If you’re headed to Peru, find the nearest stair climber or mountain and get to work ASAP. Your body will thank you if you have any desire to head to Cusco, the high altitude gateway to my new favorite wonder, Machu Picchu. The city sits 11,000+ feet above sea level and makes a leisurely stroll feel like the hike of your life. Acclimating to what feels like a whole new stratosphere is key before doing anything too strenuous, like hiking up to Machu Picchu.
Planning a trip to Machu Picchu can be tackled a number of different ways. There are tons of multi-day hikes like the Inca Trail that will spit you out there, or if you’re short on time, you can do what I did. Even though I took “the easy way”, there are multiple types of tickets you can buy for multiple times from multiple different places, and it can be pretty overwhelming. In the interest of short attention spans and my sanity, I’m going to tell you precisely how I went about this solo journey to one of the most amazing ruins in the world, and pray that it’s helpful.
So. Let’s take this step by step, shall we?
BEFORE YOU GO:
Step 1: Book your Machu Picchu tickets ahead of time online. They can be bought in Cusco or Aguas Calientes, however if it’s high season (July and August are particularly heavy), you should buy in advance. A ticket to climb Huayna Picchu, for instance, tends to sell out months ahead of time. If you search online, you'll find a slew of companies offering tours and tickets to MP- they just happen to cost substantially more than the government website that sells the tickets. That's where you wanna go, and it can be found here.
As you can see at the bottom of the screenshot, it appears that the site is very Visa friendly. If you have another type of credit card, you may have to wait until you get to Peru to book or use a third party site, like Get Your Guide. The Ministry of Culture site is not the most user friendly of websites, especially if you’re not on the “yo hablo español” train, but if I figured it out, so can you. It’s important to know that you can purchase tickets to just visit the grounds, the grounds + the Montaña, or the grounds + Huayna Picchu. You’ll be able to check out the calendar and see how many spots are available each day for each option, therefore helping you plan and confirming if you need to buy ahead of time or not.
Contrary to my aforementioned advice, I waited too long and missed out on Huayna Picchu. I booked the Montaña instead, a strenuous hike that feels like a vertical adventure into a never-ending sky. It’s rewarding however, even if you’re unlucky like me and only catch glimpses of Machu Picchu through thick blankets of white cloud. In retrospect, I think I would have been content to have just booked a ticket to the grounds and hiked up to the sun gate for a view. The Montaña is time consuming and difficult, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to see a thing once you reach the top! (Refer to the hilarious picture below to see what that looks like.)
And now for the sad news: as you may have heard, the Peruvian government has recently started implementing new regulations. I visited Machu Picchu just before these changes went into effect on July 1st, and was able to wander freely all morning and afternoon to my heart’s content. I stayed at the site for 7 hours! Now, entry times are being divided into morning and afternoon sessions. Here’s the details of the changes per an article from Condé Nast:
“Visitors to the historic site will now be required to enter with an official tour guide in one of two timed entries: the morning (between 6 a.m. and noon) or the afternoon (between noon and 5:30 p.m.). Plus, travelers will now have to stay on one of three approved paths, as opposed to traipsing around the ruins independently.”
Well that sucks. But hey, it’s still the most beautiful thing you’re ever going to see, and these rules are meant to help preserve it, so I guess we can't be too upset about it.
Oh, and as you’re booking tickets you’re probably thinking about how long you should stay in Aguas. My advice? 2 nights. I arrived in Aguas the day before my scheduled trip to Machu Picchu, woke up at the ass crack of dawn, spent the whole day exploring the ruins (which I guess you can’t do, sorry to rub it in), came home, ate and went to bed. When I woke up the next day, I didn’t know what to do with myself until my train at 04:00 PM. I posted up by the river with a good book, souvenir shopped, and ate at the only restaurant in town that still had Wi-Fi (there was a massive outage, so know that that can happen!) That said, I think a two-night stay with a morning train on the second day would have been the ideal plan.
