Let us show you how to plan a DIY trip to Machu Picchu – there is no need to pay any extra fees for a tour company!
There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu and it can all be a bit confusing! We discussed in our last blog post how to make the best decision for you, based on your schedule and budget. For us, the train was a clear winner and became just as much a part of our Machu Picchu adventure as the ancient citadel itself (well… almost!). The multi-day hikes and road/walk package that we discuss in our last post need to be booked through a tour company, but a trip by train can be planned independently. We would advise against paying the extra fees for a tour company, and describe here in detail how you can go about planning your DIY trip.
Purchase your tickets in advance
The first step is to purchase your tickets for Machu Picchu and the train.
Machu Picchu tickets
You can buy Machu Picchu tickets online but you need a VISA card. As we only had a Mastercard with us, we popped into the Cusco ticket office to buy our tickets. For the basic ticket we paid 152 soles (about £35) per person (there is a cheaper rate for nationals). This gives you access to the citadel, the Sun Gate (where the Inca Trail came into the city), and the Inca Bridge. If you want to climb Huayna Picchu (the famous mountain in the back of all those classic Machu Picchu photos) you need to book far in advance as only 400 people are allowed to climb it a day. You can also purchase tickets for Machu Picchu mountain, which are a little easier to get hold of.
Last year (2017) the Peruvian authorities brought in new restrictions for visitors to help conserve and manage the site. In previous years, tourists were able to enter in the morning and stay all day long. There are 2,500 tickets available each day, and the new rules split the day into two slots; you can buy a ticket for either the morning or afternoon. They are still working out how to manage the new system to ensure that people leave at mid-day.
Two companies run tourist trains to Aguas Calientes, they are PeruRail and Inca Rail. We decided to go with PeruRail, as we had read many reviews to say they were by far the better company (although we can’t testify to this ourselves!).
You can buy tickets for PeruRail either online, or in one of their ticket offices. As we had a few questions that we wanted answered in person, we took notes of the departure times and prices that we wanted from their website, and then went and bought the tickets in person.
For most of the year PeruRail runs trains from both Cusco or Ollantaytambo (a town in the Sacred Valley) to Aguas Calientes. Between January and April the Cusco departures are suspended.
PeruRail have different services, catering to different budgets. The cheapest service is the Expedition, these carriages are the simplest and prices start from around US$50 for a one-way journey. The most expensive carriages are the Belmond Hiram Bingham, and a return journey can set you back over US$2000!
We travelled to Aguas Calientes by the Vistadome, these carriages have larger windows than the budget option and include a much more personalised in-journey service. On the way back we went for the Expedition carriage. Both services were really enjoyable, but Vistadome was by far the more superior!
In total we each paid US$140 for our return journey from Ollantaymbo to Aguas Calientes.
Travel from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is a little Incan town in the Sacred Valley. It’s very easy and cheap to get to from Cusco. We travelled by collectivo (shared taxi) which depart from here. It costs between 7-10 soles and takes around 1.5 hours. The journey is beautiful, taking you through the scenic Sacred Valley and the town of Urubamba, which shares its name with the valleys river.
As we had to travel to Ollantaytambo, we decided to make the most of it and spent two evenings there. We really enjoyed our time exploring the little town and we will be releasing a new blog post about it soon.
Stay in Aguas Calientes
We mentioned in our previous blog post that Aguas Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu. It’s only accessible by train or on foot which is what makes a trip to the ancient citadel a little tricky.
If you are getting the train to Machu Picchu you will be going though this small town, often referred to as Machu Picchu Pueblo. Although it is possible to get to Machu Picchu and back to Cusco all in one day (just about), it would be incredibly long and tiring. We would recommend doing what we did and arriving in Aguas Calientes the day before your visit to Machu Picchu.
