1. Train time. Upon arrival in Ollantaytambo, the only thing that separates you and the Machu Picchu city is one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. You will enjoy almost 2 hours of incredibly steep Andes mountain ranges. Some peaks reach up to almost 20,000 feet and feature enormous glaciers. As you progress, you will notice the change of high altitude Andean scenery to lower altitude jungle forests. There are a few options as you consider which train ride to take:
- Which train company
- The largest and most popular train company is called PeruRail. They offer various levels of luxury. We recommend taking the Vistadome train which features large windows to ensure a great view. If you want to go all out on your trip, you can take the Hiram Bingham train which actually leaves from a different city. It is a luxury train which provides full meals, entertainment, Machu Picchu entrance tickets, and tour guide.
- Your alternative to PeruRail is called IncaRail. Inca Rail is a fairly new train company, which offers almost exactly the same service and train cars as PeruRail. If anything, the seats are actually slightly more comfortable. The train we recommend with IncaRail is the Executive train, which has the same windows as the PeruRail vistadome.
- Your last option is Machu Picchu Train. They only have one train option and it is the same car as the Vistadome of PeruRail or the Executive of IncaRail. The only difference is that a ticket on Machu Picchu train will be a few dollars more expensive.
- Which schedule
- If you’re going on a one day journey to Machu Picchu, we recommend taking the earliest train after the break of dawn and then one of the later trains home, as this gives you more time to spend in the ruins. If you are staying one night or more at Machu Picchu, then we recommend taking a more comfortable time, around 11:00am, as the train will most likely have more seats open and you can miss the crowds that are trying to get to Machu Picchu early. We always recommend to our friends that they should take a later train home because the town below Machu Picchu is beautiful and one-of-a-kind.
2. Arrange your lodging. If you’re one of the lucky visitors that stay a night in the town below Machu Picchu (the town is called Aguas Calientes), you have a couple of hotel options and a lot of hostel options. For high-end hotels, your options are the InkaTerra, located near the train station, or the Sanctuary Lodge which is just outside the entrance to Machu Picchu. One night at one of these hotels will run you anywhere between $350 to $1,000. For mid-range hotel options, you can choose between the Sumaq hotel or the Mapi, both of which are beautiful and will run you anywhere between $200 to $300. If you’re looking for the cheapest clean bed you can find, there are numerous hostels that cost anywhere between $12 to $150 a night. We recommend the Imperio Machu Picchu hostel which is clean, simple, and costa around $80 a night. There are enough hostels that you can find one upon arrival in the city; most of them are acceptable enough for 7 hours of sleep.
3. Arrange for your tour of Machu Picchu. If you came with a tour group, chances are that this is already arranged for you. Enjoy your tour. If you’re coming on your own, you have various options. First, you can purchase a guide at the entrance of Machu Picchu; they will charge you around $50 for a 2-hour tour and you can bring your buddies with you. Second, you can take a self-guided tour by grabbing a map at the entrance of the park (it actually gives you a great path to take to see the whole city). This strategy, combined with some research on Google beforehand, is not a bad one. Third, if you just don’t care about service or comfort, you can purchase a cheap Machu Picchu package at the Plaza de Armas back in Cusco. It will cost around $190 and includes transport to/from Ollantaytambo, train tickets on the tourist train, all of your entrance tickets, and a guided tour of Machu Picchu.
4. Make your way to the ruins. Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu) is 1,000 feet below the ruins. In order to get up to the ruins you can take a tourist bus or your can walk. The majority of visitors will take the $17 round-trip bus which lands you right at the entrance. These tickets can be purchased right at the bus station (where all of the buses are parked, you can’t miss it). The more adventurous visitors will take the hour long hike up the steep mountainside; hey, it’s free, and when is the last time you hiked through a jungle to discover ancient ruins.
5. View Machu Picchu. Upon arrival at the gate, you will need to present your passport and your entrance ticket. Don’t miss the opportunity to stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp at the little stand just pass the check point (on the left). Make your way around the corner and, if it isn’t foggy, take in your first view of the city. If you are in good shape, we recommend that you take the pathway that juts off to the left to the guard tower (follow the map you got at the entrance) so you can take the famous photo of the entire city. Enjoy your guided or self-guided tour of the city, it is an amazing experience. If you purchased the ticket that includes hiking Wayna Picchu, remember to get there during your allotted time. Also, if you’re feeling particularly adventerous, we highly recommend going down the backside of Wayna Picchu on a 2-hour detour that leads you to the Temple of the Moon. It is worth the sweat.
6. Enjoy Aguas Calientes. This town is amazing. It has no automobiles (other than the tourist buses) and is just a little jungle town created for all of us visitors to stay and eat. There are a couple of good restaurants; we recommend Indio Feliz or Treehouse, but after a long day at Machu Picchu, anything will be good. If you want a 1-hour massage, you can usually find one for around 60 soles (~$30).
7. Travel back to Cusco. If you arranged a private taxi ride in order to get to Ollantaytambo, you should arrange for the same taxi service to pick you up from the train station on your way back to Cusco. If you took the shared van approach, you can easily do the same to get back. You just need to walk up the street from the train station (there is only one street) and on the right there will be a parking lot full of vans with drivers trying to find passengers. You should pay between 10-15 soles per person to get back.
Visiting Machu Picchu is the trip of a lifetime. When done correctly, it will be an experience that can never be replicated. Happy adventures!