Ahhh Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. A once in a lifetime destination for travelers, both casual and adventurists. It’s on everyone’s bucket list, I’m pretty sure of that. Built by the Incas in the 15th century, it wasn’t discovered until 1911 by explorer Hiram Bingham, most likely because it was hidden among the lush verdant landscapes of the Peruvian mountains. Lucky for us, it’s become quite a tourist destination and getting there is a whole lot easier than wandering through the jungle cliffs.
I wish it was as easy as logging onto a website and booking a flight straight into Machu Picchu. I did not want to book a package tour to save costs, as well as I surely wanted to do it myself and more first-hand experience to my travel belt. It did require me to do carefully research and plan a journey to get to this archaeological gem. It can be quite a daunting task that was honestly a bit overwhelming at first. Many hours died a quite death and many cups bathed in the delightful aroma of coffee.
It is my absolute pleasure to save you the time and share that information with you. Here is an easy step by step guide on how to plan your trip and get to Machu Picchu!
Note that this guide is a straightforward approach that does not include the Inca Trail for my first journey into Machu Picchu – I’m saving that for a return trip!
You can simply ignore my recommended options (which are recommendations based on what I actually did on my journey to Machu Picchu) highlighted in red below, but you definitely should to fill and top off your wanderlusting needs!
Step 1: Book all the Necessary Tickets (Train and Machu Picchu Entrance)
Before you even book a flight to Peru, it’s imperative to book and purchase the train that you will take from Cusco (or Ollantaytambo) to Aguas Calientes (the base town of Machu PIcchu) as tickets for both things can sell out. You can either book your train tickets with PeruRail or IncaRail. I opted to go with PeruRail and purchased an Expedition class ticket, which was about $65 each way from Ollantaytambo. This was the cheapest option as they also provide more expensive classes of tickets. Don’t let base class value fool you as it was a very comfortable ride with large panoramic windows to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Although you complete the transaction online, you will actually pick up your tickets at one of their stations in Peru. I picked up mine while I was in Lima, but there is one right Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco.
You CANNOT actually purchase your tickets upon actually arriving to Machu Picchu – they will have to purchased beforehand. You can purchase them in Lima, Cusco or Aguas Calientes, but I highly recommend you just purchase them online and have them ready before leaving. In addition to being prepared, the number of slots for entry are limited to 2500 per day. There is an official site from which you can make this purchase, but I purchased mine on Ticket Machu Picchu. It was a smooth transaction and had no problems getting my ticket sent to my email in a PDF format.
Recommended Option: In addition to purchasing the ticket into Machu Picchu, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you purchase a package that includes a ticket into Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu. They are both separate mountain hikes you an partake in once you get into Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu is a 45 minute hike up a fairly steep mountain which has a temple at the top. I opted for Machu Picchu Mountain as I was unable to reserve a slot for Huayna Picchu as both hikes are also limited. Machu Picchu is a much taller mountain that takes about 2 hours to hike up. Although there is no temple at the summit, your eyes will consume the most INCREDIBLE views that makes the hike all the more worth it.
- Train Tickets – from $120 round trip
- Machu Picchu Entrance Ticket – MP only $62/$37 (standard/student)
- Machu Picchu Entrance Ticket – MP w/ Mountain Hike about $70/$40 (standard/student)
Step 2: Book a Flight to Peru
Being that Machu Picchu is in Peru, it would make perfect sense to get to Peru first. The closest airport to Machu Picchu is actually Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco. However, there aren’t too many direct flights into Cusco outside of Peru. More than likely, you will be flying into Lima first before heading over to Cusco. I recommend booking a flight either in May or September, which is either right before or right after the heavy tourist season. Not only will it be less crowded and so much cheaper to fly, but also you will be on the receiving end of fantastic dry weather as the heavy rains of the Peruvian summer will have ended.
Recommended Option: I would recommend spending a couple days in Lima and enjoy what Peru city life offers! There are plenty of culture and sights to be seen and experienced, such as the Plazas and various churches. There is also a beautiful district called Miraflores where you can calmly paraglide off the cliffs over the city and the coast. But most importantly, there is a TON of food to be consumed, from the picarones (Peruvian donut treats) to the fresh ceviche! Most street food range from 1 to 3 soles and taxis from 10 to 25 soles, so it’s relatively inexpensive and worth tacking on Lima on your trip to Machu Picchu!
