How To Go To Machu Picchu

Sunday, January 5, 2014

This is the 3rd post of my South America Trip series, you can find the first post, my South America Tourhere.

I mentioned that in the new year, I would like to write more about my travels, so it begins here. I've been noticing a lot of people looking at my "How to Plan a Trip Across South America & My Two Week Itinerary" post, so the natural progression here is to talk about getting to Machu Picchu, one of the top destinations in South America.
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A group of my college friends actually went to Machu Picchu the year before I did and they urged me to join the trip. It seemed appealing except for the part where I was told I would have to hike for 4 days on the Inca Trail to get there. If you don't know me, none of these words appeal to me: hike, camping, no showers, tents, steep mountains.

I would like to pretend that I like doing all of these things because it gives me some type of street cred, but honestly I would not be a happy camper (literally) for those 4 days. But I kept it real, and I passed.

Prior to my friends going, I never seriously considered the logistics of getting to MP and hiking seemed like the only way. This would be sad for me as I would never want to hike up to see the beautiful historic site. Good thing I eventually found out that they built a handy rail system to train us lazies up the mountain! With that said, I present to you:

10 Things You Need to Know about Getting to Machu Picchu

  1. Flying there. The journey to Machu Picchu always begins in Cusco, Peru. There are no international flights into Cusco so the best way to Cusco is to fly here from four Peruvian cities: Lima, Juliaca, Arequipa, or Puerto Maldonado.
  2. When to go. Dry season here is from June to October, this being the most popular time to travel. I went in August, which was a bit on the cold in the mornings and nights, but really warmed up as I was exploring Machu Picchu in the sun.
  3. Hike or Train?To get up to Machu Picchu, you can either hike the 4-day trek via the Inca Trial directly up to Machu Pichu or take a train ride up to Aguascalientes, aka Machu Pichu Pueblo, a small village made specifically for tourists traveling up to Machu Picchu.
  4. Hike: 4-day Inca Trail. You must travel with an official guide in order to do the 4-day 3-night, 26-mile hike through the Inca Trail. My friends booked theirs through Llama Path and had a very positive experience with them. Between the 7 of them, they were able to do a small private tour with porters who carried most of their personal belongings for them. When they went in July 2011, they paid about $650 for their trek.
  5. Hike: 2-day Inca Hike. Another option if you like hiking but not a fan of camping is the 2-day 1-night tour. This will allow you to see some of Incan ruins only those hiking the trail can see. Although this is a "1-night tour", you actually end up staying in a hotel in the village of Aguascalientes for the night.
  6. Hike: Book your hikes early! Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail per day as a way to protect the site from erosion. About 200 of those spots are for trekkers/tourists with the others left for porters and tour staff. As a result, it is important to book your trip in advanced as slots do fill up for the hike.
  7. Train (how I travelled). PeruRail is the most popular train operator for tourists visiting Machu Picchu. They offer three classes of trains for traveling, from cheapest to most expensive: Expedition, Vistadome, Hiram Bingham. Rides range from $50 - $120 for the Expedition and Vistadome and $300+ for Hiram Bingham.
  8. Train: 2 train options. You can either take a 4-hour train ride from Cusco to Aguascalientes or a shorter 1.5-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo. There were only 4 scheduled times available from Cusco (all in the morning) while there were 12 scheduled times available from Ollantaytambo all throughout the day. More on my itinerary below. 
  9. Buy an entrance pass to Machu Picchu. Everyone who goes to Machu Picchu must purchase an entrance pass, official website here. There is a limit of 2,500 passes per day, and only 400 can hike Huayna Picchu, the young mountain right next to Machu Picchu. The cost of the basic pass (MP only) is S/128 Soles which is ~ $46 per person.
  10. The bus up to Machu Picchu from Aguascalientes. From Aguascalientes, you can take a short bus ride up the mountain to the actual Machu Picchu site. Round trip is about $17, you can get bus tickets in Aguascalientes and the first bust up the mountain is at 5:30a. Even before 5:30, there are huge lines of everyone trying to be the first up the mountain. There are at least 10-15 buses running at a time, and will get you up the mountain, just in time for the 6a opening of the beautiful Machu Picchu Sanctuary.
That just about sums up the basics you need to know about traveling to Machu Picchu, by foot and by train.

