Everything You Need to Know About Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu, certainly on most travellers’ bucket list when visiting Peru, and for good reason. Since it’s official rediscovery in 1911, Machu Picchu has undergone some major clearing and restoration and is now a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, and one of the New Wonders of the World. It is a true testament to the sophistication and beauty of Incan architecture and culture.

Location: About 112 km northwest of Cusco, between Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu Mountain ranges in the central Cordillera of the Andes, the vista really can’t be beat, it’s a perfect mixture of the rocky mountain ranges further south, and Amazon Jungle. At 2,350 m, it sits lower than Cusco at 3,339 m. With some time in Cusco, altitude sickness really shouldn’t be a problem here, similarly if you decide to trek into Machu Picchu through either Salkantay or Inca Trail routes, (discussed later) as altitudes along these hikes may reach as high as 4,600 m.

When to Go:

Rainy Season (November – March) About 80% of the annual volume of rain, anything from a light drizzle to heavy downpour. This is also the time where the weather is at its warmest.  
Best Months (May-October) Blue skies, warm sun, beautifully magical misty mornings. This time coincides with the dry season.
Busiest Months (June-August) Long lines at the entrance and large crowds can make it difficult to move around. People doing DIY day tours may want to give themselves some extra time to explore. This is also the busiest time on the Inca Trail.

Our opinion? The best time to visit is between September and November, the shoulder season, where the days can still be sunny, the crowds are fewer, and with the rains coming in, orchids are blooming everywhere. Keep in mind, no matter what time of year you go, Machu Picchu is still part of the rainforest, and can receive fog and rain any time of year. Go when you can, enjoy it for what it is. In our experience, some of the best photographs we’ve taken have been in bad weather.

How To Get There & What It Will Cost: The answer to this varies GREATLY, but day tours to Machu Picchu can definitely be done on a backpacker’s budget. Firstly, you should note that there are two main locations to start from (whether doing treks or day tours), one is Cusco, the other, a small city called Aguas Calientes which is about 30 min by bus from the Machu Picchu Citadel. I’d also like to mention, and as you’ll soon find out, there are NUMEROUS options to explore Machu Picchu, you do not need to be an experienced hiker, fitness fanatic or die-hard traveller to enjoy this experience in all its glory. Moving forward, there are four popular ways to get there (keep in mind that despite the prices shown, there are great deals to be found for some tours when booking locally):

  1. The Classic Inca Trail Trek: To do one of the most famous hikes in the world requires some preparation, 6 months to a year in fact. There are 500 permits available each day, but 300 of those permits will be allocated to porters, cooks, and guides. Do not let this discourage you, with several Incan sites along the way, a sunrise view above the clouds, and direct passage into Machu Picchu, it is truly an amazing experience.
    • Duration: 4-5 Days
    • Distance: 45 km (27.9 miles)
    • Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
    • Max Altitude: 4,200 m
    • Cost: Starting at + $600 USD

Take Away Message: Lower costs may mean larger groups sizes, poor wages for porters, and low quality food. A reliable midrange operator (between $700-$900 USD) will usually provide all the essentials for an enjoyable trek.

Other Trail Options: If you’re wanting to do a more traditional trek, but couldn’t book so far in advance, there are also the following options:

  • Cachicata Trek:
    • Duration: 4 Days
    • Distance: 25 km (15.5 miles)
    • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
    • Max Altitude: 4500 m
  • Huchuy Qosqo Trek:
    • Duration: 3 Days
    • Distance: 8 km (11 miles)
    • Difficulty: Easy
    • Max Altitude: 4,300 m
  • Vilcabamba Trek:
    • Duration: 5 Days
    • Distance: 60 km
    • Difficulty: Difficult
    • Max Altitude: 4,500 m
  • Lares Trek
    • Duration: 3-5 Days
    • Distance: 34 km (21 miles)
    • Difficulty: Moderate
    • Max Altitude: 4,780 m
  • Condensed Inca Trail: Starts at Kilometer 104 of the Inca Trail
    • Duration: 2 Days
    • Distance: 10 km (6.3 miles)
    • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
    • Max Altitude: 2,730 m
  1. The Salkantay Trek: Considered the best alternative route to the Inca Trail. This is a popular one amongst travellers, and depending on the time of year, you do not usually have to book in advance. At this time, Salkantay has no daily permit limitations, making booking on a whim extremely flexible. Many backpackers will book once they get to Cusco. If you are tight on time, look to book when your travel plans are made.
    • Duration: Usually 5 Days (Some 4-8 day treks available depending on the operator)
    • Distance: Approx. 74 km (46 miles)
    • Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
    • Max Altitude: 4,600 m
    • Average Altitude: 3,000 m
    • Cost: Starting at + $400 USD

Take Away Message: Less may not always be more on these treks, and the cost may heavily influence what is included and what is not. The hike itself is challenging, what would make it more challenging is leaky tents, skimpy meals, and shitty sleeping pads. Do your research and ask questions before booking.

