The UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu once housed Inca royalty, but now hosts more than a million visitors every year. A trip to Machu Picchu is awe-inspiring, breath-taking, and a once in a lifetime experience that shouldn’t be missed.
There are several ways in which someone can travel to the famed ruins in the mountains of Peru. Depending on what you would like to do, it can be relatively easy getting there, but you can also opt for a multi-day guided trek if a fully immersive experience is more appealing. The easiest way to get to Machu Picchu is via plains, trains, and automobiles. Having made the trip myself a few years ago, I’ll clue you in on exactly how I made it to one of the most spectacular views you can find in all of Peru and how I would recommend you make the trip.
Having stayed in the capital city of Lima for a few days with a friend, we booked a flight from Lima to Cusco as the jumping off point for our trip to Machu Picchu. The vast majority of travelers planning a trip to the famous ruins will go through Cusco on the way. Known as the capital of the former Incan Empire, Cusco is a city with its share of archaeological remains and ruins, Spanish colonial architecture, and noted Peruvian cuisine. Be sure to check out the Sacsayhuamán ruins while staying in Cusco. There are plenty of hostels and hotels in the city, so accommodations shouldn’t be a problem while visiting.
I highly recommend spending a couple of days in Cusco. Not just to experience all of the wonderful food, culture, and history the city as to offer, but also to get acclimated to the elevation before traveling to Machu Picchu. Believe it or not, the City of Cusco is actually higher in elevation (11,000 ft.) than Machu Picchu (8,000 ft.), so it serves as a great way to acclimate to the thin air before walking around the ruins, especially if you are coming from Lima on the coast.
After spending a couple of days in Cusco, we were planning on catching a ride-share transport bus to a town called Ollantaytambo where we would catch a morning train to the town at the foot of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. The ride share transports can be secured around Plaza de Armas, which serves as a city center to Cusco. When we walked up with our bags, we were asked by several people if we needed a ride somewhere. As the only one of the two of us who spoke decent Spanish, I communicated to one of the people offering rides that we were traveling to Ollantaytambo. This gentleman ushered us to a vehicle, grabbed our bags, put them in the trunk and instructed us to get in the vehicle. There was a driver, another man in the front seat, and we occupied the back seat of the vehicle. When I look back on this encounter, I realize it was quite foolish and possibly dangerous to jump in an unmarked car as opposed to a ride-share van with other travelers. The entire two-hour drive, I was nervous the two men in the front of the vehicle were going to rob us, but it never happened and we were safely transported to our destination with no issue. That being said, I would highly recommend arranging your transport ahead of time with a van that is also escorting other travelers. Renting a vehicle is also a possibility while in Cusco, so you may want to consider that option if you want full autonomy.
We arrived just after dark to the town of Ollantaytambo and checked into our hostel just about a half mile from the train station where we needed to be early the next morning. The hostel was one of the nicest I’d been to during my travel around South America. The maitre d’ of the hostel was very nice and filled us in on a great place for dinner that evening, a nice coffee shop for a quick bite the next morning, and informed us we could leave our bags at the hostel while we traveled to and from Machu Picchu the next day. After dinner and a cocktail, we made it an early night as we needed to be up at dawn in order to catch our 7am train.
There are two rail lines offering trains from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the small village at the foot of Machu Picchu and a mandatory stop in order to make it up the mountain to the main attraction. The rail lines are Peru Rail and Inca Rail and both offer varying class levels and service levels depending on how much you would like to spend. We opted for the cheapest tickets on Inca Rail and were absolutely fine with the level of comfort and service. If you would prefer more options for food, beverages, and slightly more comfortable accommodations, there are more pricey tickets available on both lines. Regardless of your choice of train tickets, it is highly recommended to purchase well in advance as they often sell out. I would also recommend an early morning departure so you’ll have plenty of time for exploration once you make it to Machu Picchu. The train ride is also very satisfying as you wind your way through gorgeous Peruvian countryside and are never without inspiring views of the landscape throughout the journey.
Aguas Calientes is just short of two hours from the town of Ollantaytambo and serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu. You’ll find restaurants, a craft market, hotels, and hostels for tourists. Once you arrive, you’ll be able to hop on one of the buses leaving in a steady stream to transport tourists up the mountain to Machu Picchu. There is no need to buy your bus tickets in advance as there are plenty of buses leaving every 15 minutes or so. We got a quick bite to eat before getting on a bus and eventually made it to the mountaintop by about 10am. Once the bus drops you off, you’ll find plenty of individuals offering both private and group guided tours. We opted for a private guided tour and paid about $20 USD each. It was totally worth it and we got an amazing history lesson of the area along with an in-depth explanation of the cultural significance of the site. We spent a couple of hours exploring the mountain, took some wonderful pictures (it’s hard to get a bad picture even with swarms of tourists around), and enjoyed a light snack we had brought in a day pack. Once we made our way back down to Aguas Calientes, we enjoyed a late lunch at a cafe before catching our return train.
After returning via train to Ollantaytambo, we arranged transport (in a multi-passenger van this time) back to Cusco with memories we would never forget. It was truly a special experience seeing this ancient site that once served as a holiday getaway for Incan nobility. As most travelers to Machu Picchu are on some form of holiday or vacation, it seems serendipitous that this magical site can be enjoyed by millions of people year in and year out after being hidden from the world for 500 years.