Alternatives to Machu Picchu

Last time we talked about the full cost of visiting Machu Picchu and how much it can be compared to the few hours you get exploring the ancient ruins. You can either pay in comfort and time and the whole 4-day trip will cost about $737 (including airfare), or if you don’t want to/can’t hike 14+ kilometers, it’s going to cost you a whopping $1,382 for the same trip!

While there is no place exactly like Machu Picchu, these six places might also match your travel dreams and deliver more value for the money. Prices below are divided into cheap and comfortable: on the cheap end, you’re hosteling/camping and eating cheaper meals with locals, while on the comfortable end, you’re staying in air-conditioned two/three-star hotels and eating at trendier restaurants. For the purposes of this list, we’ve divided the reasons for visiting Machu Picchu into the following: archaeological ruins, natural beauty, and hiking.

South America

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Teotihuacan’s central plaza

Mexico’s Teotihuacan

Good for: ruins

Price: $410 (cheap) or $640 (comfortable) for 4 days/night trip to Mexico City and Teotihuacan

Details: Mexico City is a short flight away from the U.S. and is located less than two hours away from the ruins of Teotihuacan, an ancient city build more than 2,000 years ago by an unknown people. Their avenues, homes, and temples were so impressive that the later Aztecs revered this site as sacred and claimed it had been built by gods. $275 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board in Mexico City as well as transportation, admission, and a guide for Teotihuacan. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, so you could stay for a whole week and still save money compared to Machu Picchu. Insider’s tip: if you can, visit Mexico City and Teotihuacan for the Day of the Dead festival (October 29-November 2). The City has a huge display of handmade papier-mâché Alebrijes, Calle Regina gets decked out in beautiful dioramas celebrating the dead, and the ruins of Teotihuacan plays host to a huge festival. (P.S. Despite popular perception, most parts of Mexico City are pretty safe.)

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Carvings at Sayil’s palace, along the Puuc Route

Mexico’s Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and the Puuc Route

Good for: ruins, natural beauty

Price: $702 (cheap) or $1100 (comfortable) for 4 days/nights Cancun->Merida->Cancun

Details: While the Yucatan region is better known for the party city of Cancun, it also hosts some of the most amazing Mayan ruins, including pyramids, temples, palaces, fortresses, and sacred sites. Chichen Itza is the most well-known, but the Puuc route near the city of Merida also boasts more than six archaeological sites, including the lesser-known ancient city of Uxmal, the palace of Sayil, and Loltun Cave (believed by the Mayans to be the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld). $280 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board, a car rental + road tolls + gas to drive yourself around, entrance fees to all of the sites, and guides. Staying an extra day in Merida or Cancun would cost between $30 (cheap) and $110 (comfortable) for food/board, not counting any extra days of car rental. If you want to make it cheaper, skip the car rental and book day tours to these sites. Insider’s tip: the guides will highball you on both their rates and how much is acceptable to tip. Remember to negotiate and tip IF you really felt your guide delivered value.

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Barefoot hiking the Pueblito trail in Parque Tayrona, an ancient trail paved with granite stones by the indigenous people

Colombia’s Parque Tayrona

Good for: natural beauty, hiking

Price: $560 (cheap) and $950 (comfortable) for a 6 day Cartagena->Santa Marta->Parque Tayrona->Santa Marta->Cartagena trip.

Details: The dollar goes further in Colombia, and the country’s Tayrona National Park is as beautiful as it is remote. Home to several indigenous tribes and three different types of tropical forest, the park has a few excellent hiking trails and a plethora of native species that are easy to spot, including a species of monkey. Though it doesn’t have ruins, it has a hike to an indigenous village via a granite trail made centuries ago. $370 of both of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for two nights in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park, with money for transport and food/rooms in Cartagena and Santa Marta at the beginning and end. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, with +/- $10-$40 depending on which place you chose to spend your extra days.