  1. Day Tours (With Guide) from Cusco or Aguas Calientes: Hiking not your thing? No problem. Tight on time? No problem. There are ALWAYS day trips available to Machu Picchu, either from Cusco, or Aguas Calientes.
    • From Cusco: Approx. $350 USD and includes:
      • Local English and/or Spanish speaking guides
      • Roundtrip train tickets
      • Bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
      • Entrance fee
      • Hotel drop-off and pick-up
    • From Aguas Calientes: Approx $115 USD and includes:
      • Local English and/or Spanish speaking guides
      • Bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
      • Entrance fee

Take Away Message: Day tours are easy to book once you arrive in Cusco or Aguas Calientes. With booking any tour locally, there is always some flexibility in the price. Be sure to shop around and get a feel for what people are charging, then negotiate. Booking with local tour companies in local currency can save you some money.

  1. Day Tours (No Guide) from Cusco or Aguas Calientes: This is where you can really pinch your pennies, and still have a great adventure. Important Note: As of 2018 it is said that everyone will be required to have a guide with them in Machu Picchu, whether this has been enforced or not I’m not sure, but guides can be hired on arrival at the entrance to Machu Picchu.
    • From Cusco:
      • Roundtrip private taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and return: Approx. $50 USD. Roundtrip local bus Approx. $18 USD. (This is if you choose to leave from the Ollantaytambo train station and not Cusco)
      • PeruRail or IncaRail train ticket (see details below).
      • Roundtrip Bus Ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu: $25 USD
      • Machu Picchu Entrance Fee: $47 USD
      • Accommodation: As low as $12 USD/night in a Hostel or Air BNB
      • Food: Approx. $10.00 USD per meal in a local restaurant in Aguas Calientes
    • From Aguas Calientes:
      • Rountrip Bus Ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu: $25 USD
      • Macchu Picchu Entrance Fee: $47 USD
      • Accommodation: As low as $12 USD/night in a Hostel or Air BNB
      • Food: Approx $10.00 USD per meal in a local restaurant in Aguas Calientes

Some Additional Tips: If you wish to pinch your pennies even further and are not with a guided tour, you can opt out of taking the bus altogether and hike up the road to Machu Picchu, this takes approximately an hour to an hour and a half. In addition, if you are staying in Aguas Calientes and have some flexibility with time, it may also be worth your while to head up to Machu Picchu later in the evening, when most of the guided groups have already made their way back down. We got to Machu Picchu from the Inca trail at 0730 in the morning, and were shocked by how many people were already there.

If you do plan to do all the booking yourself, keep in mind that although doable, a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco isn’t ideal, and quite frankly, you’d be doing yourself an injustice if you did. With the earliest train arriving at 1000 and the last train for Cusco at around 1730, this will only give you a few rushed hours during the BUSIEST time of day. If catching the train to Ollantaytambo, you have much more time, as the last train to this station leaves at 2150, you can then take a taxi or local bus back to Cusco from there. I must also add, there are usually long line-ups for the bus going back to Aguas Calientes, and you should plan your time accordingly.

Your Day Trip To Machu Picchu:

STEP 1: Buy your ticket to Machu Picchu – It is important to note that you cannot actually buy your entrance tickets at Machu Picchu, you will need to purchase them beforehand, and in the high-season (between June and September) it is possible for tickets to sell out. If you are going to Machu Picchu through a guided trek, it is likely all your entrance fees are built into the cost of your trek, be sure to double check with your tour operator. Regardless of the manner in which you get to Machu Picchu, you WILL need your passport to enter, and as an added bonus, there is a small station in the citadel where you can add a Machu Picchu stamp to your passport.

If you must purchase tickets yourself, you may do so in person in Aguas Calientes in the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre, or in Cusco at the Ministerio de Cultura. Be prepared at both locations with your passport, credit card, and cash. Lastly, you may also purchase tickets on the Ministerio de Cultura Website.

STEP 2: Buying your train ticket – If you are heading to Machu Picchu, it is more than likely (unless you found a way to drive) that you will have to take either a PeruRail or IncaRail train into Aguas Calientes. Some things to note about these operators:

  1. Both train operators share the same track that winds along the Urubamba River.
  2. Both will bring you to Aguas Calientes where you will then take a bus or hike up to the Machu Picchu citadel.

