It’s a bucket list item for almost all travellers and let us tell you, the ruins of Machu Picchu do not disappoint! There are many ways to get to the most famous tourist attraction in South America. There’s a dozen different hikes to take, or trains and buses to figure out, it’s all a bit overwhelming. One thing’s for sure; it’s a long trek to get there no matter what your means of transportation. Machu Picchu isn’t one of those sights you can just pop into on an afternoon, it takes a certain degree of planning, sometimes up to 6 months in advance. This post will outline a couple different travel options, as well as cover the costs, pros and cons, and necessity of pre-booking for each. There’s no need for us to tell you that even with the planning and time consuming travel, Machu Picchu lives up to the hype, and is a must see attraction if you happen to be anywhere near Peru!
Getting To Cusco
The first step to getting to Machu Picchu is to first get yourself to Cusco. This city was once the center of the Incan empire, and now serves as an amazing, lively, cultural site, and the starting point for treks and the bus/train route. It is an amazing city to explore on its own, with ruins nearby and beautiful city squares to check out, which we outline in our Cusco post. Make sure to spend a few days here acclimatizing to the high altitude before tackling a trek to Machu Picchu.
Cusco was the first stop on our trip around South America, and we flew into Cusco from Canada, with a short layover in Lima. While researching tickets, a lot of info came to light about international travellers purchasing domestic flights between Lima and Cusco. The government has reserved the cheapest ticket options (usually called economy) for Peruvians only. If you try to skirt the system and book a ticket through a Peruvian site, we’ve heard that you could be charged up to $150 USD before they let you check into the flight. Often flights won’t show you the cheap Peruvian flight option if you access it from a foreign site, but it’s good to be careful, especially if you’re booking with a smaller airline who’s sites are often hard to navigate. Our flight ended up being $146 CAD with LCPeru, which seemed about average for international flights. LATAM, Avianca and Star Peru all fly this route as well.
You can also bus into Cusco, though we’ve heard the rides are rough. Lima to Cusco is 18-21 hours which is crazy, especially considering the mountains you traverse. Puno to Cusco is the most reasonable trip, taking from 6-8 hours.
One thing to note is that Cusco is really high up! Sitting at a cool 3400m above sea level, you’re well above the threshold for altitude sickness, especially if you’re coming straight from Lima! Cusco is actually at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu, which sits at 2,430m. We felt it right away; a general “yuckiness” and short of breath climbing any hill or set of stairs (which there are a lot of in Cusco by the way). Make sure to take it easy the first few days, you can read more about it in our Cusco post.
Buying a Ticket to Machu Picchu
Getting a ticket to Machu Picchu is surprisingly confusing, considering how famous the site is. You can purchase tickets online, but they are more expensive. Most travel agencies will include the ticket in the price of your trek, if that’s the route you want to take. This website shows the availability of tickets. High season is May-October, a lot of the optional treks to Machu Picchu are limited or closed in February.
There are 2500 tickets available per day to Machu Picchu, which cost $42 USD if purchased in Aguas Calientes (the small town beneath Machu Picchu). These are split into morning (6am-12:30pm) and afternoon (12:30pm-5:30pm) shifts. There’s also the option of adding either a Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain Pass to the morning shift tickets when purchasing your ticket for an extra $15 USD. Only 400 tickets are available per day for Huayna Picchu, and there are only 800 available for Machu Picchu Mountain. Both of these hikes start at the top of Machu Picchu, and take you up above the ruins for a spectacular view. However, after the 4 day trek we took, and the hike up to Machu Picchu the morning of, our legs were dead and we only made it halfway up Machu Picchu Mountain. Still a great view though! It is very important to note that due to the limited availability for Huayna Picchu tickets, these need to be booked far in advance! They WILL sell out up to a few months in advance! Don’t worry you can still book a trek that aligns with your dates even if you have already purchased tickets.
The main tickets for Machu Picchu are sold in two shifts (morning 6am-12:30pm and afternoon 12:30pm-5:30pm). The only real restriction on this is for the afternoon group. No one is actively kicking you out if you’re in the morning group and stay after 12:30pm, you just won’t be allowed to re-enter. Keep in mind: there are no bathrooms or food once inside Machu Picchu. The Huayna Picchu mountain and Machu Picchu Mountain are also split into two shifts. You will enter Huayna Picchu between 7am-8am or 10am-11am, and Machu Picchu Mountain 7am-8am or 9am-10am.
