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Planning how to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco was one of the most confusing things we’ve had to do in our whole trip. There are so many conflicting sources and routes that no one talks about. We’re therefore going to try and break down the 6 different ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco that we learnt of in our research (and also from Lima to Machu Picchu for a bonus point!). There have been some recent changes made during 2019 resulting in new 2021 Machu Picchu entry regulations, which we will also outline for you.
There are no simple buses or car routes to Machu Picchu, and in most instances you have to go via to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of the Machu Picchu mountain where all the civilisation is), so you have to think a bit harder about how to get there. Unless you get the train to Aguas Calientes and back to Cusco in one day (which would mean your entry to the park is fairly late and you’ll be in peak crowds until after 3pm) you will need at the very least 1 night in the town of Aguas Calientes.
Note that you will need to bring a form of official identification in order to enter the Machu Picchu site. Definitely opt for a passport over drivers license or ID card, as when you leave the ruins you can get an optional passport stamp!
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What are the new Machu Picchu regulations in 2021?
Well, in order to curb footfall and damage to this world heritage site, Peru has (rightfully!) enforced some new restrictions on Machu Picchu for 2020 and beyond. We’ll outline the new rules here:
Machu Picchu entry shifts
Instead of being able to turn up whenever (read: everyone turn up at 6am to push their way into the site as soon as the gates open), you now have to sign up for a shift to enter Machu Picchu in 2021. This is actually great as it means that the crowd level is the same throughout the day, whether you woke up to hike to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes at dawn or not.
There are 3 Machu Picchu entry shifts: the first shift is at 6am-9am, second shift is at 9am-12pm and then the third is at 12pm-3pm. However, to alleviate the crowds even more, within these shifts are different entry times on the hour, which will be specified on your ticket.
2021 Machu Picchu ticket prices
This does of course mean purchasing Machu Picchu entry tickets in advance, but most of the tour options we’ve mentioned below will include this in their packages – always check before reserving your spot!! The earlier shift time has always been the most popular, and so this price is the most expensive for a 2021 Machu Picchu entry ticket, at 197 soles ($60 USD), and 131 soles ($40 USD) in the afternoon.
4 hour time limits
Though they’re probably not going to hunt you down and chase you out of the park, there is now a 4-hour time limit at Machu Picchu. This is related to the hour you entered, not the hour that your shift group started, so don’t worry about being short-changed on time.
Tour guides are mandatory
And we think this is great! Not only does it help put money back into the local community as many of the guides are natives, but getting a tour guide to take you around also solidifies this as a breath-taking experience, as without someone to tell you the significance of what you’re seeing it could easily look like an unimpressive set of stone walls. Most organised transport options will include a guided tour at the top, but if you bought train tickets independently, for example, you will need to organise a guide separately. Machu Picchu tours are officially limited to a maximum of 16 people, but if you want a private experience with a Peruvian guide we recommend checking out who you can match with for personalised tours on ViaHero in Peru.
How to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco: 6 ways
Below are the options for getting to the most famous place in Peru; with the exception of the classic Inca trail and trains we generally found that booking in person from little tour operators based in Cusco is a lot cheaper than reserving places online, but we’ve included some links for where to book online just in case you enjoy travelling to a place safe in the knowledge that your place on a tour is secured.
If you’re going to opt for one of the hikes to Machu Picchu from Cusco, but are unsure of what to bring with you, check out this helpful Machu Picchu packing guide.
1. The ‘Classic’ Inca Trail
‘The real deal’. The most famous Inca trail closes for the whole month of February because of the danger posed by rainy season, so even if we did want to take this option (we most definitely didn’t), we couldn’t have. The classic Inca trail only has limited passes (500 per day as of 2019) so you need to book this one pretty far in advance – some say as far as 6 months if you’re travelling during high season, which is from May to September.
This is typically a 4 or 5 day hike through the old Inca passes that ends with reaching Machu Picchu at sunrise, before the crowds get there.
