Visiting Machu Picchu via Aguas Calientes
The Journey to Machu Picchu…undoubtedly the holy grail of the Peru Trip.
Before I planned on going to Peru, I really didn’t know much about the process of getting to Machu Picchu, except that it was near Cusco. Fly to Cusco - go to Machu Picchu. Easy, right? Well, turns out, there are no direct roads leading from Cusco to Machu Picchu. You cannot drive, Uber or take a taxi. I knew you could trek there via the Inca trail, but due to our visit being during the rainy season (it closes in Feb for maintenance) that was not an option for us. There are other treks and expeditions you can take though that involve hiking on alternate trails.
The other option is to get there by a combination of train to Aguas Calientes (a small Hamlet at the base of Machu Picchu) and then a bus to take you up the mountain to the site. If you’re up to it, you can also walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, which I’m told can be done in about an hour and a half.
When you arrive in Cusco there are tons, and I mean TONS of tour agencies offering to coordinate your trip to this World Wonder. On our hotel street alone there were at least 5 different tour agencies. We stopped by one of them to inquire about pricing, and they were able to quote us a price of $250 USD per person for the next day, including train, bus, admission & guide. Having just arrived in Cusco and feeling a bit overwhelmed, we decided to not make a quick decision and do some other sightseeing first, then try to DIY it for Machu Picchu. It ended up being a good thing we did because the next day we came down with food poisoning and were confined to the room all day (imagine if we had pre-booked all of our tickets for the next day?! Phew!)
A few people had told me that the best way to see Machu Picchu was to sleep in Aguas Calientes and then take the earliest bus to see it at sunrise. In the non-rainy season you can take a train directly there from Cusco, but during the rainy season the busses replace trains between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, so we figured we’d be more comfortable in a taxi and it would also give us time to hang out in the village (an ancient Inca town that is a wonderful place to explore if you have time). We took the 3:35pm PeruRail Vistadome trains which is the mid range train with a panoramic view. Your other options for trains are the Expedition, the budget option without the panoramic windows, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham, a luxury rail experience. We chose the Vistadome because the Belmond was way out of our budget (although it looks sweet!!) and I wanted the panoramic windows because I heard the view from this train ride was unreal (and it was).
The train was really nice - they serve you complimentary tea/coffee and a snack while you ride up and the views really are spectacular - it took about an hour and 45 minutes. Arrival in Aguas Calientes is exciting - everyone is coming for one purpose and you can feel the energy and excitement. The town itself is so strange - in the middle of this beautiful lush jungle mountain setting are these buildings all piled up on one another, every other one under construction. There are also no cars besides the buses that go up to Machu Picchu. There are a selection of budget to luxury hotels and hostels here (there is even a super luxury resort right at the entrance to Machu Picchu). We chose a mid range option, Gringo Bill’s based on it’s price, last-minute availability and Booking.com rating.
When we checked in we were told by the front desk clerk to immediately head to the Machu Picchu office and bus ticket counter to ensure we had our tickets for the next day. You can buy admission for a 4 hour time slot, as they only allow a certain number of people to view the site at once. You can also purchase admission to climb Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu mountain with your admission tickets, which I’ve heard are both amazing but given my fear of heights and our food poisoning recovery status still in flux, we decided not to do either one and just purchase the admission from 6am to 10am. The bus tickets are general admission and you can get on at whatever time you choose. We had a lovely dinner at Tree House Restaurante, one of the more high-end dining options in Aguas Calientes.
Our room and view from Gringo Bill’s. There are lots of stairs and we were given the very top room which had an amazing view.
The morning of our visit we were worried we wouldn’t make the first bus (the first bus leaves at 5:30AM), but there were several buses lined up to accommodate people and we got on one right away. The bus ride also has phenomenal views so try to get a window seat! Once you arrive at the entrance you will immediately be approached by guides offering their services. We ended up joining a group of English speaking people with a guide so we payed significantly less per person than having a private tour. Make sure you secure your guide before you enter, as once you enter there are no guide services. Unless you have an independent knowledge of Incan history, I really do think it’s essential to have a guide, otherwise you won’t really know what you are looking at and having the background adds so much to your experience.
There are also NO BATHROOMS inside the gates Machu Picchu, only at the entrance, so make sure you go before you go, if you know what I mean, and bring a snack if you think you’ll get hungry…although you may have to share with a llama. We had an amazing 4 hours at the site before taking the bus back, grabbing a quick lunch at French Bistro
La Boulangerie de Paris before catching our IncaRail train and bus back to Cusco.
This llama liked carrot cake.
Okay, so in the beginning of this post, I told you that the tour agency quoted us at $250 USD per person and we decided to try our DIY luck. Here is our DIY price breakdown of what we payed PER PERSON in USD:
So, as you can see, we did not save much doing a DIY version - HOWEVER, I would say my takeaway was that you can DIY it for a similar price and have more choice and freedom over your time frame. If you don’t want to worry about anything and have everything already pre-purchased and taken care of, doing it through an agency should not cost you much more than buying it piece meal. I also would recommend sleeping in Aguas Calientes the night before as I liked being one of the first people to enter the site.
OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:
Remember that all of this was done during the Off Season, so prices and availability will vary if you visit during more popular times. If you do decide to visit during the popular season, I would recommend booking all more in advance than we did!
Bring water and a snack with you - after you enter the gate of Machu Picchu there are no services. There are bathrooms and a snack bar right outside.
If you bring your passport you can get a special Machu Picchu stamp!
Try to get a window seat on the bus up the mountain, the view is spectacular.