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THE THREE BEST WAYS TO GET TO MACHU PICCHU IN 2021

This is the ultimate highlight of many people's trips to South America. Visiting the marvellous citadel of the Incas, hidden amongst misty valleys and set high above the clouds, truly feels like you are walking back through time. Trying to get there and organise tickets however, isn’t such a magical experience. We’ve laid out the three different ways clearly for you, so you can plan easily and make your trip as stress-free as possible.

THE THREE BEST WAYS OF GETTING TO MACHU PICCHU

Here are three best ways of getting to Machu Picchu:

 

  • Fastest – Train from Cusco To Aguas Calientes
  • Cheapest – Bus to Hidroelectrica then 3 hours walk to Aguas Calientes
  • Adventurous – Trekking (either the Salkantay Trek, Inca Trail or one of the many others on offer)
methodCostTimeAdvantagesDisadvantages
Train$130-$210*3 hours 50 minutes (one way)• Fastest route

• More scenic than the bus with great views of the Sacred Valley on the journey

• Goes all the way to Aguas Calientes
• Most expensive

• Due to corona virus pandemic, trains are only running half way
Bus$20-$30**7-8 hours one way to Hidroelectrica + 2-3 hour walk• Cheapest option• Only takes you to Hidroelectrica

• 3-hour walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes

• Long journey

• Less scenic route than the train
Salkantay Trek$2105 Day Trek• Amazing 5-day trek where you also see other beautiful sights such as Humantay Lake

• Great value for money and Machu Picchu ticket price included

• Get the earliest ticket (6AM) and get to Machu Picchu for sunrise
• Not everyone has the time for a 5-day trek

• Tough on the legs

*prices vary depending on the company and on which carriage class you choose

**from Poroy station in Cusco. Due to coronavirus restrictions, the first part from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is via bus but takes the same amount of time.

HOW TO GET TO AGUAS CALIENTES FROM CUSCO

Before reaching Machu Picchu, you first must get to the nearest town of Aguas Calientes, 93km north-west of Cusco.

 

Most people tend to travel here first, spend a minimum of one night and then climb up to the ancient grounds in the morning. You then have the choice of returning to Cusco that day or staying another night and leaving in the morning.

 

With the three ways of reaching the town, the entire process of booking transport and tickets can be somewhat confusing. We’ve broken down each method of getting there in more detail below, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each one.

How To Get To Aguas Calientes By Bus

Shuttle buses now run from Cusco to the tiny town (more like a row of restaurants) of Hidroelectrica, the final train stop before the village of Aguas Calientes.

 

These buses cost around $12 one way/$24-30 return depending on how and who you book with. Your best option is to book through your hostel or hotel. Buses start at 8:30AM and leave from Plaza De Armas.

 

This is the cheapest option available unless you want to go cheaper and take public transport, but we wouldn’t recommend that as it will be even slower.

 

The main downside of getting to Machu Picchu this way is that it takes a long time. The bus can take anywhere between 7 and 8 hours, and still only drops you at Hidroelectrica. From here, you then have to walk 2-3 hours along the train tracks to get to Aguas Calientes.

 

This isn’t the most enjoyable walk as there is no path, so you’re walking over sharp, uneven rocks. Make sure you are wearing your hiking boots for this part of the journey. If you are returning by bus, you will need to walk the same route the other way.

 

So, in total, the journey takes between 9-11 hours just to reach Aguas Calientes.

 

You won’t be able to visit Machu Picchu on the day you arrive as it will be too late.

Suggested Itinerary For Taking The Bus To Aguas Calientes & Visiting Machu Picchu

We understand that making your money last as long as possible is essential for backpackers, so this will be the most popular route as it’s the cheapest.

 

Here’s a suggested itinerary to make the journey a little easier and the whole experience as stress-free as possible. We think its best to stay 2 days in Agua Calientes, so you don’t have to rush back from Machu Picchu to Cusco.

Day 1 - Bus From Cusco To Aguas Calientes
  • 8:30AM – Take the earliest bus possible to Hidroelectrica
  • 4:30PM – Have late lunch or a snack break at Hidroelectrica before walking to Aguas Calientes
  • 6:30PM – arrive at Aguas Calientes/check-in/dinner
Day 2 - Visit Machu Picchu

This day depends on the time you book your Machu Picchu entry for.

