Since embarking on my travels to Latin America from my Yorkshire home some months ago, Machu Picchu had remained firmly on my bucket list of sights to experience. My initial knowledge of how one can visit the famous Inca site had been limited. Having only been aware of two possible options, the Inka Trail and simply visiting the site by transport, I was pleasantly surprised to find out along the way that there are, in fact, a number of treks to embark on and methods of reaching this long-hidden ancient city.
A magical and mythical venue, Machu Picchu should be on everybody’s to visit list, and thanks to this comprehensive step-by-step guide, there are no longer excuses to put it off.
Getting to Cusco (Cuzco)
First, the journey all travelers will have to make; getting to Cusco. Cusco, famed for being the capital of the Inca Empire before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the starting point for all trips to Machu Picchu. The city, which is in the southeast of Peru, can be accessed by a number of transport methods. For those flying into Lima, the country’s capital, the most convenient entry is again to take to the skies and fly into Cusco’s very centralized airport. The airport is located around 15 minutes from the main plaza (De Armas), which should cost around $3 in a taxi.
For those who may wish to visit other parts of Peru prior to reaching Cusco (Paracas, Huacachina, Arequipa, etc.), the long haul buses here are supremely comfortable and highly reliable. With seats that recline up to 180°, meals included and individual television screens in the seat in front, the level of luxury is superior to that of most flights I’ve taken. You can take a bus direct to Cusco from most major traveler destinations, or at worst, a change may be necessary.
Be aware, the Andes run centrally through Peru, which can make for interesting road journeys. So if there is travel sickness in the family, flying is definitely the more comfortable option.
Cusco’s Plaza de Armas
The Simple Methods
For those either with limited time, or who simply can’t grasp the enjoyment some people get from walking for hours and hours per day to reach a destination, there are a few simple methods to get you to the famous Inca city on high.
First, the train. There are three services running from the nearby town of Poroy to Aguas Calientes, a town a mere twenty minutes’ walk from the entrance to Machu Picchu. The most glamorous is the Belmond Hiram Bingham service, which is named after the American professor who discovered Machu Picchu for the world to see, and the other two are Inca Rail and Peru Rail. A taxi to Poroy from Cusco is fairly inexpensive and can take up to an hour. The train route is simply stunning, taking approximately 3.5 hours from start to finish, and crosses through jungle, mountains, and runs along a river. The train tickets start at $70 each way and change depending on time of day, season, and carriage type.
An alternative option is to take a bus from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, which will take much longer than the train at around 7 to 8 hours. It is slightly less scenic, but is much cheaper, costing around $10, depending on the agency booked with.
Depending on allotted entrance times to the site, which are either between 6 a.m. and 12 p.m. or 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. , visitors either choose to climb up the Machu Picchu as soon as they arrive to Aguas Calientes, or stay a night in nearby Aguas Calientes and get up bright and early to see the site at sunrise. There are two ways to get up to the historical site from Aguas Calientes; to walk twenty minutes to the first entrance of the site, then proceed to climb 1,800 steps to the second and main entrance, or to get a bus from the town to the main entrance, which costs around $15.
For visitors making their own way to Machu Picchu, buying tickets to the site prior to arrival for the date you wish to visit is a must. The attraction has a daily quota for visitors, which is met almost every day of the year. Tickets for Machu Picchu are around $45. All visitors must also bring original copies of passports to prove they are the ticket holder.
Views From the Train Tracks to Aguas Calientes
The Classic Trail
The Inka Trail is the most famous and popular of all of the treks to Machu Picchu. Hikers choose whether they complete the short or long trails with the short trails lasting for either two or three days, and the long trails lasting four days or five days. Prices range from $399 to $719. The four day hike is the most common, where trekkers visit Sacred Valley and end in Machu Picchu, with various other Inca settlements and sites visited on route. Shorter trails will simply cut out some of the archaeological sites and the longer trail offers an extra day in Machu Picchu to climb Hyuana Picchu, a mountain which offers stunning views of the Lost City of the Incas.
Six months advanced booking is recommended for the Inca Trail, whichever duration, as the regional government only allows a very limited number of people to trek the path each year.
The trek I chose to do, which isn’t quite as popular, but perhaps a little more naturally spectacular and diverse than the Inca Trail, is the Salkantay Trek. This trek costs from $170, depending on whether or not you wish to return to Cusco by bus or by train and can be completed in four or five days. For the five day hike, which is the most common, the trek begins by walking up towards the Salkantay Pass, bypassing the snow-topped Salkantay Mountain. On this trek, the altitude reaches 1,5091.8 feet (4,600 meters) and temperatures can reach 19.3 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius), so it’s a little tougher than the Inca Trail, which largely runs through relatively low-altitude cloud forest. After the first night and reaching the highest altitude on the second day, the trek starts to descend into the jungle, a climate in which most of the third day is spent. The fourth day consists of a morning of zip lining, before eventually hiking from Hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. The fifth day starts early with a sunrise hike to Machu Picchu. Along the way, scenes discovered include other ancient Inca ruins, natural hot springs, and glacial lakes.
Reaching 1,5091.8 feet at the Top of the Salkantay Pass
For Thrill Seekers
The active and adventurous family members will delight at the prospect of this method of reaching Machu Picchu. The four night Jungle Trek offers all of the intrigue of the other treks, but with the added exhilaration of extreme sports. The trek begins with a 1.24 mile (two kilometer) mountain bike descent along mountain roads, past waterfalls and through local villages setting the tone for the rest of the trip, which also incorporates white knuckle water rafting and zip lining. The trek also joins part of the Inca Trail, where trekkers can learn of the ancient ways of the Inca people, and hike through jungle surroundings, passing maracuya and granadilla fruit trees, which are part of the passion fruit family as well as bananas, avocados, and a whole host of other tropical flora. Before reaching Machu Picchu, Jungle Trekkers get to spend an evening in the Santa Theresa hot springs to soothe any bumps and bruises picked up along the way. The cost of this trip starts at $253.
The Hardcore Hike
For those with money, energy, and time in the utmost abundance, the combination of the Inka Trail, the Salkantay Trek, and a trek to Choquequirao, the most recently discovered Inca city, is a possibility. It takes twelve days in total and amalgamates all of the best parts of each trek to give participants the most authentic hiking experience possible. This is one for the most seasoned hikers out there looking to take their Machu Picchu experience to the next level.
A Moody Machu Picchu From the Famous Guardhouse
With the options for visiting Machu Picchu as diverse in price and sightseeing as they are in difficulty and duration, there really is no excuse to miss this wonder of the world. The best times to visit to ensure the weather stays as on your side as much as possible are between April and November, with the rainy season falling between December and March.