Although the trail is hard and the tour is costly (starting from around $550, but this can escalate pretty drastically if you book online from a tour company instead of booking with an operator in Peru – though saying that, G Adventures offer a fantastic 7-day Peru trip that includes the Inca Trail for a really great price), this is no doubt the best way to experience the world wonder and its surrounding beauty.
We’ve never met anyone who didn’t absolutely love the experience – perhaps because no one in their right mind would ever embark on this trail if they didn’t already have an appreciation for hiking 😉
2. The Lares Trek
This is a trail that takes 3 or 4 days when including a visit to Machu Picchu, though some people make it into a 2 or 3 day hiking route without popping in for a gander at the world heritage site. You don’t need a permit for this one like you do for the classic Inca trail, so no need to reserve a space too far in advance.
The Lares Trek to Machu Picchu is seen as the more cultured experience, as it takes you through more traditional villages where you’ll have the chance to see how the local people have lived for hundreds of years. There are usually fewer people taking the Lares Trek than the other trails on offer, so it’s a great option to get some headspace before facing the crowds of Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu itself.
3. The Salkantay Trek
This is a cheaper, 4 day hike (5 if you include the day you get to Machu Picchu) that, depending on your negotiation skills, can cost as little as $240 if you book in-person in Cusco, but you’ll only get a price like this if they’re feeling desperate about how many spaces they still have to fill before the trek starts. The Salkantay Trek is still an option during rainy season when the classic Inca Trail is closed, and you don’t have to book more than a few days in advance during low season.
Day 2 of the Salkantay Trek has unanimously been voted by our fellow travellers as the hardest of all, perhaps due to the fact that the altitude peaks at 4500m on this day. The other days are apparently quite pleasant. Halfway through the 4th day, you will join the trail that cheapskates use from the Hidroelectrica for the rest of the way (more on this below).
4. The Adventure Tour to Machu Picchu from Cusco
There are both 4 day and 5 day options for this way of getting to Machu Picchu. The last 2 days of this trip will be identical to the below cheapskate route, but before that you’ll do a bit of trekking in between activities such as white water rafting, mountain biking and zip-lining. Less gruelling than the Salkantay Trek whilst still feeling like you’ve made the effort to get out of urbanised areas. Prices if booked in person during low season are usually in the region of $250.
5. The Train to Machu Picchu from Cusco
We originally thought getting the 4-hour train directly from Cusco to Aguas Calientes would solve all our lives’ problems. And then we saw the price. Though there are several different options, one of the best is the Inca Rail First Class experience, serving gourmet food amidst live performances.
Expect an Orient Express-style luxury journey for the affluent traveller who wants to see the world without breaking a sweat (I mean really, isn’t that what we all want in life?!). This particular tour includes all transfers within Cusco and Aguas Calientes, as well as entry and a guide for the Machu Picchu site once you arrive.
If that’s out of your budget, there’s always the less lavish but still excellent Vistadome train, which has glass all the way around to maximise your views as you travel in from Cusco. Andy’s dad took this option in 2019 and absolutely loved the experience.
For us plebs who are just looking for the least expensive, easiest way to get to Machu Picchu, the very cheapest return ticket on a budget PeruRail train will cost you $120 if you book far enough in advance to nab the cheap seats. Prices go up to $475 per person EACH WAY. Get savin’.
6. The Cheapskate Route: Bus to Hidroelectrica, walk to Aguas Calientes, hike to Machu Picchu
Our chosen option! It cost us $95 USD per person (though we would expect this price to rise with the 2021 Machu Picchu ticket price increase) which included the bus to and from Hidroelectrica, a dinner in a restaurant, a packed lunch, a private hostel room, entrance to Machu Picchu and a 2 hour guided tour. We booked this the night before we left Cusco.
