About this Guide
So far on our trip, nothing has required more puzzle pieces fitting together exactly right as our trip to Machu Picchu. Amazingly, it all worked. But not a single place I found on the internet explained, or even mentioned, all the pieces. Thats the point of this guide, to present all the pieces to you.
Why Machu Picchu
I’m kind of assuming you already want to go. There are plenty of great resources about it online. I’ll just summarize them and say that Machu Picchu is one of the most incredible destinations in the world. Well, its hard to say that for certain, but its one of very few places where everyone hypes it up and it totally lives up to the hype.
Machu Picchu is very remote
Machu Picchu is on an exotic mountain near a remote town a train ride away from a village in a remote valley that is near a remote city in an exotic country in South America. This is not like going to Disneyland. Although, at times, it feels a bit like how I imagine going to Jurassic Park would feel. I don’t want to scare you, its definitely do-able, it just takes a little bit of planning ahead of time. It also requires that you accept that this is not the cheapest place to go. Because it is a major tourist destination, you’re kind of “trapped” into tourist restaurants and other purchases that are inflated a bit.
This is an opinionated guide
These steps are based on my own experience of getting to Machu Picchu. There are many ways to do this. Quick ways, slow ways, hiking ways, train ways, etc. This is my way.
1 Year in Advance
Pick Your Season
Machu Picchu has high and low tourist season. These tourist seasons roughly match with the actual seasons, rainy and dry. During the rainy season it is low tourism time. During the dry season is high tourism time. You can read more about the seasons here. We went at the beginning of November so it was the start of rainy season and not peak tourism season. I really liked our choice. Even though it would rain most days around 4pm AND it did rain on us near the end of our day in Machu Picchu, the sky and the clouds are just so incredible during the rainy season. During dry season the sky is generally very clear and very empty. During the rainy season you get to see far more interesting clouds. Also, you can even see clouds form as water evaporates from the forest below.
In terms of planning, what matters is that if you want to go during peak tourist season, you need to book things farther in advance. In the guide below, the smaller number is if you’re not going during peak, the larger number is if you are going during peak tourism season.
3 – 6 Months in Advance
Buy Tickets to Machu Picchu
Buy the tickets to Machu Picchu. They’re not that expensive. There are some caveats though. The tickets are rationed. In order to protect the site, the government of Peru has limited the number of tickets sold per day. Also, the tickets are not like normal tickets where you pick a date and go. Visiting Machu Picchu is split into two groups, mornings and afternoons. You have to pick when during the day you want to go. I have a whole section explaining the splits and what it means for you later in this guide.
The other caveat is Machu Picchu is not the only thing to buy tickets for. There are also two side attractions, Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. Tickets for these are more limited. Thats why I recommend doing this 3 to 6 months in advance. Allison and I did Wayna Picchu. I think we made the right choice. Wayna Picchu has an incredible view, cool ruins at the top, and its much faster than Machu Picchu mountain. Wayna Picchu takes about 2 hours round trip whereas Machu Picchu mountain takes about 4 hours round trip. You can read about the differences at this link (Do not buy tickets from that site). Note that the tickets for these two extras are also time sliced.
The combination of time sliced Machu Picchu and time sliced Machu Picchu Mountain / Wayna Picchu means that scheduling can get complicated. These rules are relatively new; they were introduced in the middle of 2017. This makes it kind of hard to find good details about how they work online. However, after being there for a whole day and abusing the system, I think I am confident that I know how most of the rules work.
Regular Machu Picchu Rules
You are allowed to enter after your time starts. You are allowed to exit and re-enter once. This re-entry must also must also be during your time slot. They allow re-entry so you can go with a guide, do a 2 hour tour, exit, eat and re-enter and explore on your own for another 2 hours. That said, they do not kick people out of the site when the time ends. There is no “shift” change or anything like that. However, there is a tricky thing that you won’t notice until you get in trouble for it. The path through the site is a one-way track. Once you get to the “end” you can’t go back to the beginning. If you try, people in the park will yell at you. Once you are at the end, you must exit. If you have already re-entered once, you will not be allowed to enter again.
