage they have: Rate. I managed to get a room with private bathroom 3 blocks away from the Main Square for U$D 4 per night (this was in 2007).

Bonus track: Most of them will pay for your taxi to make sure you go to their hotel. 

b. Tours: 

Regardless if you chose to go hiking the Inca Trail or going on a regular tour, you’ll have to go to one of the many travel agencies around the main square. All of them offer the same product, with that in mind walk around, asking and bargaining till you find the best deal. 

c. Handicrafts and regional products: 

I don’t need to explain how this works. Test your negotiating skills and you’ll get an average of 50 to 60% off. You’ll find the best product quality, variety and prices in the small towns along the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

2. Nightlife in Cusco on a budget

All the nightlife in Cusco happens around the main square, where you’ll find several pubs and night clubs. Just choose any random point and start walking around the square (clockwise or counterclockwise works!). Every bar will try to make you go in, that’s why they’ll offer you free admission and a free drink.

All you have to do is go inside, have your drink, spend some time if you like the place and move on to the next bar, where the same thing will happen again. When I and my friends got back to the starting point we thought “OK, that’s it”, so imagine our surprise when all the bars started offering the free drinks again! In our case, we just went back to our favorite, but in theory you can get drunk without spending a dime.

3. Eating in Cusco

Every wise traveler will tell you this “Stay away from the touristic places”. On this case, walking just 3 blocks away from the square will be enough. Find a “picanteria”, that’s where the locals eat. We had a (simple) 3 courses meal for U$D 2,50 (corn snack, soup and ceviche).

4. Churches

An important part of this trip, is visiting Cusco’s stunning baroque churches like the Cathedral, La Merced and Jesuit church to name a few. They boast an artistic patrimony of sculptures and paintings from the Cusco School (XVII century) and earthquake-proof architecture with fascinating shapes. You need to buy the “tourist pass” (U$D 10) to enter the Cathedral, and pay a small admission fee for the other churches, but if you go during the mass, you can enter for free. *

5. Sacsayhuaman

In the times of the Incas, the city of Cusco used to be shaped as a Puma. Sacsayhuaman, which are now beautiful ruins overlooking the city, used to be the Puma’s head. You can enter for free before the opening time (7am)… Of course my choice was to sleep an extra couple of hours!

Depending on how much time you have and which are your interests it may be worth to buy the tourist pass. A one-day partial Cusco ticket is $25 and includes entrance to Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay.

Sacsayhuaman in Cuzco, Peru
Sacsayhuaman in Cuzco, Peru

6. Train to Machu Picchu

At some point, you’ll have to take the train (even if you walk the Inca Trail, you’ll need it to go back). They’ll tempt you to buy the Deluxe Train instead of the backpackers’ one. It certainly is beautiful with those panoramic windows and first class service. But all the fun happens in the backpackers’ train… We found ourselves into a party (literally) with adventurers from all around the world. Don’t miss that experience!

7. Time is money! 

You want to arrive early to Machu Picchu; the deluxe train arrives about 10 AM, which means that that’s the time when everything will be crowded. I’d recommend spending the night in the close town of Aguas Calientes and waking up early in the morning. If you didn’t walk the Inca Trail, resist the temptation of walking up to the ruins just to prove yourself how adventurous you are. That’s a waste of time and energy. Go straight to the ruins by bus, and finish early enough to climb the Huayna Picchu for the most amazing panoramic view of the citadel. You can start your way up until 1PM and they have a limited space for the first 200 people.

8. Free souvenir

Take your passport with you when you visit Machu Picchu and go to the visitor’s center, where they’ll enrich it with a fancy rubber stamp of the ruins.

More posts on Machu Picchu & Cusco

Things to do in Cusco, Peru

Cuzco (also “Cusco”, or “Qosqo” in Quechua), located in the Southern Sierras is a fascinating city that was the capital of the Incan Empire.

Cusco is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is one of Peru’s most visited cities as it is the largest and most comfortable city from which tourists can begin visits to Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and other Incan sites in the region. There are so many incredible things to do in Cusco.

Cusco is a beautiful city with well preserved colonial architecture, evidence of a rich and complex history. The city itself represents the center of indigenous Quechua culture in the Andes, and by merely walking the streets one sees the layers of history. Spanish colonial buildings erected directly atop Inca walls line the square, while the modern tourist nightlife flourishes in their midst.

The city is surrounded by a number of ruins, the most impressive being Sacsayhuaman, the site of the 1536 battle in which dozens of Pizarro’s men charged uphill to battle the forces of the Inca. Nowadays, Cusco is known for its indigenous population, often seen on the streets in traditional clothing, and its substantial tourist-fueled night life. 

Related Read: Where to go in Peru Besides Machu Picchu

Sacsayhuaman in Cuzco, Peru
Sacsayhuaman in Cuzco, Peru

Things to do in Cusco, Peru

Don’t rush through Cusco! 

