Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
We had our second night bus with Peru Hop from Puno to Cusco (about 8-9hrs). I was a bit nervous about this one as I had booked this bus on the night just before our train to Aguas Caliente. With only 10 days before my friend left from Cusco, we had little room to move our itinerary around, but we still wanted to have enough time to make it to the ancient Inca’s city without feeling too rushed.
Luckily, it all went well with no delays and we arrived at Cusco around 5AM that morning. We had arranged to leave our bags at our hostel in Cusco, the Hospedaje Recoleta. We had time to take a quick shower and I took a nap in the common lounge area before we cabbed to the train station around 730AM. It gave us just enough time to walk around, get a few snacks from the San Pedro Market and get on our train.
I guess I should start by explaining my thought process on this one. When I decided to visit Machu Picchu, I had many options in mind, depending on how much time I had and who I would be visiting with. There are many options to choose from depending on your budget and what kind of experience you want to have. A lot of people opt for a multiday trek, carrying a day pack and having some local guides carrying the bulk of the overnight gear, camp gear and food. The treks can vary from 3 to 7 days, with cost varying from 250 to 2000US. There are a lot of different companies, trails, etc. to consider before making your final decision. If you do decide to go on a trek, please make yourself a favor and get as much information as possible on the altitude, elevation gain, km of trek per day and difficulty of the trail. Some treks are going up to some mountain passes at 5200m of altitude, and not everyone can (or should) attempt such hikes with no prior experience and/or acclimatization.
I consider myself a pretty experienced hiker/trekker (I haven’t done tons of long multiday treks, however I have done a lot of overnights and enough multiday hikes 100% independently to know what I am getting into), and the length of the treks offered made me doubt my own ability to do the treks and actually fully enjoy it. My main issue : the altitude. Being in Peru only for 3 weeks, I did not want to risk getting altitude sickness (again), and waste thousands of dollars and many days of my trip not enjoying my time and feeling like crap (I don’t think I can describe altitude sickness better than this). Moreover, as I was traveling this time with my mom and a friend who have not done overnighters before, it wasn’t really an option.
If like me, you decide that trekking into Machu Picchu isn’t your best option, you have 2 choices left. You can take the cheap route, busing from Cusco to Hydroelectrica, and hike alongside the old train tracks for about 3hrs until you reach Aguas Caliente. I was told a lot of tourists and locals walk this path everyday and you shouldn’t be alone – however, keep in mind that many accidents happen on that sketchy bus ride and that you will be fully independent for that 3hrs walk to Machu Picchu Pueblo. Want to save even more? You can even hike up to the entrance of Machu Picchu by following the road up (same as the tourist buses take) until you reach the never-ended flight of stairs going uphill. It would take you about 1h30-2hrs to hike up to the entrance (instead of 30min by bus), but you would save the 30US for the round-trip bus ticket up to the entrance.
If you have the money and want to save your energy and legs to hike on Machu Picchu site, your last and final option is to take the train to Aguas Caliente. Note that there are NO roads leading to that town – therefore no bus option. You can either hike or train to Aguas Caliente.
Currently, you can buy tickets either with IncaRail or PeruRail. This is the option I decided on, making these 2 days the most expensive of my trip. You will have to shop around for the best time and price for your train ticket. Both companies offer similar services and various options, although I believe PeruRail has the fancier trains. For common travelers like us (who like to keep their expenses reasonable), we traveled in the VistaDome and the 360 wagons, which gave us a nice panoramic views of the valley on our path. I had first booked the Bi-Modal trip with IncaRail, which included a bus ride to Ollantaytambo followed by the train to Aguas Caliente, because it was the cheapest option. However, we got lucky and our tickets were upgraded to a train departure from San Pedro station, right in Cusco. Our tickets with IncaRail were 75US one-way, and we paid 105US one-way return with PeruRail. These were the best options I could get at reasonable hours for our schedule. We left Cusco at 845AM the first day, and we came back the next day with the 5PM train, arriving in Poroy (30min, 60 soles taxi drive from central Cusco). The full train ride is about 4hrs, depending on your departure or arrival station. This gave us about 27hrs in Aguas Caliente – just enough to enjoy a nice lunch and visit the town, a good night sleep, an early departure to enter Machu Picchu with our 6AM tickets, a late lunch and hop, back on the train! I booked all of these transport tickets online before my trip (months before) to ensure I had the prices and times we wanted. I have seen many tourists taking the train round-trip the same day as their Machu Picchu visit, but I would highly discourage you to do so, for many reasons (I will explain this below).