 

We think a late morning ticket (8-10 AM) is good to allow you to have some breakfast before making your way up to the site but getting a 6AM entry is also great for sunrise.

 

The maximum time allowed at the site is 4 hours so you can spend the rest of the day in Aguas Calientes, visit the Machu Picchu museum, enjoy the spectacle of the towering mountains covered in mist and rest those weary legs.

Day 3 - Return To Cusco
  • Have breakfast at your hotel or hostel
  • 9AM – Leave and walk along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica in the morning
  • 12PM – Take the shuttle bus back to Cusco
  • 8PM – Arrive back in Cusco

The earlier you get up and start the walk, the quicker you will return to Cusco.

 

The last buses from Hidroelectrica leave at around 3PM. If you have booked a return bus ticket already then plan your day around the time you have booked for.

 

If you want to do it in two days instead of three, then book the earliest entry to Machu Picchu (6AM), make sure you are back down to Aguas Calientes by 9AM, meaning you will reach Hidroelectrica for around noon.

 

If you want to see how visiting Machu Picchu fits in with Cusco, check out our 5-day itinerary for both here.

How To Get To Aguas Calientes By Train

We’ve covered booking and taking the train to Machu Picchu in a separate post because it is also another complicated endeavour with two different companies and several ticket options on offer.

 

For a brief rundown:

 

The cheapest train option is to go with Peru Rail in the ‘Expedition carriage’ which costs between $130 – $160 for a round trip.

 

With current coronavirus measures, the first part of the train journey is now done by bus. You get a mini-bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and then take the train to Aguas Calientes – the same is on offer when returning from Machu Picchu.

 

The journey takes the same amount of time as the train would usually (just under 4 hours).

 

The best part about taking the train is that it goes through the Sacred Valley; you’ll have incredible views the entire way. You also save a significant amount of time compared to the bus, and the journey is far more comfortable.

 

However, it is an expensive mode of transport and will make a dent in your budget. It also seems like a lot to spend now that a mini-bus takes you half the way.

Suggested Itinerary For Taking The Train To Aguas Calientes & Visiting Machu Picchu

You can visit Machu Picchu and return to Cusco all in one day with the train. However, we still recommend taking 2 days/1 night, so you aren’t rushing.

 

Here’s a breakdown of the itinerary:

Day 1 - Train From Cusco To Aguas Calientes
  • Breakfast in Cusco
  • Take a mid-morning train to Aguas Calientes
  • Visit the market or the Machu Picchu Museum in Aguas Calientes followed by a meal overlooking the Urubamba River
  • Have an early night.
Day 2 - Visit Machu Picchu
  • Wake up at 4AM and climb the stairs to Machu Picchu for sunrise
  • If you don’t want to climb the stairs, you can take the bus to the top
  • Spend a few hours touring the site
  • Walk down the stairs and return to Aguas Calientes (again the bus is an option)
  • Leisurely lunch followed by an afternoon train back to Cusco

If taking the train to Machu Picchu is high on your bucket list, but you want to try and save money, then you can always get the bus back.

 

If you get the 6AM ticket into Machu Picchu, then you can do what we suggested above, and walk back down to Aguas Calientes, then Hidroelectrica before taking the shuttle bus back to Cusco.

 

The cheapest one-way ticket by train is on the ‘Expedition’ carriage ($60), and a bus ticket is $12, so this option would cost you $72 in total.

 

Alternatively, if you are looking to visit Machu Picchu in one day, then you can take the earliest train to Aguas Calientes, take a bus up to the Machu Picchu from town and back again, and then hop on a train back to Cusco.

 

If you want a more detailed rundown of the how to visit Machu Picchu in one day then it’s covered in our train post.

How To Get To Aguas Calientes Via The Salkantay Trek

This final option isn’t necessarily a mode of transport, but it gets you to Machu Picchu all the same.

 

We completed the Salkantay trek in January 2020 so can give you our views on that, but there are also other treks such as the Inca Trail. The full breakdown of the Salkantay Trek itinerary and what to expect can be found here for more detail, but for now, here’s a brief rundown.

