For many, going to Machu Picchu is a dream trip. It was for us. The idea of a lost city on a mountain in the clouds just seems too cool for words. And it is. But getting there is tricky. You cannot just fly there, there will be at least a few flights involved. Even something as simple as buying getting tickets is actually quite a complicated process. And there is actually no road to Machu Picchu. You’ll have to take a train from Cusco to a nearby town.
In short, there are a lot of steps involved. I can promise you that getting to Machu Picchu is unlike any travel logistics you are used to. Finding information on it can be tricky as well, and I saw a lot of conflicting reports about requirements involving luggage and guides before I went. So I’m putting together this article to answer some of the questions I had before we went to Machu Picchu, so hopefully you won’t be as confused as I was.
Part 1: Flights to Lima and Cusco
Let’s start at the beginning. The closest city to Machu Picchu is Cusco. Ultimately, you will need to fly there. But you won’t just be flying from the US into Cusco. First, you need to fly into Lima, which is the capital and by far the largest city in Peru.
Flights into Lima are almost always overnight flights. You are likely to leave at around 10:00 at night and arrive in Lima very early the next morning. From there you will need to take a separate flight to Cusco.
None of the major US airlines fly to Cusco, but sometimes they partner with local arilines so you can book everything together. In any case, you will be taking a local airline into Cusco. The first time I took Peruvian, which frankly I didn’t like much (seemed shoddy and there were delays and cancelations). The second time I took LATAM, which was much better. In fact, they coordinate with American, so you can book straight through.
When you are booking your flights, leave yourself at least 2 hours in Lima. The reason is that you will have to recheck your luggage and clear customs. This usually doesn’t take too long, but it does take some time. On my second trip to Peru, we cut it very close. Once you have got that squared away, you can go to your gate. Flights to Cusco last about an hour and a half.
Part 2: The Train to Machu Picchu (or Aguas Calientes)
So now you are in Cusco and you still need to get to Machu Picchu. First of all, there is no reason to rush straight to Machu Picchu. Cusco is an incredible city, and there is a lot to see and do. In fact, you might want to take several days to see Cusco and visit sites in the Sacred Valley. So while I’m going to skip over all this to get you to Machu Picchu, that is just because that is what this article is about, and not because you should rush it.
There is no road to Machu Picchu – you have to take a train. To get there straight from Cusco, you take the trail to Poroy Station, which is actually about 30-40 minutes outside of central Cusco.
I have a better option though. That is to make your way through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo, which is an actual Inca town and it has spectacular Inca ruins of its own. It is also quite historically significant, as it is the site of the only Spanish defeat (and death of one of the Pizarro brothers) at the hands of the Incas. You can take a cab there. You can also have a guide take you, which is what I recommend, because that way you can stop along the way and even have the guide take you through the ruins at Ollantaytambo.
In any event, the train between Cusco and Machu Picchu stops at Ollantaytambo. You can pick up the train there, so not only have you included some spectacular Inca sites in your trip, but you’ve shortened the train ride to Machu Picchu.
Part 3: Your Luggage
You will read a lot about the limitations on luggage on the train to Machu Picchu (or, more accurately, Aguas Calientes, but more about that in a second), but pay them no heed. Supposedly, luggage is limited to what you can fit underneath the seat in front of you. For this reason, on my first trip to Peru (where I visited Machu Picchu) I traveled only with a small backpack.
Because of this supposed limitation, most people leave their luggage at their hotel in Cusco. In fact, you’re likely to see a huge amount of luggage at your hotel in Cusco. When I was boarding the train, however, I saw many people with large suitcases. It turns out there were luggage compartments at the end of each car. You could definitely bring luggage on the train!
Still, it is, of course, better to pack light. And you will likely be going to Machu Picchu for only a day or two, and then returning to Cusco, so there is no reason you cannot leave the bulk of your luggage there.
Part 4: Staying In Aguas Calientes
You actually don’t take a train to Machu Picchu, you take the train to a town called Aguas Calientes. This is a town a the base of the mountain. The town sprung up to serve tourists and is of absolutely zero historical significance. Still, there are lots of restaurants and hotels there. I’d plan to come in the day before your visit to Macchu Piccu and stay overnight, catching one of the first buses up in the morning.
You may wonder if it is possible to stay on top of the mountain at Machu Picchu, instead of down in Aguas Calientes. The answer is yes, but it will cost you! There is one hotel named the Belmond Sanctuary hotel that is located just outside the gates of Machu Picchu. It is a very nice hotel, and it allows you to stay at Macchu Picchu, but you do not get any sort of special access to it. There is one huge drawback to this though, and it is that rooms cost $1000 a night! That’s not a typo, and while the hotel is quite nice, it is certainly not in the league of a Ritz Carlton. It is more like a four star hotel.
I took the approach of “if I’m going to Machu Picchu, then I’m going to Machu Picchu” and bit the bullet. We stayed at the Belmond. It was nice, but damn that was a lot of money. I’m glad I did it, but next time I will stay in Aguas Calientes.
