We regularly get guests that want to know how to get to Machu Picchu; some of them have some idea and others no idea at all, so I thought this would be a good topic for a blog. The following descriptions are of course based on current information and operations, and may be subject to change, but as of the date of this post the following is accurate.
Step one, get to Cusco: This is the most obvious and the part that I believe everybody understands so I won’t spend too much time on it, but there are a few things that you may not know. Aside from those few travelers that will be coming overland from neighboring countries like Bolivia, most tourists will be coming in directly from other more distant countries. So the first place you will currently need to get to is Lima, This is fairly straight forward and unless you live close, you will be flying in. The next step is to get from Lima to Cusco and there are essentially 3 ways to make this trip.
- The first, quickest and probably the most used route is to fly. Airline options at this time are LAN, Avianca, Star Peru, and Peruvian Airlines, and my recommendation for non-Peruvian residents is to use Star or Peruvian, as they tend to be the cheapest. In an effort to increase local tourism some years back, LAN and Avianca both started to offer discounted tickets for Peruvian residents, to offset this they charge non-residents more, so if you are looking at rates for either of these airlines, be careful as the cheapest rates shown are often for locals only.
- The second most common method is to travel by Bus, and while a bit cheaper it can take quite a bit longer. For bus travel there are going to be a few options that can be broken into two categories, direct and in-direct. Direct travel will have you on the bus for about 22 hours, there are many bus companies to choose from with Cruz del Sur being one if the biggest, due to their excellent safety record they are the most popular with tourists. The down side of Cruz del Sur is that they are also the most expensive operator and due to the popularity with the tourists, the buses do occasionally get robed. In-direct travel would be making shorter trips and stopping for a day or so in other towns along the way, this could take almost as long as you want, depending on how much time you spend in each place. Some of the more common towns to stop at are Pisco, Paracas, Ica, Nazca, Arequipa and Puno. To travel this way you could either book the individual sections on your own, or take advantage of a new company Peru Hop offering hop-on, hop-off service between Lima and Cusco.
- The third and least used route is also the route I would not advise, this would be to rent a car and drive. There are advantages to this route like freedom to go where you want and make stops in places you might not be able to do easily by bus, but there are far more negatives to this method than there are positives. For starters there is the cost, between the cost of the rental and fuel, you would easily spend more than you would if you were to fly. Next is safety, not only will you have to worry about finding a secure place every night to park the car, driving in Peru can be hazardous, it is not uncommon to see drivers passing in blind corners, traveling way too fast for conditions, or even driving at night with no lights. Combine this with the fact that roads, turns, and places are not always well marked and I think renting a car is just a bad idea.
Note: You may have noticed above that I said “the first place you will currently need to get to is Lima”. The reason I said this is that there are currently plans to build a new international airport just outside of Cusco, near the town of Chinchero. Once this airport is complete (maybe 5 years), there will be the option of flying directly to Cusco without having to go through Lima.
Step two, Cusco to Machu Picchu: Now this is where things are going to get a little more complicated, and while there are many options to get from Cusco, or here at GringoWasi, to Machu Picchu, they can essentially be put into two different categories, by vehicle or on foot and I will discuss each individually.
By vehicle: There are only two vehicular routes that I know of at this time, going by train or by car/bus.
- Train – This is the most common route and also the most expensive of these two, but it is the only route that will allow you to visit Machu Picchu in one day. There are currently two companies offering rail service to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu pueblo). Inka rail that only has trains out of Ollantaytambo, and Peru Rail that has three stations to choose from. The most popular station is the Sacred Valley station (Ollantaytambo), this station is my favorite pick as it has the most options for times (currently 12 departing and 11 returning) and is the station that will get you to Machu Picchu the earliest. There is the Urubamba station (also in the Sacred Valley), this station only has one departure and one return each day and would be my least favorite. The third station is the misleading one, on the Peru Rail website it is listed as Cusco > Machu Picchu, and the station is actually in Poroy which is about 20 minutes outside Cusco, I mention this because we have had several guests that have booked this station thinking it was in Cusco. The Cusco (Poroy) station is not my favorite and I would rarely recommend it as there are only 4 trains in and out each day, this does not count the Hiram Bingham, which only operates from this station. This station would only be a good option in a few cases, but generally not one I would choose, and you should keep in mind that no matter which station you would choose, you will need transportation from Cusco to the train station. Additionally you will arrive in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) where you will have to either hike about 1-1/2 hours to the Machu Picchu entrance, or take the shuttle bus.