 

If you book the Salkantay Trek with a company like Machu Picchu Expeditions, then here’s what will happen:

 

 

  • Day 1 – Pick up from Cusco at 5AM, trek to Humantay Lake
  • Day 2 – Full day trekking the Salkantay Pass
  • Day 3 – Half day trek in the morning/evening spent at thermal baths
  • Day 4 – Full day trek up Llactapata Mountain, then to Hidroelectrica, then to Aguas Calientes
  • Day 5 – 4AM wake up, 6AM entry to Machu Picchu, trek back to Hidroelectrica, bus back to Cusco

 

One of the benefits of doing it this way is that your Machu Picchu ticket ($50) is included in the price of the whole trek.

 

So, you get 5 days of guided trekking, 4 nights of accommodation and 3 meals a day plus the entrance fee for $210. This is a fantastic deal.

 

You are also always guaranteed the 6AM entry to Machu Picchu which means you get to see it as sunrise if you are lucky with the weather. You will also miss most of the crowds which is ideal as it gets incredibly busy by the late morning.

 

The downside is that 5 days of trekking is tough on the legs and you will have to deal with altitudes of 4000m and above. Day 4 of the Salkantay Trek is close to 30km of walking and hard work. The final push from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes (same journey if you take the bus) was both a mental and physical challenge.

 

Even so, we loved the Salkantay Trek, and it was one of the best things we have done whilst on our travels.

 

If you love hiking, then this is the route for you. If anything, longer than a one-day trek makes you want to be sick then bus or train it is.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT MACHU PICCHU?

Peru has two distinct seasons: the rainy season and the dry season.  The rainy season is from November to April and the dry season is May to October.

 

June, July and August are the busiest months and also the wettest. If you can avoid these months, that would be best. 

 

The optimal time to visit is September to October or April to May as these are shoulder seasons meaning rainfall is low, and tourists are fewer. 

 

That being said, you can never predict the weather, and you also can’t let it dictate your trip, so don’t worry too much about it. We visited in January and had a beautifully clear and sunny day whilst visiting.

HOW MUCH IS THE ENTRANCE TICKET TO MACHU PICCHU?

Entrance to Machu Picchu costs £40 ($50) when booked on the official government website.

 

There are ticket resellers who inflate the price, so if you want the cheapest price book directly. It’s not complicated, but you may need to turn your google page translate on depending on your Spanish.

 

You will receive confirmation and the tickets via email. You will need the physical ticket to enter so print this out before you visit. If you’re already in Peru, ask your hostel kindly, and they should print it for you.

GETTING FROM AGUAS CALIENTES TO MACHU PICCHU

If you’ve decided to go on the bus or the train, then the final part of the trip is planning how to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. This is straightforward; all you need to decide is whether to walk the stairs up the mountain or take the bus.

Taking The Shuttle Bus From Aguas Calientes To Machu Picchu

If planning to take the bus, there’s no need to reserve in advance; you can buy a ticket on the day. The bus costs c.£8 ($12) each way. The buses are frequent, and it takes around 10-15 minutes.

 

This will be the fastest option for reaching the top and getting in at 6AM on the dot. You should be one of the first in and be able to get some photos with the place completely empty.

Walking From Aguas Calientes To Machu Picchu

The stairs, of course, are free. The climb is challenging but rewarding, and the views on the way up are spectacular.

 

It’s over 1,000 stairs and will take between 1-1.30 hours.

 

The entrance gate where you show your Machu Picchu ticket is a 20 minute walk from Aguas Calientes. Once here, you will need to show your ticket and your passport. Then the stairs are a 5 minute walk from the entrance. For the first half an hour the stairs will cut across the roads that the buses take and then for the final push it is all stairwell.

 

Bring lots of water and positive energy as it’s hot and incredibly steep!

MACHU PICCHU OPENING & CLOSING TIMES

The first entrance into Machu Picchu is 6AM.

 

People usually start queuing at 5AM if they are walking up the stairs, but the gate won’t open until 6AM. If you want to avoid crowds and reach the top for sunrise, then we recommend queuing this early to be one of the first up there.

 

You’re likely to spend 2-3 hours wandering around the site. They operate a one-way system so once you’ve reached the end, you’ll exit and won’t be allowed back in. This ensures that people don’t spend all day there. 

 

Last entrance is at 2 PM.

