Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and the crown jewel of Peru’s tourism industry. It is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen and there’s nothing else in South America quite like it. I recently traveled to Machu Picchu and organizing the whole trip was tricky so I decided to write a how-to guide on getting there. I have to give a shout out to my traveling companion, Steve Sanyal, who did a lot of the initial research. Keep in mind this blog is for traveling by bus/train to Machu Picchu and not doing the three-day hike in through the Sun Gate.
I think the degree to which you’d want to plan your own trip to Machu Picchu would depend on several factors – budget, level of comfort traveling in foreign countries, ability to speak Spanish, etc. If you’re the kind of traveler who likes everything arranged for you, many travel agencies can help you out. We contacted the agency my family used over a decade ago, and they quoted us $700 U.S. each for transport and entry to Machu Picchu, and a hotel in Aguascalientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu). Flights to Cusco, meals and hotels in Cusco weren’t included. The value of their quoted services was about $300, so we decided to do this ourselves.
TIME OF YEAR TO TRAVEL TO MACHU PICCHU
The peak travel time to Machu Picchu is during the winter (or North American summer) because it’s dry. We traveled in January (and I went in February twelve years ago) and while it was raining we had excellent weather and two clear hot days. Our guide said that the three days prior were completely overcast and visibility was awful. He said you couldn’t see anything from Waynu Pichu. We’d met people in Cusco who couldn’t see much on their trip, so traveling at this time of year is a crapshoot.
Since January to March is the rainy season, there are also potential issues due to road washouts from heavy rains in different parts of Peru.
I think it’s possible to see Machu Picchu in one day, including travel to and from Lima if you plan everything just right and everything goes according to plan. We met a young Russian man on the train, who was in Peru for a conference. He figured it might be his only time in Peru, so he had to see Machu Picchu. He arrived in Lima late at night, slept in the airport, caught a 6 a.m. flight to Cusco, the 8 a.m. bus and train to Aguascalientes and went straight to Machu Picchu with an entrance ticket for 11 a.m. and a return train ticket to Cusco at 4 p.m. the same day and a flight back to Lima that evening. It was an ambitious and very rushed trip and I’m not sure if he made it but I think it’s best to leave five days for the trip, 2 days in Cusco, 2 days in Machu Picchu and 1 more night in Cusco on the return. Flight cancellations from Cusco to Lima are common due to cloudy weather conditions. Our return flight was canceled and while most of the passengers were delayed a full day, we left on an afternoon flight (which resulted in our having to cancel another leg of our trip).
FLIGHTS TO CUSCO
Once you get yourself to Lima, you’re going to have to take a national airline to get the 1-hour flight to Cusco (assuming you aren’t arriving from touring a different part of the country. Cusco is also accessible by bus from Lima, but that’s about 18 hours).
There are several airlines that fly to Cusco but I’d avoid smaller airlines that have fewer flights per day and use older planes. Whenever I travel to Cusco for work we use LATAM or Avianca. For frequent flyer miles, LATAM is a One World partner and Avianca is a member of Star Alliance (for Aeroplan points collectors in Canada).
For this trip, we used Avianca and here’s an interesting point, Steve and I were on the phone together trying to book our flights at the same time. I was able to get my tickets for $91 round trip and his were $212 for the same flight at the same time with the same return date. It took a second for us to figure it out, but as soon as Steve clicked the English language icon on Avianca’s website, the cheapest fare disappeared and only the flex fare was available. NOTE: With the cheapest fare, you cannot change your flight and if you miss your plane, you lose your entire fare. With a flex fare ticket, if you miss your plane, they’ll just put you on the next flight.
ACCOMMODATIONS IN CUSCO
When I travel to Cusco for work we usually stay in the Novotel (http://novotel.cuscohotelsweb.com/en/) which costs about US $120 a night and is walking distance from the Plaza de Armas. We opted for an Air BnB which was $50 a night on the way in and $38 on the way out. (We both liked the $38 place better). The owner of the second place picked us up at the train station and arranged a trusted cab for our trip back to the airport. We found several Air BnB places offered this type of service.