Now. Once in Aguas Caliente, I recommend that you buy your bus tickets up to Machu Picchu the day before, so you don’t have to line up for this in the morning of your visit. Tickets are 15US each way. The buses are well organized and with the new entrance ticket times (new this year), you will have to line up by entrance time on the site to get in the buses as well. We were in line at 510AM (line was already a good 100m long at that time, first bus leaves at 530AM) and were able to walk in Machu Picchu at 615AM. Starting this year, the tickets for Machu Picchu have a specific entry time that you need to respect. They are limiting the amount of visitors entering the site each hour, to help organize the flow of visitors and the bus rides. You will read that you have about 4hrs on the site after you enter, however this is not actually regulated on site. If your entrance ticket says 6AM, you can enter between 6-7AM. If your ticket says 7AM, you can enter between 7-8AM, etc. Between you and I, I strongly recommend getting an early ticket. We pretty much had almost 1h alone on site before 7AM where we could take tons of photos without anyone in them, AND we got to watch the sunrise over the mountains surrounding us. Worth getting up at 4AM. Once you are in, no one is coming around checking your ticket and asking you to leave. That said, 4-5hrs on site should be quite enough to see all you want to see, unless you have also booked a Mountain ticket for hiking.
Here you have two options while booking your ticket online. You can decide to add to your ticket an entrance to hike Machu Picchu mountain or Huayna Picchu (Wayna Picchu) mountain. You will have 2 additional hours on your ticket for this hike, and you must choose a starting time for your hike. For example, we hiked Huayna Picchu. Our entrance time was 7-8AM. They let 200 people hike in the morning, and the doors for the trailhead open between 7-8AM. After that, they close the doors and wait for everyone to sign back out around 10AM. At 11AM, they have another round of 200 people starting the hike. Only 400 people per day are allowed up Huayna Picchu, which means you have to book months in advance if you want to do this hike. Most travelers I met who made last minute plans couldn’t book the mountain ticket to hike, so they could only visit the ruins and general site. Our full entrance ticket, including the ruins AND the mountain hike was 62US (if you are quick with math, you are starting to see how these 2 days were the most expensive ones of this trip). You can book these tickets online on the Peru government site. You will get to book your time and will be sent a reservation number, which you must use to pay your ticket within a certain time frame. Just so you know, I struggled to use my credit card on their website. It kept refusing the transaction and I couldn’t figure out why. After contacting tech support, they told me that the site can’t accept Canadian cards, so all I had to do was to change my country to “Peru” when I filled my info on their website for the payment. Seems weird to me, but it worked, so try that if your card keeps being turned down!
Now, how do you choose between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountain? You’ll have to research, look at the photos and decide what kind of experience you want. Machu Picchu peak is slightly higher than Huayna Picchu (Machu Picchu means tall mountain, and Huayna Picchu means young mountain, or smaller mountain). Machu Picchu peak is usually not the one you see in the photos – instead it is FROM where most Machu Picchu ruins photos you see all over the place have been taken. The peak you can see on these photos is actually Huayna Picchu. The hike to Machu Picchu peak is also supposed to be easier as the path is larger and well maintained. However, if you would like a bit of a challenging trail and different vistas than what you can already see from the ruins, Huayna is for you. 70% of the stairs on this trail are original from Inca times, it is rugged, steep and breathtaking, you will need to use your hands and some ropes, but the views and the fun we had was absolutely worth the visit. It took us 2h15 round-trip to do the hike (about 1h40 to get to the summit) including multiple stops for photos. The elevation gain is about 305m on roughly 1.9km, reaching a max altitude of 2720m. Honestly, I think this was my favorite part of the day at Machu Picchu! If you can do it and get your tickets ahead of time, it’s absolutely worth it. We got very lucky with the weather and had no fog nor rain that day, so our photos and views were as clear as it can get!
