Machu Picchu is a mythical place: an ancient Inca citadel felt into the unknown during colonization and rediscovered by Hiram Bighram in 1911. It is a unique place, representative of Inca Engineering: its structures respect perfectly the mountain shape (a feature found in all Inca sites). The complex is surrounded by lush vegetation, and with a stunning view of the Vilcanota River 600m lower.
This magical place has become the most visited site in Peru. Since Machu Picchu is the core asset of Peruvian tourism, you’ll spend most of your travel budget here. For the same reason, it is very useful to know the alternatives available.
- How to get there?
Machu Picchu is located about 100km away from Cusco (as the crow flies), yet its access is not easy (Welcome to the Andes). The train is the only transport accessing directly to Aguas Calientes.
So here are the only 2 alternatives if you want to use transportation:
- The “classic”:
You have to get to Ollantaytambo and take the train. The city is located 2h away from Cusco and you can get there by taxi (80 soles) or by public transport (8 soles, departure from the Pavitos/Grau street in Cusco). Once in Ollantaytambo, you still have 1h30 of a fully comfortable train with beautiful landscapes. The downside: This service is ridiculously pricey! Perurail and Incarail share the monopoly. Expect to pay at least 60$ per way, i.e. 120$ the return trip.
It is recommended you purchase your ticket in advance (either online or at Incarail/Perurail ticket office/Ollantaytambo train station).
- The cheapest:
If you do not want to pay such a sum for a short train ride (understandable), get ready for an adventure. Here is the way to follow: book your seats in one of the many vans leaving Cusco in the early morning to get to Hidroelectrica (you can get your tickets at any travel agencies in Cusco, 35/40 soles). It’s an exhausting journey (a 7h trip through mountain roads – you’ll reach a 4400m pass before going down to 1100 m and leave paved road on the last part. Once you arrive at “Hidroelectrica” station, you still have about 2,5 hours walking (11km) along the railway track to reach Aguascalientes. You can also take the train from there, but $29 for 11km in 45 minutes, this sounds like a scam. If you have time ahead of you (unlikely), stop at the Mandor’s garden. A beautiful place with tropical plants (located at km114 of the track)
You’ll have to come back from Aguas Calientes the same way. I suggest you take your luggage with you to Machu Picchu, as this will save you 5km on the way back. The bifurcation to the site is between Aguas Calientes and Hidroelectrica (2,5km away from town).
You should save around 100$ proceeding that way.
However be careful during the rainy season (from November to March), landslides are frequent and roads can be blocked. Always check the situation beforehand.
On the other side, many people want to reach at Machu Picchu after hiking in the beautiful Andean region.
So here are the best-known trekking options:
- The prestigious classic: Inca Trail
This is a mythical 4-day walk that starts from the km82 on the railway between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Along the way, you visit many Inca sites (amongst which Wiñay Wayna). This is the only trek that allows you to reach the site directly by foot: indeed, on the 4th day at dawn, you enter the sanctuary through its upper part, “Inti Punku” (Sun Gate). And if you are lucky you will enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life over the sleeping citadel.
This is one of the most prestigious hikes in the world and has only 500 available seats per day (including guides and porters). It is therefore mandatory to book it at least 6 months in advance during the high season (April to October). In addition, only certified guides are allowed. So there is no other choice than going through an agency, which makes it a quite costly trek (min. $500).
- The alternative mountain trek: Salkantay
This is a 5-day trek offering a wide variety of landscapes. It starts in Mollepata, 3:30 away from Cusco. On the first day, you can hike up to a superb lagoon at the foot of Humantay mountain. Then you reach the highest point of the trek (4700m), located 2 steps away from Salkantay (the 2nd highest mountain in Cusco area, 6.264 m). You then start descending almost 3000m till the coffee plantations of Lucmabamba, in the midst of tropical plants. You can also indulge yourself in the thermal waters of Cocalmayo. The 4th day is less interesting, passing through Hidroelectrica then Aguas Calientes along the railway. Almost all trekkers choose to do it through an agency, prices start from $175. Check what is included or not, the material etc. Because lower prices mean lower quality (and lower team salary and less care for the environment).
Salkantay trek has become very popular so be ready to share the road with hundreds of other trekkers!
