Last Updated on January 16, 2020 by Bryony Clapperton
This is how to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco, our chosen starting point for a once in a lifetime trip to the great wonder that is Machu Picchu.
I’ll give this guide a bit of context and background. We had originally planned to travel through Peru on the Trans-Andean Railway. The esteemed railway that runs the length of the Andes Mountain Range and through Peru and South America.
Latin America being the chilled out and often farcical place it can be meant that our travel agent forgot to book our tickets and by the time we went to collect them they were all sold out.
Ah well, that’s life. So, this is how to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco, not via a tour on the Trans-Andean Railway.
Machu Picchu needs no introduction. The 15th century Inca citadel is perhaps one of the most famous sites in Latin America and all the world.
Located 2,400 metres up on the side of a mountain shadowing the Urubamba river. Machu Picchu is visited by around 900,000 tourists per year.
I’d go as far as saying that you’ll struggle to find a travel bucket list that doesn’t feature this destination. Built in 1450, abandoned and then rediscovered well after Spanish conquests of Latin America and the ‘New World’ in 1911 this is how to get to Machu Picchu.
From Cusco to Machu Picchu
Okay, so how do you get from Cusco to Machu Picchu?
Firstly, we arrived in Cusco by plane on a quick flight from Lima, Peru’s colourful, colonial capital on the coast.
Thanks to the flight, I spent the best part of 3 days recovering from altitude sickness in bed in Cusco. Prior to experiencing altitude sickness, I was pretty sure it was a myth. Heed this warning, altitude sickness is real.
Collectivo to Ollantaytambo
Once you are ready to leave Cusco, altitude sickness permitting. There are a wide range of options available for getting to Machu Picchu.
The most common and easiest is via. Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a picturesuqe Inca valley town surrounded by Inca settlements on the road to Machu Picchu.
To get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco I recommend taking a collectivo, it will cost you 10 Sol per person. A collectivo is a common and budget friendly way to travel around most of Central and South America.
Most collectivos come in the form of shared minibuses or small cars where people collectively travel together to reduce the costs of a journey.
It will take roughly 1.5 hours to travel from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is actually pretty nice, we ended up spending a night here on our return leg of the journey from Machu Picchu.
There are lots of Inca sites located to the east and west of the settlement, you’ll also find a weekly market and a range of traditional, yet touristy restaurants.
The town itself is small and most people use it as a stopping point or passing by point to take the train to the next town along on their journey when getting from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
As with most small indigenous settings, the people of Ollantaytambo are closest to poverty. There is some begging in Ollantaytambo, most of which is done by children to tourists outside of restaurants.
You can offer a couple of Peruvian Sol and the children will be happy with this, but you can also politely ask them to leave if you are uncomfortable. It’s important to remember how close to poverty these secluded indigenous communities are though and the reliance on tourism to survive.
The train to Machu Picchu
The next leg of the journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu will take you via rail to Aguas Calientes. Before you arrive in Ollantaytambo it’s essential you already have your train ticket and your Machu Picchu ticket booked.
You will be able to book these at any good hostel or hotel in Cusco. The reason this is so important is that to limit the impacts of tourism, only 2,500 tickets are issued per day.
Book your train tickets in advance or prepare for disappointment and note that you will need ID such as a passport or identity card to book your train and Machu Picchu tickets. Passports are always recommended.
Having already purchased your tickets in Peru, the next step of your journey is to board the Peru Rail train at Ollantaytambo heading towards Aguas Calientes.
Many people choose to walk this route known as the Inca Trail, but note it is closed at some times of the year including February when we would be making the journey.
The Peru Rail train from Ollantaytambo takes 90 minutes, I believe you can board the train at Cusco and do the full journey to Aguas Calientes better known as Machu Picchu town to tourists.
How to get to Machu Picchu with Peru Rail
The scenic route aboard the Peru Rail will take you winding through the Sacred Valley along the walkable Inca Trail to Aguas Calientes. For most of the journey, the train trudges along the winding Urubamba River.
The train is pleasant and thanks to the limited tickets sold it never gets too packed.
The large windows and ceiling windows ensure that there is plenty to see on the journey along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu town and is an absolute gem for anyone wondering how to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco or Ollantaytambo.
Machu Picchu Town: Aguas Calientes
The next place you will arrive is Machu Picchu town. As mentioned this small destination is called Aguas Calientes.
Once a small quaint village like Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes is now tourism on crack. If I can give you any advice when planning how to get to Machu Pichhu, it’s be prepared for Aguas Calientes.
Once you arrive in this small secluded town you are here for the long-haul. With the last sign of civilisation behind you at Ollantaytambo.
Aguas Calientes is a tourist machine and once you arrive you are nothing more than one of the other hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit Machu Picchu every year.
Remember that’s 2,500 per day – some would say an unsustainable amount all things considered.
Where to stay in Aguas Calientes
It is likely you’ll be spending the night in Aguas Calientes. Most people arrive in the afternoon as entrance and exit is controlled by the Peru Rail train timetable.
It’s very unlikely you’ll have time to go up to Machu Picchu when you arrive so it is best to book a hotel.
As costs are so inflated in Aguas Calientes, I can’t particularly recommend a hotel or hostel. I suggest shopping about and browsing for deals at your time of booking.
Inflation in Aguas Calientes
Once settled into your hotel at Aguas Calientes you’ll probably need to eat. Service charges ranging from 10-25% will be added to all bills in all restaurants in Aguas Calientes as a given.
