Machu Picchu. Just saying its name gets adventure travellers salivating, and for good reason. Not only is it one of the wonders of the world, but the Inca site boasts an incredible history, dramatic scenery, ruins galore and breathtaking views. It’s safe to say it can also be found on just about every globetrotter’s bucket list!
Once you’ve decided to make the trek to Peru, the biggest question is how you’ll actually get to the famed peak. There are a number of ways to visit, including:
- The two-day or four-day Inca Trail trek
- A Sacred Valley tour
- Basing yourself in Aguas Calientes, then exploring on your own
- Booking a room at the very expensive ($800+ per night!!!) Sanctuary Lodge at the base of Machu Picchu
There is absolutely no right or wrong way to do it, but it’s important to determine your budget, how much time you want to spend at Machu Picchu and if you can handle a lot of strenuous activity.
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Inca Trail treks are the most famous way to make it to Machu Picchu, but it can take a lot of time and energy—especially after you factor in acclimatization time beforehand. Plus, you’ll really be roughing it! It’s not like there are hotels with warm showers along the route—instead, it’s basically like camping but you also have to hike for hours and hours each day. Fortunately if you’re willing to pay a little more, you can hire a porter to carry your gear for you, and they will also scamper ahead of you after each stop to get the camp all set up. The cost of a trek can be a bit prohibitive, as you must pay hundreds of dollars for entrance fees, permits, food, guides and equipment rental—and likely, a long massage after! Of course, none of that matters when you make it home and can brag that you followed in the footsteps of that ancient Inca civilization.
A Sacred Valley tour is perhaps the most popular option for those heading to Machu Picchu. It takes two days and will see you travel from Cusco with stops at ancient sites en route to Aguas Calientes, where you’ll stay overnight. An early wakeup should get you to the mountain for sunrise and you can spend most of the day at Machu Picchu before heading back to Aguas Calientes to take the train, then bus, back to Cusco. This option costs around $300+ per person, and can be booked easily just about anywhere in Peru or online. Keep in mind that as with many things in South America, tours can be unorganized and you can expect to find yourself passed around from guide to guide, jumping into vans already packed with people no matter how much you spent on your tour!
As for those train rides, there are a few options available depending on budget. Inca Rail is the cheapest, but you get what you pay for. The cars are extremely cramped—which is not great after a long day of hiking!—and seats are arranged in groups of four around a table so you’ll likely be playing footsies with a stranger the whole time. However, you do get refreshments and the ride is only a couple of hours.
Alternatively, book a seat on PeruRail. They have a basic service that will give you more legroom than Inca Rail along with entertainment, or if you want to really splurge you can pick the Andean Explorer option that includes the trip in a luxury rail car, a multi-course gourmet dinner and tea, entry to Machu Picchu and a guide. The cost of that bad boy? Around $600 per person. Regardless of which service you choose, you’ll be enjoying the scenery as you follow a swollen, fast-moving river through the cloud forests, passing almost nothing but wilderness as you make your way towards the towering mountains.
Now, for the truly adventurous: you can arrange the entire trip on your own. However, in my experience you won’t be saving that much money compared to booking a budget tour, and will have to handle all the logistics on your own—not great if you don’t speak Spanish! There is an excellent post by Peru Treks that explains how to do this in detail if you’re brave enough to attempt it. The bonus of this is option that you can spend as much time as you please at each site—a real luxury when it comes time to wander through the massive site of Machu Picchu. It’s impossible to see everything in just a day! Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the mountain, is also a chill, inexpensive place to hang out, so book an extra night there if you can.
The most important thing to consider no matter which option you choose is the timing.
For example, Inca Trail treks are not permitted in February due to weather, and permits for the rest of the year are often snapped up months in advance. Make sure you get a permit before you even book your flight to Peru, otherwise you might find yourself extremely disappointed. There are also only 400 permits given out per day to climb Machu Picchu and Huayana Picchu, so you’ll want to arrange those in advance as well.
Once you get there…
So here’s the deal with what happens when you actually arrive in Aguas Calientes. The town is charming, and built right into the mountainside meaning it is just one big hill lined with restaurants and hotels. There are no cars, so unless you have a nice guide expect to haul your bag all the way up from the train station. Pack light!! The only thing to do here other than sleep or eat is to check out the hot springs that the town is named after—but you might be deterred by fact that it’s actually full of brown water. I sure was!
Anyway, to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes you can either walk up or take the bus. Walking is pure insanity in my opinion, as it takes about an hour and a half and there is pretty much nothing to see. Plus, who wants to do all that hiking BEFORE even getting to the main site, where you’ll do even more walking around? Save yourself and take the bus instead. They leave from the town every few minutes starting around 6 a.m., and it takes about 35 minutes to navigate the hairpin turns all the way up to the base of Machu Picchu. Try not to look out the window, or you might have visions of the bus flying off the cliffside! You’ll be dropped off at the main gate to present your entrance ticket, then after that you’re off to the races to enjoy those ruins!
A final note: there is a crazy long queue to get on the bus back down, so keep that in mind if you need to be back in Aguas Calientes by a certain time to catch your train. On average, the line can take about 45 minutes to get through unless you happen to leave before noon or right before the gates close.
Enjoy your trip!
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