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The view from La Piedra in Guatape

Colombia’s Guatape and Le Piedra del Penol

Good for: natural beauty, hiking

Price: $490 (cheap) or $830 (comfortable) for a 4-day Medellin->Guatape->Medellin trip.

Details: If you’re looking for natural beauty, the idyllic Colombian lakeside town of Guatape and their enigmatic stone monolith La Piedra del Penol (linkout) may be perfect. Medellin is the starting point for the trip, and while once known for its sordid role as Pablo Escobar’s hometown during the height of the cocaine trade, it’s cleaned itself up and is now a beautiful, metro-linked, red-roofed city (linkout). $400 of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for room/board, transportation between Medellin and Guatape, and transportation and admission to La Piedra del Penol. Adding extra time would be between $18 and $85 per day. Insider’s tip: Guatape is famous for its trout, and you can both savor the local delicacy in restaurants or fish your own. There’s also an AMAZING chocolate store in town that’s a must-visit (linkout).

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Choquequirao, courtesy of Wikipedia

By Ericbronder at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Peru’s Choquequirao

Good for: hiking (required), ruins, natural beauty

Price: $695 (cheap) or $1275 (comfortable) for a 7-night Cusco->Cachora->Choquequirao->Cachora->Cusco trip.

Details: Perhaps the best substitute for Machu Picchu for those able to hike (though we haven’t done this one), Choquequirao is an ancient Incan city that’s actually larger than Machu Picchu and has beautifully preserved stone carvings. The ruin is only reachable by 2 days of hiking from the towns Santa Teresa or Cachora (~31 km), so it’s fairly isolated (meaning it sees FAR fewer tourists) and admission is currently free. Airfare is taken from the Machu Picchu guide of the last post (580 cheap, 655 comfortable), and the rest covers room/board, supplies for the hike, and transport to/from Cachora. There’s a limit to what we can do here for comfort, since there’s an obligatory hike, but you could hire a guide + private transport + porter in town for ~$200, which I included in the “comfortable” price. Insider’s Tip: The Peruvian government is currently developing a cable car system from Mollepata to Choquequirao as part of a plan to develop the site for tourism, so go now while it’s still isolated and free!

Outside of South America

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Mount Bromo at sunrise

Indonesia’s Borobudur, Prambanan, and Mount Bromo

Good for: ruins, hiking, and natural beauty

Price: $1080 for a 7-night Jakarta->Yogyakarta->Bromo->Jakarta trip (cheap; maybe add $300-400 for “comfortable”, but I have limited data)

Details: So this isn’t technically cheaper in total compared to Machu Picchu, but a weeklong visit to Indonesia’s Java is comparable per day and is an amazing destination that spans sprawling megacities, ancient temples, and still-smoking volcanoes. While most people only visit Bali, Java is Indonesia’s most populous island and home to both ancient ruins and stunning natural scenery. As a bonus, Indonesians are some of the friendliest people ever, and you’ll be interviewed by schoolchildren practicing English and pose for selfies with random people on the street (and in the countryside). Borobudur and Prambanan, located near the city of Yogyakarta, are some of the most impressive and well-preserved Buddhist and Hindu archaeological sites in the world. And Mount Bromo is a live volcano in the middle of the island, where you can walk straight up to the volcano’s rim and watch a stunning sunrise over the surrounding area. After the $665 airfare to Jakarta (that drops to about $550 if you’re on the west coast), the remaining $415 covers 7 days’ worth of cheap food, board, admission to all three locations, AND a front-row seat to the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet, an insane retelling of the Ramayana story that involves setting the stage on fire (in the non-rainy season, at least).  Insider’s tip: Booking private transport to/from Bromo can be worthwhile just to avoid Probolinggo, the island’s scammiest location.

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The ruins of Prambanan
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Carvings in the ruins at Prambanan

Summary

The point of this article isn’t to say that you must go somewhere else instead of Machu Picchu. This article exists because we were shocked at how much Machu Picchu costs compared to how much we valued the experience. In our travelling, we found the above places delivered better value for the money spent, but it’s up to you to decide what you want out of your travel experience.

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