Step by Step guide to creating your own Machu Picchu Trip
Visiting Machu Picchu with the mandatory times, train times, bus departures etc…did not become easier but not everyone wants to pay a travel agent to make sure you visit Machu Picchu in the best way possible. For the intrepid travelers among us, following a 10 step guide to follow to make sure you make the most out of your time at Machu Picchu.
- Pick a Date
A lot of travelers in Peru follow a rough schedule for their trip but nothing is set in stone. For Machu Picchu it is best to make an exception as you will need to purchase your tickets in advance. Once purchased these are kind of complicated and expensive to change. Therefore at the earliest time fit, try to figure out what dates you would like to do Machu Picchu and organize your schedule around this.
- Decide on the number of days for your visit
It is also important to know in advance how many days or how in depth you would like your visit to be. Keep in mind that you have a 4 hour window to visit the site from the time on your ticket. The mandatory route takes about 2.5 hours to complete and on the end of this route you will be taken to the exit. For most people this is enough to get a good idea of the site and history but some people prefer to get some more background and even more people are interested in hiking either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. These people may want to consider a two day visit. The hikes are only allowed in the morning and some of the temples only open during certain hours. Be doing a two day visit you can make sure to cover bases.
- Train or Hike to Machu Picchu
The next thing you have to decide is your mode of transport. Machu Picchu can be reached in two ways; either by train or on foot. If you decide to go by train make sure that your trains lines up with your dates foreseen for Machu Picchu. Tickets can be changed later on but a fee is charged. For a two day visit you can take a late morning train there and an early afternoon train back and for a one day visit you can take an early morning train and late afternoon return train. If you decide to hike to Machu Picchu you have three options; the classic 4 day Inca Trail, the short 2 day Inca Trail or the Salkantay Hike. The Salkantay Hike arrives to Machu Picchu via Santa Teresa which is the so-called back road to get to Aguas Calientes. The first two hikes can only be done with a licensed hiking operator and for the last one it is recommended to use a professional operator.
- Get your entrance tickets
Once you have your train times set you can look for your Machu Picchu entrance tickets. The entrance tickets for Machu Picchu have to be booked for certain fixed times and therefore it is best to book these based on your train times. For most time slots there are sufficient spaces available so you can choose these based on your train times. The only exception would be for those looking to trek Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. There are only two time slots for both hikes and these sell out for most of the year. Therefore chances are that if you are looking to hike Huayna Picchu you will have to organize your Machu Picchu trip (dates, trains, entrance tickets) around this activity. In this case another option may be to take an evening train to Aguas Calientes and spend the night here so that the next day you can head up in time for your hiking window. Keep in mind that you need to count for about 1.5-2 hours between your time of arrival to Aguas Calientes and the time of your entrance ticket. For the return journey, you have to make sure to be at the Machu Picchu bus station about 2 hours before your train departure. If you are hiking your entrance tickets will be included with the hike so the times will be coordinated by the operator. Entrance tickets can be purchased directly on the Government site; (https://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/)
- To bus or not to bus
The final leg of physically getting to Machu Picchu is from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the site. There are two ways to cover this leg; by the official Machu Picchu buses or walking. The walk is not very nice and takes about 2 hours. The bus is overpriced and not very well organized but still the best option. A whopping US$24 per person will get you to the site and back. The drive is quite spectacular with a dozen switchbacks or so and takes about 40 minutes. Tickets for the bus can be obtained in advance on the Consettur website (http://consettur.com/reservas/ but their system does fail at times. They also have an office in Cusco and of course the ticket office in Aguas Calientes. During the high season (May through October) you may want to get the tickets in advance as there can be a line on the day itself. If you buy the tickets the day itself it is advised to have cash as the payment system with cards in Aguas Calientes at times does not work.
