Machu Picchu is one of Peru’s highlights and probably the best thing about Peru for many. It isn’t one of the New Wonders of the World for no reason and if you’re reading this because you’re currently planning your visit prepare to be blown away.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu which does make organising a trip there that little more confusing. Should you trek it? Should you take the train? Which train? Can you take a bus? I’m about to outline what you can do, what you can’t and what the best options are (in my opinion).
Before departing make sure you have your entrance ticket and your passport. Be aware that at the time of booking your ticket you would have selected an entrance time so make sure to plan all your transport accordingly. Train times vary depending on the service and from Aguas Calientes, it’s another 40 minutes minimum to the ruins themselves.
One of the many ever popular ways to get to Machu Picchu is by doing a trek. There are many treks to choose from but there are two that prove most popular; The Inca Trail and the Salkantay trek. When I visited I didn’t trek to Machu Picchu, I went by train so I can’t really talk about the nature of the treks but from what I have heard they are a little demanding, muddy but absolutely breath-taking. Many agencies in Cusco offer the treks- some tend to be better than others. Make sure to go with a reliable and recommended agency.
The only option left into Machu Picchu is by train. The closest town and station to the ruins in Aguas Calientes sometimes called Machu Picchu Pueblo (town). Aguas Calientes isn’t accessible by road so you cannot get a bus here from anywhere in the Sacred Valley.
There are two companies that run services to Machu Picchu; Peru Rail and Inca Rail. Peru Rail offers trains between Machu Picchu and Cusco (Poroy) with options to get on/off at Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. Inca Rail runs services from Ollantaytambo, Cusco (Poroy) and Cusco (centre).
Note that while still being labelled as Cusco, some services will depart from Poroy, a small town in the Cusco region that is 20 minutes away by car or taxi from the centre of Cusco.
Peru Rail has four different trains and serving Machu Picchu and depending on the level of service and luxury you’re after, prices vary accordingly. The most backpacker friendly trains are the Vistadome and the Expedition services. The Vistadome has exceptionally large windows; the sides and also half of the roof is glass, meaning you have a better view of your surroundings during the journey. The views on the way to Machu Picchu are spectacular- steep, jagged peaks surrounded by lush, wild jungle. You’ll definitely want a window seat and this is one train journey you’re not going to want to fall asleep on. You also get a light snack and a hot and cold drink on board. The Expedition is the most economic service and while it doesn’t compare to the Vistadome it’s still a great way to travel.
Inca Rail runs trains from Cusco (Poroy), Cusco centre and Ollantaytambo. Inca Rail’s most budget-friendly services are The 360 and The Voyager. The 360 is extremely similar to Peru Rail’s Vistadome, with it’s extremely large and panoramic windows and The Voyager is just like The Expedition.
All trains take 3 hours and 50 minutes from Cusco, about 3 hours from Urubamba and 1 hour and 40 minutes from Ollantaytambo.
For me, when it came down to choosing which train company to use over the other, it was about the train times. As both lines are extremely competitive with one another prices tend to be similar and most people end up choosing the service that best fits their ticket’s entry time and their own schedule. It’s a good idea to check both companies websites for schedules before booking.
Make sure to book your train ticket in advance and not on the day of travel as chances are it will be sold out. This is especially the case during high season where I would recommend booking at least a couple of months in advance.
Where to stay when going to Machu Picchu?
As you can see you can get to Machu Picchu from either Cusco, Urubamba or Ollantaytambo. You can also stay in Aguas Calientes.
If you are exploring the Sacred Valley then I would definitely recommend staying in Ollantaytambo. It’s the nearest town proper to Machu Picchu and will only take you 1h 40 mins to get to the Incan Citadel giving you a full day at the ruins. Ollantaytambo also has its own fascinating ruins which make for a great side trip. I’d recommend seeing them before Machu Picchu however, as once you’ve seen this Wonder of the World nothing will compare. There are some great hotels and restaurants here too.