Extra Complications from Machu Picchu Mountain / Wayna Picchu
This makes the time slicing more complicated. When you have the extra activity, you have a time to enter Machu Picchu and you also have a time to enter the extra activity. These times may be at the same time or not. If the times are the same, then you will enter the site and enter the activity immediately. After the activity, you will probably exit the site either to get food and/or to hire a guide, to then re-enter the site. If they are not at the same time, it may be possible for you to get a guide and enjoy the site entirely before starting your activity.
When we went, our Wayna Picchu entry time was the same as our Machu Picchu time. So we went in and immediately went to Wayna Picchu. We climbed up and hung out and climbed down. We were really tired because its an intense climb. We exited Machu Picchu, had some lunch and coffee from the cafe. Then we hired a guide and went back in. This eventually caused us a problem because after we finished the guided tour we wanted to go back and take more photos. We couldn’t do this because of the “one-way” path. This is where we learned about that. Also, we had used up our re-entry after finishing Wayna Picchu. Luckily our guide spoke to a guard near the exit and he let us go back to the beginning as a “one-time” exception. We kind of laughed after he said that because this is kind of a once in a lifetime trip ?.
Keep all this in mind when exiting your extra activity. You may want to explore the site and do everything you want to do before you exit so you can hire a guide. And yes, you want to hire a guide. More on that later.
Where to buy the tickets
When you search for buying tickets to Machu Picchu there are a lot of websites that claim to sell them. But don’t be fooled, there is only one true site. Its an official government of Peru website. Its really bad and the process is not straight forward. But its possible.
You should get 2 receipts you need to print later. So save them as a PDF now. One is the “Booking Form.” This one says who the tickets are for and what dates and times. The second is proof of payment. You will need both of these printed in order to enter the site.
1 – 3 Months in Advance
Book Train Tickets to Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes (Now called Machu Picchu Pubelo) is the closest town to Machu Picchu where you can eat and sleep. From AC, there is a bus that takes 20 minutes to get to Machu Picchu. AC is fairly remote. Common advice says it is only accessible via train. There is technically a way to get to AC without the train, but its quite an adventure. It even includes walking along the train tracks for 10Km. We didn’t do that, we don’t know how to do that. For this guide, the only way to get to AC is via the train. You can book the train directly on either the Peru Rail or Inca Rail websites. You’ll probably be boarding the train from Ollantaytambo. Note that Ollantaytambo is NOT Cusco. In fact, its about a 2 hour car ride away from Cusco. There are trains that leave from Cusco but there aren’t nearly as many time slots and they are lot more expensive. Ollantaytambo is where most people board the train. Hopefully, the epic-ness of this adventure you’re about to start is starting to sink in.
Fly to Peru in South America, fly to Cusco, 2+ hour taxi ride to Ollantaytambo, 1 hour train to Aguas Calientes, 20 minute bus ride to Machu Picchu.
Its quite a journey.
Book Hotel in Aguas Calientes and Cusco and (maybe) Ollantaytambo
You get to decide the pace you want to go from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back. I know of people that do this all in one day. I personally think thats unnecessarily overzealous. We took it slow. We arrived late afternoon in AC the day before Machu Picchu and left late morning the day after Machu Picchu. We also stayed a couple of days in Ollantaytambo and a few more days elsewhere in the Sacred Valley.
Opinions on Aguas Calientes
I’m sorry, its just not very nice. Its very touristy. The food is mostly bad and very expensive. I also assume most of the hotels are not very nice. Ours definitely wasn’t. I think its important to mentally take this in and come to peace with it before you arrive, rather than being upset when you’re trying to find dinner after Machu Picchu. We did find one hotel / bar / restaurant that looked actually, really, nice. But it was definitely pricey. If you have the money to spend, you should stay there. Its called El Mapi. We went to the bar and they had a good local beer selection and delicious wine. I’m sure its the nicest hotel in Aguas Calientes. If you can afford it, do it.