It is an amazing city and you need more than two days to see the city alone. This is not even mentioning side full day trips to Machu Picchu or to the Sacred Valley.

Things to do in Cusco, Peru
Cusco, Peru

Here are some travel tips for things you might like to see or do.

  • Walk around the Plaza de Armas; the square has churches, shops, restaurants and bars backing on to it and is a great place to spend an afternoon. The historical center of Cusco is beautiful, but you will have to deal with all the street vendors and hawkers of cheap paintings and other souvenirs. They are everywhere in and around the Plaza de Armas. They spoil somewhat the experience.
  • Check out the Plaza de San Francisco, which is a few blocks north of the center, and is a great place to visit one of Cusco’s many great coffee shops.
  • Play Sapo, a traditional bar game played in chicharias all over Peru. The game involves throwing small coins, called fichas, at a table with a bronze sapo (toad) attached. You get points for making it into holes on the table and a ton of points for making it into the sapo’s mouth. Best played while drinking chicha (corn beer, traditionally fermented with saliva) at a local dive. Ask old men to show you the correct throwing form, as it’s difficult to master.
  • Talk to local store owners, curators, waitresses and bartenders. They typically know a little English if your Spanish is not good and are generally happy to share interesting information about the city not found in guidebooks. This is also a great way to find the best places to try cuyalpaca, and chicha.
  • Once you are accustomed to the altitude, go for a jog! This is a very humbling experience, as the hills and thin air prove a challenge to even those in great shape. It’s also a good way to explore. Head east or south of the plaza for the safest places. If you’re a woman out exercising, you may get a few cat calls, as this is common in much of Latin America.
  • Go Whitewater rafting but not in the Sacred Valley of the Incas where the water is very polluted and the rapids are relatively tame. Instead head upstream to Chuqicahuana or Cusipata sections of the Rio Urubamba / Vilcanota where the water is much cleaner and the rapids are excellent fun up to class 5 depending on what time of year you are traveling.
  • Try inflatable canoeing on the Piñi Pampa section of the Rio Urubamba where you get to paddle your own canoe down, fun but not frantic, class 1 and 2 rapids.
  • If you have more time, try and raft the 3 or 4 day Rio Apurimac – the true Source of the Amazon and one of the Top Ten Rafting Rivers in the World. Class 3 – 5 all in the most amazing 3000m deep canyon. Go with the experts as accidents have occurred and in Peru you pay for what you get so saving a few $$$ can seriously reduce the quality and the safety of your trip.
  • Have a Downhill Mountain Bike trip either across the Chincheros plains, past Inca ruins and down through the spectacular Maras Saltpans or the 75km downhill from Abra Malaga to Santa Maria and onto the totally awesome hotsprings of Santa Teresa (easy and cheap access to Machu Picchu from here, too) Again go with the experts – there are a lot of cheap bikes out there, totally not up to the job.

Buying at markets in and around Cusco, Peru

If you want cheap cheap touristy stuff, go to one of the two Saturday and Sunday morning markets in Juliaca (about 5 hours away by bus), Puno (about 6 hours away by bus). They are about 1/3 the price of Cusco.

If you don’t want to go so far away, but still want touristy stuff, go to the Artisan Market at the intersection of la Avenida del Sol and Tullumayo. It’s the big red building near the fountain. The further away you get from the main square, the cheaper things become.

There is a mini-mart next to the big church in the main square. It is the San-Pedro market where bread costs around s/0.10 and a glass of combination juices around s/1.50 and they give you 2-4 refills. Don´t go too far from the main square at night though, it can be dangerous.

There is another market called Centro Comercial El Molino, Urbanizacion Ttio, you have to take a taxi and it costs s/2 to get there. In this market you can buy heaps of illegal merchandise, DVDs, CDs etc. A good quality copy DVD is s/4, or you can by 5 VCDs for s/10.

The indigenous women at El Centro Bartolome de Las Casas have a store in which they sell homemade handicrafts and weavings. You can often watch them work, though they often don’t speak Spanish, and rarely speak a word of English. It’s located a few blocks from the plaza on Avenida Tullumayu.

Also Pisac, a town outside Cusco, has a very big market. It is about 30 minutes from Cusco by bus. The bus station is on Tullumayo street a couple blocks from Limacpampas. The fare is very cheap, and you can see the Incan ruins at Pisac. In Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu prices can be the double of what they are in Cusco.

If you travel to the “Sacred Valley” (Valle Sagrado, including the towns/ruins of Chinchero, Ollantaytambo and Pisac), there is lots of touristy stuff to buy, you can barter, but the prices won´t go down much. Alpaca sweaters are not like they used to be. The only good ones are in upmarket shops.

Shopping in markets in Cusco, Peru
Shopping in markets in Cusco, Peru

Keen to check out Machu Picchu while in Cusco? Check out these posts: