While the previous article about Machu Picchu looked at some historical facts as well as a general visitor’s experience, AKA how does it actually feel to visit this iconic Incan hilltop citadel, this article will be more practical in nature. For instance, we’ll explore your options on how to get here from Cusco, plus how much it would cost you and what to expect from each journey. And last but not least, we’ll also list the things to know before visiting Machu Picchu as well as few attractive extra options to do outside the basic tour of the site.
Your options to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco
Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco has a big potential to enhance your experience. Upon your arrival to the former Incan capital, you will have several options on how to reach the iconic Incan citadel. Depending on your preferences, time available, budget and fitness level, there are 3 basic options: train, bus or trekking. Let’s talk about these options a little then.
Many people opt for taking a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, which is a little spa town located just under Machu Picchu that serves as a base for most visitors to reach the site the next morning. Enjoying the train a 3,5hrs ride through breathtaking scenery along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley is however a little pricey as it would cost you $320-400 for the whole package that includes “everything”, meaning the hotel, entry fee, guide and meals. The train journey itself cost “only” $140.
Visitors that are seeking a more adventurous and “authentic” experience often prefer one of the multi-day treks from Cusco. There are numerous options for how to do this, ranging across a relatively wide spectre of interests that include archaeology, nature and indigenous culture. In this post, I’ll briefly outline what to expect from four different basic options, via looking at the famous and popular Inca Trail, its close competitors Lares and Salkantay treks as well as the off the beaten path Choquequirao trek.
Overall, please note that we’re talking about multi-day treks in high altitudes, which isn’t easy even for the very fit people unless they got adjusted to the altitude. Furthermore, such activity also involves either carrying your own camping gear across the steep Andean slopes or paying a “Sherpa” to do it for you, which is usually optional to be included in the tour price. What I’m trying to say is that none of these treks are of low difficulty so make sure that you’re fit enough to be able to enjoy the experience, otherwise it could have the opposite effect.
Among the most popular treks to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco all is the 38 km long, 4-5 days Inca Trail. As the name suggests, this moderate difficulty trek follows one of the ancient Incan paths, from Cusco to the Sun Gate of the citadel. Please note that this trek is limited to 500 starters per day and in order to be able to go on Inca Trail, you have to obtain a permit, which is something you should look into well in advance (think of purchasing one as early as January).
The trek itself boasts of passing through a number of ancient ruins and beautiful views of the surrounding nature. From the logistical point of view, we’re talking about a mix of camping and staying in lodges along the way, depending on your preferences or budget. The prices of the Inca Trail tours vary from $450 to $650.
In case you were looking for something more adventurous off the beaten path, then you should consider the 64km, 7-13 days Choquequirao Trek. Except for the incredible natural beauty, the major highlight of this trek is the “New Machu Picchu“ Choquequirao ruins, which btw boast of a bigger area than the famous citadel but most of it it’s still covered by jungle.
This trek is more challenging and rougher than the Inca trail as there are steeper sections, bigger altitude changes and it’s all camping only. At the same time, it’s less busy, while it’s getting as close to an “authentic” experience as it can get, not to mention the natural beauty the visitor will encounter. Please note that you have to be properly fit to be able to do this trek.
The 2-3 days 36km long Lares trek is on the other hand considered to be the easiest one of them all to do. But you still have to pass the 4640m Huacahuasi pass, which means that it’s still not an easy walk. Lares trek is suitable especially for people that are interested in more of a cultural experience because it passes through few small villages that are still following a traditional way of life, where you’ll have the option to interact with the locals.
Another popular way to reach Machu Picchu is taking the 72km, 4-8 days Salkantay trek. This trek focuses mainly on the beauty of the surrounding nature. It passes by the highest local peak Salkantay (6271m/20 574 ft), hence the trek name. You can opt for doing this trek while spending your nights in luxurious lodges if you can afford it. For this luxury option, count on spending the sum of somewhere between $240 – $650USD. But you can also do it solo and on cheap.
Which trek to pick?