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The beautiful view of the Urubamba River from our hotel room balcony in Aguascalientes

My Itinerary from Iguazu Falls to Machu Picchu

As I explained in my post of my two week South America Itinerary, with the LAN Airpass, I was only able to fly into Peru by going to the Iguazu Falls airport from the Brazil side. This is what my itinerary looked like:

Day 1 - Taxi from Igauzu Falls from Argentina side (we were staying at the Sheraton in the park) to explore Igauzu Falls on the Brazilian side for a few hours. Then took our flight from IGU (Igauzu Falls) 8:10p → LIM 10:25p. Sleep over at the Lima Airport (!!!!).

Day 2 - Take the flight LIM (Lima) 5:20a → CUZ (Cusco) 6:40a. Bought entrance passes to Machu Picchu at Plaza de Arms, take a combi van from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (10 Soles per person) at Calle Pavitos for 1.5 hours. Take train from Ollantaytambo Station at 3:05p → 4:40p to Aguascalientes. Check in at Andina Luxury Hotel for the night, booked through here. Buy bus tickets for Machu Picchu for the next day.
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Day 3 - Wake up at 5a to get ready for bus at 5:30a. At 5:15a there was already a pretty long line for the bus, got up to the mountain by 6a and there were already a TONNNNNNNN of tour groups there already. Walked around the site for about half the day and took the bus back down to Aguascalientes. From there, we took a train to Ollantaytambo and hired a taxi to drive us to the Pisac Markets, parts of the Sacred Valley and finally back to our hotel at Cusco for the night. We paid ~120 Soles for the 5 hours we hired the taxi for.

A Few More FAQ's

These are some questions that I wondered when I was planning my trip, so here's some answers for you.

Should I sleep over in the Lima airport? Is it safe? Where should I sleep?
This sounded really sketchy to me at first, but considering that we got into the airport at 10:25pm and the earliest flight out of Lima to Cusco was at 5:20am, it seemed a bit silly to leave the airport, check into a hotel to only sleep for a few hours and then come back to the airport to take the flight.

That said, I was really glad we chose to just sleep at the airport. It felt completely safe as the Lima airport was really nice and modern since it was their International airport. We ended up sleeping at plastic booths/benches near the food court on the second floor of the airport. There were some people cleaning from time to time, but I was able to get a little bit of shut eye. So, if "Princess Shelly" can do it, you can too!

Do I need to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco before going to Machu Picchu?
No, you don't. Cusco is at a elevation of 3,400 meters (11,500 feet) while Machu Picchu is at 2,430 meters (just under 8,000 feet), making it almost a kilometer lower in altitude. So unless you are going to do any of the hikes from Cusco which involves rigorous physical activity, it's almost recommended that you go straight to Aguascalientes.

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Riding the Expedition class train by PeruRail from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo
Is there a difference between the Expedition and Vistadome trains?
With the Expedition class of PeruRail formally marketed as the "Backpacker" class, I was a bit skeptical of the cheapest class when I read about it online but found that my concerns were completely unjustified.

I ended up traveling in both Expedition & Vistadome trains and actually preferred the cheaper Expedition class as it was not only just as comfortable and clean, but offered a serene and scenic ride. Because of timing, I paid a bit more for my ride back to Ollantaytambo via the Vistadome train. The ride was filled with (loud) cultural performances and even a "fashion show" which I believe is thought to be an upgrade, but it really just had me wishing I took the Expedition instead.

What's it like to take the Combi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo?
We hopped into our cab at Cusco and told the driver to bring us to Calle Pavitos where we can take combi (collective vans) to Ollantaytambo. He basically took us right to a large 15-passenger van where people took 10 Soles from us (the expected rate per person), tied up our luggage onto the roof of the van, and once the van filled up, drove us through the 1.5 hour ride to Ollantaytambo.

The van was filled with all locals and we were clearly the tourists. Did the whole thing seem a bit sketchy? Yes. But, where's your sense of adventure? ;) We ended up at the train station and were on our way.

Hopefully this helps you answer some questions you have about traveling to Machu Picchu. Let me know if there's anything I missed and I'll try my best to answer :)

Happy and safe travels!

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