Planning Your Machu Picchu Trip
by Kyla Muñoz
Thursday, February 15, 2018
If you are traveling to Cusco, no doubt Machu Picchu is at the top of your to-do list.
It is hailed as one of the modern Wonders of the World, an ancient gem hidden away from the world and untouched by the Spanish conquistadors. And it lives up to the hype. Machu Picchu is breathtaking and momentarily transporting, and it is an absolute must-see even if you are just passing through the region.
There are several ways to get to the Lost City of the Inca’s, and trekking is certainly one of the most popular. These treks take time and planning. Almost everyone who does them also pays to go through a tour company who will provide gear and meals along the way, but for a pretty penny (we’re talking $300-$500 and beyond). For those who don’t have time, haven’t planned far enough in advance, or have no interest in paying for one of these, there are quicker, cheaper ways to skip the trekking and still experience Machu Picchu in all its glory – and you don’t need to pay a separate third party to do it for you. Though it takes a little bit more work, planning your trip yourself is simple and will save you some cash to use on other parts of your travel itinerary.
Everything in this guide is variable and dependent on what season you are traveling. July is Cusco’s peak high season. It is summer (dry season), and much of the world is taking their summer break. I went in January, which is low season mostly due to it being the winter (rainy season), so it was much easier to plan last minute. We chose to do the trip in two days, with one night in Aguas Calientes. I recommend planning your Machu Picchu trip somewhere in the middle of your stay. You will want some time to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco because altitude sickness is real and nobody wants to experience a World Wonder while their mind is too busy trying to make the world stop spinning.
Machu Picchu Planning Check List:
– Machu Picchu Entrance Ticket
– Train Ticket to Aguas Calientes
– Hostel in Aguas Calientes
– Optional: Bus Tickets to Machu Picchu
– Finding a guide at Machu Picchu
Entrance Ticket – s/. 152 or $47
Machu Picchu entrance tickets can be purchased online or in person from one of the Ministerio de Cultura offices in Cusco or in Aguas Calientes, or through a third-party booking company online. There are various types of tickets available. There is the basic Machu Picchu ticket that grants you entrance to the ruins, with options for the first turn at 6am-12pm or second turn from 12pm-6pm. There are additional tickets that include Machu Picchu mountain and Wayna Picchu Mountain (if you are interested in hiking either of the mountains that sandwich the ruins), and these cost additional fees and must be booked in advance, especially for Wayna Picchu which only allows a limited number of people a day. For the basic Machu Picchu ticket, first turn, purchased the day before I planned to enter in the Cusco office, I paid s/. 152 with a Visa card.
Pro tip: if you have a valid student ID that shows an expiration date matching the year you will be traveling to Machu Picchu, you can cut the price of your entrance ticket in nearly half. You must purchase your ticket at the Cusco office to receive the discount.
Train Ticket – $124, round trip
Next, you’ll need to book your train ticket. I booked a week in advance through Inca Rail, selecting a round trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes trip for $124. Prices vary by day and times. The ticket included a complimentary snack and drink both ways, and the views were beautiful. The train ride itself took about 2 hours, and it was comfy enough for a solid nap on the trip back to Ollantaytambo. Note that if you are trying to book with other people, you should have one person book all the tickets or try and book all at the same time if you’d like to sit together. You cannot pick seats, but they automatically assign them in order of booking.
At the time that I booked, some trains had sold out, again, in low season, so in high season, this will have to be done earlier. Keep your eye out for deals at the two major rails, Peru Rail and Inca Rail. They are few and far between, but I had just missed a stellar deal that would have been $60 round trip instead of the $124 I paid, womp womp.
You have the option to take the train all the way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, as well. It was cheaper to book the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes instead of directly from Cusco. It is quite easy to grab a combi, or shared passenger van, from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, and I almost never pay more than s/. 10 to do so. If this is something you are willing to do, it’ll save you some money and give you more of a Cusco experience, as this is a main form of transportations for Peruvians commuting between the city of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. You can grab a combi from Pavitos, about a 15-minute walk from the plaza and close to San Pedro Market. If you type “Ollantaytambo bus station” into Google Maps, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. The ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is about 2 hours, and you shouldn’t pay more than s/. 10 for a van, s/. 15 for a taxi.
