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Undiscovered until 1911 by archeologist Hiram Bingham, the most iconic work of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu was built around 1450, but abandoned during the Spanish Conquest. One of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is an incredible and breathless experience which leaves you mesmerized at the history behind it. Getting to this site can be a bit complex though, so keep on reading to find out more about how to visit Machu Picchu in Peru!
I first visited Machu Picchu in Peru in 2017 on my first ever backpacking trip to South America. My best friend and I Caitlin (you’ll see her around this blog a lot!) were taking our annual girl’s trip – this year was a big one because we were celebrating our graduation from university! It was our first time traveling outside of the US or Europe, and we couldn’t have picked a better place to travel to!
Peru is a great place for first-time and seasoned travelers alike. The locals are friendly, the food delicious, and the sights unparalleled. We spent two weeks traipsing through Peru and didn’t feel like it was even close to enough time. Peru is a large country and the busses are slow-moving due to the mountains, so make sure to give yourself plenty of time to travel between destinations within Peru!
The most complex part of our trip was figuring out how to visit Machu Picchu in Peru.
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There are tons of options when it comes to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, as well as hiking other trails in the surrounding Cusco region with Inca Ruins. These treks can be anywhere from 2-8 days, so it depends on how much hiking you want to do/how much money you want to spend.
Some of these trips you can book ahead of time, but most can also be booked in Cusco. If you are traveling for an extended period of time, booking in Cusco is the better option, since you don’t have to worry about time frame, you will get a better rate and having more flexibility definitely helps.
Not really up for a 4-day hike mostly due to time constraints, we chose to take the train to Machu Picchu town. We left Cusco early in the morning to arrive in Aguas Calientes by midday. The only station in Cusco is Poroy Station which takes about a 25-minute drive from the city center and costs around 30 soles.
There are two train companies you can use to get to Aguas Calientes – or Machu Picchu Town. Peru Rail (again, our choice), and Inca Rail. There are three types of train, the basic, the Vista Dome, and the Hiram Bingham. The “Vista dome” was the option we picked which cost about 80-100 USD per direction. About $200 round trip. To be quite honest it was worth it to take the step up from the basic option. The Vista Dome train is nice with reclining seats, with huge windows beside and above you. On average is it only $10 more per direction than the economy train.
On the train you can only have one 11 pound bag, so pack lightly. They feed you food and drink which is included in the price. On the night train back after visiting Machu Picchu when there is nothing to see, the staff put on an Andean dance performance and an Alpaca Clothing Fashion Show. It was really quite fabulous.
The next train class up is a HUGE gap. The Hiram Bingham costs over $400 USD, which is WILD. It looked super nice, and if I had the money I might consider taking it, but it didn’t look that fancy to me. Regardless, Vista Dome to Aguas Calientes is the way to go!
You leave early in the morning, ride a bus for 6 hours, get to the ruins Midday, leave. There are also two-day trips with buses you can take and different ways to get there. When you get to Cusco ask your hostel, these are probably the cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu, though possibly also the least rewarding.
Unless you’re hiking in from the Inca Trail, you are most likely going to stop into Machu Picchu Town, otherwise known as Aguas Calientes. Let me forewarn you, there isn’t a whole lot to do here. The town is gimmicky and a tourist trap, but it’s a necessary step in your Machu Picchu experience.
There are some pretty sketchy thermal baths in Aguas Clients that we did not visit due to a good call by a friend. It is something to look into though if you’re trying to kill some time. All of the restaurants, minus one we ate at twice called Mapacho, are tourist traps and we are pretty sure we barely dodged food poisoning from our first dining experience.
There are plenty of places to stay in Aguas Calientes. I recommend staying one or two nights, pre and post-Machu Picchu experience. We only stayed one night and left our belongings in storage, but obviously it is completely up to you what you feel comfortable doing!
Once in Aguas Calientes you can either take the bus up to the citadel ($24 USD) or make the hike along the train track and up the mountain (about 90 minutes). The first bus leaves at 5:30 am, and people will be lining up long before that. We got in line at 5:15 and were on probably the 10th bus but we were still up at Machu Picchu before 6 am (they let people in early).
If you take the bus then there is really no hiking in the day at all, this is how thousands of out of shape people do it every day. This is something no one told me about visiting Machu Picchu! I always thought it had to be some sort of intense hike at some point…but it really doesn’t! This is why we see all of these Instagrammers in ballgowns at the citadel (thank god Insta is moving away from that). Truly, if you don’t want to do any physical activity, you don’t have to.
Something important to note is MOTION SICKNESS. The bus is winding around on a dirt road up to the mountain and you can’t see very much out the windows. I don’t get motion sickness at all really, and going up the mountain I started to feel a little queazy.
Here is my recommendation: If you’re not doing another mountain hike that day (Machu Picchu Mountain hike or Hyuanna Picchu Mountain Hike), the hike to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes isn’t that bad. It’s 60-90 minutes of straight stairs, which can be a burden, but isn’t really horrible. Most people who are hiking up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes leave around 4:30 am.
If you are hiking another mountain that day, I wouldn’t do the first hike, because the Hyaunna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain hikes are BRUTAL. Huayna Picchu is 2 hours of steep and narrow hiking, and not something you want to be exhausted for. I mean we were LITERALLY on hands and knees crawling up the mountain. They warn you before you book this trail to make sure you are in good physical condition. Of course, not everyone listens, I saw one girl attempting to hike in ballet flats!
If you aren’t booking through an agency, you are going to want to book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu far in advance (a few months) to be sure you will get access to the site. Only 2500 people are allowed into the site daily*. TICKETS ARE NOT SOLD AT THE ENTRANCE TO MACHU PICCHU. The whole booking in advance thing goes double if you plan on hiking Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain since only 400 people each are allowed to hike those.
The Peruvian website which you book your ticket on is super confusing, and a bit of a pain to use.
For disseminating the confusion, these guys do a fantastic way of explaining how to book your Machu Picchu tickets and go through the process. Click this link when you go to buy your ticket and follow their booking instructions step by step…its the site that I used and the best way to get you through that process.
*this is the number at the time of writing. There has been discussion to limit visitors even more to preserve the historic site*
The important thing to remember when it comes to what to wear in Machu Picchu (and travel in general) is LAYERS!!! Here is a list of all the layers you should wear when visiting Machu Picchu in Peru.
We quickly started sweating by mid-morning even though early morning when we left was quite cold. Be prepared to shed some layers and cram them in your backpack!
You’re gonna get dirty. Literally covered in dirt. Even if you are doing no hiking at all, you will come back from that mountain dusty. As I mentioned earlier, there are no bathrooms within the park and nowhere to eat. Make sure you are prepared for this!! Also if you are packing snacks/need to throw something out, there are no trashcans in the park so keep in mind you will have to put it in your bag. Bring a small baggie for your trash.
Parts of the park that require you to follow a path. These signs indicate a certain walkway is “one way” and are a bit confusing, but most of the day this didn’t matter. One time when we were lost a guard got on to us and told us to turn around, but everything was fairly lax.
If you want a tour guide for your solo venture you can find one in the town or at the gates, just make sure they speak your language first! You can also book a tour guide in advance.
Exploring the ruins themselves will only take a few hours. The best time to go is in the early morning, as the lighting is stunning. Early morning is not too hot, but later in the day you go, the fewer people there will be. Midday tends to be busiest with early morning for the go-getters, and the late afternoon for the stragglers.