 

There’s lots of debate about which time is best to visit. We’ve only visited in the morning so can’t speak for the afternoon but here are our thoughts:

 

  • Climbing the stairs in the morning is better as it’s cool. The afternoon hike up the stairs will leave you sweaty
  • The afternoon could be scorching while touring the site in the midday heat
  • The early morning allows you to be one of the first people in the grounds
  • Visiting in the morning will enable you to return to Cusco in the afternoon
  • The early morning enables you to catch the magical sunrise (weather permitting)
  • The afternoon may be busier as more people entered before you
  • The afternoon may be quieter towards the end as people start to leave

WHAT TO PACK AND WEAR FOR MACHU PICCHU

If you are climbing up then wear loose, comfortable clothing as you will be sweating by the time you reach the top. We went in shorts and a t-shirt. Just make sure to bring a warm jumper or jacket for at the top. Once you stop moving you will be cold, especially if you are up early for the sunrise. Also pack a waterproof in case it rains. There’s no cover at the top from the rain. 

 

Our Salkantay Packing Guide & Essential Items will have some more recommendations for preparing for the Andean weather

What To Bring

  • Passport – you can’t enter without it
  • Printed Ticket – also can’t enter without this
  • Sunscreen/ Hat – there’s hardly any shade at the top of the mountain
  • Rain jacket – the weather in the valley can change quickly so always come prepared
  • Snacks – just avoid bringing lots of things in plastic wrapping
  • Water
  • Money – spare change in Soles for the toilets and Machu Picchu stamp
  • Mosquito Spray – mosquitoes will be present at the top of the Machu Picchu and Huyana Picchu Mountain if you’re visiting. And the walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, as well as in the town so come prepared, especially if its wet season as there will be more mosquitoes
  • Walking boots – the walk along the train tracks is easier if you have sturdy boots, and the steps up to Machu Picchu can be uneven and slippery after rainfall

 

What Not To Bring

  • Alcohol 
  • Food – this one isn’t a hard rule but just ensure you don’t litter when you’re in the site, for obvious reasons
  • Selfie Sticks
  • Camera tripods – this feels harsh, but ultimately there’s not a lot of room in the site with all the people. If you’ve got a tripod, you’re commanding quite a large area and most likely taking a lot of time.
  • Drones
  • Large backpacks – only a daypack size is acceptable

CLIMBING MACHU PICCHU MOUNTAIN & HUAYNA PICCHU

If you’re feeling up to it, there’s the option to visit Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu; the two famous mountains either side of the ancient ruins.

 

The combined ticket costs £55 ($65) for adults and £35 ($40) for students.

 

Tickets for the mountains MUST be purchased in combination with your Machu Picchu ticket.

 

There are only three entrance times for the mountains:

 

  • Machu Picchu – 6AM + Machu Picchu Mountain – 7AM – 8AM
  • Machu Picchu – 7AM + Machu Picchu Mountain – 7AM – 8AM
  • Machu Picchu – 8AM + Machu Picchu Mountain 10AM – 11AM

You must enter within the hour on your ticket. If you have a 7AM-8AM ticket and try to enter at 8:30 AM, it’s unlikely they’ll let you up.

 

There’s a limit of 400 people visiting each mountain per day split in two groups of 200.

Machu Picchu Mountain: What To Expect

The climb is long but not too steep. It took us around 1.5 hours to get to the top and 1 hour to get down. It was exhausting especially after climbing the stairs from Aguas Calientes.

 

The mountain is 3,082m (10,111 ft) above sea level which is higher than Huyana Picchu (2,720m) and the Machu Picchu site (2,420m). The views from the top are incredible if it’s a clear day. You’ll be able to see the snow-capped Salkantay mountain and the Choquequirao region. But, I repeat, only if it’s a clear day which is by no means guaranteed.

 

It’s a fantastic place to chill and take in the views below especially if there’s clearing cloud cover over Machu Picchu.

 

Bring mosquito spray as they are relentless up the top.

Huayna Picchu: What To Expect

Huayna is more sort after as there are more Inca structures at the top. You can also walk all the way around for different perspectives of the surrounding area. 

 

The hike to the top takes 50 minutes. It’s steep and narrow. There’s not a lot of space at the top, and it can feel crowded. 

 

All prices and times as of October 2020.

For everything you need to know about Cusco, check out our city guide. 

 

 

And also check out our lists of favourite hostels, bars/clubs and our favourite places to eat. 

 

 

Or if you need some overall Peru planning advice then our 1 month itinerary is a great place to start.

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