You can negotiate a service charge before entering a restaurant to avoid later surprise.
Considering how budget friendly the rest of Peru is, it is very common to get a bit of a shock and sour taste from the restaurants in Aguas Calientes.
Tourism in Aguas Calientes
The desire to see Machu Picchu has given birth to this unrealistic tourist exploiting economy that is nothing like the rest of Peru.
Every market stall, every Mexican restaurant, every customised Machu Picchu water bottle holder, everything is set up for the purpose of tourism in Machu Picchu town.
From the second you arrive in Aguas Calientes it swallows you up and it isn’t until the moment you leave that you are spat back out.
Fortunately most people only ever spend a few hours here or a night at the maximum which was true in our case.
As mentioned we arrived in the afternoon and spent the night in Aguas Calients before heading to Machu Picchu the next day.
The shuttle to Machu Picchu
For our only night in Aguas Calients we would be setting a 5.10am alarm to wake up for our organised 5.30am breakfast.
Organised mini busses leave from the centre of Aguas Calientes to take tourists up to Machu Picchu. You will want to make sure you are up early to get to the front of the queue.
We aimed to be on a bus before 6.00am to beat the late risers. Without any great rush by 5.50am we were sat on shuttle number 17 and on our way to Machu Picchu.
The shuttles fill up fast as you can tell, by 5:50am several shuttles had already gone up and down the steep hill to Machu Picchu.
You will need to take your ticket and passport with you as this is checked both at the bus and at the entrance.
Most people want to get to the ruins for sunrise.
Machu Picchu Entrance
By now, you should have figured out how to get to Machu Picchu. Providing you followed all the steps you should arrive at the Machu Picchu entrance to have your passport checked and again entrance.
From the entrance there is a steep climb up a set of steps, where you have the opportunity (fitness permitting) to bypass loads of other tourists on the way to the top.
If you manage to get up first, you’ll get a clear photo that doesn’t include hundreds of other tourists in bright jackets!
Sunrise at Machu Picchu
I guess every person feels the same once they’ve entered the site. Found originally by Hiram Bingham, it’s easy to feel like a modern day explorer tumbling upon a less overgrown version of Machu Picchu.
When you first arrive for sunset and watch the clouds clear the views are startling, the steep geology puts into perspective just how secluded this area.
Set among the backdrop of the Rio Urubamba, you really get a clear view of just how hard it must have been to originally find this wonder. I can’t lie, but I was in awe of Machu Picchu.
It felt like a pivotal moment in my travels knowing I’d arrive here towards the end of my trip from Cancun in Mexico to La Paz in Bolivia. As sad as that feeling was at the time, I feel nothing but nostalgia looking back now.
Admittance and re-entrance
You can leave the site twice and regain entrance on the same day. Some of the early risers choose to visit in the morning and go back in the afternoon, however most people spend all day like we did.
We also booked a guide for a full tour of the Inca ruins.
There is a gift shop and small cafe facilities at the entrance of the site and some sellers selling souvenirs. There are no sellers allowed into the site, but as these things go there is always one or two hanging around inside.
Machu Picchu tours and guides
We left the site once to book a guide, there are official guides that wait outside of the entrance ready to be booked by tourists. You can have a private guided tour or a tour with a larger group.
We booked a private tour. All the Machu Picchu guides have to have official ID’s. All guides speak Spanish, obviously and most speak English. Some guides even speak Dutch and German if you’d like a tour in your native language.
I would 100% recommend a guide, it isn’t often you find yourself in a wonder like Machu Picchu so make use of the educational information available to you.
We learnt a lot through our guide. We found out that many of the names given to buildings at Machu Picchu are of European or North American origin and relate in no way to their Inca meaning.
This is basically due to all the explorers and archeologists that have visited and tried to claim stake in the site over the years.
We also were made aware of the presence of ‘3’ throughout Machu Picchu, which represent the Inca belief in the 3 worlds. A common theme throughout Latin America.
We also learnt about the representation of the number ‘2’ and the meanings of this, the presence of 2 represent the sun and moon, the summer and winter and male and female. You will see buildings, rocks and features grouped in two’s and there’s across the site.
I definitely believe that you should do some research prior to your visit, a greater understanding of the Inca people and their culture makes for a better experience and appreciation.
UNESCO World Heritage
Machu Picchu became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. Machu Picchu remains how it is because of the rules that are in place. Peruvian authority and UNESCO rules exist for a reason.
If you are told not to sit on the 500 year old walls please understand that there is a valid reason for this. This is nothing personal but Machu Picchu just happens to be more important than your need to rest your legs.
No smoking, I’m sure, means no smoking and no eating means no eating. Respect the preservation efforts so generations to come can still enjoy this wonder.
Don’t step over the ropes, don’t walk on the grass or walls and don’t stuff your rubbish into cracks into window holes.
Let’s try and keep Machu Picchu this way for as long as we can so others can enjoy this world wonder for years to come.
Frequently asked questions
Machu Picchu town is located around 3-4 hours from Cusco. As mentioned you can go via Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.
The actual journey to the entrance of Machu Picchu also roughly takes an hour with waiting times.
With the tourism restrictions 2,500 tourists per day. The Peruvian government need a way to monitor and keep track of who is buying and selling tickets. ID is a good way to do this.