Machu Picchu is one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’ and is located in the Cusco region of Southern Peru. A 15th century Incan Citadel, it is famous for being undiscovered during the Spanish Conquest of South America, only being “discovered” by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Located at 2,430m above sea level, Machu Picchu is one of the most visited sites in all of South America, and when you arrive there you can see why. Surrounded by rainforest covered mountains on all sides, you can’t help but sense what it was like for the Incan’s to live here, all them years ago.
This blog is intended as a guide for getting the most out of any trip to Machu Picchu.
How to get to Machu Picchu
The first step for any trip to Machu Picchu is to arrive in the city of Cusco. Cusco is the historic former capital of the Incan empire and sits at heart racing 3,400m altitude. From Cusco you have three ways of arriving at Aguas Calientes (the nearest town to Machu Picchu); hike, get a bus and hike or get the train.
Walking to Machu Picchu
This is possibly the most common way of arriving at Machu Picchu, mainly due to the sheer number of different trekking options. This was the only option for us to arrive in Machu Picchu; we are young, fit and healthy, and having the opportunity to ‘earn’ a visit to this Wonder of the World was always our intention. Plus, it’s the only way the Incan’s themselves could get from Cusco (which they did often) – so why not try something that they themselves had to do.
The below table gives an overview of the different trekking options available to get to Machu Picchu. Note that these change every year, prices go up and new treks are added on a seemingly yearly basis. The prices are all estimates – as we saw with the Salkantay Trek – these can vary massively between companies.
|Inca Trail||€580+||43km||4D/3N||Book in advance|
|Salkantay Trek||€220||74km||5D/4N||Can do 4D/3N|
|€430||62km||4D/3N||Length can vary|
We (obviously) didn’t try all these trekking options – instead, we did the Salkantay Trek (and wrote a comprehensive blog here). We can recommend the Salkantay due to the beautiful landscapes you pass along the way – although the different options also have some bonuses. We know a lot of people that did the Jungle Trek and were very positive about it!
Getting the train
The train serves Machu Picchu from two main stations – Cusco and Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.
Cusco – Aguas Calientes takes 3 hours, while Ollantaytambo – Aguas Calientes will take 2 hours.
The train is the fastest way of getting from Cusco to Aguas Calientes – but it’s also pretty expensive. There are three types of trains serving this route (via Peru Rail) – Expedition, Vistadome, and Hiram Bingham. Expedition is the “budget” train and cost’s around $70 one way. Vistadome is $95 and the most luxurious Hiram Bingham is a mind-boggling $475 one way!
It is recommended that you check and double check train times. Of course in high season it is also recommended to book your train well in advance!
Getting the bus to Hidroelectrica
This is the most budget friendly way of getting to Machu Picchu and will end up costing about €20 for a return ticket (sold by travel agencies). The one way journey takes about 6/7 hours (on some pretty scary mountaineous road). When you arrive in Hidroelectrica you will have to walk the 3 hours along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes (alternatively you can get the train from here but, really??).
Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Site
So you have arrived in Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) – so how did you get to the actual site of Machu Picchu? It’s pretty simple really with two options; get the bus, or hike!
Getting the bus to Machu Picchu
You can get the bus from Aguas Calientes the whole way up to the entrance of Machu Picchu. It cost’s a whopping $24 for an adult foreigner and takes in the region of 30 minutes. The road up is really windy – you are literally scaling a mountain!
The bus leaves from ‘Hermanos Ayar’ close to the train station, and they start leaving from 5.30am with a frequency of every 10 minutes. Expect queues in the high season.
If you are physically fit, do the hike instead of getting the bus. It is so much more rewarding going through the hardship when you finally arrive there. I have an issue with them starting the buses at 5.30am. I think they should start at 7 am and give people who put the effort into hiking up the chance to appreciate the site without all the people who got the bus. You are literally sweating buckets and all the Instagram people arrive in their poncho’s and sunglasses!!
Hiking to Machu Picchu
We had a morning ticket to Machu Picchu (as is popular), so we got up at 3.30am and left our hostel at 4am. We walked the 30mins or so in the dark to the bridge, where we had to wait in line for it to open at 5am.
To get through the bridge we needed to show our Machu Picchu entrance ticket and our passport. Don’t forget these! Afterward, we followed the stone steps the whole way up to the entrance. The walk took around an hour, and we were so tired when we got to the top. After 5 days hiking this was a difficult task! It was lovely to see the sunrise above the mountains on the way up, however.
