Going to Machu Picchu begins with going to Cuzco, the former capital of the Incas. Unless coming from Bolivia, most likely you will start off from Lima, from where either you can take a 22 hours long bus ride through the mountains, or you can opt for a one hour flight. Star Peru, Peruvian Airlines, TACA and LAN are operating many flights between Lima and Cuzco. The price for a one way ticket can range from 100 up to 400 USD, therefore it is recommended to book early. LAN and TACA are normally the expensive ones, Star Peru and Peruvian are cheaper. We had a lot of problems with Star Peru (our flight was cancelled without any notice), so I don’t recommend them. Peruvian residents have huge discounts on the flights, but it is required that you show a Peruvian ID during check-in, otherwise not only you pay the normal price, but you also pay a penalty.
Once in Cuzco, stay there for a couple of days, not only to get used to the height of 3400 meters, but it is also a great city with many Inca mementos and modern-day nightlife mixed with gringos and locals. In every corner of Cuzco they will try to sell you Machu Picchu tours. Most of them will tell you lies like you are obliged to take a guide to the ruins, which is not true. Ignore them.
To get to the ruins of Machu Picchu you have basically 3 options:
- take the train to Aguas Calientes
- take the multi-day (at least 4 days) guided trek on the “Inka trail” directly to the ruins
- take a combination of collectivo buses plus some additional 4 hours trekking to Aguas Calientes
Options 1 and 2 are the most common and will cost you some money, option 3 can be painfully long and depending on your Spanish skills you might end up in the middle of nowhere:) Note: there are no roads to Aguas Calientes, only trains or walking trails can take you there!
If you decide to take the train as we did, it is advised to buy your train tickets at least a few days before your departure, but in peak season better to do it a week before. You can buy them online, or in the offices in Cuzco. Perurail used to be in monopoly operating the trains and on many websites about Machu Picchu, you will read that you have no other option. However, times are changing and now there is at least one other company, Incarail at your service. Both companies are operating various classes of trains, depending on the class and availability it will cost you something between 40 and 400 USD one way. Take the cheapest one, as it has all the comfort you will need.
Another tricky thing is that the trains do not depart from Cuzco. The funny fact is that there is a train station in Cuzco and as far as I know, some trains do go to Aguas Calientes, but tourists are not allowed to take these trains. So it comes to be that you will have to take the train from Poroy, which is around 20 minutes away by taxi from Cuzco, or from Ollantaytambo, which is a 1.5 hour bus ride. Poroy is closer, but fewer trains depart or arrive here. The train ride from Poroy to Aguas Calientes will take around 4 hours, and the train-junkies will enjoy the switch-backs the train makes. It basically means that the train descends zig-zagging on the steep hillside, while going backwards in every zag. At the first such event 90% of the tourists jump up to find out why do we go back to Poroy:)
Before you get your train tickets, it is important to decide, if you are going to climb up to Wayna Picchu (also spelled as Huayna Picchu), or not. Wayna Picchu, is the iconic peak that is visible on most photos taken of Machu Picchu. Not only it offers great views of Machu Picchu itself, but it also has many Inca ruins. If you decide to climb it, you will need to stay at least one day in the city of Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu. Climbing up to it and returning to Cuzco in the same day is something close to impossible.
If you decide to stay in Aguas Calientes, upon arrival take a rest, walk around the city, try the local restaurants or the “Inca massage”, or dip yourself in the waters of the hot springs that the city got its name after. The pools of the spring are not so impressive nor clean, but it’s a good place to mix with the locals. When we were in the pools, some 14-year-old Peruvian girls were coquetting with us speaking quite good English already:)
Don’t forget to buy your bus tickets and Machu Picchu entrance tickets either. The latter is more important as you can NOT buy it at the entrance of the site, you have to buy it in Aguas Calientes or Cuzco or Lima. The bus ticket to the ruins costs around 7 USD one way, the entrance fee is around 45 USD or 22 USD for students with an original looking student card.
If all settled, go for an early sleep as next day you will wake up around 4 am:)
The hostels of Aguas Calientes are probably one of the only places in the world, where they serve breakfast starting from 4am. Fill up your stomach and also pack water, sandwiches and energy bars with you for the whole day as there is no food inside Machu Picchu. Officially food is not allowed inside, but if it is hidden in your backpack, you are good to go. Make your walk to the bus terminal around 4:30. By this time you will have at least 50 people waiting in line for the first bus that departs at 5:30(!). Wait in line half-sleeping until the first bus is ready to go. After the first one, buses depart every 10 minutes. The bus ride is around 20 minutes and offers spectacular views as you arrive to the entrance of the ruins. Depending on the season there can be already hundreds of people waiting for the 6am opening, some of them arrived trekking instead of taking the first buses.
Now the question is, why do you have to wake up so early to see the ruins? The thing is, for Machu Picchu you don’t. But to climb up to Wayna Picchu, you do. Every day only 400 people are allowed to climb up: 200 at 7am, and another 200 at 10am. While queuing for the entrance a guy will come around and ask if you want to climb up to Wayna. If you do, you get a stamp on your ticket. Without the stamp, you will be refused to climb at the beginning of the trail.
To our biggest surprise, even though there were around 200 people in front of us we managed to get a stamp for the 7am climb with a sequence number of 40. This means that most of the people there got up so early not because of the limit of Wayna Pichhu, but probably because they wanted to see the ruins and make photos without the flood of tourists who appear later.
Once inside the gates, take your time to look around a bit, you can comfortably arrive to the backside of the ruins, where the trail starts, you don’t have to be there 7am sharp. When entering the Wayna Picchu trail, they will register your name and other data. If you took the 7am trek, you will arrive back to this checkpoint around 10am, when you sign off. In case you don’t come back, they will know who to mourn:) Seriously, the steps are steep and slippery.
After 10am you will have plenty of time to discover the rest of the ruins. Stand next to a guide to hear the creative mumo-jumbo about the ruins. Most of it is imaginative guessing:)
Once done, take the bus down, or if you still have energy you can take a trail (lasts around 50 minutes on the way down), to Aguas Calientes and take your train back to Poroy or Ollantaytambo. If your train departs later, most hostels will allow you to take a shower and a nap in their common area. If your train is the last one that day, don’t worry, you will still find connecting collectivos in Ollantaytambo.
Done. You did it!:)