TRANSPORT TO AGUASCALIENTES (THE BASE OF MACHU PICCHU)
There is a bus that can take you from Cusco to Aguas Calientes but many people travel by train. Between January and March (during the rainy season), the trip to Aguas Calientes is split between a 1.5 hr bus ride to Ollantetambo and a 1.5 hr train ride to Aguas Calientes. We took the Vistadome train which was the mid-level fare. The train was comfortable, served drinks and snacks and was incredibly scenic. We used Peru Rail and round trip tickets were about $125 each:
ACCOMMODATIONS IN AGUASCALIENTES
In Aguascalientes we stayed at the Tierra Viva hotel. Aguascalientes is a small town and everything is relatively close. A porter from the hotel met us at the train station and when he said he’d take us to the hotel, we didn’t think he’d just take our bags as we followed him across town on foot. But the only vehicles in town are some municipal vehicles and the busses that take tourists up and down Machu Picchu. The hotel was decent, the buffet breakfast included was good too but the elevator was under repair during our stay so the climb to the fourth floor wasn’t a lot of fun after a day of climbing up and down a mountain (I got the impression that this might be in a state of permanent repair). The room was about $130 a night:
TRANSPORT TO MACHU PICCHU
It is possible to walk to Machu Picchu from Aguascalientes and some younger people did it, but it’s a long day of walking as it is, I would recommend taking the bus, which is $25 U.S. for a round trip ticket. The bus is air-conditioned and takes about 10 minutes to make the climb to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Bus tickets can be purchased at the information kiosk on the main road that leads to the mountain. This is the same place where you board the bus. During peak season, the lines for these buses can be up to 2 hours. When we went in January, the wait was about 10 minutes.
You need to pre-buy a ticket to get into Machu Picchu on the Government website. On the left-hand side, select Machu Picchu from the pull-down menu and then choose a time of day to go (1st turn is at 8 a.m., the 2nd turn is at noon and the other choices are a combination of entry to Machu Picchu and a ticket to climb Waynu Picchu, see below):
You need a good day to see everything here. There are a few places near the main entrance where you can get the classic shot of Machu Picchu with Wayne Picchu in the background. Good shoes are essential. Hiking boots are probably a good idea to protect your ankles on the tiny steps.
Waynu Picchu is the mountain that looms in the background of every photo of Manchu Picchu. I had never done this part of the trip and I would highly recommend doing this hike if you’re able, it is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. Ability is definitely one of the big questions when considering this hike. It is challenging but doesn’t require any climbing skills. We were passed by a Korean Walking club filled with sexagenarians and they passed us on their way down at about the one hour mark. I think if you’re fit and fast you can do the hike in a little over an hour. We did it in about three. There were several people on the hike who were afraid of heights and still went anyway, and those people have my utmost respect. There is a place called ‘the stairs of death’ but when we looked into it, we couldn’t actually find any evidence of anyone having died on them. But the stairs are narrow and a lot of people scooted on their butts on the way down.
The pictures from atop Waynu Picchu don’t do the view justice, but it is spectacular. In the photo below, that’s the main site of Machu Picchu below in the background.GUIDED TOUR
Private tour guides can be arranged in Aguascalientes depending on the group size and works out to about $30 per person on the tour. These guides are trained archeologists and are definitely worth the money. They have great insight into the structures, buildings and people around the area. They can also advise on where the best sites are for pictures and help to take group shots.
WHAT TO PACK
A light raincoat, snacks, water, sunscreen and bug spray.
I’ll do another post on places to eat in Lima, but my favourite restaurant is La Rosa Nautica. You can show up for dinner at 5 pm (the place will be deserted because Peruvians eat dinner late) and watch the sunset. In Cusco, I would highly recommend Chicha (which is owned by Peru’s premier chef, Gastón Acurio), Pachamama (which features a lot of traditional local Peruvian food) and Keon (which is a Chifa restaurant – a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cuisines).