Several people warned us that Aguas Calientes wasn’t anything special. Filled to the brim with restaurants and hostels, it was a place where people go on a mission to get somewhere else. As quick as possible. After hearing this, we were pretty surprised when the train pulled in to the station. Sitting on top of the Urubamaba river, Aguas Calientes is nestled in a valley. Wherever you look you are faced with the dominating mountains, and the roaring river is the town’s constant theme tune. While Aguas Calientes certainly isn’t pretty, its location is breathtaking.
Most of the town’s accommodation has awful reviews, and we really struggled to choose somewhere. The railway track runs through the town’s streets and so you can hear the trains wherever you stay. We paid a little more than we normally would for the hotel Inka Wonder. Despite its cheesy name, the room was nice and clean, the staff helpful and the shower was hot. Catering to the tourists’ needs, breakfast started at 4am, perfect for and early morning start to Machu Picchu.
Where to eat
Having eaten a large meal earlier in the day, we didn’t need any food in Aguas Calientes, so I can’t personally recommend anywhere. We were warned by our hotel to be careful though. Restaurants in the area are notorious for adding service charges of up to 30% of the bill! Don’t be shy and ask about additional costs before you enter the restaurant.
Travel from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
From Aguas Calientes there are two ways to get to the citadel
- Walk – you can walk up the steps to Machu Picchu which takes around 2-3 hours. Please only attempt this if you are in good fitness, the steps are extrememly steep and the gradient is made even worse by the altitude. Benefit? It’s completely free!
- Shuttle bus – there are regular buses from the centre of town. The journey takes around 15 minutes and costs US$12 per person, each way.
How to get the shuttle bus
We took the lazier man’s option and decided to take the shuttle bus – we just couldn’t face those steps so early in the morning! We also didn’t want to arrive at the citadel completely exhausted. We drove past many people who had decided to walk and they looked hot, sweaty, and very tired.
As our Machu Picchu ticket was for the morning slot we set off from our hostel as early as possible. We bought our tickets the evening before to save time the following day. Although you’re unable to book a seat for a particular service, buying in advance meant that we were able to jump straight into the queue to board. Note: They do accept payment by card but there is an additional 10% fee for the pleasure of doing so, so we would suggest having the cash!
The first buses arrived at 5am, by which time a huge queue was snaking its way through the streets. After joining the queue at around 4.30am, we managed to get on a bus by 5.20am. We’d actually expected it to take longer than this as there were already a lot of people waiting when we arrived. Apparently the queues are much worse in the high season, so factor this into your plans!
Hiring a guide
Unless you are part of an organised tour, we discovered it’s pretty difficult to organise a guide in advance of your visit. We spoke to a few people before we went and they all said that lots of guides wait outside the entrance. They were right! As soon as you arrive, you will find lots of people advertising themselves as guides. Don’t get swept up into the chaos and remember these two top tips to choosing the perfect guide for your visit.
- If you don’t speak Spanish, you will need to find a guide who can speak English. Walk around and listen out for someone advertising their services in English. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with them before agreeing to pay. You need to make sure that you can understand their English. Try asking simple questions about how long they’ve been a guide, how long will the tour take, and the kinds of things they will discuss.
- Be careful not to get ripped off! We were told all the guides have been approved by the authorities at Machu Picchu, but this doesn’t mean they all charge the same. We heard of people being quoted $50 each for a GROUP tour. Do NOT agree to this. We paid 40 soles per person as part of a four person tour. Expept to pay more for a private tour.
Tours usually take around 2-2.5 hours, after which you will be able to explore by yourself.
Don’t forget to have lots of fun and take lots of photos! Be prepared for all kinds of different weather. We encountered fog, rain and glorious sunshine!
We hope that this guide has been useful to you, and we would love to hear all about your visit to Machu Picchu. Please drop us a comment and send us an email!
If you aren’t sure whether or not a trip to Machu Picchu is worth all the hassle, give yourself a mental slap and read our blog post all about our Machu Picchu adventure. It was INCREDIBLE, definitely worth the money and the early, early morning!