How to get to Machu Picchu

Not so long ago, it was common practice for people wanting to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu to start queuing for the shuttle bus at around three in the morning, with no guarantee of getting a seat. Those days are gone: as part of a ticketing system introduced to keep visitor numbers at sustainable levels you now have a timed entry to the site, so if you book to be there at sunrise, there’s no need to get up at silly o’clock anymore.
It’s estimated that over one million people visit Machu Picchu every year, an increase of around 700 percent since the early 1980s. Given the size of the site, that doesn’t sound like much – after all around six million people walk past the Mona Lisa every year. But these ancient ruins are fragile, and increasingly susceptible to damage, so footfall needs to be limited. At present, visitor numbers are capped at 2500 per day, although in reality significantly more people actually get in, and the vast majority of those people arrive from Aguas Calientes, situated just below the citadel, in the Urubamba River Valley.

Getting into hot water

Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a small town, and the main gateway to the ruins. Spending at least one night here, before or after visiting the site, is the most practical way to see Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes to the entrance to Machu Picchu it’s either a 40-minute bus ride up a winding road carved into the mountainsides, or an hour-long hike. If you’ve booked to hike up either Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu Mountains for a view over the citadel then unless you’re feeling extremely fit, it’s best to take the bus. Either way you have a set entry time, am or pm.
The town earned its name from its natural hot springs, but as a visitor attraction the holistic benefits of these thermal waters pale in comparison to Machu Picchu. Typically, you’ll arrive into Aguas Calientes and spend the night there, before going up to the citadel in the morning. However, some people choose to buy two entry tickets, and time it so that they go up for late afternoon on the first day, when it’s quieter, and then sunrise the next day too, hoping for clear skies over the Andes. As for getting to Aguas Calientes, the vast majority of travelers arrive either by train or on foot.

Taking the train to Machu Picchu

The traditional train journey to Machu Picchu follows the picturesque Urubamba River, through the ‘Sacred Valley’, departing either from Cuzco (three and a half hours away) or Ollantaytambo (90 minutes away). There are various rail services available according to your budget, including Expedition Class, which is perfectly comfortable, Vistadome, which has panoramic windows, and the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham, named for the explorer who is credited with rediscovering Machu Picchu. For those prepared to splash out on this bucket list destination, this train features handsome Pullman-style carriages with antique fittings, fine dining and onboard entertainment from Peruvian musicians. A tailormade Peru vacation would let you choose the level of comfort and style you want. Taking the train to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu is for those that want to arrive effortlessly and relaxed.

Our top Machu Picchu Vacation

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Trekking to Machu Picchu

And then, for those who would rather arrive at Machu Picchu tired, sweaty and aching, there is the option of trekking! Well it’s not Everest but it’s certainly not a walk in the park either. Many people want to get to Machu Picchu on foot, not only for the sense of achievement but also because it immerses you in stunning Andean landscapes from cloud forest to rainforest and passes a handful of other Inca ruins. It’s important to know what to expect though.
Most choose the classic trek, the Inca Trail, which begins in Chillca, just west of Ollantaytambo, and takes four days, camping every night. You are walking on ancient stone paths, in the footsteps of the Incans themselves. There are various ways to tackle the Inca Trail depending on your budget and your fitness, but most opt to do it with the help of porters. A maximum of 500 permits are issued for the trail each day, over half of which are taken up by guides, and the porters who lug baggage, as well as tents, food and even tables and benches, up some incredibly steep paths. Walking up with just a small daypack can be exhausting – the porters do this several times a month, carrying between 20kg and 25kg on their backs, with few breaks and mind-blowing speed. And every afternoon they will also be erecting tents, cooking meals for a whole group with just a few pots and pans, and washing up, before they get to turn in themselves. They deserve enormous respect, which is why it’s so important to use a responsible operator that will ensure they are paid fairly, and not expected to carry more than they should.
The Inca Trail takes four days to cover just 43km, giving you some idea of the gradient involved. But because permits are limited and can sell out months in advance, especially for the peak months of July and August, several alternative routes are now growing in popularity. The Salkantay Trek takes up to five days, sometimes employing mules as well as porters, and takes you through a diverse range of ecosystems at very high altitudes, again camping all the way. The Lares Trek, with several different routes available, tends to be slightly less arduous, and offers a more cultural experience that winds around lower Andean slopes through Quechua villages and terraced farmland. And there is also the Moonstone Trail, which with full service camping leads you through less-frequented villages and rural areas as you approach the iconic citadel – a great option for those wanting to encounter more local people, and fewer other travelers.

How fit do I need to be for the Machu Picchu trek?

You need to be in decent physical shape for this trek, so practising before departure with a few long distance day walks will help. Aim for the steepest hills you can find, because you will be walking at high altitudes in Peru. Machu Picchu itself is at 2,450m above sea level, so walkers are advised to allow a day or so before setting off, to acclimatise. Good-quality trainers or boots are essential, a hat strongly advised, and walking poles can come in very handy.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: KAL VISUALS] [Topbox: Wasif Malik] [Aguas Caliente: F Delventhal] [Trekking: KAL VISUALS] [Best time to go: karlnorling]
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