Getting to Machu Picchu: Trains, tours, trails and treks

by Ellen Curham

Machu Picchu in Peru is one of the most famous historical sites on the planet and attracts millions of visitors each year. Built by the Inca civilisation that populated much of South America before the Spanish Conquest, it features intricate passages, temples and military defence structures. The Incas abandoned Machu Picchu when the Spanish invaded and it lay undiscovered for many centuries before it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Walking around Machu PicchuThe ancient city is an incredible place to visit. It showcases the Incas’ amazing engineering, mathematical and agricultural skills. It is also an unbelievably laborious feat considering they didn’t have materials like iron nor did they have the wheel.

Machu Picchu was said to be the headquarters of the Inca Empire and there are routes from similar sites all over the continent that lead to it. Nowadays tourists can choose from a variety of ways to find their own way to these mystical ruins.

Base Camp: Cusco

Bright colours in CuscoMost people use the city of Cusco as a base to get to Machu Picchu. This lively hub is 80km from the site and has fantastic restaurants, a bustling nightlife, quality clothing and gift markets and top hostels.

Many also like to stay in Cusco for a few days in order to acclimatise to the altitude of the region. The city lies at 11,000ft above sea level and first-time visitors can sometimes experience light-headedness, dehydration, nausea, headaches and other symptoms but these will usually subside after a couple of days.

But how to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco?

The cloud cityThe ruins are open all year ‘round with peak season being June to August and rainy season from October to April. However, the weather in the region can be unpredictable so always pack a raincoat and poncho and wear SPF as the high altitude exposes you to more of the sun’s harmful rays. Bring water and snacks, too, because it’s a big place with lots of steps. Insect repellent is also a must due to sand flies populating the area.

There is an entrance fee to get into the site which costs approximately $50USD for a standard ticket. There is an extra cost if you want access to climb Machu Picchu Mountain within the ruins or visit the on-site museum. You’ll need your passport to gain entry so make sure you don’t forget it.

Entrance tickets are not available at the site so you will have to get them online or go to the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INC), close to Plaza de Armas in Cusco or the Machu Picchu Cultural Center in Aguas Calientes.

By train

Alpacas love the site tooThe train is one of the most straightforward ways to get to the ruins. It leaves from Poroy, a short taxi from Cusco, and arrives in Aguas Calientes (also known as Machupicchu Pueblo). The trains can fill up quickly so you may want to book online at in advance. From Machupicchu Pueblo you can hike to the site of the ruins or get a shuttle bus. The hike takes around one-and-a-half hours and is a clearly marked stone-stepped pathway. It is moderately difficult and it best done early in the morning when it is still shaded.

Organised tour

Gazing out over the valleyIf you are stuck for time or don’t feel comfortable organising independent travel you could join a tour to Machu Picchu. These can be arranged at travel agents in Cusco or you can book a multi-city or country tour from home that stops at Machu Picchu with a company like Intrepid Travel. A lack of flexibility can be a pitfall with these tours and sometimes you might only spend half a day at the site while paying a lot more than independent travellers. However, convenience is often what draws people to these tours as entrance tickets will be sourced for you and you will be accompanied by a guide.

Inca Trail

The start of the Inca TrailFor something a little more authentic, you can choose to hike the Inca Trail to the site of Machu Picchu. This is a route developed by the Incas that treks through miles of ruins, cloud forests and jungle over the course of three or four days. This requires months of forward planning as only 500 trail permits are permitted each day and most of these are used by guides and porters. Many trail companies advise you to book a year to six months in advance to ensure a spot.

You can choose a private or group tour which is generally all-inclusive in that three fresh meals a day are provided and camp is set up for you each night. It is recommended to thoroughly research the companies you go with—and bear in mind that you will be paying upwards of $500USD. The ethical treatment of porters, who generally come from poor villages located high in the Andes, is a big concern so choose a firm that limits the weight they carry and provides fair wages.

Inca Trail portersAgain, the trail is moderately difficult but if you have a reasonable level of fitness you should be able to manage it. Each day is spent hiking in the morning and afternoon with a lunch break in between. You will find people of all ages doing it and it is generally a great social and extremely rewarding experience.

Inca Jungle Trek

If you weren’t aware of the prior planning needed for the Inca Trail, the Inca Jungle Trek is the perfect alternative. You’ll find travel agents all over Cusco offering this type of tour and many hostels can organise it for you too. Prices tend to fall between $150 and $300USD.

The valley below Machu PicchuThis four-day tour is really popular with young people and fans of extreme sports and is not for the faint-of-heart. The days will be spent cycling, white-water rafting, zip-lining and hiking through jungle and cloud forests before arriving at Machu Picchu. Accommodation is usually a basic hostel and the food provided is reportedly not the best but this is nonetheless a highly rated option due to the social and adventure aspects of the tour.

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