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Planning Your Trip to Machu Picchu

All of the step-by-step logistics to visit one of the 7 Wonders of the World

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike
View from above Machu Picchu

Although everyone has seen the photos, Machu Picchu is just one of the places in the world that you need to see with your own eyes to truly appreciate its wonder. However, for how popular the archaeological site is for visitors to Peru, the journey to Machu Picchu is a complicated one with many steps that can be quite confusing when you are planning a trip from across the world. Fortunately, we are here to simplify your logistics planning for your trip to visit one of the wonders of the world.

What is Machu Picchu?

Although there are many thoughts on what Machu Picchu was built for, including a city for the Incan elite or some sort of royal retreat, its purpose is not known, perhaps due to Quecha (the spoken Incan language) not having a formal writing system. It was abandoned before European colonization of Peru and the Spanish Conquistadors never reached the city, so we also do not have an understanding of why it was deserted. Still, we do know that it was built around the 15th century and one of the few Pre-Colombian sites to exist relatively untouched today. Every structure you see is original and the buildings still stand solid.

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike
Resident Llama

How do I get there?

Step 1: Cusco to Aguas Callientes by Train

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike
Former Incan capital of Cusco

In order to get to the lost city of Machu Picchu, you will first need to travel to the former Incan capital of Cusco - likely on a flight from the current Peruvian capital of Lima. Starting from this tourist hub of Cusco and traveling to the entrance of Machu Picchu, most travelers will have a minimum of three legs.

Peru Rail, the primary Machu Picchu train company, has two main options from Cusco: you can either take the “direct” line from Poroy Station or the “Bimodal” line starting at Wanchaq Station. While the direct line may seem like a no-brainer, Poroy station is actually 45min from Cusco, which necessitates taking a taxi between Cusco and Poroy while heading in both directions. On the other hand, Wanchaq Station is a 10-15min walk from Cusco city center off of the Avenida El Sol. However, with this “Bimodal” option, you first need to board a bus which takes you to Ollantaytambo Station to transfer on to a train to Machu Picchu station.

While Poroy might seem the simpler option, both necessitate taking two modes of transportation. Poroy officially has a shorter travel time, although its distance from Cusco mostly negates that. In addition, the Bimodal option from Wanchaq includes much earlier start times which allow you to get a head start on the crowds headed for Machu Picchu and maximize your time on a day trip.

Ultimately, we chose the Bimodal option through Wanchaq Station due to its walking distance from our hotel in Cusco and the earlier start time. The Ollantaytambo Station layover only lasted about 15-20min for us, which was just enough time to buy coffee and pastries. There was also a restaurant and many vendors if you need to pick up anything while you wait for your train.

You also have the option of staying a night in the town of Aguas Calientes, where the Machu Picchu train station is located. This would really help you beat the crowds, as even the earliest options from Machu Picchu do not arrive until 8/9am. While we received recommendations to stay in town, we found that the day trip was more than enough time and most people headed back on the same day they arrived.

If you need help buying tickets or planning your trip, there are Peru Rail offices in Cusco, including one in Plaza de Armas. We needed to move around our train tickets the day before our trip and they were able to help us change those with no additional fees. The staff at Peru Rail were also bilingual and able to support the many travelers coming in and out with no problem. Be sure to check hours before planning a stop into the office as they are closed for a few hours around lunch. Booking online was simple, but make sure to coordinate your travel times with your Machu Picchu entrance time.

BE SURE TO BRING YOUR PASSPORT - they will check it each time you board the train and when entering Machu Picchu. You will not be able to enter Machu Picchu without your passport (we saw someone turned away and they were not happy).

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike
Ollantaytambo Station

Step 2: From train stop, Auguas Callientes, to Machu Picchu

From the train station, you now need to get to the entrance of Machu Picchu. You can either take one of the buses running continuously from town for 100 soles ($25) round trip or you can use your own two legs to carry you up the hiking trail from town.

On foot, it is about 2 miles and 1,500 ft of elevation gain from 6,500ft to 8,000ft. I would allocate about an hour and a half if you go by foot, but we did the climb in about an hour without stopping. While most people will be able to physically hike up the trail (less trail and more long, steep staircase), our recommendation would be to pay the money to take the 20min ride up in the bus. Even at 9am with a high of only 60 degrees, the high humidity meant we arrived at the top red faced and extremely sweaty. It was pretty obvious who else had hiked to the top and it was not the hundreds of wannabe influencers looking pristine in their fashionable outfits.

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike
Views from the hike up to Machu Picchu

You’ve spent years looking forward to this trip, so do yourself the favor of looking good in your photos and take the bus up. You’re not missing much and you can still take the hike down after you’ve taken all of your photos at the top. If you do walk, you will pass a butterfly sanctuary on the way - we did not stop in, but it could make for a great additional part of your journey if you enjoy mariposas.

