Getting to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu Guide

 

(Peru Highlights - Category: Best Destination & Best Historical Site  - Editors Pick)

 

 

*** Important: In the last couple of years the government has limited the number of visitors to Machu Picchu to just 2500 people per day. Tickets are no longer on sale at the entrance to Machu Picchu so to avoid disappointment it is essential that visitors purchase their Machu Picchu entrance tickets in advance either in Cusco (still ok during the low season) or much further in advance (during the high seaon June, July & August) either online directly with the government or authorized ticket agent or by booking a package tour. In 2014 there were a couple of weeks in August when the entrance tickets sold out 3 or 4 days in advance so visitors who arrived in Cusco hoping to buy tickets to visit Machu Picchu for the following days were disappointed not to be able to obtain tickets (disappointed is putting it mildly!).

Names and passport numbers are needed in order to buy a ticket and these details are checked at the entrance to Machu Picchu and cannot be changed once the ticket has been issued. Therefore when the tickets have sold out they have really sold out. Companies can't buy up all the tickets with the intention of selling them on since they need real names and passport numbers to buy the tickets. There is no black market for entrance tickets since they cannot be resold or transferred to other people. As more people realise that it is important to buy their entrance tickets in advance more of them will be doing it and the tickets are likely to sell out even further in advance. Luckily now you know, so make sure it's not you who visits Peru but doesn't get to visit Machu Picchu. Details how and when to buy your tickets are included in summary below with links to pages with more detailed information. ***

 

 

 

Introduction to Machu Picchu

 

 

"Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to the eternal fusion with the cosmos; where we feel our fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America. A resting place of butterflies in the epicentre of the great circle of life. One more miracle." - Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Machu Picchu.

 

Located 120 km northwest of Cusco, the Inca city of Machu Picchu lay hidden from the world in dense jungle covered mountains until 1911. This 'Lost City' is one of the world's archaeological jewels and is one of South America's major travel destinations.

 

The well preserved ruins of Machu Picchu seem to almost cling to the steep hillside, surrounded by towering green mountains overlooking the Vilcanota River Valley. Even after having seen the classic photos of Machu Picchu in guide books & web sites you still cannot fail but to be impressed by the awe-inspiring location of the ruins.

When you read about its discovery and the unsolved mystery of its purpose and how it came to become 'lost to the world' you will realize why so many people make the pilgrimage to visit this fascinating and spiritual site.

 

With the right information, getting to Machu Picchu shouldn't be as much a mystery as the place itself. You can either book all the components of the trip independently yourself or you can buy a ready made package tour from one of hundreds of tour operators offering this service. However as Machu Picchu becomes more and more popular it is important to try and make your arrangements as far in advance as you can. During the peak season (June, July & August) there were several weeks in 2014 when the entrance tickets to Machu Picchu sold out more than a week in advance and many visitors who arrived thinking they could buy tickets on the door were turned away and never got to see Machu Picchu. There didn't seem to be so much of a problem in 2015 either because visitor numbers were down or visitors were better prepared. However imagine after spending so much money on your airfares and travelling half way across the world only to be turned away at the door to Machu Picchu because all the tickets had sold out !! Luckily, after reading this, that won't happen to you.

 

In order to plan your trip to Machu Picchu you have to understand a little bit about the geography of the area. Machu Picchu lay hidden from the world for such a long time because its location is fairly remote and inaccessible. Machu Picchu is located high up on a mountainside covered in dense vegetation overlooking the Vilcanota River. Nowadays a very steep and narrow zigzagging dirt track connects Machu Picchu with the nearest village of Aguas Calientes (Aguas Calientes literally means "Hot Waters" in Spanish and is so named because of the thermals baths that can be found there). Regular buses run the route between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu approximately every 15 minutes between 5am and 6pm. The 6km journey takes about 25 minutes. However the road between Aguas Calientes and the ruins of Machu Picchu is the only one ! there are no other roads connecting Aguas Calientes to rest of Peru but there is a railway running a frequent service between Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo (in the Sacred Valley) with some trains continuing to the village of Poroy (just outside Cusco). See the various options for getting to Machu Picchu below.

Options for getting to Machu Picchu

 

The first thing that you will notice from the map above is that the starting point of all routes to Machu Picchu is the city of Cusco, the historic capital of the Incas located about 120km to the south-east of Machu Picchu. Cusco is a beautiful and fascinating city and the perfect place to base yourself for a few days. The second thing you'll notice is that there are no direct roads between Cusco and Machu Picchu. There's a good paved road from Cusco to Ollantaytambo which is in the Sacred Valley but the river valley between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes (the town nearest to Machu Picchu) is so narrow and winding that there is only just enough room for a single line railway which hugs the edge of the fast flowing River Vilcanota and passes through several tunnels (it is prohibited to walk along the railway track for obvious reasons).  Therefore unless you plan to trek to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail then you will end up taking a combination of bus and train to Aguas Calientes and then take the short bus ride from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins at Machu Picchu.

 

Getting to Machu Picchu by Train

 

Visiting Machu Picchu by using a combination of bus and train from Cusco is, by far, the most popular method of transport. Around 80% of visitors use this method (60% taking the train from Ollantaytambo and 20% taking the train from Poroy, a station located just outside Cusco).