Part 5: Tickets to Machu Picchu
Now comes the really hard part – getting tickets to Machu Picchu. You need to do this ahead of time, and it is complicated. Study this guide and use it to walk you through the process!
Since the Thrifty Nomads did such a good job walking you through the purchasing process, I’m not going to cover it again. Just follow the link above and follow all the steps. But I do want to give you some additional explanation of how this works.
One big thing you need to be aware of up front is that tickets to Machu Picchu are only good for half a day. Frankly, that is plenty of time to see the city ruins and such. However, there are some different hikes you can do within Machu Picchu, and two of them require special tickets (which sell out quickly, as they are limited to 400 people per day).
The first hike is to the top of Huyana Picchu, which is a moderately strenuous hike up a mountain that overlooks the city ruins. We did that hike, and it took a few hours and was definitely worth the effort. The average time to hike it is 3 hours (2 up, 1 down). Near the top, the steps and trail were quite steep. Adding this hike to your ticket will add about $10 to your cost. Further, there are designated start times (or shifts) when you will start your hike. Therefore, you’ll need to have you trip plans figured out before you purchase your tickets so that you know which shift you can make.
There is another hike that requires a special ticket, which is Montana Macchu Picchu. We were told this is a rather strenuous hike that takes about 4 hours. We did not do this hike though, so I don’t have personal experience with it.
Another hike, which is free and does not require any special ticket, is the hike to the Sun Gate. This is a moderately difficult hike that takes about 3 hours, but the trail is wide and not very steep. We did this hike and quite enjoyed it.
Part 6: Guides
If you read up on Machu Picchu, you will read that you need a guide to enter. This is technically true, but don’t worry about it. I personally went into Machu Picchu 3-4 times with no guide and nobody batted an eye. In any case, should you need one, it is virtually guaranteed there will be 20 – 30 waiting around for you to hire them. I saw many giving tours, and they seemed genuinely helpful, so I would seriously consider getting one.
Incidentally, I would consider getting a guide for your whole trip to Peru. That’s not something you are ever likely to hear me say about any other location, but here it helps a lot. We went a lot of places besides Machu Picchu that I never would have found but for my guide. They will also manage your transportation, which is very nice. The one I used is this guy, and I liked him a lot, but there are many other great ones as well.
Part 7: Dealing with Altitude
You’ll hear a lot about the altitude in Cusco and Machu Piccu. Machu Piccu is at 7,972 feet and Cusco is at 11,152 feet. For this reason, you will often hear the advice that you should leave Cusco for the Sacred Valley immediately, and then explore Cusco near the end of your trip. The idea is that you can acclimate to the altitude at lower elevations (around 7,000 – 8,000 feet), which isn’t as hard on you, but then when you get into Cusco it won’t be such a big adjustment.
I disagree with this approach for two reasons. First, I think this trip works best if you work your way up to Machu Picchu. If you see Machu Picchu first, then you risk an anti-climatic trip. If you save it for the end, however, you can be seeing awesome sights throughout the trip, knowing that the real show-stopper is still to come. Secondly, I don’t think you will have altitude problems in Cusco. I recommend that you go to your doctor before your trip and get a prescription for acetazolamide, which is altitude medicine. Start taking it a few days before the trip and you should have no issues at all (on our first trip to Peru, my family and I thought ourselves particularly clever in having done that, until we discovered that virtually everybody else we met was also taking it too). In any case, you might not have any problems even if you don’t take the medicine, but if you do you can pretty well be assured you will not suffer any significant effects of altitude sickness.
There are a lot of different ways to approach your visit to Macchu Picchu. All I can tell you is how we did it, and that we liked the approach. Here is how we did it:
First, we flew into Cusco and spent a few days there. We explored the city on our own the first day, and the second day we got a guide, who took us to Inca Ruins around the city. The day after that, our guide took us through the Sacred Valley to various inca sites, ending in Ollantaytambo. After spending the night in Ollantaytambo, we took the train to Aguas Calientes and spent the night there.
We got up early the next morning and went up to Macchu Picchu, and our morning tickets included the Huyana Picchu hike. We also had afternoon tickets, and we just took in the city ruins in detail then. We stayed overnight at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, and then went back into the park when it opened. We had tickets for Montana Machu Picchu but opted for the Sun Gate hike instead. Then we took the bus down to Aguas Calientes that afternoon, and the train back to Cusco that evening.
I recommend that approach, although I could definitely see the case for staying in Aguas Calientes rather than the Belmond.
One more thing: don’t drink the water! For real. I saw the effects first-hand, and it was brutal. Don’t eat salads or fruit or anything else that has been washed with water but not cooked. My wife at only a few leaves of lettuce from a super-nice restaurant in Cusco and ended up staying overnight in a hospital in Cusco. I’ll tell you that story some other time.