I came, I saw, and now I’m writing a blog post about it.
A few weeks ago, I visited a place that is at the top of countless bucket lists: the magical and mystical Machu Picchu in Peru.
There are clearly multiple ways to experience Machu Picchu.
Some go and do the full trek along the Inka Trail, while others do shorter hikes to or at Machu Picchu (e.g., Huayna Picchu), while others don’t do any hiking at all and take the train to the bus. That last option was me.
Truthfully, I likely would have tried to do one of the shorter hikes or maybe even the full Inka Trail (strong emphasis on maybe), but a few factors prevented me from doing either. So, I took the train to the bus, which made its way up the switchback road to the entrance gates of Machu Picchu.
All this to say there are clearly multiple ways to experience Machu Picchu. Here’s my how-to guide of how I did it my way (without going through a tour company):
Step 1: I bought my tickets to enter Machu Picchu
Sounds like a straightforward step, right? And technically it is, but it’s also very dependent on the time of year you travel. I traveled during the shoulder season in mid-April so there was a lot of availability to enter Machu Picchu, but the hikes can be a different matter. The Inka Trail fills up very quickly so this should always be the very first thing you book, if possible. Also the hikes up Machu Picchu Montaña and Huayna Picchu are increasingly popular, so again, best to get these tickets early, as there are only a limited number sold per day for select times. I bought my tickets directly from the official Machu Picchu site (Tip: Make sure when purchasing you enter the correct nationality! I read that people didn’t notice the site asks for your nationality until after they bought their tickets).
Something else to know about Machu Picchu tickets: there are now timed entrances, which is relatively new. This means you have to buy either a morning ticket or an afternoon ticket. Depending on which ticket you buy, you’ll be able to go into Machu Picchu within that designated time (and once you’re in, they allow re-entry within a four-hour window of when you first enter). I bought a morning ticket but didn’t enter Machu Picchu until 11am, and once I was in, I had a four-hour window in which I could re-enter (which I did around 1:30pm after my two-hour tour). I stayed until about 3pm, mostly because I had a train to catch but I technically could have stayed until they closed.
Step 2: I bought my train tickets to travel to Machu Picchu
Quickly after buying my Machu Picchu tickets, I bought my train tickets to Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, from Peru Rail (another option is Inka Rail). People do the train in a few ways:
Some travel from Cusco to Aguas Calientes the day of and do Machu Picchu as a day trip from Cusco.
Some travel to Aguas Calientes the night before so they can stay overnight and visit Machu Picchu first thing in the morning when the Incan citadel is often shrouded in mists.
Some do neither and travel from the Sacred Valley as a day trip.
I chose the third option, which I found easy to do. I knew I didn’t want to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes. I also didn’t want to do a day trip from Cusco, which is more than three hours by train each way. The idea alone is exhausting. So, I booked my train tickets from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, which takes about an hour and a half each way. It’s also a beautiful train ride in itself, and the staff were extremely efficient. Just make sure you have your camera ready to capture whatever catches your eye!
Step 3: I took the bus from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance
Once I arrived in Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo, I followed the signs (and helpful people) to where bus tickets are sold to go up to Machu Picchu. I read online that you can buy these bus tickets beforehand in Cusco or likely through your hotel, but I just bought mine the day of. Again, I had the luxury of going at a time that was not the high season, so if you're planning to go during peak tourist season, it may be best to see if these can be purchased before you go (note: I did not see anywhere official online where these bus tickets can be purchased ahead of time).
The bus itself is very comfortable and takes about 20 minutes to get to Machu Picchu. If you’re scared of heights, I recommend you don't sit by the window and look out during the ride uphill. The bus travels on a switchback road that’s right near the edge, so it can be a little nerve-wracking to experience but, hey, these bus drivers know what they’re doing, so it’s all good. Plus, if you're not scared of heights, the view is actually pretty amazing.
Step 4: I booked a tour guide outside of the Machu Picchu entrance
Once I arrived at Machu Picchu, I was surrounded by a slew of tour guides, most of whom only spoke Spanish, which I do not. But there were a few tour guides who were leading English-speaking tours so I booked one of those and off we went on a comprehensive two-hour tour, which I highly recommend. Sure, you can wander around Machu Picchu on your own, but I think it’s so much more valuable to hear about the history of this Wonder of the World from an expert. Plus, we were only four people in our group, which was basically a semi-private tour. Expect a group tour to cost around 45-50 Peruvian soles per person and a private tour to cost 150-165 soles.
After the tour, I had time to continue wandering around the site, and it was actually really amazing to experience Machu Picchu in the early afternoon when most of the crowds had cleared out. It felt like there were only a privileged few of us who were able to experience this incredible place.
To summarize, I...
Bought my tickets for Machu Picchu
Bought my train tickets to get to Machu Picchu
Took the bus from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu
Booked a tour guide once I was there
And that’s it! I found going through a tour company unnecessary, but if that's your jam, I say go for it.
Other quick Machu Picchu tips
Dress in layers, as you could be cold one minute and hot the next.
Wear long pants - not a requirement, just a strong recommendation.
Bring bug spray (and use it)! For some reason, I didn't use the bug spray I brought with me, and despite wearing long workout pants, I had numerous very itchy bites shortly after. Why? Because I didn't use my bug spray, like the champion that I am.
Use the bathroom before you enter Machu Picchu. There's no toilet in there, folks (with good reason, IMO), so make sure you use the bathroom outside.
Bring food/snacks. Technically I don't think food is allowed inside Machu Picchu, but the only food option outside of the entrance is the somewhat pricey buffet at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge or the ice cream place. Bring water and some food for you to eat outside of the entrance (or if you're sneaky like me, on a high ledge overlooking the site). Just make sure to clean up after yourself.
For the classic shot of Machu Picchu, head up to the guardhouse. It's worth it.
It’s only meant to hold hundreds of people and yet, every single day, Machu Picchu welcomes thousands.
This post has gotten very long-winded, but I’ll end with this: our tour guide wondered aloud at what would become of this sacred place. It’s only meant to hold hundreds of people and yet, every single day, Machu Picchu welcomes thousands. The recent entrance changes are a small sign of what’s to likely come: more rules to manage the crowds in an effort to preserve Machu Picchu as it becomes more popular.
Part of me worries about its growth in popularity while another part of me understands the fascination people have with visiting this place. After all, I was a tourist there too.
Who can say what will become of Machu Picchu over time. What I can say is that it’s certainly a place worth seeing at least once in your lifetime.