 

 

Train option 1: Train from Ollantaytambo Station (most popular method)

Take a bus or taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo Station in the Sacred Valley. 2 hours > Travel by train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. 1 hour 30 minutes > Take the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins of Machu Picchu. 25 minutes > Visit Machu Picchu > Return to Cusco by the same route.

 

Train option 2: Train from Poroy Station

Take a bus or taxi from Cusco to Poroy Station. 20 minutes > Travel by train from Poroy to Aguas Calientes. 3 hours 15 minutes > Take the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins of Machu Picchu. 25 minutes > Visit Machu Picchu > Return to Cusco by the same route.

 

If you plan to organize a trip to Machu Picchu yourself without buying a ready-made package from a tour operator then you will need to break down the booking process into its separate stages and tackle them one at a time.

1. Transport from Cusco to the train station (Ollantaytambo or Poroy) - can easily be arranged when in Cusco

2. Train tickets to Aguas Calientes (train station and town nearest to Machu Picchu) - you have to decide to do a day trip or spread the journey over 2 days (recommended) - book in advance

3. Hotel accommodation in Aguas Calientes (only necessary if staying the night and not required for day-trippers) - book in advance

4. Bus tickets from Aguas Calientes up to the Machu Picchu ruins (Shuttle Bus) - can be arranged in Cusco or Aguas Calientes

5. Entrance tickets to Machu Picchu - decide what type of entrance ticket you want - If you want just the standard Machu Picchu Only tickets we would recommend booking at least 3 days in advance during the high season. It is possible that they may sell out quicker so why risk waiting until you arrive in Cusco. We would recommend booking at least a few weeks in advance to avoid any problems. During the low season it may still be possible to buy your entrance tickets the day before you visit Machu Picchu. But, again, why risk waiting. If you want to buy the Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu combo ticket then you should really try to buy this ticket several months in advance to avoid disappointment.

 

 

>> Planning your tour to Machu Picchu by Train independently >>

 

 

 

 

Trekking to Machu Picchu

 

Trekking to Machu Picchu by road of trekking, bus and train (about 20% get there by some sort of trek. We estimate about 7% arrive by way of the 4 day Inca Trail, 2% via the shorter 2 day Inca Trail and 11% via the Santa Teresa route)

ALL of the treks to Machu Picchu below have to be booked through a tour operator. You cannot organize these treks on your own. The tour operator will therefore make all the arrangements to buy your trek permit (required for the Classic Inca Trail and the Short Inca Trail), your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu and your transport back to Cusco after the trek. The only thing you need to do is decide which trek you want to do, research a suitable tour operator and book your trek. Everything else is taken care of.

 

Trek option 1: Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu* (4 days).

You can't do this trek independently, you have to book it through a licensed Inca Trail operator. Trek permits have to be bought several months in advance. The tour involves:

Taking a bus from Cusco to the start of the trek at km82 (about 6 km beyond Ollantaytambo) > trekking from km82 to Machu Picchu (3 nights camping) > Visit Machu Picchu > Take the shuttle bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes > Travel by train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo Station > Take a bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco.

 

* This trek arrive at Machu Picchu by way of Inti Punku (Sun Gate) offering spectacular views of Machu Picchu weather permitting. The trail then descends to the Machu Picchu

 

Click here for more information about the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek

 

Trek option 2: Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu* (2 days):

Again this trek has to be organized with an authorized trekking company and trek permits have to be purchased several months in advance. The tour involves:

Taking a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo station > Travel by train Ollantaytambo to km104 > Trekking to Machu Picchu (you usually don't get the chance to visit Machu Picchu on this day) > Take the shuttle bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes (1 night in hotel in Aguas Calientes)  > Take the shuttle bus to Machu Picchu > Visit Machu Picchu > Take the shuttle bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes > Travel by train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo Station > Take a bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco.

 

* This trek arrive at Machu Picchu by way of Inti Punku (Sun Gate) offering spectacular views of Machu Picchu weather permitting. The trail then descends to the Machu Picchu

 

Click here for more information about the Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

 

 

Trek option 3. Santa Teresa Trek (5 days):

Bus from Cusco to Mollepata > trekking to Hidro-Electrica (Santa Teresa Valley) > Train from Hidro-Electrica to Aguas Calientes 40 mins > Bus Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu 20 minutes > Machu Picchu > Bus Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes 20 minutes > Train Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo 1 hour 30 minutes > bus/taxi Ollantaytambo back to Cusco 2 hours

 

 

 

Options for getting to Machu Picchu by road via Santa Maria & Santa Teresa (very few people take this route)

 

Road Combo option 1: Journey by road from Cusco to Santa Teresa via Santa Maria

This is a long, tiring and potentially dangerous bus ride from Cusco to Santa Maria and then either trekking to Aguas Calientes or taking the train from Hidro-Electrica. This journey is hardly worth considering unless (a) you are really really counting your pennies (b) you decide to mountain bike down much of the down hill section of road between Abra de Malaga and Santa Maria which is quite spectacular but still quite possible you will meet face to face with a large truck on the wrong side of the road during any of the numerous hairpin bends along the route (c) all Peru Rail train tickets have sold out and this really is your last hope of seeing Machu Picchu.

There are a number of travel agents in Cusco advertising Machu Picchu by private car - it's this route they are referring to. Good luck.

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