You would be hard pressed to find any traveler who doesn’t have the iconic Machu Picchu on their “must see” destination list. But what you might not know is that it takes a little more  planning than your average trip. There are planes, trains, buses and permits to book, and the timing of if needs to work out just so. Not to mention, it is also one of the most expensive sites I have ever visited (but this shouldn’t deter you, we will discuss budget friendly options!). It is increasingly busy, so by having everything squared away before you go, you will have a guaranteed a trip of a lifetime.

This is how I approached my trip to Machu Picchu, but I’ll also offer alternatives that you could consider

Machu Picchu is located near the city of Cusco in Peru. Your first step will be flying into Cusco. The airport only serves regional destinations, most flights arriving from Lima, Peru. An alternative to flying, is to take a 20-hour bus ride from Lima. If you happen to be in Southern Peru near Lake Titicaca, you can book the Andean Explorer train service from Peru Rail to Cusco for about $150. I flew into Cusco a few days before my visit to Machu Picchu to give myself some time to rest and adjust to the 12,000-foot elevation. Airfare from Lima to Cusco is about $100 each way.

I chose to visit in early September because it was the end of the busy season and the start of the rainy season. The weather was still great, and the crowds had gone home.

Once in Cusco, I went to the Machu Picchu ticket office and the Peru Rail ticket office to book my entrance and train tickets. I was flexible with my trip and in Cusco early enough to book everything when I landed. You can also book the entrance ticket and train tickets online. The entrance tickets include a few add-on options, I opted to add a permit for the Montana Picchu hike.

You must have an entrance ticket for Machu Picchu before arriving at the site. They only allow so many visitors per day, so they do sell out. Also, the only way to/from Machu Picchu is by train service and you must bring your passport. You will need it to buy your train ticket, board the train, and to enter Machu Picchu. Peru Rail and Inca Rail are the only companies that operate trains to Machu Picchu.

Day 1 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Cusco-Olly by Bus Lunch in Olly Olly – Aguas Calientes by Train Overnight in Aguas Calientes
Day 2 7:00 a.m. – 7:30 a.m. 7:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. 2:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Bus to Machu Picchu Hike/Explore Machu Picchu Hike down Train to Olly Bus to Cusco

To save money, I booked my round trip train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, instead of from Cusco. The train station in Cusco is not centrally located and requires a cab ride to/from the center of town ($10 each way). Bus service from Cusco’s central district to Ollantaytambo  is only about $3-$5 per person and takes the same amount of time as the train from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.

Train prices vary on time of day, and there are three different classes of train service to/from Machu Picchu on Peru Rail. Going to Machu Picchu, I booked the Vistadome (bigger windows, nicer service) and on the return I booked Expedition (smaller windows, not as fancy). For me, the train ride was a huge part of the experience, and I’d recommend booking at least one way of the train ride in the daylight so you can see the beautiful scenery!

I left Cusco on a bus at 9:00 a.m. to Ollantaytambo to catch my 1:00 p.m. train departure. Then, I took the train to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) and stayed the night. Aguas Calientes is a little town below the Machu Picchu site that is solely devoted to tourism. There are hotels, hostels, and restaurants (some better quality than others). My advice: don’t spend a bunch of time here, just use it as a stopping point to scout the rest of your trip to Machu Picchu.

The only way from Aguas Calientes to the actual site is by bus, or by walking up the hill on a trail. I booked the bus leaving from the center of town to Machu Picchu ($12 one-way). I didn’t purchase my return ticket to Aguas Calientes because I wanted to have the option to hike down the mountain in the event that the bus line was too long. Keep in mind that Machu Picchu is only open till 5 p.m.

As mentioned above, my ticket for Machu Picchu included a permit to hike Montana Picchu. This particular hike had a scheduled start time of 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. I needed to be in the Machu Picchu site and on the trailhead for the hike during that time frame, or else I wouldn’t be able to take the hike. I was on a bus to Machu Picchu by 7:30 a.m. and in the site by 8:15. If it is a crowded day, there may be a line for the bus in the morning, but I didn’t have any issues. The first bus leaves at 5:30 a.m., but by the time you are at the site you’ll have missed the sunrise, so there isn’t much advantage to taking the first, often times busiest buses.