- Where to sleep
For those looking at a two day trip to Machu Picchu or those doing a one day but with Huayna Picchu, the next step would be to find a place to lay your head at night. Aguas Calientes is a town where almost all beds are for rent and even the smallest space is enough for some people to start a ho(s)tel. There is no shortage of accommodations but the good ones or the ones that provide good value for money will book full for most nights of the year. Due to the overall lack of space of Aguas Calientes, rooms tend to be smaller here than in the rest of Peru and hotel prices go up with quite a bit. This means the early bookers get the best hotels and deals. Therefore if you want any of the popular ones on Booking.com and Expedia.com it is wise to book some time in advance. As most visitors have their dates for Machu Picchu fixed there is not much argument not to make prior reservations. You can risk getting to Aguas Calientes without prior reservations and with a bit of negotiating skill get a better room rate but I do not feel it is worth the potential savings. If you would be shopping around, make sure you see the room before accepting. Also make sure that there are no hidden costs (towels, WiFi, breakfast, private/shared bathrooms, etc…) but you may also want to check this when booking through one of the large websites. (https://satoperu.com/machu-picchu-hotels/)
- Arrange your night after Machu Picchu
The distance between Cusco and Machu Picchu is not that much, about 110km (70mi) but the travel time with the waiting time, change of vehicles and traffic it can take up to 5 hours to cover the distance. Therefore it is wise to either in the way there or the way back and if you have the time, both ways, add a day or so in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Not only is the Sacred Valley an amazing destination in itself, it also has some amazing villages, impressive Inca sites, great weather, lower altitude and nicer outdoor hotels that make this a obligatory stop for all visiting the region. Ollantaytambo is one of my favorites and has some good hotels, nice restaurants, a large Inca site and quaint town center that make it a great place to stay. The train station is also located just outside town so you won’t need any long transfers from Cusco or anything either.
- Organize your train station transportation
Unless you would be departing and arriving by train in Cusco, you will also need to get to the train station of the specific station you have your tickets for. All stations can be reached with public transport which is very cheap but takes quite some time. For Ollantaytambo you should count for about 2.5-4 hours depending on the type of vehicle (mini van, large bus, etc…). Poroy is closer by but still counts for 1 hour from Cusco. For the return trip to Cusco it is best not to count on public transportation but there are a lot of buses with spaces to be found at the train stations themselves. The cost to Cusco is around US$5 -10 per person (depending on the vehicle) from Ollantaytambo. You can also arrange for private transportation to collect you from the train station or hotel. There are several companies but one recommended one with offices in the Sacred Valley is Alo Urubamba (http://alo-urubamba.com/contactos/. Prices start around US$30 for a private car to Cusco.
- Organize the final details
Once you have all reservations made, tickets in hand and times clear, we can start thinking on the final details such as a guide or not, what to eat and what to bring. With the new rules and mandatory circuits it makes sense to hire a guide. You can hire a guide in advance through an agency or at the site itself as they will present themselves. All guides at the entrance have official guiding licences but for their language skills one will have to interview them quickly. Prices are agreed upon there and are around US$50-60 per group for a 2-3 hour private guided tour. Do not join groups at the last moment as you do not want to get stuck in a group that guides in two languages. If you prefer not having a guide this is not an issue and so far it is still allowed to visit the site without a guide. Aguas Calientes is an expensive town where everything has to come by train. It is no surprise that this surcharge is also felt in the food prices which are slightly higher than in other destinations. This being said, on Avenida Pachacutec, the main pedestrian street, one can find a lot of cheaper restaurants. These will first show you the normal menu but when asked for the fixed menu they will provide you with options for 15-20 Soles (US$5-10) for a starter, a main course, and dessert. These restaurants come and go so the best reference is the number of people eating and the plates you can see on their tables. There are also some good bakeries around where you can get some bread or pastry and even pre-made sandwiches for a nice picnic in town. Good slightly more expensive options are the El MaPi Hotel restaurant, El Indio Feliz, Toto’s House and the Sumaq Hotel restaurant. Finally; what to bring and what not to bring? Do not forget the following; hat, sun block, insect repellent, sun glasses, camera, original passport, entrance tickets, water, snacks and a rain jacket or windbreaker. Do not bring; professional cameras, large backpacks, walking sticks without protected tip, umbrellas, selfie sticks, alcohol, lots of food, drones or tripods.
Finally, the moment is there! Machu Picchu, you just went through 9 steps to make sure that you have the ideal visit and now it is time to enjoy your visit to this marvel of the Andes. Quickly go over your checklist the night before, have your backpack ready, the alarm set (take into consideration the time to walk to the bus station in the morning), a good breakfast in the morning (breakfast service at most hotels in Machu Picchu start as early as 4.00am) and you are good to go. By the end of your visit make sure to start coming back down to Aguas Calientes about 2 hours before the departure time of your train. Bus lines to come back down can at times be long and in the high season you may want to add another hour to this. By the end of the day you will be sitting in your plush train seats and accompanied by the rhythmic sound of the train and the memories of your visit to majestic Machu Picchu.