Now after our hike, it was time for us to head to the bathroom and get a snack before we did our tour of the Inca city. Just so you know, there are NO restrooms inside Machu Picchu. However, there are restrooms just outside the main doors BEFORE you get in. A regular ticket gets you one SINGLE entrance on your ticket day – which means you won’t be able to get out and back in if you need to pee. Plan accordingly! However, if like us you get a mountain ticket, you are allowed ONE re-admission at anytime that same day. This is because the visit around the city is mainly one-way, and the way out after the trailhead of Huayna Picchu will lead you pretty much back to the exit. You can come out, use the restrooms, have your lunch, and get back in as we did. Now – you will read pretty much everywhere (especially travel agencies trying to make the big bucks) that you MUST be accompanied by a guide when you visit Machu Picchu, and that you won’t be allowed inside without one. That’s a total lie. As long as you have your ticket, you are going to get in without question. Now – I DO strongly recommend you that you get a guide for a tour, as it is the best way to learn as many details as possible about the history of Machu Picchu as you can. You don’t need to book this ahead – there will be TONS of local certified guides waiting at the entrance for tourists looking for a tour. Depending how many tourists will be in your group, expect to pay from 15 to 40US per person. We were able to deal a tour with 5 people for about 20US per person (60 soles, pushing it), leaving the entrance gate at 1PM (when there is less demand for guides). You can probably get a better deal in the morning, when more people are entering and groups can get a bit bigger faster. Our tour was just under 2h30, and our guide explained us many details of the Inca city, showing us around the main areas and buildings. It was nice to have his insight and expertise, as it was our second time walking around most of the site (we did have about 1h on our own in the morning, as we walked to the trailhead for Huayna Picchu).
When we completed our tour, our guide suggested us a nice restaurant for lunch back in Aguas Caliente. We waited in line for the bus down with him (took 45min wait before we got on a bus – just another reason why you don’t want to crunch your return train too early on your tour day!) and rode back down to town. We took our guide out for lunch at Full House Restaurant and had some traditional local food with him. It was really interesting to learn about his lifestyle, and how his wife and him live in Aguas Caliente to work at Machu Picchu. The town pretty much exists just for the tourism, so the prices for accommodation and food are up compare to other places in Peru. I read a lot of critics saying that they didn’t like the town for this reason; however, I really enjoyed my time there as I didn’t have unrealistic expectations. It is more expensive, however you need to be ready for this when you visit one of the 7th Wonder of the World!
The Machu Picchu site is open year-round, although I wouldn’t recommend visiting during the peak of the rainy season. I mean, you can. But the weather, rain and high water levels of the rivers don’t create the safest conditions to travel in the area at that time of year. A few years ago, our guide explained to us that the rushing river in Aguas Caliente had destroyed part of the main train track, stranding thousands of tourists in town for days, needing evacuations, etc. If you can, I would try to plan and avoid that time of the year (just check out Aguas Caliente Flooding online to have an idea!).
Overall, our Machu Picchu experience was amazing. Even if a part of me wish we did longer trekking on our way there, I liked that the train provided us with a much needed break on our trip, and a little bit of luxury after the overnight buses. If you add up the cost, for 2 days, we paid just about 272US, or 388$CAD, only for transportation, entrance ticket and tour. You still have to add up the cost of the food and accommodation in Aguas Caliente. We stayed at the EcoPacker Hostel, really close to the bus stop and a few minutes walk from the train station. It was clean and comfortable and had a small bar-restaurant which was very convenient.
I chose not to write too much about the history of Machu Picchu in this post, as I know you can get that information elsewhere. Anyway, it is much better when you learn it yourself from your tour guide on site! I hope all this info will help you make your plans for visiting Machu Picchu – it is definitely worth the trek!
With our visit to the Inca city completed, this meant that my friend Lindsay only had one day left with us in Cusco before flying back home. My mom and I stayed a total of 6 nights in Cusco, to tour around the city and the Sacred Valley.
Stay tuned for the details of our next couple days!
Wow what an unforgettable experience. Great photos of an incredible trip. We would love to visit Macchu Picchu and your post makes it looks amazing.