When we arrived there was a massive queue all the way back. It was 5.55am (the entrance opens at 6 am) and a bus had arrived, with all the fresh smelling people getting off! We queued up, but as is the norm people start skipping the queue. Eventually, we got through – showed our tickets and entered the site of Machu Picchu!
Machu Picchu Ruins
Once you have elbowed your way through the crowds, you are finally at the sit of the famous ‘Lost City of the Incas’. It is important to note that there is a specific route you need to follow in Machu Picchu – this means that once you go past somewhere, you can’t go back – it’s a one way system!
After more steps, we reached the first viewpoint of the famous citadel – The Guard’s House. We were one of the first people to make it there, and for a few minutes, it was so peaceful, almost overpowering. You could really sense the magic and history that was in the air. We managed to get some photos before crowds of people came in.
The Guard’s House is also the meeting point for guides if you are with a trekking company – we waited for the rest of our group and joined our guide. The guide walked us around and gave us some explanations about the history behind, what they know and what they don’t know. To be honest, it wasn’t a great tour – I would actually recommend to skip it! Once we went into the urban area of the site there was no going back. Remember this if you are not doing Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain – your views of the city are gone!
Having looked at the ‘Temple of the Three Windows’, ‘The Main Square’ and the ‘Temple of the Sun’, the tour was over. It is at this point that you have “free” time at the site. This meant you could look around the urban part of the city, but you couldn’t go backward! We said bye to our group who were leaving that day, exited the site, used the toilets outside (2 soles) and we were able to enter again to climb Machu Picchu Mountain!
Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu
To be honest, if our tour of Machu Picchu was over there and then it would have been a massive let down. We had worked so hard hiking for the last five days. We had imagined ourselves at the site for so many years, talking about it so many times throughout our trip. For it to end after 1.5 hours of a tour would have been too little for us. That is why, for this reason alone, we are glad we spent the extra money to do Machu Picchu Mountain and stay 1 more night in Aguas Calientes.
Ill get Huayna Picchu out of the way straight away because we didn’t do it. We didn’t meet anyone who did either. Reason? It sells out months in advance (similar to the Inca Trail).
There are 400 daily tickets and two time slots to climb – 7 am and 10.30am. It is known as the “Mountain of Death” due to the steep and narrow pathway up. It’s also known for having a pretty spectacular view of the ruins!
Machu Picchu Mountain
Okay, so this is the one we did and as such, can advise on. There are 800 daily tickets, with two timeslots – 7am and 10.30am. So we entered Machu Picchu at 6am, did our tour, wandered around and were back in again for 10.30am. Note that you have a one hour window to climb, so if you don’t present yourself before 11.30am, you don’t get to go up!
This is not an easy hike, and after 5 days + the stairs to the entrance of Machu Picchu, it’s even harder! There were ALOT more stone steps on this path then we were expecting. We had to take lots of breaks, but thankfully the views over the Machu Picchu were astonishing – and worth the entrance ticket alone!
The steps are dangerous, varying in width and height throughout – and the feeling of getting to the top was one of absolute relief! It took us at least an hour to get up – and we enjoyed an extra 30 minutes on top taking photos and enjoying the scenery.
The way down was just as tough as the way up. Some of the steps were so steep and in the end my knee began to hurt. Finally my body was having no more!
The Sun Gate and Exit
So after hiking for 5 days (did I mention that yet?), climbing the steps to Machu Picchu and then climbing Machu Picchu Mountain – we (Aoife) decided to check out the famous Sun Gate!
By this stage my body had given up, my knee was sore and my stomach was not doing too well, but I (begrudgingly) continued on. The Sun Gate was the main entrance to Machu Picchu in Incan times and is also the place where people hiking the Inca Trail get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
The views are said to be some of the best but our personal opinion was that it wasn’t worth the extra 40-minute hike or so. You can see the road that makes it’s way up from Aguas Calientes at this point and it kind of just take’s away from it. I would recommend this trail if you have more time at the site and you don’t have a ticket to either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, however!
After this, we followed the route through the ruins again. Unlike the morning session, the afternoon session was full of local people. This meant lot’s more selfie sticks. Having been in the ruins for both the morning and evening session we would definitely recommend booking a morning session. Although maybe that’s just because we had less patience after non-stop walking for 12 hours around Machu Picchu!
Note that due to increased pressure from UNESCO, Machu Picchu authorities have tried to clean up its act in the wake of over-tourism. Everything that we have mentioned here was correct at the time of our visit in August 2018. There were two entrance timeslots – morning and evening. We have heard since however that this may have changed to stage out people’s entrance’s more, by an hourly basis. If you have different information – please let us know in the comments!