As I’ve mentioned above, there are more also other alternatives one can consider to reach the citadel on foot. In case this is an idea that interests you (I hope it does), then please note that below, in the ‘useful links’ section, I’ll upload few articles about how to pick the right trek to Machu Picchu. If you have time and money and if you pick the right time of the year, this is an activity with a massive potential to become a memory for life, right?
Bus from Cusco to Hidroeléctrica and walk to Aguas Calientes
And last but not least, there’s the cheapest option, which involves getting a bus/van to the nearby hydroelectric station, from where you have to walk the remaining distance to the same town of Aguas Calientes, where most of the trek and all train people end their journeys.
The bus tours range from $80 to about $120. It usually includes the bus journey, meals, a hostel bed at Aguas Calientes, park entry and guide’s attention for the first two hours on a site. Depending on the state of the road, this rather crazy bus ride takes 4,5-7 hours with few breaks along the way. The walk from Hidroeléctrica station where you get dropped off to Aguas Calientes is a 1,5-2hrs stunning walk along the train treks.
To get back to Cusco the next day, buses leave the hydroelectric station at about 2:30-3:00 pm after you’re served a great lunch, which leaves you with 3,5-4 hours on the site, depending on how fast you are able to get to the hydroelectric station from the site.
In case you wanted to avoid paying the agency, the bus journey only would only cost you $24 and the basic entrance ticket is $45, plus in theory, you need to enter the site with a guide that’s $10 but I don’t think that they check it very strictly. Dorms in Aquas Calientes go from about $11, which works out $80-$90.
Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
To get to the actual site in the morning, you can pick between taking a comfy and dry 20-minute bus ride from the town ($12 each way) or you can walk 1-1,5 hours of hardcore super-steep 1200m altitude changer. Judging by the wet and sweaty people I’ve seen catching their breath on the top by the entrance to the citadel, my suggestion is that the $12 for the short bus ride is well-invested money, especially if you want to start your Machu Picchu tour dry…
In conclusion, we now know that, unless you do it by yourself in a semi-legal way (of camping in the wilderness), which would cut down your expenses to meals, water and park entrance fee, the current (2019) prices to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco vary a lot.
The approximate absolute minimum would be $24 bus + $45 entry + $11 night at Aguas Calientes + $10 food&water + possibly $10 for a mandatory guide, which they often don’t check. That makes it the minimum of $90-100. The other end of the price range would be getting up to the maximum of $650+ for the luxurious options (train or lodge-trekking).
How to book a tour? Which company to pick?
There are about a trillion companies that are selling tours to Machu Picchu in Cusco. It therefore feels like it’s hard to pick one. But then again, your budget will most likely help you to decide to pick a category at least. In general, I believe that you won’t get lied to, but you need to ask the right preliminary questions.
In other words, you need to ask about any possible extra charges and everything that might concern you, regardless if you take such service for granted. If you for example ask if the towel will be provided and they’ll say yes, it will be provided. If you don’t ask – you might end up paying extra for the towel and so on.
If you want to base your decision on user reviews, make sure that you’ll consider the real honest reviews, rather than those written in exchange for a discount or those written in some sort of frustration-venting mode, because there are various reviewers out there 😉
As for myself, due to the miserable weather conditions during my visit, I had to give up on my original Salkantay trek idea and go for the bus tour instead. I’ve picked a midrange option: Marcelo’s, a company you’ll find on Plaza de Armas in Cusco. It was $90 for an all-inclusive bus tour.
They were absolutely OK. No one promise was broken and there was no bullshit involved, although, given the high scam potential in Cusco, I’ve expected anything. The guide left us at the top but to be honest, I didn’t expect him to follow us for four hours for that kind of money…
Landmarks not to miss at Machu Picchu
The basic tour of Machu Picchu is mostly limited to one single one-way path, except few areas where people can disperse a little. Expect those paths to be very busy and overcrowded. In terms of notable attractions, I’ll list them in order of appearance as you move along the site. You should be given a map at the entrance, which will look the same or similar to the one in the picture below. In case you prefer using Google Maps, click on the links highlighted in red, which you can safe in your “want to go” places list.
