I recently went on a trip to Peru where the itinerary included (of course) a visit to Machu Picchu. It was not the only ancient ruin we visited, but it was by far the hardest to travel to despite having done plenty of research beforehand. Note that we weren’t trying to hike the Inca Trail here – our objective was just to get to the site as efficiently as possible given limited time. It still took about a day’s worth of travel and a lot of frustration given the current infrastructure and options. That being said, it was 100% worth the trek and I hope the following guide helps you plan your own visit with minimal stress!
Note: Information current as of June 2019
Step 1: Get to Cusco
Just to be clear, Machu Picchu is nowhere near any major Peruvian city. So if you’re starting in Lima, you’re going to need to either fly or take an overnight bus to Cusco – a tourist-centric town in the southeast part of the country and the former capital of the entire Inca Empire.
Cusco’s airport (airport code CUZ) is the closest one you can fly to (until they finish the future Chinchero Airport) and is served mostly by domestic airlines. You can find some amazingly cheap fares directly from the discount airline Viva Air if you don’t mind a little unpredictability – I was rescheduled to a earlier same-day flight after I originally booked, but paid a fraction of what LATAM or Avianca was charging.
Long-distance buses are also an option, but they can be very uncomfortable. If you choose this option, I would recommend checking prices with Cruz del Sur – and packing many layers of clothes for the freezing overnight ride.
Step 2: Get to Ollantaytambo
If you’re not hiking all the way to Machu Picchu, a segment of your journey will require taking a train. Unfortunately, the rail companies stopped running direct trains from Cusco, so you will need to get yourself to the current terminus town of Ollantaytambo – which is a two hour drive (!!) from Cusco.
How do you get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo? The cheapest option by far is to take what’s called a colectivo or shared taxi van. There are several companies that run them all day long from this intersection near the Cusco historical centre.
Colectivo rides can be highly unpredictable from a timing perspective, however. After you tell the operators where you want to go and get in, you will need to wait until enough other people going your way fill up the vehicle before the operator will begin the drive. We actually had to wait almost a half hour for our car to fill, but if you arrive at a time when many people are looking to travel you might get luckier.
If you’re in a rush, the companies usually have a dedicated private taxi option for a higher price that will depart immediately.
Also note that there are many sights to see in between Cusco and Ollantaytambo since this is the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It may be worth spending a night in one of the towns to leave time to explore the area before proceeding onwards.
Step 3: Take the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes)
Aguas Calientes (being rebranded to Machu Picchu Pueblo) is the tiny town at the base of Machu Picchu. There are no roads for cars or buses to get here, which is why you’ll need to take the train from Ollantaytambo. The train ride will take another 1.5-2 hours (!!), but the scenery along the way is incredible.
Because the trains are infrequent and can sell out, I recommend booking from IncaRail well in advance as they sometimes have online discounts. PeruRail is the only other rail company but their trains are even less frequent and generally more expensive. This train ride is actually the world’s most expensive per the distance traveled, but it’ll be worth it!
Step 4: Take the bus to the Machu Picchu entrance
Once you exit the train station, you’re not quite at Machu Picchu yet – there’s still a mountain to climb and the only reasonable way to get to the top is with the official bus, which is also extremely overpriced given that they know tourists will pay anything at this point.
First you have to buy a bus ticket at this hard-to-find shop. Note that you will likely need to queue in line for this and there is no way to buy this in advance. You also cannot buy a ticket without holding an official Machu Picchu ticket (which you should have purchased online beforehand) and your passport.
While you’ll be tempted to buy the cheaper one-way ticket up, I would recommend just getting the round-trip ticket as the walk down is a brutal one-hour steep staircase alongside a mountain.
After obtaining a bus ticket, you can then queue at the official bus stop. The bus ride up is about 30 minutes and then you’ll finally be at the front entrance!
Step 5: Plan your route carefully
Machu Picchu is actually quite a large place and you can spend up to four hours exploring it. It’s debatable whether going during the morning or afternoon is better, but just keep in mind that the security will start closing off paths around 4:30pm (even if people say Machu Picchu closes around 5:30pm).
This means that if you wanted to try hiking up some of the offshoot paths (say, to the Sun Gate which is about 1.5 miles from the center), you should reserve time to do that earlier. Walking will take longer than you think, especially with all the llamas and alpacas in the way…
There will be guides at the entrance that offer to do tours (at very high prices) but you shouldn’t feel pressured to take their offers.
So yes, getting to Machu Picchu is quite the trek – even if you’re not doing the Inca Trail. Hopefully this situation gets better over time as the government is very eager to introduce more tourists to Machu Picchu as fast as possible. But until then, I hope this guide proves useful and gets you on your way to exploring this amazing Wonder!