Step 2: Figure out how you’re going to get there. I opted for the expensive but extremely scenic and worthwhile train with Peru Rail. To reach Machu Picchu you'll need to take the train to Aguas Calientes, which departs from a station called Poroy. This is about 20 minutes from Cusco and requires a ride out of town to get to. Lucky for you, as of this writing Uber just started up in Cusco and can get you there for roughly 13-15 soles.
Once you’re on the website and you’ve got your days sorted, you’ll see that you have three train options: Expedition, Vistadome, and Hiram Bingham. Expedition is the least expensive, the Vistadome has some nice extras (like food!) and bigger windows, and the Hiram Bingham is for all of you ballers out there. You can see the comparison between the trains here.
I went for the Vistadome, which was only a few bucks more than the Expedition, and enjoyed the food they served, the floor to ceiling windows, and the bizarre fashion show and live music on the way home. The cost was $168 for a return trip ticket.
Step 3: Find a place to stay. Aguas is small. Very small. There’s a number of places to stay that suit all budgets, and location-wise you can’t really go wrong. I used agoda.com to book El Quetzal Machupicchu, but it can also be found on Airbnb here. It was $62/night for a private room (I felt like splurging a little and knew I’d be EXHAUSTED) and was great for what I needed. My balcony overlooked the train tracks which could be pretty loud, but the proximity of the town to the train station means you’re gonna hear those suckers from pretty much anywhere. BRING EARPLUGS! One thing about this hotel that I really appreciated was the lunchbox they made for me to take to Machu Picchu (free of charge!) There’s also a free breakfast in the morning, but you’ll want to request the lunchbox if you’re trying to catch the earliest bus like I was!
Step 4: Pick up your train and Machu Picchu tickets while you’re in Cusco. The Peru Rail office is located in the Plaza de Armas, in the stretch of plaza where KFC is (yep, there's a KFC...and McDonald's). The official ticket office for Machu Picchu is the Ministerio de Cultura, not too far from the Plaza de Armas.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE:
Cool. So you’ve made it to Aguas Calientes and are still drooling over the breathtaking scenery you saw along the way. Once you arrive, you’ll want to get a bus ticket if the hike up to the top doesn’t appeal to you. I went for a compromise- a one-way ticket up and a hike on foot down. This decision made me feel a lot less lazy. The bus tickets can be purchased at a little kiosk near the lower of the two bridges that cross the river (you’ll see what I mean) and anyone you ask will be able to point you in the right direction. You will pay $12 for a one way ticket or $24 return. Literally, it’s a woman in a wooden box, so don’t be looking for an office. I’m also going to throw a restaurant suggestion in here, because it was that amazing: Indio Feliz. It’s categorized as Franco-Peruvian cuisine, and it is DELICIOUS (albeit a bit pricy). The décor and ambiance were pretty impressive as well.
Back to logistics. If you’re trying to catch the first bus, it leaves at 05:30 AM and arrives at about 06:00 AM. I left my hotel at about 05:15 thinking I’d be able to catch it, and boy was I wrong. People get lined up SUPER early, so if you want that first bus, I imagine standing out there at 04:30 AM wouldn’t be the worst idea. By the time I caught a bus and got up there, the sun was very much up.
It sounds like this will be even more strict with the new rules in place, and you may not even have a choice- but be VERY aware of the pathways. Once you’re on a path it is one-way only and security will be on your ass about following that path until its completion. In my case, I was forced to follow a path right out of the damn place and had to re-enter because they wouldn’t let me turn around. Womp.
So now that you’ve got the practical stuff, I’d like to stress that Machu Picchu is one of the most inspiring, jaw-dropping, mysterious and magical things that I’ve ever seen (and I'd like to think I’ve seen a lot of things.) While I like using my words, I think I've said enough for now. I’m going to throw some of my favorite photos in here to hopefully get you excited about and/or inspire your trip, and call it a day.
Happy travels, and I hope things are a bit clearer now! Questions or comments? Feel free to drop a line in the comment section below.