Planning Machu Picchu

Hi again! After spending two days in Cusco, we traveled to our next destination: Aguas Calientes. This portion of the trip revolved around visiting a World Wonder: Machu Picchu. I want to take some time to focus on the logistics of planning this part of the trip since there were a lot of steps involved.

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Before sunrise at Machu Picchu

First, when in Cusco, you’ll notice a lot of tour agencies offering day trips to Machu Picchu. Please trust me that this is not worth it. You should at least be staying 1 (if not 2) nights in Aguas Calientes to ensure you have the most time at Machu Picchu without feeling rushed.

Transportation from Cusco to Aguas Calientes

There are two main train operators running from Cusco to Aguas Calientes: Peru Rail & Inca Rail. We decided to book with Inca Rail, mostly because the times worked better for our schedules, however, they both seemed similar in quality and price from comparing them online.

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From our experience with Inca Rail, they have 3 levels of classes but the least expensive is “The Voyager” (which is what we purchased). From Cusco, they offer what is called a bimodal service where you travel by bus for 2 hours and the other 1.5 by train. The bus stops in Ollantaytambo, part of the Sacred Valley, where you are able to follow staff to catch the train. The process is fairly seamless since they are directing you each step of the way. On the train, they typically serve a hot drink (and occasionally a meal depending on the time of day). The views of the countryside are great! (Beware that even the lowest level class & bimodal service will cost between $200-$300 per person round trip depending on the time of year).

Accommodation in Aguas Calientes

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Gringo Bills

Like I mentioned before, a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco will feel too rushed. We recommend staying in Aguas Calientes (at least a night, if not two) so you are able to make the most of your experience. We found and booked our hotel through Airbnb: Gringo Bills. Less than a minute walk to the central square, and 3-minutes to where the bus departs from, you really can’t go wrong with the location. (Aguas Calientes is so small that probably any place you pick will give you access to downtown). Breakfast was included each morning and the concierge at the front desk was very helpful. The one downside about this would be the number of stairs you have to climb to get to your room (no elevator). For the price (and the view), we felt this was definitely worth it!

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View from our balcony

Machu Picchu Tickets

The key to any successful visit to a popular tourist attraction is to purchase your tickets in advance. It is crucial to buy your tickets for Machu Picchu in advance (especially during peak season) since they only allow a limited number of travelers in for each time slot. To purchase tickets online, click here. Typically entrance to Machu Picchu is around ~$50 if you are non-native to Peru. You will need to submit your passport information to buy a ticket.

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What. A. View.

There are also two mountains to hike at Machu Picchu: Huayna Picchu & Machu Picchu. The first is the taller of the two and not for the faint of heart (paths are very narrow and on the edge of the mountain). Machu Picchu is the shorter of the two and easier for those who are not comfortable with long hikes. (We did not hike either of these, but rather to the Sun Gate – which is included in your ticket). If you have any interest in hiking one of the mountains, you will need to pre-book that type of ticket ahead of time (roughly an additional $15-$20 on top of the entrance ticket price).

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View from the Sun Gate. (See if you can spot the tiny ruins of Machu Picchu!)

Bus Tickets 

Some people prefer to make the 2-3 hour trek to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes on foot but we decided to save our energy for while we were there. The only alternative to hiking is taking the bus. There is only one bus company that runs the route from the town up to Machu Picchu and back. It’s about 30-40 minutes each way but totally worth it if you’re planning to spend the whole day at the ruins. Tickets cost ~$24 round trip (or ~$12 one way) and can be purchased at the store in Aguas Calientes on Hermanos Ayar Avenue.  (Be prepared to present your Machu Picchu tickets and passport).

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The tiny street you can find the office for bus tickets

Timing

One of my biggest tips for planning a trip to Machu Picchu is to buy tickets for the 6am entrance. I know it sounds crazy but, hear me out:

  • Fewer people: A lot of travelers are just coming for one day and they are taking the train from Cusco – which means around 10am, it gets a lot more crowded! This gives you a solid 4 hours before the real crowds start rolling in.
  • Beautiful photos: This sort of goes hand in hand with the first point: if you are the first group up to Machu Picchu at 6am, then you are sharing an incredible view with only a small bus of others. No one is walking down in the ruins yet (since it takes a while to get down there and you are the first ones through the gate). This means your pictures are absolutely postcard-worthy.
  • Catch the sunrise: Although I wouldn’t say particularly that sunrise or even sunset is necessary for a visit to Machu Picchu, it was fantastic to watch the mountains transform before your eyes as the sky grows lighter. (It was practically night when we first drove up – I could just barely make out the outline of the mountains).  When we first arrived, it was still fairly gray and dark. Eventually, the sun made it’s way fully up and we saw Machu Picchu both at dawn and completely drenched in sunshine! Such a win-win.
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Some friends soaking up the sun
  • Spend the whole day: Although technically the website says that if you have a morning ticket you should be out by noon to make room for the afternoon people – honestly, no one is enforcing it. They say it takes 4 hours to do the loop from start to finish but we spent over 8+ hours exploring Machu Picchu! It was great to be able to take our time and not feel rushed. Keep in mind there is one loop you can take through Machu Picchu and once you cross a certain point, they won’t let you get back to others (stay tuned for more on this).
  • Avoid the long bus line: When we returned from Machu Picchu back to Aguas Calientes around 3:00pm, we couldn’t believe how long the line for the bus was! It had to be hundreds of people long and stretched along the entire street. (These people were hardly going to have any time at Machu Picchu by the time they got on the bus and up the hill).

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The line for Machu Picchu bus. (Busses are in far left of the picture and the end of the line isn’t even shown!)

As a disclaimer – we did have a long line to wait in at the end of our time at Machu Picchu. We waited around 45 mins to an hour to catch our ride down. A good tip would to have someone in your group / couple get stamps on everyone’s passports near the exit of Machu Picchu, while the others hold the spots in line. It seems like the long line on the return bus ride home is inevitable, but if you’re anything like us, you’ll be able to take a nice nap on your way down the mountain.

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If you decide to purchase 6am tickets, your pre-purchased bus ticket does not delegate a time so you’ll want to line up early regardless. We woke up at 3:30am and were waiting in line by 4. The first bus departs at 5:30am to get you up to the mountain in time for entrance. If you find yourself visiting Machu Picchu during peak season, you may want to line up even earlier! The good news is that some local women walk around selling hot tea, coffee, and sandwiches for you to enjoy while waiting in line.

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There are very few things I will wake up at 3:30am for, and Machu Picchu is one of them. I cannot stress enough how truly great it is to catch this world wonder at dawn. It was definitely one of the best days of our entire trip and an adventure we will never forget.

Stay tuned for some more posts about our time in Peru!

Hasta luego, Amanda


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