Most travelers come to Cusco and the Sacred Valley for one reason and one reason only: To see the UNESCO World Herritage site, Machu Picchu. In fact the online magazine Peru this Week estimated over 2 million tourists visited Cusco on route to the ancient ruins in 2013. Miro and I have been living in Cusco now for more than a year and the question we receive most often from friends, family, travelers alike is “how do I get to Macchu Pichhu?”
The ruins of Machu Picchu, (although not my favorite site here in the Sacred Valley) are quite impressive and indisputably Peru’s hottest tourist destination. Countless people flock there every day of the year, despite the fact that there are no roads that lead directly to Machu Picchu. The only way to reach the scenic beauty of Machu Picchu is by train, guided hiking tours, or trekking it up the mountainside trails. The question remains, “I want to go to Machu Picchu, but how do I get there?” So for you, my fellow traveler, I wrote this post.
Macchu Picchu or Aguas Calientes
First of all, some people call the town “Macchu Picchu” and others refer to it as “Aguas Calientes”, guess what? It’s the same thing. It’s confusing if you don’t know that, so that’s the first bit of information I’ll share with you. Aguas Calientes is a fairly small pueblo with no direct roads in or direct roads out. Over the years the peublo has been transformed primarily into an over saturated tourist trap.
The majority of travelers spend one night there, mainly since there is no reason to visit the town other than using it as a launching pad for your visit to the archeological ruins. Aguas Calientes is indeed the closest access point to the historical site, which is only 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) away.
The town itself is split in two by a river, and on both sides of the river, you will find hotels, restaurants and shops covering all price ranges, all to serve the traveler on their way up to the site.Most people arrive the day before they plan on visiting the ruins. They stay in one of the many hotels, hostels or resorts. Then, early the next morning they ascend up to the archeological site either on foot or by shuttle.
There a shuttle bus that zig-zags up the side of the mountain, cost is $9 each direction (tickets available at the bus stop just next to the river). Many budget conscious travelers opt to walk up the hill on the stair case designed especially for those who prefer this option. The hike up the hill takes the average person about an hour and a half.
Accommodations in Machu Picchu
Whoa. This is a big subject since there is no shortage of options once you get there. The good thing is, there is no shortage of options once you get there. The bad thing is there is no shortage of options once you get there. There are luxury hotels to dorm rooms in hostels, so it depends on your budget, needs and preferences. I personally cannot recommend a hotel since they are pretty much just designed to accommodate people for one night and one night only and many I’ve spoken too have felt there is no sense of service in a lot of these places. That’s not to say there aren’t some really nice hotels and accommodations, but I suspect they are at a different price point than Miro and I are accustomed to paying for. Overall, there really isn’t much of a reason to stay in Machu Picchu (Aguas Callientes) beyond a single night’s rest before you head up to the archeological site.
But still, the question remains, “how do I get to Machu Picchu?”
Below are the three options to get there. The best option to get to Machu Picchu will depend on your desired experience, allotted time, destination, budget, endurance, and personal preference.
1. The Train Route to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes)
The easiest way to get to Machu Picchu is to take the “train option”. Many travel agents in Cusco offer this option as a complete package. Packages usually include transport from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Callients, 1 night in a hostel (1-2 star rating), entrance into the archeological site, a guide and back to Cusco. These packages are sold in any of Cusco’s hundreds of travel agents for $210 – $250 USD.
But let’s break down these costs individually in case you’d like to book everything yourself.
Cusco to Ollantaytambo
There are basically two options to get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco.
Option 1.) take the public collectivo, located just off Avenida Grau. The fare is 10 soles per person and you will be transported in a shared van. The trip is about one and half hours and Miro and I recommend trying to sit up front. The roads are windy and if you are prone to car sickness, the front seats are the least traumatic.
Option 2.) take a private taxi to Ollantaytambo from anywhere in Cusco. You will need to negotiate with your driver but rates can cost you anywhere from 70 soles to 150 soles. But make sure you negotiate the price first with your driver before getting into the cab.
Train to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes)
96% of the trains to Machu Picchu are operated by the company PeruRail . PeruRail offers trains throughout the early morning to the mid afternoon. The travel time to Machu Picchu is approximately 1.5 hours. If you opt for an early morning train, it is possible to arrive in Aguas Calientes and explore the ruins the same day. Many, however, seem to book the later afternoon train, arrive around mid day, explore the town a little then retire early to visit the archeological site early the next morning.
Perurail offers 3 levels of services you can purchase for your train ride; Expedition, Vistadome, and Hiram Bingham. Expedition is the starting class and costs approximately $115+ U.S round trip. The view is nice, the seats are comfortable, but there are no perks involved. The mid-range option, Vistadome, costs approximately $140+ and includes non-alcoholic beverages and snacks.
The most expensive option is the *Hiram Bingham, first class, which includes a gourmet brunch on the way there, bus connections, guided tour at Machu Picchu, plus dinner and cocktails on the way back to Cuzco. This luxury options costs approximately $800 USD round trip.