- Total Air Fare – $700 – $1000 depending on the season
- Lodging in Lima – from $20 per night (AirBnB rates)
Step 3: Arrive in Cusco
As mentioned above, you’ll need to fly into Peru and find your way to Cusco. You will most likely be flying either LATAM or Peruvian Air from Lima to Cusco. Flights normally leave about every hour all day, so you have plenty of options to decide when to arrive in Cusco. I flew LATAM and was comfortable on that pleasant one hour and half journey, marked with beautiful aerial views of the Andres mountains. They provided a nice little snack with Peruvian treats on the flight to appease my grumbling stomach. If you haven’t tried it, make sure to ask for Inca Cola on the flight – it was love at first sip when I tasted that bubblegum candy flavor.
Cusco is 3,400 m (11,200 ft) above sea level, so you will most likely experience some kind of altitude sickness upon immediate arrival. I noticed that I had a tiny bit of difficultly breathing the moment stepped off the plane. Most hostels and hotels in Cusco will offer coca tea, which will help with that!
Some travelers opt to go straight to Machu Picchu and acclimate with the altitude as it’s 3000 ft LOWER than Cusco, in which they decide to explore on their return trip back. I decided to spend two days and acclimate the the altitude in Cusco before moving forward in my journey. In fact, it made the altitude a lot easier for me to deal with upon reaching Machu Picchu!
Recommended Option: Whether it’s before or after Machu Picchu, I recommend staying in Cusco a few days and explore the town’s attractions and markets. Visit the Mercado de San Pedro, a large local market where you can sample fresh cuisine, delight in some fine natural juices, and purchase local crafts and goods. Make stops in Sacsayhuaman, an Incan archaeological site with architecture that rivals that of Machu Picchu, and at Cristo Blanco, a smaller version of the popular Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil. Oh, don’t forget to sample some cuy choctado (deep fried guinea pig) while you’re there! I recommend having that at Kusikuy in Cusco, but be prepared to walk up a long set of stairs to get there. With the altitude, it does take your breath away, but the payoff is incredible and salivating food at the end!
- Lodging in Cusco – from $20 per night (AirBnB rates)
- Tourist Ticket – about $45 which includes admission to Qorikancha, Sacsayhuaman, and 14 other sites over a 10 day period. There are other options for partial tickets depending on your needs.
Step 4: Journey To Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is the base town of Machu Picchu. The train tickets you (hopefully) purchased before arriving to Peru are necessary to get here as there are no other direct options. If leaving from Cusco, you actually take the train station in Poroy, which is about a 15 minutes taxi ride from the main center of Cusco. The pleasant and scenic journey takes about three hours before arriving to Aguas Calientes, a very touristic town that caters to all the wanderlusts that look to visit Machu Picchu.
You can most definitely go straight to Machu Picchu upon arriving to Aguas Calientes, but I recommend spending at least one night before doing so. There are plenty of options for lodging, from backpacker hostels to high end hotels. I stayed at New Day Hostel, which was relatively inexpensive at $30 for one night.
Recommended Option: What I actually did, and very much so HIGHLY RECOMMEND, was book a tour through the Sacred Valley, with various stops including Pisac, and finally arriving in Ollantaytambo, a town and Incan archaeological site WORTH a visit! Not only is the town quite charming in itself, but it’s home to an incredible Incan archaeological site with architecture that rivals, if not EVEN BETTER, than that in Machu Picchu. There are plenty of hostels and hotels there as well, and it would be worth spending at least one night to enjoy the site and the town. I was fortunate enough to be there during the Festival de Choquekillka and experience the non-top cultural partying! The train to get to Aguas Calientes is in the town and is just a short walk from the center. The journey from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is just one and half hours, which can be advantage to planning.
- Lodging in Aguas Calientes – from $30 per night (AirBnB rates)
- Ollantaytambo Ticket – about $27 which is good for other sites. Please check to make sure it fits your needs.
- Lodging in Ollantaytambo – from $19 per night (AirBnb rates)
Step 5: Arrive at Machu Picchu!