You also need a tour guide to enter Machu Picchu, so if you’re not trekking with a tour group you’ll need to hire an official guide at the entrance. The going rate is 25 soles/person, and the group sizes are between 4-16 people. The tour usually lasts between 1-3 hours and then you are free to explore the ruins by yourself.
We did NOT buy our Machu Picchu tickets until we booked our trek! The trekking company took care of booking both Machu Picchu AND Machu Picchu mountain. Don’t worry, if you have already booked your ticket for Machu Picchu, you can still book a trek to align with your dates!
Getting to Machu Picchu
Trekking to Machu Picchu is a popular route, as you get to trek though all of the different eco-zones of Peru, have the potential to see ruins on the way, and really get a sense of what Hiram Bingham must have experienced when he re-discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. We love treks that end with a spectacular sight or attraction, it makes it that much sweeter to have really worked for it. Below we list some popular treks, and their pros and cons.
The most well known trek, this takes you past Incan ruins and sights on the way to Machu Picchu. It’s also the only trek that allows you to access Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, as opposed to accessing it from Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu). We climbed up to the Sun Gate while exploring Machu Picchu, and can imagine how amazing it would have been to see it from there for the first time at sunrise. Unfortunately the popularity and uniqueness of this trek comes with a steep price tag. It will cost you $600-$1000 USD (or even more for more luxury treks) and you need to book at least 6 months in advance for the 4-5 day trek. Passes are limited to approximately 500 people per day on the trail. As more last minute travellers (and budget backpackers) this obviously didn’t work for us. We also heard that the trail doesn’t have any real Incan significance, as some tour operators lead you to believe. The ancient Incan’s did NOT trek the Inca Trail specifically to get to Machu Picchu. As well, this trek can get really busy and crowded, with everyone camping on the same campgrounds along the way. However, this trek is easier on your body and does not go as high in altitude as some of the other treks do!
This is the trek we chose and we loved it! It is catered to the more adventurous traveller. The trek doesn’t pass by any Incan ruins or sites, but instead climbs up to the Salkantay Pass sitting at 4600m. The mountain scenery is amazing! We trekked up to Humantay Lake, a glacier lake sitting at the foot of a snow-capped mountain, saw two avalanches (from afar, don’t worry), and then trekked back down through Peruvian cloud forests. The trek ends with an hour bus ride to Hidroelectrica, where you walk along the train route and end up in Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. You can do the trek in 4 or 5 days, the difference being the 4 day trek does not stop at hot springs along the way. This trek is much lighter on your wallet (depending on who you book with) and we were able to book it in Cusco only a couple nights before we headed out. Below we outline the prices of the companies we talked to and researched:
- Majos Travel (through Sunset House Hostel) – $285 USD (included sleeping bag, Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain pass and train back)
- Llama Path – $650 USD (only a 5 day option)
- Salkantay Trekking – $460 USD (including sleeping bag and Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain Pass)
We booked through Majos Travel, and had a great time. You can check out more in our Salkantay Trek post. No matter what agency you choose, make sure you are comfortable with them and ask lots of questions! Ensure you’ll have a sleeping bag if you need one, that the Machu Picchu pass is included, and that they book Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain if you want it as well. Make sure there’s an english speaking guide if you need one, and figure out how much weight will be carried by the mules so you can pack accordingly. You can never be too informed for a trek like this! Check out our full recount of our Salkantay Trek here.
This is a lesser known trek, but we have only heard good things. It seems to be a good balance between the Inca and Salkantay Treks, offering stunning views as well as Incan ruins. It also goes up high, going up to 4,650m, providing more than enough challenge for the thrill seekers. You take the train to Aguas Calientes at the end of the trek, and sleep in Aguas Calientes before tackling Machu Picchu the next day. Due to the two train trips (as opposed to the one trip back to Cusco included in the Salkantay Trek), the Lares trek is a little more expensive. Our research put the price at $400-$600 USD. The trek will be 2-3 days.