Urubamba, while not quite as scenic as Pisac and Ollantaytambo is still a lovely little Sacred Valley town where you’ll get to feel a more local vibe. It’s not very touristy like some of the other Sacred Valley towns and it’s also at a lower elevation to Cusco, so if you are feeling the altitude, Urubamba might be a great place to stay and acclimatise. On the downside train services from Urubamba are limited compared to from Cusco or Ollantaytambo. Check Peru Rail’s website for the exact schedules.
No doubt you will find yourself in Cusco at some point before or after Machu Picchu. If you’re not planning to explore the Sacred Valley then getting a train for Cusco becomes very convenient however the journey times are long. If you are visiting Machu Picchu for a day from Cusco and returning to Cusco prepare for a very long day. With travel times from Cusco being just under 4 hours one way, your time at Machu Picchu will be limited. If you are short on time, I would recommend leaving Cusco early, seeing Machu Picchu and then spending the night in Ollantaytambo before returning to Cusco the next day. This will give you much more time at Machu Picchu itself.
Many people like to take the train the day before, stay in Aguas Calientes and hike up to the ruins for sunrise and beat the crowds. Aguas Calientes offers lots of different accommodation, although at a lower standard than elsewhere in the Sacred Valley and at a higher price. It’s a get in and get out kind of a place. However, the proximity to Machu Picchu and the opportunity to see it at sunrise is priceless.
From Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu ruins.
Once in Aguas Calientes, you have two options; hike or take the shuttle bus. Bus tickets can be bought just over the bridge as you exit the train station and you’ll need your passport to do so. They depart every few minutes when full from the main road. It’s about a 40 minute trip on what feels like a never-ending, bendy road.
If you missed out on the Inca Trail then why not hike to the ruins from Aguas Calientes? It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to complete, involving many stairs and breathtaking views.
A secret, super Budget option: *WARNING – not suitable for all.
If you’re on a serious budget or fancy a challenge, there is a way where you don’t take a train and walk instead. This route involves a lot of trekking so I’d recommend only doing this if you don’t mind a challenge and if you’re in good shape physically. It may also involve some hiding from train guards and lying if they catch you. Proceed at your own risk…
From Ollantaytambo, take the railroad path area and follow it all the way to Machu Picchu. You may have to be aware to avoid the train guards but the path is well signposted and it gets you there. This trek takes about 7 hours to complete all 32km.
To cut down on the time you can also take a collectivo (shared taxi) to KM82, about 30 minutes from Ollantaytambo. From here get onto the train tracks and walk all the way to Aguas Calientes. The walk of 25km takes about 7-8 hours too, a little slower due to walking on the tracks. When doing this option, please be aware of the trains that use this track frequently. DO NOT do this trek listening to loud music with headphones on. The trains tend to be slow but it’s good to know when to jump out of their way. Once in Aguas Calientes you can rest and stay the night before continuing the trek the next day for sunrise. (Thank you, Pedro, for sharing this amazing, hack with me) Unfortunately, I had already booked my train tickets before I found this out.
-Just outside the entrance to the ruins, there’s a little desk where you can get your passport stamped with a Machu Picchu stamp. It makes for a great souvenir.
-The busiest times at the ruins are from 9am-1pm. Try to get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds. If your ticket allows it try to come in the afternoon from 12 pm onwards.
-If you do get there for sunrise, the best place to watch it from is the Sun Gate.
Due to the mass tourism, the Inca Citadel is now controlled quite strictly by the Peruvian government. It’s been said that you will now need a certified guide with which to enter the ruins which you can hire on the spot. This still needs some clarification, as when I went recently (March 2019) I didn’t have to hire one. There are some routes which you do have to follow around the site, so it’s difficult to just walk and explore where you like. The justification of this being trying to conserve the site from the masses.
What I did and what it cost me
I bought the Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu ticket and took the Peru Rail service early in the morning from Ollantaytambo. I then took the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes. This is a pretty expensive but standard way to do but I had a bad back at the time and I couldn’t hike up.
In total, including accommodation, I spent: Entrance ticket with Huayna Picchu – $86, Peru Rail return ticket from Ollantaytambo- $163, One-night guesthouse accommodation in Ollantaytambo $24. Total- $273.
Haven’t bought your entrance ticket yet and don’t know which one to go for? Check out my post here.
Any comments or questions? Leave them below.