Before you decide to venture into Machu Picchu, first figure out how you are going to get up there. You can choose between two options – you can hike up to Machu Picchu, which I heard is about a 1-2 hour journey, or you can purchase a round trip ticket for $24. I wanted to save my calories for walking up Machu Picchu Mountain, so I opted to get the train tickets. You will need your passport to purchase this ticket. You should plan accordingly and perhaps purchase this ticket the day before you decide to go to Machu Picchu (if staying overnight) as the line for purchasing them does get long early in the morning.
The buses are first-come first-serve and take about 30 minutes before you arrive that gates of Machu Picchu. Again, you will need to have your passport along with your ticket to enter the site. Note, you are allowed to leave and enter the site up to three times on the same day. Also, don’t forget to stamp your passport with an official Machu Picchu stamp on your way out!
Recommended Option: To maximize your time and experience in Machu Picchu, I recommend getting on the first bus ride that leaves at 6AM, which is why I recommend staying at least one night in Aguas Calientes. There are plenty of buses that constantly drive up and down to and from Machu Picchu, so you don’t have to wait too long if you don’t get in too early. But the main reason of waking up this early on a vacation is to experience sunrise at Machu Picchu, which is something worth seeing for yourself. You’ll also avoid the majority of tourists that crowd the ruins between 10AM – 3PM. I arrived at the bus station at 4AM and there was a decent about of folks in front of me. However, by 5AM, the line has grown exponentially with other bright eyes travelers!
- Round trip ticket to and from Machu Picchu – $24
Step 6: FEAST YOUR EYES AND ENJOY This Once-In-A-Lifetime Experience
Upon arriving, there will be quite a few tour operators soliciting for your hard earned soles.You can most certainly do it yourself with a guidebook, but I do recommend getting a local tour guide to get a good historical lesson and a planned route through the site. Depending on how large your group is, the cost can vary from 60-120 soles, but depending on your guide, they can find a few other smaller groups to pair you up with to save costs (this is what I did, which was great as I ended up making new friends!)
Once you are in, soak up all the wondrous scenery and beauty that surrounds you. From the mysterious clouds that drape and lovingly hug the surrounding mountains, to the impressively built citadel, Machu Picchu is worth every memory you are willing to capture. If you opted to go for the additional hikes with either of the two mountains, you are in for a bigger treat as your head will literally be up in the clouds, joining you in watching unbelievable and glorious scenes.
Recommended Option: I don’t have any other recommendations other than not to rush out of Machu Picchu. Spend as much time as you can and soak in as much as your eyes can take. It was actually raining the morning I went to Machu Picchu. Despite being completely soaked, I was incredibly mesmerized by the mysticism and power that I felt there. In fact, the rainy weather added a mysterious feel which was an experience in itself. But patience wore on, as the sun eventually peeked out in its full glory and displayed Machu Picchu in a whole new light, literally! Rain or shine, it’s a magical place that will leave you breathless.
- Tour guide – $20 – $40 depending on group size and/or tour package
Step 7: SMILE DURING The Sad Trip Back Home
Following the steps in reverse order will get you back home safe and sound, perhaps just a bit melancholic from missing Machu Picchu. It’s a good things that memories and experience don’t add extra weight in baggage!
Recommended Option: I didn’t exactly go back home after my trip out to Machu Picchu as I found a wonderful homestay called YellowRiver in QuelloMayo. It’s a town further in the jungle in which you can experience an authentic Peruvian homestay with an incredibly awesome family. In addition to the quiet and provincial environment, you will be treated to home cooked meals and awesome company. Definitely worth checking out if you love homestays in foreign countries! One note to consider if doing so – you will need to get to Hidroelectrica, a town from which you can take a couple taxis until you reach Quellomayo. There is only ONE train that goes from Aguas Calientes to Hidroelectrica, at the last train leaves at 1PM. If you miss that, or decide you love taking walking marathons, you can definitely take the 12 mile hike on the railroad tracks. I did that and had a wonderful time, despite sore calves and following a helpful stranger through the woods at night!
- YellowRiver Homestay – $40 per night
BONUS: I’ve vlogged my entire journey in Peru, from Lima all the way to Machu Picchu! Click here, or watch the playlist below to check it out – please like, share, and subscribe!
This journey is worth every single step, every single dollar, and every single moment experienced. There are a few places in this world that can leave you breathless and fortunate for us, Machu Picchu happens to be one of them!