Meaning “Old Mountain” in the indigenous Quechua language, Machu Picchu was considered a sacred place for the Incas. At 8,000 feet (2,430 meters), it is one of the most spectacular urban creations of the Inca Empire and one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Visualized by the Inca Pachacuti, this citadel rose from the jungle 500 years ago and flourished under the Inca rule. One’s trip to Peru would not be complete without seeing this wonder of the world. It ranks high on travelers’ must-see and people’s bucket lists. To be on top of the jungle surrounding Machu Picchu and to witness the iconic ruins with the mountain’s peak behind them is an awe-inspiring sight.
Combo Sacred Valley Tours
Most travel agencies offer Machu Picchu and other day trips to iconic spots in the Sacred Valley. Included in the journey is transportation in and out of Cusco, breakfast and lunch on the first day, tour guides on both days, tickets to all points of interest, Peru Rail tickets to/from Machu Picchu Pueblo, bus tickets to/from Machu Picchu & bed and breakfast in town. Our total cost for this two-day trip was $500 for two people. You can shop around and negotiate the price if you have more in your group.
**Make sure that you agree with the vendor regarding the conversion rate. A few Peruvian soles difference could mean a lot if converted by the hundreds. Also, take note of the contact information of agents and tour guides that you can call in case you have questions before the trip or on the day itself.
Before you go
You can only bring a small personal backpack inside the citadel. Compared to Cusco, it is usually warmer in Machu Picchu because it is much lower in altitude. You can wear a light jacket that fits in your backpack when it gets warmer during the day and take pills for dizziness for the bus ride up the ruins. Snacks and drinks on throw-away packaging, alcohol, selfie sticks, tripods, drones, and walking sticks are prohibited inside the park.
Since November 1, 2022, Peru no longer requires visitors to present proof of Covid-19 vaccination, and the mandatory use of face mask and shields have been relaxed. Hiking with a tour guide, although not required, is still encouraged. Please check the guidelines before you book.
Getting to Machu Picchu Pueblo
The shuttle arrived around 6:00 am, and our group was taken for a tour of the Sacred Valley for the whole day. Then, at the town of Ollantaytambo, we stayed behind to catch the evening train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, which is a 2-hour ride in the jungle beside the Urubamba River.
Aside from hiking for about four days, Peru Rail is the next best alternative to Machu Picchu for not-so-athletic individuals like me. If you don’t want to do the Sacred Valley tour and go straight to Machu Picchu, there are train stations about 10 – 30 minutes from Plaza de Armas in Cusco that goes to Machu Picchu Pueblo, which takes about 3 hours.
Based on your budget and level of luxury, Peru Rail offers different train options ranging from $60 to $500 for each passenger. We took the Expedition train, the cost-effective alternative compared to the extra wide windows of the Vistadome and the luxurious Hiram Bingham coach. See the Peru Rail website for services and train schedules.
Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)
Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Pueblo, is the nearest access to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, but it is a relatively new town built on top of the railroad workers’ barracks. Entrepreneurs created the city to cater to tourists who couldn’t afford upwards of $1300 a night to stay at the hotel outside Machu Picchu. Aside from the hundreds of hostels and hotels that offer lodging from $12 – $450 a night, the town also has bars, restaurants, natural hot baths, markets, a church, and its city hall. Aguas Calientes is pedestrian-only so visitors can roam safely around its cobblestone paths.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes late at night and were awakened when the train slowed down, and passengers shuffled to collect their luggage. Still half asleep, we scurried down the platform, following the crowd as we were funneled by security to a small plaza. We were met by dozens of travel agents waiting for their tourists. Realizing that we were the only ones left in the plaza, we called our travel agent in Cusco, and she coordinated the pick-up that came after a few minutes.
When we got off the train, I was expecting to be in a sleepy town with tiny houses surrounding a central plaza, but I was surprised to see streets bustling with lights, music, and people jumping in and out of bars. Granted that our sleep schedule is earlier than most, we can still hear locals and tourists chatting about and having a good time into the night.
We stayed in a small hotel about a 5-minute walking distance from the train station. Our guide for the following day was waiting for us in the lobby to brief us on the next day’s visit to Machu Picchu. We were told to leave our luggage and walking sticks in the hotel as they were not allowed in the park. The meeting spot for the following day is in the Plaza Manco Capac with our passports on hand so they can buy bus tickets for us.
In the light of day, we saw the beauty of Aguas Calientes even more. The town is in the middle of the jungle, carved from the trees and mountains surrounding it. The raging Urubamba River runs southwest of the city, creating a more vibrant landscape. Several tourists were already seated on the plaza’s steps, waiting for the guides when we arrived. Since we had time to spare, we walked around the plaza and visited the Paroquia Virgen del Carmen before meeting our guide.
