One of the world’s great wonders, Machu Picchu is the holy grail for any traveler visiting South America. A common misconception is that one needs to complete a four-day trek to reach this incredible site, and for many, surviving the Inca Trail is very much part of the Machu Picchu experience.
But for anyone with limited time, concerns about the physical challenge, or simply not keen on the lack of comfort during the trek, Machu Picchu is not out of reach. It is possible to visit the Inca site using a combination of public transportation services and without breaking a sweat.
Machu Picchu lies deep in the heart of the Sacred Valley in southeastern Peru and is the country’s star attraction. The Inca Trail is one of the world’s most famous hikes – in fact, each year more than 75,000 people tread the 26-mile route to reach the site of Machu Picchu. However, the trek is not for the faint-hearted; the altitude, steep climbs, extreme weather and barren accommodation can pose a barrier for many who wish to visit.
In fact, those opting to trek the Inca Trail only make up one-fifth of tourists welcomed by the ancient site. While some visit as part of an organized tour, it is possible to buy permits to enter the site independently and arrive using trains and buses which serve Aguas Calientes, the closest settlement to Machu Picchu.
It is important, particularly during the high season from May to September, that you book your tickets in advance. Permits to visit the site of Machu Picchu are available from Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura Cusco, via their website or at the official office in Cuzco. There is a limit of 2500 permits per day and these can often sell out days in advance, so book early to avoid disappointment. Tickets cost S/152 (around US$46). During the high season, tickets may even sell out weeks ahead so plan accordingly.
There are only a couple of hundred additional permits available to visit Wayna Picchu, the steep mountain at the end of the Inca site. These tickets go even faster and must be booked early, and are only allocated for two time slots each day (7am to 8am, or 10am to 11am). The climb is particularly steep, so only choose this option if you think you can make it.
Trains run from Cuzco’s nearby station of Poroy direct to Machu Picchu’s closest town of Aguas Calientes. It is wise to book train tickets in advance with one of the operators which service the 3½-hour route. From Cuzco, trains operated by Peru Rail and Inca Rail offer a range of options varying in price and luxury. Tickets are available online or at the Peru Rail office in Cuzco’s main square, Plaza de Armas. Also found in Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas is an office of the Peru tourist board, which can help if you are struggling with any of the arrangements.
It is advisable to reach Aguas Calientes the day before you plan to visit Machu Picchu so that you can stay overnight and reach the site early in the morning and have a full day to explore the ruins. If possible, reaching the site for sunrise is a magical experience and the journey in the early morning twilight adds to the charm. Buses run from Aguas Calientes as early as 5:30am, transporting passengers 25 minutes up the side of the mountain to the site. Alternatively, you can walk 8km up a steep mountainside path. If you do decide to walk, be prepared for an experience that is physically challenging, particularly with the altitude. The views are phenomenal, but allow additional rest time if you aim to reach the summit for sunrise.
Remember, regardless of whether you choose to trek or not, it isn't possible to speed through this part of Peru as the altitude forces travelers to slow down in order to acclimatize. Which is just as well, as Cuzco is definitely not a place to be bypassed. Often considered just a jumping off point for the Inca Trail, Cuzco is a gem in its own right. At 11,000 feet above sea level, the city nearly demands a slow pace of life. You’ll witness travelers and locals alike congregate to acclimatize to the altitude, share stories from the road, rejuvenate for the next trip, or simply enjoy the historic city’s combination of colonial architecture, laid back vibes and sweeping valley vistas. Expect to spend at least a couple of days in Cuzco as altitude can cause extreme difficulties for travelers and should be handled carefully.
Additional tips for your visit to Machu Picchu
- Take sunscreen – the sun is stronger at high altitudes.
- Bring food and drink with you – although signs say it's prohibited, you will be grateful for a bottle of water (just don’t litter).
- Once you arrive to the top, take the iconic ledge photo, then wander and enjoy the site.
- If you take the path up from Aguas Calientes to the site, consider taking the bus back down; it is almost as hard climbing down the steps as it is up them.
- Don't forget your passport when purchasing tickets in the office, as it is required for bookings.
- If you do opt to trek the Inca Trail, keep in mind it closes every year during the month of February for trail maintenance.
This article was updated in June 2018 by Agnes Rivera.