Peru’s most famous tourist attraction, Machu Picchu, entices visitors from around the planet. The ruins are located high in the Andes Mountains, making travel options to Machu Picchu a bit limited. Because of the remote location and extreme altitude, it is wise to plan in advance to make sure you have enough time to get to the ruins and see everything that makes this Incan landmark a “New Seven Wonder of the World.”
From Cusco to Aguas Calientes
The majority of visitors to Machu Picchu travel by a combination of train, bus, and private transport from the city of Cusco to the top of Machu Picchu. Though many choose to hike for three or four days on the Inca Trail, most prefer the comfort and ease of the reliable train system.
Typically, tour companies coordinate to pick up guests from their hotels or hostels within the city or the Sacred Valley for the first leg of the trip. Most often, visitors staying in the city board the train at Poroy Station in Cusco. The 70-mile train ride from Cusco takes tourists along the Urubamba River, passing through lush valleys situated beneath jagged mountain peaks. Those who choose to stay in the Sacred Valley the night before heading for M.P. (recommended) most often embark at Ollantaytambo Station.
It’s important to note that train service does not take you directly to Machu Picchu, but rather to the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the mountain where the ruins are located.
From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
Once you reach the town of Aguas Calientes you’re within walking distance of Machu Picchu. In fact, dozens of travelers choose to hike up for about two hours up to the citadel. This route is mainly stairs and follows the switchback road that leads up the mountain. The hike can be grueling and strenuous, but can be very rewarding.
Most visitors take a bus up to the Machu Picchu ruins. You’ll see a fleet of buses nearby and a steady flow of tourists getting their tickets, making it impossible to miss. The buses are comfortable and run every 15 to 30 minutes throughout the day. The same fleet of buses also ferries passengers down at regular intervals until the ruins close around dusk. The ride takes roughly 20 minutes and features beautiful views of the surrounding valleys.
Hiking the Inca Trail is by far the most adventurous alternative to taking the train and bus. The “Camino del Inca” or the Inca Trail takes four days to complete and offers some of the most beautiful scenery in Peru. On the way you see Inca ruins spread out along the trail. Consider packing a well-made pair of hiking boots or athletic shoes if you plan on walking the trail to Machu Picchu. When it comes to the dense cloud forest and steep rock slopes of the Andes Mountains, packing the appropriate hiking gear is essential.
Unfortunately, there are daily restrictions to the number of hikers allowed on the trail. The Peruvian government requires travelers to obtain a permit in advance in order to undertake this trek. Make sure you ask your travel advisor about securing a permit for hiking the Inca Trail. It’s recommended that you do this many months ahead of your scheduled trip.
Consider staying overnight in Aguas Calientes. This will help you have a full day at the ruins. Since the train from Cusco arrives at Machu Picchu around noon and you have to catch the return trip around 5 p.m., you won’t have much time to explore the citadel if you plan on making it back the same day.
Talk to your travel advisor about the hotels at Aguas Calientes if you wish to stay overnight and take your time rather than rushing through everything.
As with any trip to this part of the world, be aware of the effects of high altitude. “Soroche”, or altitude sickness, is common for tourists who have not properly acclimated to the altitude.
If you decide to bypass the train to Machu Picchu, only consider trekking if you are in decent physical condition. Trekking for four days through the mountains is not easy. Avoid this option if you are in poor health.
No matter how you choose to get to Machu Picchu, make sure to plan carefully in order to ensure an unforgettable trip.
Tours to Machu Picchu
Diego is a Colombian-American who was raised in Morristown, NJ. He started writing short fiction when he was a teenager and has pursued creative writing as a hobby ever since. After working for multiple publications in the U.S., he moved to Peru in January 2012. Since then he’s lived and worked in Trujillo, Cusco and Lima.