Machu Picchu Day
The schedule we chose to enter Machu Picchu the following day was 6:00 am to avoid the crowds and have a relaxed hike inside the park, but the guide that met us in the hotel told us that we could still go within two hours hassle-free. In hindsight, we should’ve insisted on the earlier departure time because the buses were limited that we had to wait for about an hour in line for them.
There are only two ways to go to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, a 30-minute bus ride through winding roads or a hike for about 90 minutes by using the steep stairs. The bus station is parallel to the Rio Aguas Calientes on Avenida Hermanos Ayar. The first trip up the citadel leaves at 5:30 am, and the last ride is 3:30 pm.
In Machu Picchu, line up at the checkpoints and ensure you have your passports and tickets. The duration of the tour will be about 2 hours. If you must use the restrooms, they are on the lower level. Unfortunately, there are no restrooms past the gates. The hike through Machu Picchu is moderate due to steep inclines and steps. We walked around at a relaxed pace, occasionally stopping to take pictures and admire the superb views. The trail is only one way, and staff ensures that everybody moves along to avoid crowding in one area.
It will be all climbing until you reach the hill where you can take the famous postcard shots of Machu Picchu. When taking photos anywhere in the citadel, obscene poses, jump shots, and lifting is not allowed. This is for the safety and respect of the sacred grounds where the ruins lay. We took a dozen or so money shots before being encouraged to continue the tour.
The hike is a U-shaped path in which the summit is Huayna Picchu (the mountain in the background). The first part of the tour from the main entrance is the Agricultural Zone, where you’ll find farming terraces. Next, down the hill past the archway, is the Imperial Zone that consists of the Temple of the Sun, Royal Palace, and the Intihuatana Boulder. The massive green space in the middle is the Main Plaza that divides the Imperial Zone from the Urban Zone. The Urban Zone is the residential area and the grounds of the Temple of the Condor. This sector is at the tail end of the tour. It leads back to the Agricultural Zone and park exit.
Some parts of Machu Picchu may have limited accessibility due to construction and limits following the Covid-19 pandemic.
You can either hike down or ride the bus back to Aguas Calientes. Although the hike down could be easier than climbing up, we did not feel like adding a 90-minute walk to the 2-hour tour we just did. So we were down the pueblo by bus just in time for lunch and some sightseeing before our train departed for Ollantaytambo.
Famished from all the hiking, climbing, and smiling, we made a beeline for El Mercado Aguas Calientes. It is a wet and dry market with food stalls on the second level. We ordered our usual Arroz-con-huevos, a simple rice plate with egg (or protein of your choice), salad, and a drink (usually chicha).
Now with happy bellies, we took a stroll around Aguas Calientes, starting at the Plaza Manco Capac, where the church and city hall is located. Next, we walked south Avenida Pachacutec, browsing souvenir shops, restaurants, and pastry shops. Then, we went back to the market and across the Presidente Bridge over El Rio Aguas Calientes, admiring a few Inca statues along the riverwalk.
Across the river is a vast block dedicated to El Mercado Artesanal, a shopping center dedicated to various handicrafts, souvenirs, jewelry, clothing, and more. The Peru Rail station for Cusco is at the back of this market, but we had time to kill, so we went back to town in the coffee shops parallel to the train tracks for refreshments.
Before going to the station, be sure of the Covid-19 precautions currently being implemented. As of the posting of this article, according to the Peru Rail website, it is no longer mandatory to show the vaccination card when boarding the trains. Also, using face masks is optional for both train and bimodal service.
Going back to Cusco
Although visitors to Machu Picchu have been limited to less than a thousand people a day, still expect a crowded train station on your way back. Aboard the Expedition, we were immersed in the thick canopy of the jungle alongside the Urubamba River. We settled nicely and shared fun stories of our travels with the lovely couple in the booth. The seats are comfortable; they have sufficient legroom and space for luggage at the back. Restrooms are available in every coach.
At Ollantaytambo, we followed the crowd to the bus stations at Avenida Ferrocarril for our transfer bus back to Cusco. The buses are on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no assigned buses and seats. We arrived at the Wanchaq station in Cusco late in the evening, about a 20-minute walk from Plaza de Armas. We retired into the night exhausted but grateful for an adventure beyond our wildest dreams.
Trial Retirements are periods we dedicate to travel into g to beautiful countries to know if they are perfect for us when we eventually retire. The time spent outside of work will serve as a preview of our habits and behaviors when we reach Financial Independence, of course, our way to recharge after months of hard work.
Anything we missed? Questions? Violent reactions? Let us know in the comments below!