Don’t expect your hotel to give you a good deal on a tour to Machu Picchu. I found the tour operators to be over-priced, so I decided to make the arrangements myself and it ended up saving us a little money.
Make Your Reservation to Machu Picchu Online and Do it Early
If you’re visiting Machu Picchu during high season (May to September), you have to make your reservation to visit the site in advance. You can’t just show up and be allowed in. Go to this site: http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ to make your reservation.
When making your reservation at http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ be aware that there are several choices.
- Cuidad Inka (City of the Incas) - Machu Picchu site, including the Sun Gate. You can walk around and take in all the magnificence and magic. It’s a good time and it’s what we did. We spent nearly 7 hours just walking around and I will remember it forever. If I could have slept there, I would have, and I’m not the camping type. It is just an amazing place. It was $91US for two entries.
- Cuidad Inka and Machu Picchu Montana (aka Cerro Picchu) - This includes access to the city and a trek up Machu Picchu mountain. Are you a stranger to exercise? No. Are you afraid of heights? No. Then you can do this! It costs a little extra, but if you think you can handle the hike, then this is for you. But here’s a tip for you urban, non-athletic types: It’s a mountain. It’s in the clouds where the air is thin. Make sure you can handle it before you attempt. If you’re not in the habit of exercising regularly, then you might want to skip this. You’ll get a ton out of visiting the Machu Picchu if you decide to skip the mountain hike. If you want to get your exercise on, hike over to the Sun Gate or hike down the mountain back to Aguas Calientes. I can’t remember what this one costs, but probably $10 more than just a visit to the site.
- Cuidad Inka and Wanya (or Huayna Picchu) This includes access to the city and a hike up steep ass Wanya Picchu (the young mountain). This is the mountain that Hiram Bingham declared unclimbable when he was taken to the site for the first time. Well, someone figured out how to get up that mountain and it isn’t for us urban, non-athletic types. If you’re ok with climbing steep inclines, go for it. This ticket costs a bit more than the previous.
If you go to http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ a few days or even a week before you want to visit Machu Picchu during the high season, then you should be fine booking any of these options. We actually booked everything the day before we wanted to visit and everything worked out fine, but I think we were lucky. The Peruvian government has started to limit the number of entries into Machu Picchu and allow even fewer people up Wanya Picchu and Machu Picchu mountain. If you really want to do these hikes, be flexible and make your reservation early.
Reserve Your Train Tickets Online and Do it Early
Not up for hiking the Inca Trail? Yeah, neither were we. I love nature… from a distance. I’m fine enjoying it from the comfort of a slow moving train. If you fall into this category, take the train into Aguas Calientes, the town just outside of Machu Picchu for a comfortable ride. We flew into Lima and got a connecting flight to Cusco. Then made our reservations on Peru Rail from Cusco to Aguas Calientes.
Go to http://www.perurail.com/en/ to make your round-trip reservation after you’ve reserved your spot for Machu Picchu. We picked an early train that left at 6:40 AM and arrived in Aguas Calientes about 3 hours later. Be sure to reserve a spot on a train going back to either Ollantantambo or Poroy (near Cusco). The trains coming back from Machu Picchu tend to fill up fast, as the backpackers who hiked the Inca Trail will be on the trains, too. Don’t worry if you can’t get a train back to Cusco/Poroy. Since we did everything last minute, we could only get a train back to Ollantantambo. It was quite easy to get a ride back into Cusco from there. In fact, I’d recommend doing this way. The drive back to Cusco is lovely. We saw pastoral scene after pastoral scene, nothing like the concrete and steel of the city. Doing it this way also saves you the trouble of getting to Poroy and then having to get a driver to take you into Cusco. We shared a ride with some other tourists and it was only S30 or $10US for the both of us. The train was $248US for two tickets.
There is another train operator called Inca Rail. Compare their prices and schedules with Peru Rail and make your decision. Inca Rail doesn’t have as many trains running as Peru Rail, but they are a little less expensive.
Buy Your Bus Ticket to Maachu Picchu Early
When you get off the train in Aguas Calientes, go straight to the Cultural Center, check on your Machu Picchu reservation if you didn’t get charged for the reservation online (my card didn’t work on their online reservation system so we had to pay when we got there), and then go buy your bus ticket. Where’s the Cultural Center and the bus counter, you’re wondering. Oh, don’t worry. You’ll find it. Aguas Calientes is a tiny town.
We made the mistake of not buying the bus ticket as soon as we got to Aguas Calientes and I ended up on a slow moving line to buy the tickets while Clay stood in a 2 block long line for the bus, the morning of our visit to Machu Picchu. It worked out fine because the bus line moves fast and I was finally able to buy the ticket about 2 minutes before we boarded the bus. Avoid the slow ticket line and get your bus ticket when you get to Aguas Calientes. And if you want to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu, which you must do, you especially want to have your bus ticket in hand. The lines for boarding the bus looks intimidating, but it really does move fast. We paid $30 US for two round-trip bus tickets. I’m told it’s a lot less in low season. Buses start leaving at about 5:30 in the morning. The number of people in line at that hour was shocking to a late sleeper like me.
You Must Pay a Guide at Machu Picchu
You are required to have a guide take you on a tour of Machu Picchu. We were in a tour with another American couple and paid S70, about $25US for the two of us, but it probably would have been less if there were more than 4 of us in the group. Negotiate a price and be sure the price is per person or total cost for you party. Try to avoid misunderstandings. Our guide was great and the tour was about 90 minutes. After that, we were free to wander the grounds on our own for the rest of the day.
A Word About Aguas Calientes…
It’s a bit of a one-horse town. In fact, the entertainment for Friday night is Bingo in the town square. I’m not kidding. I’d say you don’t need to spend more than one night there. We took an early train into Aguas Calientes, stayed the night and woke up really early to catch the sunrise at Machu Picchu. In hindsight, we would have left that same day. In reality we stayed another night. It was fine for us because it gave us a chance to catch up on some much needed sleep, but you can leave the same day and hang out in Cusco, where there are lots of fun things to do.
Machu Picchu has to be seen. Pictures do not do it justice. I hope someone out there planning a trip will find these tips helpful.