I arrived at Machu Picchu and looked around while waiting for my 9:00 a.m. Montana Picchu hike start time. I started right on time and finished by Noon. This hike is quite steep, and climbs about 2,000 feet in a ver short distance, most of it is stairs with resting/viewing platforms placed periodically.  I’d really recommend the hike; from the top there is a 360-degree view of the valley over looking Machu Picchu, the river, mountain ranges and view of the Inca Trail.

From the hike, I went back to the entrance to have lunch at the snack bar and stock up on water. Then I hiked the Inca Bridge trail that takes you around the backside of Machu Picchu along an old Inca Trail to a constructed bridge (this all took about thirty minutes). I then explored the ruins via a trail loop that starts near where the Inca Bridge Trail finishes, and ends near the entrance to the complex.

My plan was to check the lines for the bus down the mountain before buying my $12 bus ticket. At this point in the afternoon, the line was over an hour long. This made the decision easy. I choose to walk down the mountain on the trail back to Aguas Calientes instead of wait in line.  It took under an hour to walk down and get back to the train station. Saved $12 and my sanity. Back in Aguas Calientes, I boarded my train at about 4:00 p.m. headed to Ollantaytambo. In Ollantaytambo, right out of the train station, there are many collective buses to take you to Cusco. Word to the wise, do not pay more than 15 Sols. The train ride back to Ollantaytambo was about two hours, and so was the bus ride back to Cusco. I was back in my hotel by 9:00 p.m.

Words can’t describe how amazing this trip was, except that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to experience Machu Picchu. From the train ride up the canyon, to the beautiful hikes, and the dramatic setting for the ruins – It was a trip to remember. Let me know if you have any questions, below are my cost estimates, packing list, important things to remember, and some alternate approaches to the visit.

Cost Estimates:

  • Bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and back: $10
  • Round trip train tickets: $144
  • Machu Picchu entrance + Montana Picchu Permit: $45
  • Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back: $24
  • Hostel in Aguas Calientes: $15
  • Lunch at Machu Picchu: $15

Important Items to Note:

  • Train service only to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes)
  • Bus or hike only from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
  • Buy tickets for Machu Picchu in advance, they are not available at the site or in Aguas Calientes, and they do sell out.
  • Buy train tickets in advance, and take the train in the daylight at least one way.
  • Bring your passport with you; you’ll need it to board the train and to enter Machu Picchu.
  • Bug spray, you can’t see or feel the sand flies, but they are there.
  • Only one piece of luggage can be brought on the trains. The train stations have luggage storage, and most hotels in Cusco will hold your luggage for you while you go to Machu Picchu.

Alternate Routes/Itineraries

Option 1:

  • Stay in Aguas Calientes before and after Machu Picchu. This will allow you to be less rushed for the time in Machu Picchu, and split up the travel time a little.

Option 2:

  • Don’t spend any nights in Aguas Calientes and stay one or two nights in Ollantaytambo and do a day trip to Machu Picchu.

Option 3:

  • Stay in Cusco and do a day trip, this will make for a very long day, but it can easily be done. Also, you’ll probably not get a chance to see any views from the train since you’ll be in the dark both ways.

Option 4:

  • If you have a lot of time, and patience, and want to really save money on the train ticket you can take the back door entrance to Machu Picchu. You’ll need to take buses, transferring a few times in a few towns, ending up at the hydroelectric plant along the river behind Machu Picchu. The train actually continues from Aguas Calientes to this hydroelectric plant. You can buy tickets from the hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes for about $20-30 each way.

Packing List

  • Bug spray
  • Backpack, you can arrange to leave your luggage with your hotel in Cusco, or leave it with the train station.
  • Hiking clothes
  • Passport
  • Camera
  • Snacks
  • Train ticket/Machu Picchu entrance ticket
  • For a more extensive packing list Travel Tips: Austin’s Packing List

More about Peru:

Vegan Heaven – Cusco, Peru

Rainbow Mountain – Peru