There are a lot of logistics in getting to Machu Picchu and they are all very confusing. Depending on how much trekking, how much time, and how much money you want to spend your trip can be planned several different ways. Because I had already spent so much time trekking in South America I decided to go a more direct route and went to Machu Picchu for the day with an overnight in Aguas Calientes. I planned my trip on arrival in Cusco with my hotel but if you want to do the longer popular treks you should plan ahead of time.
TREKKING FROM CUSCO
To do the 4 day/3 night Inca trail trek or the 5 day/4 night Salkantay trek you need to book several months ahead of time with a tour company. If you can’t get on one of those treks there is a 4 day/3 night adventure Jungle Trek (about $250) you can sign up for on arrival.
GETTING TO AGUAS CALIENTES
If you are planning on visiting Machu Picchu without a multiple day trek the first thing you need to do is get to the tiny town of Agua Calientes which sits at the bottom of Machu Picchu mountain.
You can break up your trip and spend a night in Ollantaytambo visiting the Sacred Valley, a mid point between Cusco and Aguas Calientes if you have an extra day.
If you are on a very tight budget the bus is the cheapest but longest option.
Inka rail and Peru Rail operate trains between Cusco and Aguas Calientes. You can buy tickets on their website or with your tour company. My ticket from Ollantaytambo was about $116 round trip but the price can vary depending on the time of day.
Because of my time and budget I chose to do a combination of taking the train and the bus together. I took a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (2.25 hours) and then changed to the train Peru Rail train in Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (2.5 hours). You can discuss the different options with your tour company and they will help you arrange the transfers and tickets. There are tour companies all over town and your hotel can probably recommend one to you.
AGUAS CALIENTES TOWN
Aguas Calientes is a little more expensive than Cusco. There is a hot springs in town but mostly it is just full of lodging and restaurants for tourists. There is also a pretty large market here but I found most of it is not real Alpaca so keep that in mind when you are buying and bargaining.
GETTING TO MACHU PICCHU FROM AGUAS CALIENTES
When you arrive in Aguas Calientes you will be at the bottom of Machu Picchu mountain. You will probably arrive the day before and go up the mountain first thing the next morning. You can then go back that afternoon or stay another night in Agua Calientes. I’d recommend taking a later train in the day to give yourself more time in Machu Picchu if you leave the same day.
GETTING UP THE MOUNTAIN
If you are feeling ambitious you can hike up the mountain to Machu Picchu. It’s about a 1.5 hour uphill stair hike.
BUS ($24 each way)
The first bus up the mountain is at 5:20am but people start lining up 4-4:20am. It’s about a 20-25 minute winding bus ride. You can arrange to have your tour company get your bus ticket ahead of time or buy your bus ticket when you arrive if you’re not sure you want to take it.
*If you decide you want to buy a bus ticket back down later instead of hiking back down you can get a bus ticket at Machu Picchu but it is cash only.
The gates to Machu Picchu open at 6am and I think it’s best to try and get there first so you can get a view without the tourists covering the ruins.
There are no bathrooms once you enter the park and there is no food allowed inside the park. Entry tickets are assigned with your name so make sure you bring your passport to match your entry ticket. You can also get a Machu Picchu passport stamp inside as well. Tickets are assigned to a specific day to limit how many people can enter each day. Your tour company can arrange for your ticket or you can buy it online ahead of time (128 soles/ about $40).
Even though it’s pretty cold in the morning it gets very hot so bring lots sunscreen and water. You don’t need to bring your coat. I’d wear capri leggings, a tank or tee and a long sleeve layer with sneakers. There are stairs everywhere so be prepared for a workout.
You can arrange for a tour inside Machu Picchu of different lengths and there are guides outside the park you can hire on arrival as well. I had a short tour first thing in the morning and then had the rest of the day free in the park.
TREKS INSIDE MACHU PICCHU
There are a few different mini treks you can do in one day within the park. The Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountain treks need special tickets and need to be booked ahead of time. The Machu Picchu mountain trek is about a 2 hour hike uphill and you are assigned a specific time during the day to hike the mountain.
With just your regular entry ticket there are two treks you can do. The trek to the Sun Gate (the entry from the end of the Inca trail) which is about 1.5 hours uphill and the hike to the Inka Bridge which is only about 25 minutes.