You’ve finally decided to make the trip to Machu Picchu, a place on nearly every traveler’s bucket list. Once you start doing the research to find out how to get there, you realize it’s not as simple as you had hoped. There are several moving pieces and planning ahead of time is a must if you want to get the most out of your experience.
There are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco (the closest city): by train or hiking the Inca Trail. If you decide to trek the Inca Trail, reservations need to be made several months in advance as only a limited number of people are allowed on the trails daily. There are several companies to choose from that offer short or long treks along various routes. Here are a couple to get you started: Peru Treks and Inca Trail Peru.
If you don’t have the time for a trek, you can take the train from Cusco. We ended up having to use this route and I laid out my recommendations here.
Get to Cusco
We flew to Lima first and spent two days there before catching another flight to Cusco. A lot of people that do their research on Machu Picchu read that it’s a good idea to acclimate to the high altitude in Cusco to avoid altitude sickness at Machu Picchu. What many don’t realize is that staying a few days in Cusco before going to Machu Picchu may not be the best idea because Cusco is actually higher in altitude (11,200 ft vs. 7,970 ft).
The last thing you want is to get sick during your first day in attempts to “acclimate” to the thin air and then not being able to make the trip to Machu Picchu. Since you need to buy your Machu Picchu tickets ahead of time, you won’t want to miss the date you had planned to go. Obviously everyone’s bodies will react differently and this may not apply to you. Nevertheless, it’s something to consider. Stay hydrated and take it easy your first few hours. If you’re worried you’ll be affected by the altitude, think about going to Machu Picchu first and visiting Cusco after. We decided to go straight to Machu Picchu.
Buy Your Machu Picchu Tickets Before You Go
Tickets are not sold at the entrance, so you must buy them before you get there. It’s also important to figure out what kind of ticket you want before purchasing your train tickets. You can buy tickets to only Machu Picchu itself, Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu (the steep mountain you see in the background of most Machu Picchu pictures), or Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain (a mountain that gives you a nice view of the site, but farther away and not as steep as Huayna Picchu).
The reason why you’ll want to figure this out before buying your train ticket is because they only allow a certain number of people to hike Huayna Picchu during certain time slots. Since the hike is steep and tight, they only allow 200 people to enter from 7am – 11am, and another 200 people from 10am – 2pm. If you’re in the first group entering at 7am, you may want to catch the train the night before (it’s a 3-hour ride from Cusco). If you’re in the later group or only want tickets to the site, you can catch a morning train and make it there in plenty of time.
We stayed in Aguas Calientes the night before going to Machu Picchu because we were in the first group for Huayna Picchu at 7am the next day. It coincidentally ended up being a great decision. We happened to be there the night of a yearly festival, so the streets were filled with people dancing, playing music and dressed in costumes. It couldn’t have been a better start to the trip!
Get on a Train to Machu Picchu
There are no roads leading to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. You’ll have to get there by train and can catch it from Cusco or the Sacred Valley (Ollantaytambo). Most of the direct trains from Cusco to Machu Picchu leave in the morning and since we flew in to Cusco from Lima earlier that day, we had to catch the train from the Sacred Valley. We took a shuttle from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, which was super cheap at only about 10 soles (which ends up being about $3.50). The shuttles leave from Avenida Grau, a 15 minute walk from Cusco’s main square, Plaza de Armas, every 30 minutes or so.
If it suits your schedule, I’d definitely recommend the Vistadome train, which has open windows on the roof and all sides so you can fully experience the ride through the Andes. It’s a little more expensive than the Expedition train at about $85 one way from Cusco -> Machu Picchu, but worth it in my opinion! They make the trip fun with live music or in our case, a fashion show of traditional Peruvian clothing. There are several options of return trains back to Cusco, I believe the last one leaves around 5:50pm.
Catch the Bus From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
You will need to take a bus from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu site. You can purchase the tickets at the bus stop for about $9. It’s a 20 minute ride up the mountain, so be sure to account for that if you’re on a schedule. We were in the 7am group for Huayna Picchu, so we caught the 6am bus. It seemed brutal at first, but I can’t even explain how amazing it was to hike through the fog, get to the top of the mountain, have the fog suddenly clear and then see Machu Picchu appear below. It was mesmerizing. If you’re up for it, DEFINITELY hike Huayna Picchu.
Entering the Site: Don’t Forget Your Passport!
You are required to show your passport when you present your tickets at the gate, so don’t forget to bring it or you won’t be allowed in. If you’d like to join a guided group, you can find them at the entrance.
What to Bring
There are a few essentials to make sure you enjoy your day at Machu Picchu:
- Light rain jacket
- Good walking shoes (or hiking shoes with strong grip if you’re doing Huayna Picchu)
- Bug spray
- Plenty of water
- Comfortable clothes
It’s a great idea to wear layers to Machu Picchu. The weather can change quickly, so I’d recommend being ready for warm and/or cool weather. Rain can also come out of nowhere, so bring a light, easy-to-carry rain jacket with you. Because of the humidity, also be sure to account for bugs! I made the mistake of forgetting bug spray and got slightly attacked. Small price to pay, but might as well be prepared if you can. They also don’t allow you to bring food (you can purchase food there), but I’d still recommend bringing energy bars or light snacks to hold you over in case you get hungry.
Take the Time to Relax After Your Amazing Day!
We decided to stay another night in Aguas Calientes after our Machu Picchu adventure. We stayed in the most adorable treehouse cabin that had a balcony overlooking the mountains. We had dinner in the adjacent restaurant, followed by massages in our room. I know a lot of travelers are in a hurry to get back to Cusco after their day at Machu Picchu, but if you can afford to spend the night in Aguas Calientes, I’d recommend it. Why end a magical day worrying about catching trains, buses, and cabs, or rushing to the next thing on your agenda? Machu Picchu truly is a mystical place and you should soak it all up and enjoy it!
And there you have it! These are my tips to making your trip to Machu Picchu a success and hopefully one of the best experiences you’ll ever have.