The first one’s you’ll encounter will be Watchmen’s Hut and Funerary Rock, which is on the top of the citadel, where you’ll be allowed to disperse a bit. This is also the area that gives you the iconic view of the site, most people know from the pictures and where will your basic tour guide leave you to explore the site alone.
Before it happens, the guide will explain to you that from here, you have four different options to carry on your tour, depending on the weather conditions, time available and your preferences. You can opt for taking a 2-3hrs walk to the Sun Gate (Inti Punku), which would give you epic views but at the same time, it would take a lot off your 4-hour time allowance.
Another option is a 30min walk to the Inca bridge, which also comes with epic views on the other side of the mountain. If you have purchased the permission to Montaña (see the Machu Picchu Mountain paragraph below), this is where you’ll start your trip up the mountain. I’d say that if it was cloudy, try at least the Inca bridge because you will most likely see something of the surrounding nature. And finally, you can carry on down towards the built-in area of the site but that is where you’d end up even after taking any of the above-mentioned walks because it’s actually on the way out.
Entering the built-in area, you’ll then encounter the Temple of the Sun (Torreón). Below the temple, is a section called the Royal Tomb. Just down the stairs from here is a functioning water canal and a series of interconnected fountains. You can also check out The Temple of the Three Windows to take few nice pics of Andes through the ancient windows and the Sacred Plaza in front of the temple. I wouldn’t miss out on Temple of the Condor where you can btw crawl through the cave and emerge on the other side.
Another notable attraction here is also Principal Temple, which should be on your right when you leave the Temple of the Three Windows. Up a short flight of stairs, there’s yet another notable and often photographed attraction, the astronomical rock called Intihuatana. Then you still have the lower section of the ruins with Plaza principal and Industrial Sector, AKA former “working class” houses ahead of you. If you carry on downwards, the next thing not to miss is the Sacred Rock. This is the place, where you can take up upon your extra prepaid Huayna Picchu adventure (see below).
Please note that I’ve only mentioned the highlights of the tour. I am fully aware that for someone who’s keen on archaeology, such a list might come across as ignorant. However, at the same time, there are a lot of people who only come to enjoy the site, not knowing much about any of the particular buildings. For more details and a better understanding of the meanings of numerous attractions Machu Picchu has on the menu, I suggest hiring a guide that will stay with you throughout the whole duration of your visit. You can also learn more about the site by checking out the Manuel Chavez Ballon Museum nearby Aguas Calientes the day before you get up here (see below).
Things to do outside the basic tour of Machu Picchu
Hike Huayna Picchu Mountain
Huayna or Wayna Picchu is the larger steep hill that’s “behind” the site on the famous iconic picture and it is hikeable. For an additional $14USD, you can get an extra-special experience and views of the Incan Citadel. Please bear in mind that this is a very limited activity and you must purchase your ticket well in advance. FYI, you can’t buy a Huayna Picchu ticket only and combine it with your normal ticket, you have to get a combined “Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu ticket”.
Hike Machu Picchu Mountain
A little less busy than Huayna Picchu is Machu Picchu Mountain, which is located on the other side, up and behind the spot from the iconic pictures of the site are made so you’ll have the view from further and higher up. Permit-wise it’s therefore a bit easier than with Huayna but it’s pretty much the same deal when it comes to the ticket. Your combined ticket will cost you an extra $12USD.
Aquas Calientes is a mountainy spa little town located at the foot of Machu Picchu. It’s one of those places where there are just hotels, bars and restaurants. Plus a train station and post office. It’s not the prettiest small spa towns I’ve seen but its visual value is generously boosted by the amazing steep Andean slopes that surround the town.
What’s also exceptional about the place, it’s the amazing buzz that’s created by the excited visitors. In here, you can meet the widest variety of people here, which is truly lovely and interesting. Given its small size and the number of tourists that flow through here, we’re talking about a massive cosmopolitan density per capita.
