Machu Picchu: an in-depth guide for travelers on a time sensitive budget (with video)


Getting To Machu Picchu

From Cucso tourists typically reach the historical site one of two ways:

– Hike to it via the famous Inca Trail: with guided routes ranging from 2-7 days and costing between $380-$1000 per person depending on duration, what’s included, and your group size. Among the most established and highly rated tour operators are: Peru Treks and Adventures, United Mice, and Llama Path.

– Or by train, which can range from budget (about $100/person round trip) to luxury accommodations which can run up to $794/person round trip. 

For those on a budget and time sensitive itinerary (or just not be up for the trek) Peru Rail is your best bet (Check out for detailed itineraries and pricing). NOTE: The most convenient train station to leave from and return to Cusco is the Poroy station, which is about a 20 minute taxi ride from most hotel locations in Cusco. 

perurail2I opted to take the earliest of Peru Rail’s Vistadome trains from Cusco to Aguas Calientas, giving me almost a full day to explore the town once I arrived. If you’re a solo traveler like myself, and you don’t want to crash anyone’s group, hiring a private trail guide to hike the famous Inca Trail will run you around $700 (for the shorter options), so the train will likely be the most cost efficient choice. If you’re not physically able to hike for days or if your schedule simply doesn’t permit it, the quick 4-hour ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes is likely your best option as well. They serve a small meal during the ride but I highly suggest bringing additional snacks and water for the journey. 

Lastly, if you do opt for the train ride into Aguas Calientes be sure to have  your camera ready, because the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. From gliding through working farms and dense mountain forests, to riding along rocky rivers and below mountain peaks, this will likely be the most unforgettable train ride of your life. 

aguascalientesAguas Calientes

Tucked away at the foot of the valley next to Machu Picchu sanctuary is the small town of Aguas Calientes. Situated along the Willkanuta River and surrounded by sharp mountain peaks blanketed in cotton-like clouds, the tiny town looks like something out of an old adventure novel. As the closest access point to Machu Picchu sanctuary, this is where most visitors shop, dine, and sleep before bussing or hiking the final 3.7 miles to the famed ruins. Although it’s compact size allows you to walk from one side of the town to the other in less than 15 minutes, you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore all that the town and it’s surrounding have to offer. 

Recommended Lodging: 

Most hotel options here range from 2-3 star with 3-4 star prices, and they fill up quickly, so be sure to make a reservation well in advance. 

A fair amount of bargain hunting and review reading landed me at Terrazas Del Inca Bed And Breakfast. For $60/night I had a private room and bathroom, river view and good wifi (internet access is pretty invaluable if you ask me). While the room itself was nothing spectacular the staff was pleasant and helpful. They helped me hire a local guide the day I arrived (although I recommend doing this in advance as I got lucky finding someone so last minute),  allowed me to store my luggage after checkout while I went to see Macchu Picchu sanctuary, and provided me a packed lunch ($5). 

mphike6Recommended Site: 

Despite Aquas Calientes being named after the areas hot springs, I decided to skip the hot water experience in exchange for an afternoon hiking up Putucusi Mountain. Base on reviews of the hot springs and my personal Putucusi experience, it seems like this might be the way to go – that is if you can handle the climb. 

Located directly across from Machu Picchu sanctuary on the northeast side of the river, Putucusi Mountain might offer one of the most epic views of the ancient site – and it seems not a lot of people know about it. While entrance to the hike is free, I do recommend hiring an experienced local guide (mine asked for $10) to accompany you as the navigation can be tricky.

mphikePutucusi hike also requires that travelers freely climb up numerous sets of wooden ladder stairs, with the longest vertical set stretching as far as 100 feet. As adventurous and cool as this was it was no doubt dangerous, so be sure to wear proper shoes and pack light.

It’s takes about 1.5 hours to reach the summit, but I’d carve out a good 4 hours to complete the roundtrip hike as you’ll want time to take in the views at the 8,400 foot peak. 

NOTE: This is definitely an advanced hike and a slightly dangerous one. It should only be attempted by travelers in good physical condition. 

Recommended Dining: 

Restaurants and cafes are plentiful in Aguas Calientes, after all there isn’t much else to do here but eat and drink once the sun sets. Know that prices here are going to be a bit higher than in Cusco, with the average meal costing between $15 – $20. El Indio Feliz Restaurant Bistro is one restaurant that consistently gets high marks from travelers and I’m no exception. The restaurant’s funky decor is what makes this such a cool dining experience, the delicious food just happens to be an added bonus. The French/Peruvian fusion menu boasts dished like mango chicken and quiche lorraine and also offers a fair amount of vegetarian options for non-meat eaters. My absolute must order with any meal would be the avocado and papaya appetizer and the garlic chips. 

machupicchu2Machu Picchu

Be sure to purchase your entrance tickets in advance at the Cultural Center offices in Cusco or Aguas Calientes, you can’t purchase entrance ticket at the sanctuary gate. I bought mine in Aguas Calientes the day before visiting the site and no issues.

Entrance fees are subject to change, but $50 should get you basic entrance and $60 should include site entrance and the option to hike Huayna Picchu once you’re inside. Note that only 400 tickets for Huayna Picchu are sold per day, 200 hundred for each of the two time slots: 7-8am and 10-11am. If this add-on is part of your plan I recommend purchasing your ticket as early as possible. Ticket offices will not sell same day tickets after 2:30pm, but besides that you shouldn’t worry about general entrance tickets being unavailable. Instead just worry about getting there early enough to avoid the peek influx of travelers who tend to arrive in large tour buses between 10am and 2pm. 

From Aguas Calientes you can hike to the entrance gate (3.5 miles) or take a 2o-minute $10 bus ride up the mountain. Buses leave every 15-20 minutes, run between 5:30am and 5:30pm and are surprisingly comfortable. I took a 6:45am bus and still felt like I had the place to myself, so don’t stress about missing the first bus – unless of course you’re trying to make the sunrise which is supposed to be magical. 

machupicchu5Whether you’re exploring the ruins with a guide, an audio tape, or by instinct… I do suggest taking some sort of map and text guide that outlines the sanctuary so you don’t miss the details that easily blend in with the naked eye. But before you get consumed with taking Instagram pictures of the Temple of the Sun, Intihuatana, Sun Gate, and local llama inhabitants, I suggest heading up to see the famous Inca Bridge. 

My guide explained that the thin stone path was carved out of the side of the mountain as a secret passage way for the Inca army to access Machu Picchu. As way to to deter outsiders from crossing, its builders left a 20 foot gap over an approximate 1,900 foot drop that required large tree trunks to be laid across in order to pass through. Although the actual bridge isn’t (technically) accessible to the public visitors can get a clear view of just how astonishing it is. I say technically because according to my local guide, walking across it “is forbidden but not forbidden”. I won’t share the details, as I don’t want to promote breaking any rules that preserve historical sites and ensure traveler safety, but I will say that if one were to get an opportunity to walk across it they’d think it’s pretty incredible. 

NOTE: While there is a small concession stand at the entrance gates it’s recommended you bring your own lunch/snacks and plenty of water as prices are highly inflated once you’re up the hill. Another thing to be mindful of is that the only restrooms (which cost 1 sole to use) are located at the main entrance gate, and depending on where you are inside the site this can mean a 20-minute or more walk back. 

No matter what itinerary you end up designing around your Machu Picchu visit your expectations of this ancient historical site will not go unmet. It is truly as magical as the books and blogs describe, something you have to see to believe.

Machu Picchu is without a doubt one place every traveler, novice or seasoned, should experience while they still can. 



 Machu Picchu: an in-depth guide for travelers on a time sensitive budget (with video)