Note: you should not be doing this route with any more than a light day bag, and definitely nothing with wheels! Most hostels will allow you to leave your big backpacks in their storage space whilst visiting Machu Picchu from Cusco.
A minibus picked us up at around 5am and drove us 8 hours through the Sacred Valley (with a brief stop in Ollantaytambo to stretch our legs), dropping us off at the Hidroelectrica plant – a well-trodden transport hub in the middle of nowhere. There is a decent restaurant here if you want to stop for lunch, but if you go 5 minutes up the road towards the train station (turn left after the bridge and head past the tourism hut), there are plenty of restaurants to choose around there, too.
From here, you have two options. You can either get the $31 (each way) train into Aguas Calientes – which unfortunately has really sporadic departure times, or you can walk along the train track for free.
Being tight-arses, we obviously opted for the free option, and set off down the tracks.
Our bus driver had told us not to stray from the tracks at all, but this was actually terrible advice, because after the first 200m of track, there is a sign pointing up the hill towards the jungle that says ‘Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu this way’, and then another at the top of that. Make sure you follow these two signs, even if at times you feel like you’re going through someone’s house and at others like you might be getting lost in the jungle.
When you emerge from the jungle onto a new set of tracks, you need to turn left. The river should remain on your left until you get to the rusty old bridge. And from now, keep your pace and enjoy the beautiful views around you.
While almost entirely flat, this trek is still pretty exhausting, mainly because you have to watch every footstep due to the ground being covered in big, uneven rocks. It’s easiest to walk directly along the train tracks, but be careful of trains (they’re extremely slow-moving but the worry is that you may not hear them coming over the rush of the river).
There are several little places to buy snacks and drinks along the way, but they will charge you a premium for their monopoly out in the wilderness. It took us around 2 hours 45 minutes to walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, and boy were we glad to see the end of that walk! We recommend taking lots of water and portable speakers to keep spirits high if you’re the non-hiking type.
After visiting Machu Picchu the next day, you will need to walk back down this track to pick up the minibus back to Cusco at 2pm. Make sure you know exactly which company’s bus you’re supposed to be getting in, as this may be different to the company you arrived with. Most will give you a paper wristband to make things easier.
What’s Aguas Calientes like?
Everyone sees the town of Aguas Calientes at some point, whatever route you took to get from Machu Picchu from Cusco. We expected the town to be a tiny, shoddy collection of shite hostels, but in reality the tourist dollar has allowed them to build a shiny Disney-town. It’s clean, buzzing and feels safe but is a bit on the expensive side. If you arrive early enough, you can visit the hot springs (the town’s namesake) nearby to relax your muscles after your walk.
Unless you take the train or hike the classic Inca trail, you will need to spend the night at Aguas Calientes before going up Machu Picchu. Most cheapskate, Lares Trek and Salkantay Trek tour operators will include this (but always check what’s included!).
They will usually also provide a restaurant dinner so you can meet the other people who are taking your tour the next day, as well as being a chance for your tour guide to tell you where to meet him at the top of Machu Picchu mountain in the morning.
The people on the cheapskate tour are normally entirely different to the people in your cheapskate minibus, as the tours are often run by cooperatives and middlemen who sell your custom on. For this reason, reading reviews of tours before booking the cheapskate option is sort of pointless.
The hostel we were given was lovely, and the packed lunch of a banana, juice, sandwiches and a cereal bar was perfect fuel for getting ourselves up Machu Picchu mountain in the morning (there’s not much in terms of food options once you leave Aguas Calientes).
Bonus tip: How to get from Lima to Machu Picchu
Unfortunately, unless you take a multi-day coach tour, there’s no special way to get from Lima to Machu Picchu. As you might expect, you’ll need to travel from Lima to Machu Picchu via Cusco, and then follow one of the 6 ways to get to Machu Picchu above. There are regular night buses from Lima to Cusco. Cruz del Sur or Civa are some of the comfiest bus companies that offer this route – comfort is important for this 21 hour journey! Check out BusBud to book your tickets.