This little town therefore feels very holiday-like and it is also very social. I have very fond memories of an evening I’ve spent with a sweet old French hippie couple and an equally lovely bunch of French Canadians. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Aguas Calientes could also be a bit of a party town. I mean that when I was heading to catch the first bus up to the citadel in the early hours, I’ve passed by full-on hands up-like woo-hoo party with vibrating windows of the venue…
On the other hand, the town’s service industry is designed to a tremendous flow of 1,5 million people annually, most of which only spend a night or two and in most cases never come back. This is a significant factor and it is somewhat reflected in the amount of energy the local hotels and restaurants invest in to – let’s call it – a sensible and reflective pricing policy and individual approach to the customers 🙂
Things to do in and around Aguas Calientes besides heading to Machu Picchu
AKA things to do at Machu Picchu besides visiting the actual site. You might become fond of the nature that surrounds you and you might consider extending your visit to Aguas Calientes for a night or two. Well, if you have decided so, please note that there are few things, other than dining and dipping in the busy pools in and around the town.
For instance, about 30 minutes walk out of town would get you to Manuel Chavez Ballon Museum, which is a place where you learn more about Machu Picchu, ideally before you get up to the actual site the next day, as I’ve mentioned above. Among the interesting artefacts in the museum, you can also see the original edition of the 1913 National Geographic magazine with the first-ever publication about the site, following Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu.
In case you have decided to spend an extra night, please note that about a 40-minute walk from the village would take you to Mandor Gardens and waterfall. Just follow the signs and don’t forget to bring a hat, water, sunscreen, hat and insect repellent. You could also consider taking a day trip to the nearby village of Santa Teresa to check out Cocalmayo Hot Springs. That however involves getting to Hidroelectrica and taking a shared taxi from there.
When to visit Machu Picchu?
MaPi is located in the rain jungle at a relatively high altitude, although it’s nearly a kilometre lower than Cusco. The weather there however still vary a lot, depending on the particular season of your visit. Obviously, if you can, try aiming at the dry season, which is April to October.
Given the name, the rainy season (November to March) can get rather wet and foggy. Our guide informed us that in January there’s always fog in the morning but it normally clears up at about 8-9 am. We were told that there were few days in Feb & March that they’ve seen just the mist…
The same obviously applies if you want to reach the site by one of the trekking options. You can do them all year long but then you can encounter a situation when you’ll be trekking in a rain. For few days in a row. Sweaty. From the unbreathable rain gear. In fog. With wet shoes. Anyway 🙂 As you can see in the picture below, our guide was right. The fog did eventually clear up to give us the chance to experience the iconic views of the site.
Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes are pretty safe, when it comes to crime, although you might encounter some scam in the village. From the health and safety point of view, few occasional accidents take place from time to time, mostly due to human errors and rarely also by Mother Nature.
- Tickets: FYI, all tickets are sold with an issued time of the site’s entry so make sure to be there on time. Unless you’re planning to purchase a tour, which would sort it out for you, get your tickets in advance for the earliest possible entry to capture the sunrise. Remember that if you wanted to climb one of the mountains, you have to get it together with your ticket. You can’t get them separately.
