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Getting to Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes

by Sam
Getting to Machu Picchu

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Deep in the Peruvian Andes, lies the now world famous Incan city of Machu Picchu. Voted as one of the new wonders of the world, many consider it an essential stop when in South America. Whether it be trekking the renowned Inca trail or travelling by train, tourists flock from all over to catch a glimpse of the ruins. The site has become so popular amongst travellers that new rules and regulations for visiting were introduced in July 2017. You’ll also find that getting to Machu Picchu isn’t as straightforward as you might like. With multiple treks and train fares available, getting the best price requires forward planning or in some cases, a sense of adventure. Find out the different options available below and plan your visit accordingly.

When to visit Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu has notoriously unpredictable weather, and so it’s important to consider this when booking your trip. Due to the site’s location in the Andes Mountain range and proximity to the Amazon Basin, it’s possible to experience several seasons in a day. Clouds and mist can descend on the area almost instantaneously at any time of year, which can leave the ruins obscured from view. There can’t be much worse than getting to Machu Picchu and barely even being able to see the ruins properly.

Your best bet for avoiding poor weather and low visibility is to visit between May and September. The clearest months tend to be June, July and August but are extremely popular times to visit. If you’d prefer to avoid hordes of tourists, aim for either May or September, as both still fall within the dry season. Unfortunately though, there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee good weather at any time of year. We visited in December and while we did get some relatively clear views of Machu Picchu, they were fleeting moments before mist descended once more. We’d recommend sticking to the dry season to visit, especially when you take into account the expensive travel costs. That being said, you could get lucky with weather during the rainy season – so take the chance if you’re feeling lucky!

There's nothing worse than getting to Machu Picchu only for it to be covered in mist - plan ahead!

Getting to Machu Picchu

To get to Machu Picchu, you must reach the Peruvian city of Cusco – which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site worthy of your time. How you get to Cusco is your choice. You’ll find regular flights operate from Lima, with the main alternative being a 22+ hour bus journey. If you opt for this, we recommend checking out these 14 things everyone should know before travelling on South American buses. Once you have reached Cusco you can trek to the famous Incan ruins, or alternatively make your way to the small town of Aguas Calientes – also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.

Train to Machu Picchu

To reach Aguas Calientes from Cusco, you can take a train from nearby Poroy or Ollantaytambo. Either way, you’ll need to take either a colectivo (an informal bus service) or a taxi. Poroy is approximately a 45-minute colectivo journey from Cusco, which should cost 3-5 Peruvian Soles per person. To reach Ollantaytambo, it should take around 2 hours by colectivo and costs just 10 Soles per person. Taxis cost around 35 Soles to Poroy and 100 Soles to Ollantaytaymbo. The main advantage of heading to Ollantaytambo is that trains are more frequent to/from here and cost less, as it is closer to Aguas Calientes.

Two train companies operate services to Aguas Calientes – Peru Rail and Inca Rail. When planning your trip, compare dates and prices on both sites to find the best value. Each company offers 3 different fare types:

Peru Rail

Expedition –Peru Rail’s standard service, which includes a drink and snack.

Vistadome – Offers panoramic windows beside as well as above your seat, offering better views than cheaper trains.

Belmond Hiram Bingham – For those wishing to travel in lavish fashion. Includes cocktails, lunch/dinner, a comfortable observatory car, your ticket to Machu Picchu itself as well as transport to the site from Aguas Calientes.

Inca Rail

Executive Class –Standard train service with panoramic windows for you to enjoy the views.

First Class – More spacious with comfortable seats, a welcome drink and food included.

Presidential Class – Chartered service where you have a luxurious carriage exclusively for groups of up to 8 people. Includes welcome champagne, an open bar, food and more. By far the most extravagant way of reaching Machu Picchu, costing thousands of dollars.

You can purchase tickets online or at stores in Lima and Cusco. We highly recommend booking in advance, especially during peak season, to avoid trains being sold out and to get the best price. Prices vary depending on departure station, fare type and time. Unfortunately though, all fares are expensive for what is a slightly over 3-hour journey from Poroy and a 1 and a half hour journey from Ollataytambo.

We recommend booking somewhere for at least a night in Aguas Calientes. That way you don’t have to race around the ruins before catching a train back the same day. Once in the town, getting to Machu Picchu itself is a simple bus journey, costing around 65 Soles return. While this is relatively expensive for a short 20 minute journey, the only alternative is to walk the steep path up to the ruins – taking approximately an hour and a half.

Aguas Calientes is the small town you'll stay at if getting to Machu picchu via train

Trek to Machu Picchu

For those seeking adventure, journey to Machu Picchu on foot and take in incredible landscape along the way. A number of treks are available, and can be booked in Cusco, with the two most popular options being:

Inca Trail – One of the world’s most famous treks, the Inca trail, weaves amongst cloud forest, picturesque mountain scenery and a number of Incan ruins. With only 500 people allowed on the trail each day, of which 300 are guides and porters, you need to plan ahead to acquire one of the remaining 200 permits. Generally the trail is completed in 4 days, arriving to Machu Picchu on the final day for sunrise, however, some tour operators do have different options. If you’d prefer a shorter or longer trek, pay close attention to the itinerary offered to ensure it is the official Inca trail route. Walking this route comes at a premium cost, and some operators have been known to mislead customers in order to charge more money. The classic 4-day Inca trail can set you back anything from around 1940 Soles to upwards of 5200 Soles.

Salkantay Trek – A popular alternative to the Inca trail, the Salkantay trek, passes snowy peaks and stunning glacial lakes. Prices are more negotiable for this route, and so speaking good Spanish and going in a group will help you haggle with operators for the best price. As a result, prices do vary. The cheapest we heard of was around 485 Soles in total, but it’s more common to pay upwards of 800 Soles.

Before booking anything, we’d recommend reading reviews about the tour operator online. If prices seem too good to be true, there’s probably a reason – whether it be poor equipment, leaky tents or a different route. Always check the itinerary carefully, and confirm with the operator that the trek includes everything you need before parting with your money.

It’s generally possible to book treks upon arrival in Cusco, except for the Inca trail due to the limited number of permits. Waiting until you are there to book will often see you get a better price, as they will have spots to fill and so are more willing to negotiate than if you book in advance.

Watch out for steep drops when visiting Machu Picchu

Walking to Aguas Calientes

If you really want to get off the beaten track, but don’t want to pay for one of the treks, this might be for you! For a fraction of the price of a train ticket, you can walk 28 kilometres along the train tracks from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Alternatively, if you’d prefer slightly less walking, you can use local transport options to reach a hydroelectric power plant and walk 15 kilometres to the town. This isn’t something we’ve tried ourselves, but the following blog posts are great sources of information if you’re interested in getting to Machu Picchu one of these ways:

28 kilometre option

15 kilometre option

Although getting to Machu Picchu isn’t too hard, the different options do mean you have a lot to consider before booking. As Aguas Calientes is hard to reach unless you trek or take a train, it’s likely you’ll have to part with a sizeable amount of cash to get there. Despite this, it’s still a trip worth making. The ancient ruins make for an impressive sight and shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Peru.

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