- Car/bus – While there are a few options for mode of transportation depending on the segment of the route (i.e. taxi, private car, colectivo, bus) the order would remain the same. From Cusco you would first need to travel to Ollantaytambo, once in Ollantaytambo you would make your way to Santa Maria, then Santa Teresa and then finally Hydro Electrica. Once at Hydro Electrica you would have approximately a 2 hour hike to Aguas Calientes, and once in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) you will have to either hike about 1-1/2 hours to the Machu Picchu entrance, or take the shuttle bus.
On Foot: These are basically all trek options and as the starting point for each is in Cusco, I will just discuss the trek routes.
- Inka Trail, 4 Day – This is of course the most popular and most regulated route, and currently there are only 400 tickets available each day, as such it is highly recommended to book as far in advance as you possibly can. This is also the only trek that actually brings you directly into Machu Picchu, and must be done with a licensed operator. For this trek you would start in Cusco where you will be transported by bus to the starting point, just passed Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, follow which you will hike for 3 days, traversing high mountains, passing several archeological sites and then descending into the cloud forest, arriving in Machu Picchu early on the 4th day. You will then spend the day in Machu Picchu and usually return to Cusco in the evening by train and bus.
- Salkantay, 4 or 5 Day – This is probably the second most popular trek to get to Machu Picchu, and one that currently has no limit and does not require the use of an authorized agency, although having a guide is recommended. The starting point for this trek is to the West of Cusco close to the village of Mollepata, and if using an agency transportation will be provided. This trek is similar in terrain to the Inka Trail as it also starts with high mountain terrain and then descends into the cloud forest and high jungle. The main difference here is that the trek finishes the 2nd to last day (day 3 or 4) in Aguas Calientes, and the last day you visit Machu Picchu and then return to Cusco.
- Inka Jungle Trek, 3 or 4 Day – I believe this is probably the third most popular route and is a little more adventurous in its options. On this trek there is no sleeping in tents, and nights are spent in primitive lodges or hotels/hostels. This trek does not have any limits and also starts in Cusco, while you wouldn’t need a tour operator to do this, due to the equipment necessary it would definitely be recommended. You start out with a bus ride to a high point (4300 masl), from here you ride mountain bikes downhill for about 2 hours towards the jungle town of Santa Maria (1800 masl) where you will spend the first night. On the second day you hike to the next town of Santa Teresa with the option of river rafting in the morning. The third day starts with an optional zip-line tour and finishes in Aguas Caliente where you spend the last night. On the last day you visit Machu Picchu and return to Cusco in the evening. For the 3 day option you are transported to Santa Teresa at the end of day one and do not have the option of rafting.
- Laras Trek, 4 Day – This trek again requires no licensed operator, has no limits and could be done on your own, although not recommended. There seems to be several routes for this trek but generally the route is as follows. On day one you take a bus to the town of Laras where you begin the trek, from here you spend the next 2 days hiking through high mountain terrain, with the trek portion ultimately ending in Ollantaytambo, you then take a train to Aguas Calientes, finishing day three in Aguas Calientes. On the fourth day you visit Machu Picchu and then return to Cusco in the evening by train and bus. As I mentioned above, I have seen several variations for this route, with one company even doing a reverse of the above, starting in Ollantaytambo and ending in Laras. While I am sure they have their reasons for doing this, It is not a route I would choose as after finishing the trek in Laras, you would have about a 3 hour bus ride to Ollantaytambo (essentially backtracking), followed by a 1-1/2 hour train ride.
- Illegal route – I don’t actually know if this route is illegal or not, but this is how I have heard it described, and as it is a known route and one that is regularly used I see no harm in referencing it here. This route is probably the cheapest but also the one that I would not advise doing as the walk follows the train tracks. For this route you would want to get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and stay at least one night in Ollantaytambo. The next morning you will want to get an early start as from what I have heard, it can take about 8 hours of hiking to get from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes along the train tracks. I believe one of the reasons for this, is that there are several tunnels that you will have to pass through on this route, and the safest way to do this would be to wait for a train to pass, then get through the tunnel once the train is clear, this will reduce the chance of being inside a tunnel when a train passes (not a place you would want to be). After the roughly 8 hour hike you will arrive in Aguas Calientes where you can spend the night and visit Machu Picchu the next day, then retracing the route on the following day to return to Cusco. As you can see this would take a minimum of 3 days with 4 being better.
There are several other trek variations but they are less common and all essentially take routes similar to one of those described above so I am not going to go through them all. Once again all of the routes described above are based on current information at the time of this blog posting and may be subject to change over time.
So if you are planning a trip to Machu Picchu in the future, I hope the above information helps you to choose the best route for your situation and when considering lodgings, take a moment to check us out at http://www.gringowasibnb.com/