There are two main options if you’re not going to trek to Machu Picchu from Cusco. Either take the train the whole way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes or take a bus to Ollantaytambo first, and then complete the journey via train. You cannot bus into Aguas Calientes, you have to take a train, or in our case walk the train tracks in. This is the fastest way to get to Machu Picchu, but you should still allot two days to get there. The first day will be arriving and buying tickets, the next day to see the ruins and travel back.
Train – The train doesn’t leave directly from Cusco, it actually leaves from Poroy, which is a 30 minute taxi ride usually costing around 30-35 soles. The train ride from Poroy to Aguas Calientes is a little over 3 hours long, and stops once in Ollantaytambo. The trip will cost you $55 USD to upwards of $100 USD depending on the time of year.
Bus -> Train – The cheaper option is to bus to Ollantaytambo and then complete the journey via train. The bus ride takes about 2 hours, and then the train ride takes just less than 2 hours. The bus only costs 7-14 soles, and the train costs about the same amount. You save money by not having to take a taxi as long as you get your hands on one of the cheaper train tickets, which sell out quickly.
Fun Fact: The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes was once the most expensive train/km travelled! Not sure if it still is today.
Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
You will end up in Aguas Calientes for a night if you go to Machu Picchu. It’s a fun tourist town nestled at the base of the famous Incan city in the mountains. In a basic hostel expect $15-$20 USD for a dorm bed, and $25-$30 USD for a double room. Find more info about Aguas Calientes in our post here. (coming soon!)
Both the train ride and all the treks except the Inca Trail, will put you in Aguas Calientes the night before. From here, you have the option of either bussing or hiking up to Machu Picchu. The bus costs $12 USD, and you need to get up really early if you hope to catch an early one (3:45 am early). Walking is free, but it’s a steep climb up stairs. On the hike up to Machu Picchu, you walk 20-25 minutes from your hostel down the main bus route to the bridge. The gate to cross the bridge and start hiking up to Machu Pichu opens at 5:00 am. If you want to get to the top for sunrise, make sure to leave at 4:30am at the latest. Bring a headlamp, it’s dark walking down the road that early! The hike up the mountain took us just under an hour. We don’t recommend hiking the Salkantay Trek, hiking up to Machu Picchu, and hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu. Pick 2 out of the 3 and you’ll probably be okay. Check out more of our dos and don’ts of Machu Picchu here (coming soon!)
Exploring Machu Picchu!
You’re finally at Machu Picchu so what’s the best way to experience it? Have a plan! You must have a tour guide for 1-3 hours to enter the ruins. Al of the treks provide a tour guide. If you go to Machu Picchu alone there are official guides for hire at the entrance for approximately 25 soles/person for groups of 4-16 people. Also note that you can only re-enter the ruins once, and there is no food, drink or bathroom inside the entrance. You also cannot enter after 12:30pm if you have a morning pass, so if you want to stay longer plan to make your bathroom break before then. You are technically not allowed to bring food into Machu Picchu, but they don’t really check bags. Make sure to pack away any garbage you bring in as there aren’t any garbage cans inside the entrance.
Now for the fun part! Your guide will take you around the main area of the ruins as you enter. Make sure to plan around any additional hikes you purchased (Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain) so that you make it to the entrance during your allotted time. Once all that is done, what should you do? Take your time! Especially if you are the morning group, you have a ton of time to relax and really take it all in. We recommend walking up to the sun gate for a spectacular view of Machu Picchu from above, if you didn’t arrive this way. This picture is the surreal lunch break we had at the sun gate! Most people are gone by 1-2pm, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. This is when we got the best pictures and could take in the magic of the ruins without crowds of people getting in the way.
Back to Cusco
After the wonder of Machu Pichu is done, most people take the train back to Cusco, and for good reason. Remember, you can only train or hike the train tracks back out of Aguas Calientes. The idea of hiking again after 5 days of non-stop hiking was not appealing after we got back down to Aguas Calientes. You can catch the train in the middle of the town and it’s a really nice trip. We got off in Ollantaytambo and were greeted by a very rude woman who brought us to the bus. Note: This was organized beforehand through our trek, so make sure whatever plan you have, it includes travel all the way back to Cusco! You do not want to get stuck in Ollantaytambo for a night if you weren’t prepared to do so. There are no bathrooms around, and not much time between train and the bus, so be prepared for that. If you’re arriving back in Cusco late make sure to have a hostel or guesthouse booked.