Hostel – s/. 45 or $14 per night
If you decide to spend a night in Aguas Calientes (just one night is sufficient), then you’ll want to book this in advance as well. I booked through a friend and stayed at the Puma Inn for s/. 45 per night, per person. You can also find plenty of hostel listings online or by stopping by any tourist office around Cusco and asking them to help you out.
We did have a friend tag along last minute and were able to switch to a larger room without any issues once we arrived. Remember to keep free breakfast and WiFi perks in mind. My hostel offered breakfast beginning at 4 am and they also allowed us to store luggage while we went off to the ruins, totally catering to Machu Picchu visitors which I thought was a nice surprise.
Bus Tickets – $24, round trip
An optional decision that you can make once you’ve arrived in Aguas Calientes is whether or not you will bus up to the ruins or walk the stairs. The stairs are just a 1.7km climb, though quite steep. The bus takes about 30 minutes, one way. You can buy your bus ticket from one of the two booths across the street from the bus stop in Aguas Calientes even on the morning or afternoon that you are heading up, as the shuttles run continuously from 5:30 am to about 3 pm. You can opt to purchase a one-way or round-trip ticket, and a one-way ticket costs about s/. 38 or $12.
I recommend purchasing them the night before because the lines in the morning are long, only to be followed by a long line to actually board the bus. The ticket office is open 5:00 am to 9:00 pm and buses begin running at 5:30 am. When we arrived around 5:10 am the end of the line was already out of sight of the bus stop itself, though it moved quickly once boarding began. If you only book your way up and decide at the top that you’d like to bus back down, no worries. You can purchase another ticket from the booth just outside the ruins entrance, just be aware that these booths do not accept Visa (though they accept other major cards, for whatever reason). As a general rule of thumb when traveling Peru, you are best off carrying the additional soles on you, just in case.
Guide – s/. 20 or $6
The last thing you need to do is find yourself a guide to take you through the ruins. You can do this right outside the entrance to the ruins. There’s a funny regulation for Machu Picchu that states you must enter your first time with a guide, then leave the ruins. After that, you are allowed to re-enter the ruins once more, unguided. Prices for guides will vary based on the size of your group and if you choose to do it individually or share with another group of travelers. We did the latter and ended up paying s/. 20 per person. Our guide, Eli was excellent, enthusiastic, and spoke English very well. He also did all the work to find extra people to fill our group and bring the cost down.
Your guide who will walk you through the main loop, explaining the historical significance of the ruins and teaching you some Quechua words along the way, the language of the Andean people still used by some pueblos in the Valley today. At the end, you must leave the ruins. This is a great time to grab a snack at the nice but of course overpriced snack bar or vending machines and take a bathroom break. After that, you may head back into the site, free to roam. This is when people normally head up the short 10-15 minute trail to the observation point (which continues on up to the Sun Gate), where most of the photos you’ve probably seen of Machu Picchu are taken.
It was the rainy season, so the majority of the tour and morning was foggy and cloud-covered. Upon our second entrance, we took the moment to sit up at the observation point and write postcards to friends and family. After about 20 minutes, the clouds cleared enough to grab some moody shots, and though it wasn’t exactly like the stock photos, it was still just as breathtaking. Who wants to recreate a stock photo, anyway?
Traveling back to Cusco – s/. 8.5 or $3
We had an afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo, so we grabbed some lunch back in Aguas Calientes (Pro Tip: always ask for the “menú”, a cheaper lunch deal than the regular “carta”), purchased some souvenirs in the large market near the train station, and sent our postcards off at the post office – if you send them from Aguas Calientes, they put a big Machu Picchu stamp on them. Once in Ollantaytambo, we grabbed some of the best cookies and brownies in the Sacred Valley from the Sunshine Cafe (located near the souvenir market and ruins entrance) and then grabbed a combi from the food market area (very close to the plaza) to Urubamba for s/. 1.5, and one last combi from Urubamba back to Cusco for s/. 7.
Overall, the trip was quick, simple to plan and execute, and absolutely worth it. Seeing Machu Picchu in the rainy season was a different and exciting experience, to hang out up in the clouds and still have the ruins and astonishing vastness of the surrounding Andes in sight. Don’t let the winter or rain totally deter you, it was awe-inspiring and we managed to do it for just under $220. If you’re planning last minute, don’t have time for or interest in a trek, but still want to see this World Wonder and plan it yourself, go for it! You’ll have an amazing experience and spend a little less while you’re at it.