Chances are Machu Picchu is on your list of places to see while traveling through Peru, and rightfully so. It’s an incredible sight and not to be missed if you are visiting Peru.
If you only have a few days to see the famous sight, you’ve come to the right place. Within 30 hours of landing in Lima, I was standing atop Machu Picchu admiring the most beautiful blue skies, the incredible green mountain range, and the magical ancient ruins.
How to Get There
I started the journey in Lima, Peru’s capital. LATAM has frequent flights from Lima into Cusco. The flight is a quick one hour and five minutes, although delays are common. Flights to Cusco seemed to be going out every 20 minutes, so you should have no problem finding one for your schedule. Cusco is a much larger town than I expected. I can’t say Cusco was a “must-see”. It’s a great jumping off point for Machu Picchu, but if I were to do it again, I would skip Cusco and spend my day before and after Machu Pichu in one of the Sacred Valley towns – Ollantaytambo, Agues Caleintes, or Urubamba.
From Cusco, you can take a 3.5 hour train ride to the town of Agues Caleintes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. We opted for Peru Rail and were very happy with that decision. It’s slightly more expensive than Inca Rail at $80/person. We received a light meal and complimentary beverages on both legs of the journey. The seats were spacious and comfortable, and there were windows on the ceilings so we had a full view of the beautiful mountains we rode through.
Once you arrive in Agues Caleintes, visit the ticket office (it’s clearly marked, but you can always ask a friendly local) to purchase a $24 round trip bus ticket to Machu Picchu. You have the option to hike from Agues Caleintes to the entrance of Machu Picchu but the hike is STEEP. We saw a few people making the trek, but it did not feel worth it. (Note: This is not the same thing as hiking the Inca Trail. You have to book that through a tour guide) The hike is said to be ~90 minutes, but I imagine it takes longer, unless you are in very good shape and used to hiking at 8,000 feet above sea level. The bus ride is a solid 30-minutes straight up a mountain. It’s worth it IMO.
The bus drops you off at the entrance to Machu Picchu, next to a luxury Belmond hotel. The entrance will be right in front of you, where all the people are walking. You can’t miss it.
Timing It Right
Timing the train, bus, and ticket is a little tricky. I’m not sure if we did it the right way or not, so you’ll have to make the right decision for your group, but I can tell you what we did.
7am: Depart from Cusco via Peru Rail
10:30am: Arrive in Aguas Calientes
11:30am: Catch bus to Machu Picchu
11:50am: Arrive at entrance of Machu Picchu
12pm: Quick bite at Snack Bar
12:30pm-2pm: Explore Machu Picchu
2:15pm: Catch bus back to Augas Calientes
3pm-5pm: Explore Augas Calientes
5pm: Train back to Cusco
8:30pm: Arrive in Cusco
Guide or No Guide
Outside of the entrance to Machu Picchu await dozens of tour guides, all wanting to take you through the ruins. The age old debate in our family, do we book a guided tour or wing it? We decided on the latter for Machu Picchu. Was it the right decision? Maybe. There are almost no informational signs at all, so I probably would have gotten more out of the visit had we hired a tour guide, but I also appreciated the freedom to explore the ruins at my leisure. There is no doubt the guides know a lot about the ruins. We observed quite a few groups being taken around by guides. It isn’t a scam or something to necessarily be avoided. Tours should run ~$15/person. If someone tries to charge you more, just decline. You don’t have to book a guide in advance, although I’m sure you can, so feel free to make a game time decision.
No bathrooms or food is available once you enter the ruins. You have been warned. You are welcome to bring food and water into the monument, but once you enter, you cannot leave and come back. There is a hotel that doesn’t seem to ask questions if you walk in and use their restroom. There is also a restaurant and a public restroom available.
Machu Picchu is set up in a “loop”. The majority of the paths are one-way so once you pass a view point or sight, you are not able to backtrack to see it again. For this reason, I recommend entering the monument and taking an immediate left. You will continuously climb stairs until you reach a series of viewpoints. The most iconic views can be seen from this area.
Where to Stay in Cusco
If you opt to stay in Cusco, I highly recommend the San Blas neighborhood. It sits high up on the hill of Cusco and overlooks the town. You’re guaranteed to see some magical sunsets and romantic city lights. This is the Airbnb we stayed in. It’s perfect for a larger group or several families.