- The backpacker option: Inca Jungle Tour
This is not a trek itself, but a varied option with different activities. You start biking from Malaga pass (4400m) till Santa Maria’s surroundings. On the 2nd day you hike in the tropical forest between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. Then you go through Hidroelectrica and Aguascalientes before ending at Machu Picchu itself. You can add activities like rafting and zip line. Starting from $160, but remember to check what does the package include!
- The real alternative route; Long and exhausting, but beautiful: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu
An incredible 9-day trek to discover two amazing sites: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. It is a demanding trek with more than 7000m of altitude gain, including a steep descent from nearly 1500m up to Apurimac river… Before going back up all the way on the other side. This is the price to pay to enjoy the magnificent Choquequirao, isolated in a dense forest and still unspoiled by tourism. It is a huge sanctuary of which only 30% have been discovered. Bigger than Machu Picchu but without the crowds. And one of its main highlights: you’ll camp on the site itself!
The classic Choquequirao trek returns to Cachora the same way, but it is possible to extend it to Machu Picchu (5 additional days), a magnificent hike in a remote area… En route, you’ll be alone in some Inca sites (like Pinchaunuyoc) and will gaze at high mountains (as Salkantay, 6.264 m) before reaching Santa Teresa and Aguas Calientes. Be ready for a true adventure far from civilization (and other tourists). You should take advantage of it now since the Peruvian government is planning to build a cable car accessing the site (fortunately, between speech and action in Peru, you should still have plenty of years ahead 😉
Once in Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is a rather disturbing city … super packed, it is the example of the complete absence of urban planning in Peru.
You will find many accommodation and restaurants all over the place. I recommend double checking where you are going because there is the good, te bad and the worse in town. You can find cheap accommodation near the municipal stadium.
As regards food, avoid menus on the main street. I have never eaten well there. If you want to eat on the cheap, go to the market (8 soles menus). If you want to indulge yourself, head to “Indio Feliz”.
To reach Machu Picchu, you have 2 options: either you walk (around 1h to 1h30 of pure stairs climbing… nearly 600m of altitude gain!) or you use Consettur’s bus service (another monopoly as most services in the region). The first bus leaves at 5:45am (there is a queue as from 5am). The single trip costs $ 12 ($ 24 round trip). It is recommended you buy your tickets (at least to get to the site) the day before at the kiosk near the bus stop.
The sooner you get to Mapi, the more you will enjoy it (doors open at 6am, and at 8am it is already overpacked …)
When to go?
Whether you choose the easy way or the trek, it is obviously much more interesting to visit the ancient Inca ruins during the dry season (from May to October). Even though the fog can be very mystic…
You should know that the tropical region of Machu Picchu is very humid and that the site is usually foggy in the first hours of the morning. Normally, if your visit is in June, July or August, you should enjoy a sunny day (but don’t take it for sure: I went there three times (April, January… and July!) and every single time it was pouring!
In most cases you will still be able to enjoy Mapi even in on a rainy day (it always ends up clearing a little). But if you go for a trek, the season is much more important: I would not like spending the 9 days of Choquequirao/Machu Picchu under the rain. Note that the Inca trail is closed for maintenance every year in February.
The downside of the dry season: it is also the “high” season: high number of people and high prices. Well, that being said, there’s no longer low season in Machu Picchu
Cost and practical info
Machu Picchu’s access regulation has changed a lot in recent years and it can be a bit tricky to understand. The first time I went there (in 2009), it was still possible to climb to Huayna Picchu (a mountain located 300m above the main site, a former Inca observation site) without hassle. But then you needed a separate entrance ticked. At about the same time an alternative viewpoint (“Montaña Machu Picchu”) was designed. In 2017, a “shift” was introduced: since then, you can visit the site either in the morning (6h to 12h) or in the afternoon (12h to 18h). Supposedly, guides are mandatory.
With the new changes introduced on January 1st, 2019, here is where we stand:
Entry fee to Mapi alone is 152 soles (77 soles for students). It must be purchased from the Ministry of Culture (Casa Garcilaso/Calle Maruri in Cusco or Aguas Calientes) or online (only Visa cards are accepted. If you don’t have a Visa credit card, the other solution is to make the online reservation and pay the amount at any Banco de la Nacion counter within 4 hours). The entrance to the site + Huayna Pichu/Montaña Picchu costs 200 soles (125 soles for students). It is mandatory to book Huayna Picchu well in advance!
As for the timetable, the morning/afternoon shift is maintained but in addition, your ticket will indicate a minimum arrival time (6am, 7am, 8am, etc.).