Nowadays the cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu is via direct tourist minibus to/from Hidroeléctrica (six hours from Cusco), from where it’s a three hour hike each way (two alongside the railway tracks, one steeply uphill to the site). Doing it this way (or my variant) you’d need to spend at least a night in the valley below the site before hiking up the following morning.
I wanted to make a couple of additional stops on the way to Machu Picchu, so I did it like this:
Day 1 (4 July 2019)
Ollantaytambo is a small town with original Incan water channels running down the sides of its streets. Very touristy though and I was unimpressed by my dog-infested campsite (Camping Chacana).
Public minibus to Ollantaytambo (10 soles). Campsite in Ollantatambo (15 soles).
Did a short hike a little way up the hill to look across the town to the Incan ruins, which are expensive to enter. Then took a public bus up and over a huge mountain pass in order to rejoin the Sacred Valley further west at Santa Maria/ Santa Teresa. Camped at a very basic site outside the not very hot thermal pools.
Public bus to Santa María (20 soles). Shared taxi to Santa Teresa (10 soles). Entrance to thermal baths (10 soles). Campsite outside thermal baths (8 soles).
Enjoyable hike along the railway tracks from Hidroeléctrica - quite jungly, lots of birdsong. Though hundreds of people now walk to Machu Picchu this way every day it still feels like the secret ‘back door’. I happened upon a really nice cafe and campsite run by an enterprising local family and decided to stay there rather than closer to the very touristy ‘Machu Picchu town’.
Taxi to Santa Teresa (5 soles). Shared taxi to Hidroeléctrica (10 soles). 90 minute hike to Mandor campsite. Camping (10 soles).
30+60 minute hike to Machu Picchu itself (see story below*). Morning at Machu Picchu before returning to pack up tent and hiking back to Hidroeléctrica for direct shuttle back to Cusco (six hours).
Entrance to MP site (156 soles!!). 3 hour hike back to Hidroeléctrica. Direct tourist minibus back to Cusco (35 soles).
Total cost (transport+camping+entrances): £70/ less than $90
In addition I spent £7.50 renting a 50 litre rucksack and a couple of quid on travel sickness pills, plus a total of about £75 on food and drink over the four days (at tourist prices!).
*A little story I think is psychologically interesting:
Entrance tickets for Machu Picchu are timed. The most popular time is 6am, because everyone wants to see the sunrise and take selfies without too many other trippers in the background. The guy at the campsite told me there’s no point getting to the bottom gate extra early because they don’t open til 5am. Arriving at about ten to five in the pitch dark and light rain a couple of hundred people had already arrived and - being mostly gringos - had spontaneously formed a queue. I saw a neon COFFEE sign at the front of the queue and went to investigate. The place was shut but there was a space on a bench so I sat down thinking I’d basically jump what seemed to me a rather pointless queue (given we all had 6am tickets and we all had to hike steeply uphill for at least an hour at our own pace to the top gate where our tickets would be scanned). At 5am when the other people on the bench stood up I did too. I figured anyone who noticed me (in the dark) would assume I was with someone else. I hadn’t banked on the fact everyone around me was in a group, so they knew I hadn’t arrived with them! To my amazement a young Dutch woman challenged me loudly in English. I became instantly fascinated by the psychology of the situation and decided to stay put and see what would happen. A second person (young guy, I think German) also remonstrated with me, at which point several members of the mixed European group joined in with shaming me in English, incensed that I’d not only pushed in but also failed to acquiesce. (Obviously I didn’t argue because I’m generally pro-queues, in fact I didn’t say anything at all, which really pissed them off. I felt uncomfortable, but my fascination with their culturally-presumptuous bullying was stronger than my discomfort, particularly given how little was actually at stake! We all had 6am tickets and they were already at the front of the arguably pointless queue!)
90 minutes later, at the highest point of the site where everybody wants to get their perfect, identical dawn selfie (but which was entirely shrouded in cloud until around 10 o'clock!) I heard a guide behind me saying it would probably clear in an hour or so. Then I heard the loud Dutch woman’s voice asking what would happen when it cleared; would we line up (form a queue!) to take pictures, she asked! Then I heard her reporting to the guide (and anyone else within earshot) that ‘that woman standing there’ (I was about five metres away, facing away from them) had pushed in at the bottom gate. I can only assume she was struggling with her disappointment about the weather, and I was the perfect scapegoat. Next I heard an English voice who clearly had not witnessed Gategate and thus had no personal investment in the scandal say equally loudly (so I’d hear) ‘That’s a woman? Funny-looking woman!’ It’s amazing how little it takes for people’s queerphobia to come spilling out! I’d brought along my earplugs to shut out hollering Yanks, but they turned out equally useful for shutting out thoroughly unpleasant Europeans! Apart from that I enjoyed my visit, though I was very glad I hadn't spent thousands of dollars on it as many disappointed-looking people clearly had.