Peru Rail: 

Service Description
Expedition Budget option. Not a huge difference between this and the Vistadome. Complementary drinks and snacks are not included. Bathroom on train. Cost approx. $54-63 USD for a one-way ticket.
Vistadome Midrange option. Offers panoramic views, complementary snacks and beverages, Saqra dances and fashion show on the return trip from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo and Poroy Stations. Cost approx. $86 for a one-way ticket.
Hiram Bingham Luxury option. Live music, dances and cocktails for welcome. Travel bag as a gift. Lunch and gourmet four course dinner. Alcoholic beverages and hot drinks for the entire trip. Roundtrip bus to and from Machu Picchu. Two-and-a-half-hour tour with professional tour guide. Afternoon tea at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge Hotel. Entertainment on board with local and international music. Cost approx. $415 USD for a one-way ticket. Roundtrip costs approx. $875 USD.
Departure Locations Time to Aguas Calientes Departure Times Price Range
Poroy (30 min from Cusco) 3-4 Hours First Train in – 0640

Last Train out – 1723

Approx. $63-450 USD one-way
Urubamba 3 Hours First Train in – 1030

Last Train out – 1930

Approx. $86-150 USD one-way
Ollantaytambo 1.5 Hours First Train in – 0505

Last Train out – 2150

Approx. $54-86 USD one-way

See https://www.perurail.com/ for more information and updated pricing.

Inca Rail:

Service Description
The Voyager Budget Option. Comfortable seats, folding tables, panoramic windows. Complementary snacks and a hot or cold beverage. Cost approx. $59-69 USD for a one-way ticket.
The 360 Midrange option. Taller and wider panoramic windows and outdoor observatory wagon with bar. Complementary snack and hot or cold beverage. In-train entertainment. Cost approx. $77-92 USD for a one-way ticket.
First Class Luxury option. Maximum comfort and space. Panoramic windows and large observatory with balcony. Gourmet menu with bar and complementary drinks. Live music. Bus to Machu Picchu Citadel included. Cost approx. $230 USD for a one-way ticket.
The Private Super luxurious option. Available only by special request. Entire carriage exclusively for you and your travel companions. Gourmet menu with bar and complementary drinks. Live music. Private bus to Machu Picchu Citadel included.
Departure Locations Time to Aguas Calientes Departure Times Price Range
Poroy (30 min from Cusco) 30 minutes in taxi to Poroy

 

3 hours in train

First Train in – 0555

Last train out – 1900

Approx. $63-230 USD one-way (not including taxi fare)
Cusco (by private bus from ticket office in Cusco to train station in Ollantaytambo) 2 hours in bus to Ollantaytambo

 

1 hour 40 minutes in train

First bus in – 0910 for train at 1130

 

Last train out – 1900 for bus at 2100

Approx. $69-230USD one-way
Ollantaytambo 1 hour 20 minutes First train in – 0640

Last train out – 2130

 

Approx. $59-230 USD one-way

See https://incarail.com/ for more information and updated pricing.

STEP 3: Buying your bus ticket – As for the bus tickets, they are easy to buy in Aguas Calientes, just look for the Venta Oficial de Ticket de Bus across the bridge from the train station. Buses leave every 10 minutes starting at 0530, but be careful about grabbing those extra few minutes of sleep that morning, the line-up for the first bus will start early.

Extra Tidbits: This isn’t always an option for those doing multi-day treks, as there simply just isn’t enough time in your already jam-packed tour schedule, but if you’re one of many who opt to do day tours in Machu Picchu, these day hikes may be the best thing you do that day.

  1. Huayna Picchu: About 50 minutes to summit. With Inca structures on the top at 2,693 m it is truly an unforgettable site, but the views of the main square of Machu Picchu are not something everybody gets to see, making it just that much more incredible. Limited to 400 tickets per day, and must be purchased in combination with entrance ticket.
  2. Machu Picchu Mountain: About 1.5 hours to summit. Located at the southwest end of Machu Picchu, and towers 3,050 m above sea level. Its less steep and less crowded and offers great panoramic views over Machu Picchu and the surrounding area. Limited to 400 tickets per day, and must be purchased in combination with entrance ticket.
  3. Sun Gate: Once the main entrance to Machu Picchu, this hike follows an original piece of the Inca Trail and offers stunning views of Machu Picchu. Summit sits at 2,720 m and takes approximately 3-4 hours roundtrip to complete.

Personal Note: I was overwhelmed with information when writing this article, AND I’VE ALREADY GONE TO MACHU PICCHU. My advice? And this is solely based on my opinion.

  1. Unless you’re staying in Aguas Calientes, just book the damn tour. Save yourself the headache. Especially when it comes to day tours, there are so many tour operators in Cusco I’d be truly surprised if you couldn’t find a good deal with everything you needed included and taken care. As for us, we opted to do the four day Inca trail, not our usual scene, we’re used to grueling climbs, dehydrated meals, and all our gear on our back. The fact that we had someone to carry our belongings and cook three full meals a day made us feel like royalty. Post about this hike coming soon!
  2. Stay a night or two in Aguas Calientes. If we hadn’t done a trek, this would have been plan B. The town is small, has some great local eats, a sweet market for shopping on the way to the train station, hot springs, and of course, quick access to Machu Picchu. If you’re looking to do some DIY tours, get off the beaten path, and take your time in Machu Picchu, staying in Aguas Calientes is the way to go.

 

1 Comment

  1. […] For more information on Machu Picchu and alternative treks and day tours check out “Everything You Need to Know About Machu Picchu” […]

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