Opinions on Ollantaytambo
It turns out that Ollantaytambo is pretty cool. Its still very touristy, but not as bad as Aguas Calientes. They also have their own ruins. The residential part of the town is also made of, still in use, Inca structures. Its also in the heart of the Sacred Valley which is beautiful. Theres tons of hiking to do there and other small villages. You might want to consider spending a day or two there before or after Machu Picchu.
2 Days Before – In Cusco
- Pickup your train tickets. As far as I could tell, the trains don’t take printed tickets. But both train companies have offices in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. There, you can take your reservation number and passport to get tickets printed out.
- Print out your Machu Picchu tickets. You will need these to enter the site. You do not want to try to find a way to print these in Aguas Calientes. There are two pages (as mentioned above). You need both to enter the site.
- Make sure your passports are in order. You will need your passport for everything. You will need them to board the train, to enter your hotel in Aguas Calientes, to buy your bus tickets to Machu Picchu, and to enter the site itself. They check at every single spot.
- Decide how you will get to Ollantaytambo.
- You can take a taxi, but expect to pay $50 USD or s/ 150 PEN for it. If you take a taxi, have your hotel order you one so you’re sure its a legit taxi. A taxi should take 2 or 2.5 hours to get there.
- The much more affordable option is to get a “Colectivo” van. These are much cheaper and almost as fast. These cost around s/ 7 PEN. You should google where to find these. It won’t be obvious. You’ll have to go to the intersection that your online search reveals and then look for a Mercedes Sprinter style van and ask the driver if its going to Ollantaytambo. Ask them how much it is. If they say its more than s/ 20 PEN, they are ripping you off. You should wait for a different van if that happens. Also note, you pay them when you get out of the van at your destination.
- I would not recommend trying to take a public bus. It would be a little cheaper. But the colectivos offer the best value for your money and time.
1 Day Before – Aguas Calientes
You made it to Aguas Calientes, you checked into your hotel. You’re almost ready to go Machu Picchu tomorrow!
- Buy your bus tickets. They’re kind of pricey, but they’re worth it. The bus should cost about $25 USD per person per direction. You don’t need bus tickets. You can hike up, but its quite a hike and its a very busy trail. Your hotel can tell you where to buy the tickets. Its a very obvious booth in the middle of town. And yes, make sure to bring your passport. You’ll need it to buy the tickets. You might decide to save money by hiking down after you’ve finished Machu Picchu like we had planned to. That said, after a very long day at Machu Picchu we were totally wiped out and decided a 20 minute bus ride between us and a shower was a very tempting option. Luckily, you can buy your bus ticket for the way down, right outside of the entrance to Machu Picchu and so that’s what we did.
- Buy water and snacks in Aguas Calientes. Once you get up there, you’re at the mercy of the overpriced cafe at the top. We caved and bought some coffees and a brownie. The food was surprisingly good, but it is expensive. Its easy to find an empanada or sandwich in AC that you can pack in your backpack and take to the site. Also, definitely bring water. At least 1L per person.
- Set out comfortable hiking clothes and shoes. Pack sunscreen, jacket, poncho. Bring your camera. Make sure it has lots of free memory for photos.
- Enjoy yourself, but don’t party too hard. You’ll need to wake up between 5:30 and 6 am to eat some sort of breakfast (hopefully free at your hotel) and take the bus to the site. If your hiking up, you’ll want to wake up at 3:30 am ?
On the Day
- Buy a guided tour. There’s plenty of guides in front of the entrance. Find one that speaks English well. Ask them how much they charge. It should be about $20 USD per person. If you want to spend less you might be able to find a guide that is willing to find and wait for more people. A guide is super important. Without it, you’ll just be looking at a bunch of rocks. The guide fills in information that makes everything relevant and interesting. They also have the most up to date information about the site that you can’t find in outdated Youtube videos. Don’t worry. After the guided tour, you can re-enter the site (see above section on how the time rules work) so you can explore on your own and get a bunch of cool photos.
- Soak up the sites. You’re in one of the most beautiful and exclusive places in the world. It is one of the 7 New Wonders of the World after all.
- Take some great photos!