You may also want to consider Peru Hop, which is a fantastic way to get the flexibility of an independent trip whilst letting the tour company sort out all the details for you. That’ll let you stop off at other interesting places such as the Nazca lines and Huacachina on your way from Lima to Machu Picchu!
How to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes
(applies to all except the classic Inca Trail)
Most ways to get to Machu Picchu will involve heading to the top of the mountain to where the world heritage site sits, but the classic Inca trail takes a different route to get there earlier than those in Aguas Calientes can. Here, you have two options, each with their pros and cons. To give you an idea of timings, we’ve included how to get there for the earliest Machu Picchu entry time at 6am, though make sure you’ve checked your shift times on the ticket.
Bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu
Hike up the mountain to Machu Picchu
|Latest time to leave the hostel in order to arrive at the site by 6am||3:30am to start queuing for the bus (this queue stretches around the whole town within half an hour). The first bus leaves at 5:45am.||4:30am to get to the gate at the base of the mountain, which opens at 5am (again, a queue will have formed, but shorter)|
|Join the queue at||The bus stop in the centre of Aguas Calientes||The gate to the base of the mountain, a 20 minute walk outside Aguas Calientes|
|Preparation needed||You must buy your bus tickets the night before; the office will not be open in the early morning||Mental preparation for the physical hell ahead|
|Cost||$12 US each way – this is actually the most expensive public bus per metre in the whole of South America||$0, but also your soul|
|Time taken to actually get to the entrance of Machu Picchu||10-15 minutes||45-90 minutes, depending on fitness|
|Feeling when you reach the top||Unadulterated smugness||Bursting pride over your life’s greatest (and sweatiest) achievement|
It must be said that the walk up the mountain to Machu Picchu is really tough, and if you’re not fit you will need a lot of breaks. It’s also mostly in the pitch black, so having a source of light will really help you get up those endless uneven, muddy stairs built into the jungle. However, the views are breath-taking as you edge closer to the top and the sun begins to paint the misty mountains blue. Bus-takers don’t get that 😉
So you made it up to Machu Picchu! Now what?
The site of Machu Picchu is sooooo much bigger than you expect. It stretches all around the mountain, not just in the patch that the classic shots show you.
It’s normal for the site to be covered in early morning mist, so don’t panic if you can’t see anything when you first get up there; just focus on the foreground as the guide takes you round the more intricate details. As long as it’s not a rainy day, the mist should clear by the time you make your way to the Sun Temple, which is one of the higher points from which to get your classic Machu Picchu pictures.
Other hikes around Machu Picchu
Once on-site, you can also opt to climb the other mountain (Huayna Picchu) in order to get a less conventional view of Machu Picchu.
However, this has to be booked at least a week before (get your entrance tickets to both Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in one here!) as there are only 400 passes for Huayna Picchu per day across 2 time slots. It does involve an extra hour and a half to 2 hour hike that should only be undertaken if you are fit and healthy. You’ll need a specific Huayna Picchu guide for this hike!
There is another optional hike up Machu Picchu mountain (yep, it goes even further up!) that is seen to be a challenging but rewarding one. After a 90 minute ascent, you’ll have breath-taking views of the whole Machu Picchu site. Though the path is well-sign-posted from the site entrance, you’ll still need an official guide for this hike. You can purchase entrance tickets to Machu Picchu ruins and mountain together here.
Overall, despite all the hassle, sweat, tears and soles it took to get there, Machu Picchu has been one of the most awe-inspiring places we’ve been to, and it is absolutely not to be missed.
We hope this travel guide helps you plan how to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco in a way that suits your budget and travel style!
If you loved walking amongst the epic landscapes around Machu Picchu, make sure you arrange yourself a trip to Rainbow Mountain when you get back to Cusco. Views for days!
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Last Updated on 22 December 2021 by Cuppa to Copa Travels