It’s probably the most frequently asked question on South America’s most popular attraction, how to visit Machu Picchu. We’ve all seen the stunning images of them ruins in the heavens of Peru, but reaching there is a different story completely.
I have to say, when I visited myself I never thought it would be as good as what travellers before me raved about. I’d seen the photos a million times and in my head it felt as though I’d already come across MP. How I was so wrong. Visiting Machu Picchu for yourself, and indeed the journey leading up to that is undoubtedly one of my favourite travelling experiences to date.
In one of my many Facebook groups that I administrate, Backpacking South America, questions are posed many times about Machu Picchu to over 15,000 members. What is the best way to get there? Has anyone done a tour here? What are the costs? Does anyone know about the Inca trail?
One of the most famous treks in the world, reaching Machu Picchu just like the Inca did all them years ago is the most authentic and favourable way to conquer this experience. You can’t just book and go, you need to book months in advance, with only limited spots available throughout the year. Only 200 hikers are allowed per day out of 500 people, mostly the others being guides and porters. In February, the trail is closed to cleaning. The trail itself rises to over 4,000m above sea level and has three overlapping trails. You’ll pass through cloud forest, peaks, tunnels and ancient settlements, with jungle and mountainous terrain mostly your surrounding environment.
Salcantay can take 4 or 5 days depending on you and the tour chosen. Voted once by National Geo as the 25th best trek in the world, Salcantay takes you up and over to the ruins of Machu Picchu. If you prefer snow-capped mountains, higher peaks and a rugged terrain, Salcantay will do it for you. It will be a lot colder of a trail given its altitude of over 4,000m; so warmer clothes should be worn. If you’re a keen mountaineer or just love mountain trekking, you’ll enjoy this.
Depending on your preference you can do a 3 or 4 day Jungle Trek, which is fast becoming the alternative to the official Inca trail. You’ll get to mountain bike, hike in the jungle zipline and white water raft on some tours. The journey is everything here and is an exciting one at that.
Trekking Tour Operators
You might be scratching your head to which company to go with. There are a lot to choose from, so I’ve found a link that may narrow things down. Visit Inca Trail Peru.
From the research and experience I have encountered, take a look at these tour operators too:
The train journey option is another way to go about seeing Machu Picchu. This year the train journey option is about to get a whole more commercial. No doubt that will no doubt encourage the travel-selfie-addicts and prawn-sandwich-eating tourists. Nevertheless, whatever you’re into, you can right now travel there in several different ways.
The Hiram Bingham (named after the first western man to ‘discover’ Machu Picchu, the Expedition and Vistadome are the options from Cusco. They take around 4 hours. There are a bunch of new train journeys that are available this year, which include 48 seat luxury passenger carriages, day trips and 2 or 3 days excursions that include Lake Titicaca.
Check out their website http://www.perurail.com/
There are three types of services with the Inca Rail option. One is with panoramic views and snacks known as the ‘Executive’ option. The second is simply ‘First Class’ that has typically more room, as well as reading books. If you’re in a group, which is becoming more and more a trend these days, a newer option, ‘Presidential Class’ is a whole carriage for you, decked out in typical Andean material and style, with an open bar, fine wine and champagne on arrival.
Check via the website: http://incarail.com/
*For off-the-beaten track trails information, National Geographic made a list that you can see here.
If you’re running out of time like I was, and funds too, there are other ways to see these famed ruins than any of the more popular options above. First and foremost, get yourself to Cusco, the popular backpacker city that the vast majority of travellers head from to get to Machu Picchu.
You can buy tickets separately to enter Machu Picchu.
Note: You can visit www.machupicchu.gob.pe or visit the offices in Cusco and Aguas Calientes respectively. I actually got mine through a booking agent, which has slight additional costs but for me it was more convenient at the time.
Tourist – 152 soles = 47 USD (Machu Picchu only)
Tourist – 200 soles = 61 USD (Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu)
Arranging a return journey via tour agency will take you direct to Hidroelectrica. There are plenty of booking agencies within Cusco to choose from. The time will take approximately 6 hours from Cusco via mini bus. There are plenty of terrifying roads that you’ll be swerving around. Make sure you have the stomach for it!
The public transport route. Get a public bus from Santiago bus terminal to Quillabamba, approximately taking 5-6 hours for as cheap as 15 soles. Get off at the village Santa Maria. You can then take a collective to Hidroelectrica or take a connecting bus to Santa Teresa (1.5 hours) then take another bus to Hidroelectrica.
Arriving. Once arrived at Hidroelectrica, you can walk to Aguas Calientes, which is the base town to Machu Picchu. The official name is now Machu Picchu Pueblo.
Getting there. It’s an easy walk and you do so by following the train tracks. This takes around 2 hours at a decent pace, and is quite a beautiful little trail.
The quicker route. Take a train from Hidroelectrica for $18USD and takes 20-30 minutes.
Arrange accommodation in Aguas Calientes. This town is at the base of Machu Picchu, and sits deep enclosed within the Sacred Valley cliffs. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses to stay at, you only need one night so you don’t need to be that picky really. Each to their own though.
Get up at 3am. Set off at 4am. The walk to Machu Picchu is fairly simple. Walk down road to the large steel bridge that crosses the powerful stream that splits Aguas Calientes.
Now it’s all uphill. Short, rock and steep steps will be your challenge. I power-walked this in 45 minutes, but the humidity was intense even early in the morning.
Reach the Machu Picchu. The gates open at 5am. Enjoy as after 9am all the tourists arrive by ease via mini bus and train!
My Final Thought
If you want to really enjoy the experience of Machu Picchu, make sure there’s an excursion to it before hand, however big or small. After I visited Machu Picchu, around 9am onwards, the place felt like a museum because anyone and everyone just turned up, with not a drop of sweat on them. Mini buses were carrying people to the gate entrance and it felt like any other place. Tourism is changing but really travel isn’t meant to be easy, and with the possible routes and natural surroundings you have available, take advantage of that! Don’t be like some of the modern travellers today, just wanting to tick things off a list for the sake of it or for social media, that really means nothing. Machu Picchu is one place that all your senses should be awake, a place you should live in the moment. Enjoy!
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