Getting to Machu Picchu on your own is quite easy, but it does require advance planning. Machu Picchu lay hidden from the world for such a long time because its location is fairly remote and inaccessible. Because of its remote location and multiple connections required, many tourists are often confused on how to get there, and often settle for the expensive package tour from Lima or Cuzco. Contrary to popular believes, you don’t need to hike through mountains to get to Machu Picchu, and most senior citizens with decent health can do the trip. Forget the Machu Picchu package tour; you can do it on your own cheaply by following the steps below.
Step 1 – Get to Lima, Peru (This is easily done with many international flights
Step 2 – Get from Lima to Cuzco
- By Bus – The cheapest way, takes 21 hrs, with prices US$30-$75 depending on company and services class. Tickets can be booked online at www.cruzdelsur.com.pe or www.tepsa.com.pe
- By Air – Recommended way, takes 1hr 20 mins, and prices as low as US$80-90 each way with advance booking. Flights can be booked online at www.latam.com, or www.avianca.com. Star Peru and Peruvian Air are among the cheapest, and their planes are really nice.
Step 3 – Getting from Cuzco to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) – Aguas Calientes is a town at the base of Machu Picchu and where the train station and lodgings are. There are no road to Machu Picchu and train/hiking the Inca Trails are the only way to get there. We will only cover the train option below as hikes must be with a guided group tour (approx. US$450-650 for the 4-days hike option).
Most tourists spend a couple of days in Cuzco, touring the city and the Sacred Valley before heading to Machu Picchu. Many people do get altitude sickness as Cuzco is 11,203 ft. (3,395m) above sea level. Cuzco is at much higher elevation than Machu Picchu; thus, an alternate but less taken itinerary (to help prevent altitude sickness) is to head straight to Machu Picchu after your plane lands in Cuzco and then work your way back to Cuzco.
While in Cuzco, you can find many 1 or 2 days packaged tour to Machu Picchu ($US270-350), 4 days Inca Trail Hike (US$450-650), half-day Cuzco city tour (US$10-15 or S./25-40), or 1 day Sacred Valley tour (US$12-20 or S./30-50). The Cuzco city tour and the Sacred Valley tour are highly recommended, but don’t bother with the expensive Machu Picchu package tour as you can do it yourself as follows.
Option 1 – Cuzco to Machu Picchu by Train – Currently Perurail is the only operator offering the services from Cuzco. There are 3 classes of services (Expedition, Vistadome, Hiram Bingham), cheapest ticket at US$73 (one-way), and is about 3.5 hrs. trip. Expedition used to be called Backpacker (don’t be fooled by the name, it would be one of the nicest train you have taken). Tickets can be booked online at www.perurail.com. A downside to this option is the limited train schedules (only 4 trains per day and all leave in early morning). If you have the morning flight from Lima and wants to go straight to Machu Picchu, you cannot catch these trains.
Option 2 – Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu by Train – This option requires bus/taxi/van to Ollantaytambo and then train to Machu Picchu. It is the cheapest option with tickets as low as US$52 (one-way), and about 2 hrs. ride. Also, there are many more trains to choose from, and you can catch this train if you arrive to Cuzco on the morning flight, and want to go straight to Machu Picchu. The Cuzco-Machu Picchu trains also fill up quickly, so this is a good alternative. Ollantaytambo (65km from Cuzco) is along a scenic paved road. It is a very lovely town, and it is recommended to spend 1- 2 here and slow down to soak up the basic lifestyle. Ollantaytambo temples and ruins are also a must visit, and are usually part of the Sacred Valley day-tour package. Follow the methods below to get from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo.
- Taxi – from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo will take 90 mins (US$30 or S./80).
- Bus – You can also take the bus from the first block of Av. Grau near the bridge (US$1.50, 90 minutes) to Urubamba and then hop another bus for the 20-minute, US$1 ride to Ollantaytambo.
- Colectivo Van – The most convenient option is to take a colectivo van from the Paradero Pavitos (US$3.50 or S./10, 90 minutes) to Ollantaytambo. Colectivo leaves when full, and often within 10-15 mins of waiting. These are nice vans.