- Bathrooms: Please note that there are no bathrooms besides the main entrance so…
- Bus to the citadel: In case you were planning to take the bus from Aguas Calientes in the morning, make sure that you go and purchase the ticket as soon as you arrive at the town in order to get the early ticket (they have time slots). The next day, line up very early, I mean very very early. Some people told me that they got there up to 3 hours before your time slot marked on your ticket to get on an early bus because you might get there late, when the site will be already packed, plus you’d miss the sunrise…
- Gear to take with you to the site: Make sure that you have good rain gear, comfy shoes several layers of clothes to be flexible for your visit to the citadel. There’s a size regulation of 40cm x 35cm x 20cm (15.7in x 13.7in x 7.9in) so pack smart. Water, repellent, maybe a spare jumper, camera, a snack and that’s it…
- Trekking gear: In case you were trekking and walking, including the dry spares, such as socks and so on. Pack light&smart. In other words, be prepared for carrying it through the rain forest, which means also an insect repellent and so on 😉
- Passport stamp: You can get your passport stamped, so in case you were interested bring it with you 😉
Useful and interesting links
Further general info, tips, transport and so on
- Machu Picchu: official gov page of the site with more info, ticket reservations, Inca trail permits, history and so on…
- Machu Picchu: Wiki’s page with more details about the citadel
- Cusco: Quaint Planet‘s article listing things to do in and around the city, vibes, safety, go out and so on…
- Peru Rail website tickets, reservations, info and so on
- How does it feel to visit Machu Picchu: Quaint Planet‘s article about what to expect from your visit to the citadel
Further info about hiking options
- Hiking to Machu Picchu? Here’s how to choose the best route: Candace Randon advises the National Geographic readers about picking the best trekking route to Machu Picchu
- Top 6 Alternate Routes to Machu Picchu: Mark Adams writes for National Geographic about 6 different trails to get to Machu Picchu, including few different ones
- Hike To Machu Picchu – Trails And Route Options: machupicchutrek.net post about various trekking options to get to the citadel
- Inca Trail: Wikipedia‘s page with more details
- Choquequirao Trek: machupicchutrek website’s page about the trek with more details
- Lares Trek: Wikitravel‘s page on Lares trek with more info
- Salkantay Trek: Wikitravel‘s page on Salkantay trek with more info
History, curious facts and so on
- History of Machu Picchu: Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on Machu Picchu
- 10 Secrets of Machu Picchu: Mark Adams lists 10 curious less known facts about Machu Picchu for National Geographic
- Discovery of Machu Picchu: Agustín Lizárraga vs Hiram Bingham controversial story on machupicchu.org
Have you ever wondered how do iconic places look from the other side?
To entertain you a bit after such a long text, here’s a reversed view of the site. I mean that I took a picture from ‘the inside’ of the iconic Machu Picchu photo of a place where the photographer would have to stand to take that classic shot of the site…
Other popular destinations and activities nearby
Cusco and Sacred Valley
A major tourist hub former Incan capital doesn’t need much introduction. Things to do in and around the city, safety tips, where to stay, where to go out and more could be found here. Only 25km away from Cusco, there is another important and popular destination Sacred Valley. We’re talking about more of the Incan history, many many more ruins and stone terraces, all set in a beautiful and very scenic Urubamba Valley.
If you are in the region, do not miss out on visiting Lake Titicaca. From Cusco, it only takes about 8 hours to get there by bus or 10,5 hours on a steampunky 1920’s train. As for Titicaca, we’re talking about a stunning lake that also happens to the largest in South America and 18th in the world. As I’ve mentioned above, it also plays an important role in Incan mythology as well as general history, which is still very present nearly everywhere around the lake. Find more details and tips here, in case you were interested.
Bolivia’s Sucre and La Paz
In case you were heading further south, you’ll be only about 4-5 hours from one of the Bolivian capitals La Paz that is certainly worth a visit for numerous reasons. Heading even further south would take you to the other, less buzzing but more pretty Bolivian capital Sucre. Read more details about those two cities here, in case you were interested.
Death Road bike Tour
Fancy descending from 4650 to 1200 metres above sea level in one day on a pushbike? And doing that through a stunning valley with breathtaking views? Well, those are the perks of the bicycle tour organised by multiple agencies from La Paz. In case you were wondering about the word “Death” in the nickname there, yes it does hint at danger. At some point, until its closure, Yungas Road was one of the deadliest roads in the world, with 200–300 commuters died in a number of accidents each year. The bike tours are however much safer than the traffic in the past. In case you wanted to find out more details, please click here.
Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats
Arguably the most popular attraction in Bolivia as well as one of the most surreal and incredible places I’ve ever visited is Uyuni Salt Flats, the world’s largest salt flat with an enormous area of more than 10 000 km2 (3 900 square miles). Read more details here, in case you were interested.
Featured picture by illusion-X from Pixabay