*Note: The first class Hiram Bingham option is the only train leaving directly from Cusco (Poroy). Other options that leave from Cusco (Poroy) are really bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, then you board the train at Ollantaytambo. On the PeruRail site, the “Sacred Valley” starting off point is Ollantaytambo to avoid any further confusion. If you are interested in taking any train other than the Hiram Bingham and want to save a little money, get yourself to Ollantaytambo and leave from there.
2. The Backpacker Hiking Route to Machu Picchu
(Note: During the rainy season, this route is considered extremely dangerous due to slippery windy roads)
If you are looking for a less expensive and more adventurous option, you can take the budget- backpacker hiking route. Many travel agents in Cusco have put together packages for this route and usually run between $100 – $125 USD including the transportation, 1 night in a cheap hostel in Aguas Calientes, entrance to the archeological site and a guide. But like the option above, it’s possible to arrange this route yourself. Here’s what you will need to consider when arranging the trip yourself:
1.) You can do one of two things, either take the bus or collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (aprox 1.5 hours). See above, and as listed you can arrange your own transportation to Ollantaytambo. There is is even the option to take the public bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo if you want to save 3 soles (aprox $1.15) Then you will have to wait for a local bus in Ollantaytambo to Santa Maria. Local buses are often crowded and don’t have a reliable schedule. But it’s the cheapest way to get there. This is a great option if you want to visit the ruins at Ollantaytambo first, spend the night there and get up early to catch the first bus to Santa Maria.
2.) Another options is to catch a collectivo (aprox 4 hours) in Cusco directly to Santa Maria from Cusco (30-40 soles) next to the Qillabamba bound buses at the Santiago bus depot.
3.) Even cheaper, from Cusco take public bus (aprox 6.5 – 7 hours) from Cusco, towards Quillabamba and get out at Santa Maria (25 soles). The public bus departs at 8:00am daily and passes through Ollantaytambo, Urubumba and Santa Maria. t´s an 7 hour journey from Cusco to Santa Maria.
4.) Once in Santa Maria take a connecting bus (aprox 6 soles) to Santa Teresa (1.5 hours) or a taxi (10-30 soles) and about a 1 hour drive.
5.) Once you’ve reached Santa Teresa, you will need to get to hydro electric plant (planta hidroeléctrica) which you can do by either walking for 2 more hours, take a taxi or local bus.
6.) From Hidroeléctrica you will walk for 1.5 to 2 hours along the railroad tracks until you reach Machu Picchu (Aguas Callientes).
It’s not really that complicated and many tourists / backpackers are following this route. When we had the group of unschooling teens here they opted for this route, and had no problems at all. Anywhere along this route, people will recognize you as a traveler who is trying to get to Machu Picchu and will assist you along your way.
3. Trekking the Trails to Machu Picchu
There are two main scenic trekking routes that will take you to Machu Picchu if you are up for the challenge.
1.) Inca trail is by far the most famous trek in South America and is rated by many to be in the top 5 treks in the world. With a reputation like that, as you might have guessed, it’s in demand and expensive. The only way you can do the Inca trail is with a tour company on a guided trek. The trail itself is just 26 miles (43km)and combines a beautiful mountain scenery, lush cloud-forest, subtropical jungle and, of course, a stunning mix of Inca paving stones, ruins and tunnels. The path of course ends at the archeological site, Machu Picchu. The cost for this trek will set you back anywhere from $450-$650 USD.
2. ) The Salkantay Trek is quickly gaining in popularity as an alternative to the Inca trail. Both trails bring your through an impressive mix of lush vegetation, subtropical jungle, and stunning landscape that can only be seen in the region of Machu Picchu. However, the Salkantay trek allows you to see the snow-covered Salkantay mountain range and the impressive Andean jungle. There are guided treks available on the Salkantay trek being offered from anywhere from $325 – 550 USD.
A dear friend of mine and Miro’s did the Salkantay trek by herself, but met up with a group on the way. She wrote about the experience in both French and English (scroll down past the French for the English version) here and posted the most amazing photos. If you are considering doing this trek, I urge you to take a look at her blog first: Trek de Salkantay, en chemin vers le Machu Picchu Août 2012 / Salkantay trek, walking to Machu Picchu August 2012
There are several other variations, routes, and treks to consider, most available and arranged by travel agents in Cusco. Do your own research!
If you are planning an upcoming trip to Machu Picchu, make sure to evaluate the three options above carefully before making your decision. The train ride may seem like the ideal choice but, it is a little expensive for the budget traveler. On the other hand, you will certainly arrive there quickly. On the other side of the coin, the backpack hiking route might fit better for your budget, but it will take a significant amount of time and possible discomfort. Trekking the trails to Machu Picchu allows you to soak in all the scenic beauty, but it may be costly to with a tour, and definitely physically challenging.
You travel option choice will ultimately depend on what you want to get out of the trip, how much you can afford, and your personal endurance level. Regardless of which way you take to get to Machu Picchu, it will be worth it once you arrive.