There are 2 train operators from Ollantaytambo (www.perurail.com or www.incarail.com). Book online in advance as trains fill up quickly, especially the evening return train from Macchu Piccu to Ollantaytambo or Cuzco (don’t even think about walking up at last minute to get these return tickets).
When booking your trains, remember that Aguas Calientes is a small town at the base of Machu Picchu and where the Machu Picchu train station is. This is also where you can spend the night cheaply as sleeping at Machu Picchu itself will drop you (US$700/night). Not much in Aguas Calientes, but do spend the afternoon walking around and enjoy a dip in the hot springs (US$4 or S./10).
Step 4 – Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu entrance – From Aguas Calientes you have to take a short 20 mins bus ride, through multiple scenic switchbacks up to Machu Picchu. The fit can hike up for free in about 2 hrs., but not recommended as you should save your energy for Machu Picchu itself. Bus runs 5:30am – 5:30pm, at 10 mins interval depending on demand, and tickets (US $12 each way, US$24 foreign adult round-trip) are available from a small ticket booth near the bus departure area near Plazaa Principal (center of town, opens at 5:15am). Machu Picchu entrance opens from 6am-6pm but the last return bus from Machu Picchu leaves at 5:30PM (don’t miss it!)
Step 5 – Getting your tickets to Machu Picchu – Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate and MUST BE BOOKED IN ADVANCE. Advance ticketing are available from the official government website (www.machupicchu.gob.pe), various ticket offices noted on that website, travel agency, most hostels, or from Aguas Calientes Cultural Center (5:15AM-9PM at Plazaa Principal), or in Cusco at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INC).
General entrance (US$50 or S./152) are limited to 2500/day, with entrance to Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Montana (US$60 or S./200, hikes to the top 2 peaks of Machu Picchu) being sub limited to 400/day. Book early as Huayna Picchu often filled 2 wks. in advance. The Government Site lists how many tickets are still available for each day. There are discounts for children, students with an ISIC card, and Peruvian nationals. Tickets are valid only for 1 day so you will have to buy a new one if you want to see Machu Picchu a 2nd day. Be sure to bring your ORIGINAL PASSPORT, as it is requested upon entry.
As of October 6, 2012 the online site is NOT accepting foreign credit cards. You must go through a travel agency or hotel in Peru or pay at any Banco de la Nacion, otherwise your reservation will expire within 6 hours and you will lose your spot. For those with limited time in Peru and want to secure tickets in advance (especially for Huayna Picchu), try www.ticket-machupicchu.com. They charge a minor 20% mark up, you can pay with your foreign credit cards, and print your tickets.
Step 6 – Enjoying Machu Picchu and the Return Trip – You can see all of Machu Picchu in about 5-8 hrs depending on how fast you walk and whether you do the Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Montana hike (2-3 hrs round trip). Below are some useful tips.
- Best view of Machu Picchu is at sunrise (6-6:30am). Stay in Aguas Calientes the night before and be on the 1st few bus up to Machu Picchu. Book your bus ticket the day before and arrive at bus station around 5am as long lines will form.
- Do the Huayna Picchu 10-11am option. Spend the scenic morning time taking photos/touring Machu Picchu, then hike up Huayna Picchu for a lunch stop up top.
- Machu Picchu Montana is a longer hike than Huayna Picchu but a good alternative if you can’t get the Huayna Picchu tickets.
- Only small packs (less than 20 liters) are allowed in the park, luggage storage available at the entrance. Sunscreens, a hat, and water are must bring.
- Food at Machu Picchu is expensive (US$11 for a burger). Buy food/water from Aguas Calientes and hope it doesn’t get confiscated at the entrance.
- Allow enough time to catch the bus and your return train. Remember that return trains are often full, so if you miss it, you likely have to stay overnight.
- If you do the return train to Ollantaytambo, there would be many Colectivo vans (S./10) waiting for you to take you back to Cuzco (even if you get there at 8:30pm, but likely not at 11pm)
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