What’s the best way to get to Machu Picchu? It can be quite tricky to organise a trip to this world-famous landmark, especially when you are on a tight budget. This post discusses the different routes available, and how to make the best decision for you.
Machu Picchu. Two little words known around the world; they conjure up images of far away lands, rocky mountain peaks, and a civilisation long ago lost to us. Phil and I are incredibly lucky to now be able to say that we have visited this place. Machu Picchu has moved from merely a vision to a wonderful memory in our minds.
It wasn’t as easy as we expected to organise our trip though. It might not be as secluded as it was during the time of the Incas, but it’s still pretty difficult to get to, so planning is key!
Getting to Machu Picchu – The Options
The closest town to the Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), which is only accessible by train or on foot. The town was built in the early 1900’s and now has one major purpose – to give access to the Incan city. It’s sometimes referred to as Peru’s Disneyland, and the description isn’t too far off the mark. It’s like a toy town, all for show with no real substance.
There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu, including:
- Trekking: The four day Inca Trail is the most famous way to access Machu Picchu. The trail was one of only two ways to enter the site when it was inhabited and it runs all the way from Cusco, the once headquarters of the Incan Empire. Trekkers don’t take on the whole route, but it still takes four days to complete, just showing how secluded the citadel was. In recent years, restrictions have been put in place to conserve the trail. There are only 500 people allowed on the trail per day, and a big percentage of these are guides.
In addition to the Inca Trail, there are now several other multi-day treks that are growing in popularity including :
- Road/Walk combination: From Cusco many tour companies and hostels sell a package tour including transport, one night’s accommodation and entry to Machu Picchu with a guide. For between US$80 and US$120 dollars, you can easily sign up for this option. From what we saw, it’s possibly the most popular route as it is by far the cheapest option.
As Aguas Calientes isn’t accessible by road, the minivan drives you from Cusco to Hidroelectrica train station (the journey takes around 6 hours), and from there you have to walk along the active railway tracks for around 2-3 hours to get to the town.
After staying the night in Aguas Calientes, you meet your guide early the next day and walk up the steep mountain steps (about 1.5-2 hours) to the gates of Machu Picchu.
After visiting the citadel, you leave around midday and do the above journey in reverse back to Cusco, arriving late evening.
- Train: There are two companies, PeruRail and IncaRail, that run tourist trains to Aguas Calientes. PeruRail run trains from Cusco (May – December only) or Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley (all year round). IncaRail only run trains from Ollantaytambo (all year round).
The train is the most relaxed, yet expensive way, to visit the site. A one way ticket can cost anything from around US$50, all the way into the US$100’s depending on which service you choose. Their carriages range from backpacker to ultimate luxury.
Choosing the option for us
Although the treks sounded incredible, we had only just started to feel healthy again and didn’t want to push our luck. We toyed with the bus/walk package, and we were close to purchasing it through our hostel. Then it hit us – we didn’t have a shred of excitement.
To us, the bus/walk package sounded awful, and ultimately dangerous. We had heard whispered stories of drunken drivers and broken brakes, and the condition of the roads sounded bone shaking. Despite the popularity of this kind of tour, it’s actually strongly recommended NOT to walk along the active railway tracks. In many places along the route there are even signs warning people against it. In addition, people told us the steps to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes were exhausting, and despite a guide being included in the package, the groups were often so big you couldn’t hear what was being said.
Here we were with the opportunity to visit one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, and we weren’t looking forward to it at all. In light of this realisation, we were left with only one option, the tourist train. After discussing it together, we decided to bite the bullet and pay the extra. We knew it would be far more enjoyable, safer, and much more relaxed if we organised it all ourselves.
Is the train worth the extra money?
We booked our tickets with PeruRail, as we had seen online that they were meant to have the best service. The cheapest we found a return journey for was $130 each (ouch!) on the Expedition carriages, the cheaper ‘backpacker’ option. Coming to terms with the cost, we were just about to book when we realised that the the next option up, the Vistadome service was just $10 extra per person on the way out. We were already spending a lot of money, what was a little extra at this point? In total it cost us $140 each for the return journey – we booked the Vistadome service for the outbound journey, and the Expedition service back (the Vistadome was quite a bit more for our chosen return departure time).
Whilst we had a great journey on both services, the superior quality of the Vistadome was clear. It was definitely worth the extra US$10 for its huge windows and awesome in-journey service. The Vistadome staff even organised a little birthday surprise for Phil!
Looking back, the train journey, which works it’s way through the Sacred Valley, was just as much a part of the whole experience as walking through the citadel of Machu Picchu. The views were absolutely spectacular on both services! The train snakes alongside the Urubamba river, and you can see the vegetation change as you move along. By the time you arrive in Aguas Calientes, you are surrounded by jungle (and insect repellent is your best friend!).
We spent a lot of money on the train, a lot more than we wanted to, but we are so glad we did. We had such a wonderful experience – it was so relaxing, slowly moving along and getting the opportunity to just soak up the beauty of our surroundings. We know that this wouldn’t have been the case if we had gone for the cheaper road option. We certainly wouldn’t have felt anywhere near as safe!
Our visit to Machu Picchu was incredible, but exhausting. We are so happy that after our 3am wake up call and six hours of walking through the steep ruins, we didn’t have to endure several hours of walking to get back to Hidroelectrica! We’re pretty sure the lovely memories of our Machu Picchu adventure would’ve been tainted by the absolute fatigue!
Rather than resenting the cost of the train, we now look at it as an experience all in itself. It complemented our visit to the world-famous citadel perfectly. If you are able to work it into your budget, we would definitely recommend the train!
Choosing the right option for you
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu, and what’s right for one person won’t necessarily be right for another. For us, the train was the right option, and we made the decision to rearrange our budget so that we could do it. You might decide that you really don’t have that money to spare, or perhaps you really want to get active and take on one of the multi-day hikes
Things to consider:
- Your budget – as we have discussed the different ways to get to Machu Picchu vary greatly in cost. Decide in advance how much you would LIKE to spend (in an ideal world), and then what your maximum limit is.
- Available time – the amount of time you have will impact on which routes you have available to you. If you are looking for something quick the road or train routes would be the best.
- Safety – we have discussed that for us there were just too many safety concerns to consider taking on the bus/walk package. You might decide that actually this is the best way to get there for you. We would recommend doing a lot of research into the different agencies before you book to ensure your safety.
- Level of activity – if you really want to feel like you have earned your visit to Machu Picchu and are desperate to get active, a multi-day hike is for you. Your budget and time allowance will determine which of the treks is the most appropriate for you.
Whatever route you go with, we hope that this guide has helped you to think about what you really want out of your visit to Machu Picchu. We’re sure your visit to this slice of history will be incredible whatever you decide!
If you are planning on organising a DIY trip to Machu Picchu, take a look at our guide.