Machu Picchu is AWESOME…and an enormous beast! We didn’t quite grasp how big the area actually was until it was too late. Not even an explanation from the helpful manager at South American Explorers at the Cusco clubhouse fully prepared us for it. There are a ton of hiking and tour options that will not only confuse the crap out of you, but can also set you back more than $400 each for just 2 days. Because we are tightwads, we have a dislike for camping in the rain and cold and because we are just plain stubborn, we did things our way. Surprise, surprise. Right? This post is about how to attack Cusco, The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu on your own while we buy some time to upload all the awesome visuals of Machu Picchu itself. Hopefully someone will benefit from the following information.
First off, it is important to grasp the scale of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas of the Sacred Valley and Cusco. Below is the map of the entire area.
View Cusco, Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu in a larger map
Secondly, when you talk to people about Machu Picchu, they start spouting off names like The Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo and you should go see ruins called blah blah blah. It is so overwhelming. In my opinion, it all needs to be simplified and organized. The following is my attempt at both.
- Begin in Cusco, Peru. Hang out there for a day or two.
- Visit some nearby Inca ruins near Cusco or in the Sacred Valley. There are 16 total, not including Machu Picchu.
- The Sacred Valley is the area between Cusco and the town of Ollantaytambo, the last stop before heading to Aguas Calientes, “Machu Picchu Town”.
- A direct bus ride through The Sacred Valley, from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, will take 2 hours. There are two routes: via Pisac or Chinchero, each containing some of 16 different ruins. It will take an hour or more to visit each of them if desired. Passes are available to visit multiple ruins rather than having to pay at each which is more costly. Leave time for the visits as well as travel time between each.
- Or, don’t visit any of them and go directly to Ollantaytambo. At the time of this post, this train from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was down due to construction on the tracks.
- Once arriving in Ollantaytambo, either stay overnight, enjoy one of the restaurants OR walk forward/down the road toward the last of the 16 ruins.
- Either visit the ruins or turn left beforehand and head to the bottom of the road where the train station is located.
- You must take a train to get to Machu Picchu, it is 2 hours in duration.
- Buy your train tickets in advance while in Cusco or before your trip. There are ticket offices at Larcomar Mall in Lima, at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco and at the train stations. You can also buy them online.
- You must have a printed ticket to board the train. We purchased ours online in Cusco, converted it to pdf, transferred it to a flash drive and printed it at an internet cafe. We probably could have printed it out at one of the offices, although we didn’t know they existed at the time.
- There is a cafe called Cafe Mayu at the train station in Ollantaytambo that serves lattes and such as well as has wifi. It’s also a good place to stand by a train and get some pictures while you wait to board.
- Once in Aguas Calientes, it is suggest that you stay overnight so you can get up early to view Machu Picchu in the morning.
- You must purchase Machu Picchu tickets in Aguas Calientes in the ticket office at the main square. They will give you a free map of the park. You cannot buy tickets at Machu Picchu’s entrance.
- If you want to climb Huayna Picchu, the peak behind the ruins in every picture of Machu Picchu, you’ll have to get to the park very early. Only 400 people are allowed to climb it per day making obtaining a pass very competitive. Most people head to the entrance at 4 a.m to get a stamp on their ticket in order to get their chance.
- To get to Machu Picchu’s entrance, you can walk up the drive which is very steep. It will take an hour and a half.
- The other option is to take the 25 minute bus ride. To get to the bus stop from Aguas Caliente’s main square, go downhill to the train tracks where you will see the buses lined up on the left. Purchase tickets at the ticket booth nearby.
- Once you arrive at Machu Picchu, you can hire a guide or go it alone. You can spend an entire day seeing everything, it’s that big.
- To return to Aguas Calientes, exit the park and purchase a return bus ticket.
- We suggest not trying to return to Cusco the same day. Instead stay overnight and take the less expensive train in the morning.
- Once in Ollantaytambo, take a bus or mini van transport to Cusco.
Well, I’m not sure that is simplified, but perhaps a bit more organized than what’s available. In the end, our 3 day/2 night, self tour of Machu Picchu and surrounding areas cost us half us as much as the cheapest hiking tour options.
As for our trip, we tried to see some of the smaller ruins but did not leave enough time to do so. We didn’t see any. Once in Aguas Calientes, we stopped at the first good looking accommodations, Gringo Bill’s Hotel which happened to be down a short alley. We immediately saw the posted room prices, the cheapest being $75 per night. As we were turning around to exit, the receptionist asked, “What do you want to pay?” We answered truthfully that our budget was only $25 per night. She said she could do $30. Since this price also included an American breakfast, it was actually in our budget so we took it. Ah, the miracle of low season!
Little did we know that life started so early in Aguas Calientes. Obviously people would be getting up early to head to the ruins. Our second morning there, after a long previous day of hiking and sight seeing, we desperately wanted to sleep in. At 6 a.m. the cleaning crew began scrubbing the floor outside our room. I surprised the cleaner when I opened the door and he responded with, “Buenos dias, senorita!” I’m sure there was the look of the devil on my face when I replied in Spanish with, “Later! It’s 6 in the morning!” He kindly stopped for 5 minutes before starting up again. I’m certain the rooms upstairs are much quieter.
Don’t worry…the next post will be chock-full of visuals and adventure! It’s taking days to upload all of the madness!
Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes Info and Prices
- Prices start at $32 for Ollantaytambo-Aguas Calientes
- Buy tickets online or at an office in USD
- You must have your passport and paper ticket with you
- Private rooms start at $75, although we negotiated for less than half of that during low season
- Includes American breakfast
- Very close proximity to the Machu Picchu ticket office and buses to MP
- Next to cafe with decent wifi, lattes and desserts
- MP entrance tickets must be paid for with soles at the office in Aguas Calientes. You cannot buy them at MP’s entrance
- MP entrance cost is s/126, or around $45 each
- MP entrance tickets should be purchased the day before
- Bus tickets are $8 each and can be paid in dollars or soles
- Bus tickets can be purchased at the booth by the buses and train tracks. In the picture to the right, it is just beyond that ramp on the left.
- Bus tickets can be purchased just before boarding