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike aguas callientes
Its a long and sweaty hike up from Aguas Callientes

Buying timed entry tickets for Machu Picchu:

In the post-pandemic world, Machu Picchu switched to a timed entry ticket system to better control crowds at the site. This system also reduced the daily number of visitors at Machu Picchu from 7,000-10,000 to a much smaller 3,500. While many of the best photo spots on the upper level had small lines of people, most of the ruins were fairly uncrowded.

You will have to buy an entry ticket for a specific hour block and you officially have three hours to stay at the resort. However, after entering the site, no one checked our ticket and you could conceivably stay longer. However, most of the paths were one ways and they did have a number of people ensuring flow was in the correct direction and people stayed out of the roped off areas.

Please give yourself about 30min to get to the entrance if traveling by bus from town and 60-90min if walking. There are a couple different ticket options for Machu Picchu, but the main one is called “Llaqta de Machpicchu” which allows entry into any of the four main circuits. Those looking to climb the nearby peaks of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu or Huchuy Picchu need a special entry ticket, although they need to be purchased months in advance as they are sold on a very limited basis (our guide estimated 5-6 months ahead of time). For the normal entry ticket, we would recommend purchasing at least a few weeks before your planned trip to ensure availability. Please be sure to visit the restroom before entering the site - don’t be the one caught going to the bathroom in a World Heritage Site.

How much time do I need?

Before Covid, tourists were able to hang out in Machu Picchu for as long as they wanted. Post-pandemic, they have established four one-way “circuits” that people can travel. However, this means that once you leave an area of Machu Picchu you cannot return there. We tried to visit every part of Machu Picchu that we could with our guide and it took us about 2.5-3 hours to complete the entire thing (with time to stop and ask our guide many questions and take photos along the way).

With travel time and building in a buffer, we would recommend about 5-7 hours between your trains if you plan on exploring Machu Picchu as a day trip from Cusco. Please note you do need to arrive for your return train 30min before departure as well. With the extra time, there is lots to do around Machu Picchu and neighboring Aguas Callientes to burn some time. There is a beautiful cafe selling food, beer, water and the famous Inka Cola right at the entrance of Machu Picchu with a gorgeous vista of the mountains and the canopy top with birds flying around. Take in the view and extend your stay over a Cusquena cerveza. There are also many markets and restaurants down by the train station to enjoy some time shopping and eating.

Finding a guide:

While many people planned their tours in advance, you can absolutely find a tour guide the day of your trip while in town. Official tour guides of Machu Picchu can be identified by their blue vests with Machu Picchu logos. Many approached us as we arrived off the train and asked us if we needed a guide.

We were able to find a guide for 3 hours for two people for a cost of 200-300 soles ($50-75). There is zero signage within Machu Picchu, so don’t expect to understand much of the cultural significance of the ruins without one. We found our guide, Miguel, extremely knowledgeable - not only about Machu Picchu, but broader Incan and Peruvian culture as well. He patiently answered our questions about Peruvian food, history and wildlife. If you are looking for a guide, he can be reached on his WhatsApp at 993485576. Tell him Justin sent you for a deal.

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike
A viscacha resident sleeping in the ruins (cousin of the chinchilla)

What to bring:

As a day trip from Cusco, your journey will last about 13-15 hours from end to end, so there is a lot of things you will likely want to bring. It will likely be very cold in the morning when boarding your train or bus and very warm when hiking around the exposed top of Machu Picchu in the middle of the day. We brought multiple layers that we wore in the morning that we didn’t at all need during our tour.

Luckily, they have a bag check available at the entrance to Machu Picchu for 5 sols (about $1.50) where you can leave a backpack with the things you don’t need. There is also a small concession stand/grill near the entrance if you forgot to purchase food or water, use the bathroom (2 soles) or wait for your start time. Once inside, there are no bathrooms or places to get water, so make sure you have everything you need for the tour. Remember - no re-admission!

Given the lack of shade and high elevation, sunscreen is very important. Most of the guides were wearing long-sleeve sun shirts made of synthetic material to stay cool, dry and out of the sun. Don’t forget your camera, but please note that Machu Picchu does not allow drones, selfie sticks or tripods. BE SURE TO BRING YOUR PASSPORT - they will check it each time you board the train and when you enter Machu Picchu. You will not be able to enter Machu Picchu without your passport. You will be doing a lot of walking on uneven surfaces, so bring comfortable sneakers that you can do a lot of walking in.

Machu Picchu view logistics Cusco Peru llama hike
Perfect architecture of the Machu Picchu ruins

Do you need a mask?

Masks are required for all public transportation including the buses and trains. Although there is an official rule in Peru necessitating two masks or a KN95, this was not enforced on trains (it was enforced in the airports). Signs indicated a mask rule within Machu Picchu, but we did not wear one nor were we ever asked to put one on. Most people were not wearing masks including the guides, although all of the employees working there did have one on.

It can be complicated to plan your trip to Machu Picchu, but Vagabond Guru is here to answer your questions. Feel free to drop a comment below if you have any questions!

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1 commentaire

29 juil. 2022

Awesome stuff! Can't wait to go one day

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