Machu Picchu: A Dream Come True
Getting to Machu Picchu
Most tourists reach Machu Picchu through Cusco. Once in Cusco, find your way to Ollantaytambo (about a 2-hour drive). From Ollantaytambo, travel to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, via train. Trains from Ollantaytambo allow you to travel the morning of your hike to Aguas Calientes or arrive the night before, waking early to climb Machu Picchu.
Either way, you’ll need to buy train tickets to Aguas Calientes, it’s really just a matter of where you’d like to stay and if you want to travel the morning of. If you’re hoping to catch sunrise at Machu Picchu you’d better stay in Aguas Calientes and hike up early. Otherwise, taking an early train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes will put you on the peak for it’s afternoon session.
My close friend, Esau, and I arranged a Sacred Valley tour from Cusco the day before our trip to Machu Picchu. Our tour spent the day visiting Pisa, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero then dropped us off near Ollantaytambo with our overnight bags. We stayed in town and caught the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes in the morning.
Train Tickets from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
Buy your train tickets to Aguas Calientes a few days in advance during slow season and even further out during busy season (or risk sold out tickets). Tickets are limited and can be purchased at the airport or train station in Cusco (must be bought at the station if you’re Peruvian). Tickets can also be purchased online but may not be released very far in advance.
As of 2018, Machu Picchu train tickets are as follows:
Ollantaytambo 8:00 a.m. - Machu Picchu 9:25 a.m.; Machu Picchu 6:20 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 8:05 p.m. $105
Urubamba 10:30 a.m. - Machu Picchu 1:34 p.m.; Machu Picchu 6:10 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 7:51 p.m. $180
Ollantaytambo 1:27 p.m. - Machu Picchu 2:50 p.m.; Machu Picchu 8:53 a.m. - Ollantaytambo 10:52 a.m. $90
Ollantaytambo 1:27 p.m. - Machu Picchu 2:50 p.m.; Machu Picchu 9:50 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 11:35 p.m. $95
Ollantaytambo 6:10 a.m. - Machu Picchu 7:40 a.m.; Machu Picchu 6:10 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 7:51 p.m. $125
Tickets to Machu Picchu
If you haven’t purchased tickets to enter Machu Picchu, make it your first stop once in Aguas Calientes. The tourist building near the town square sells tickets for 152,000 soles ($50 US) with a choice of morning or afternoon sessions. Morning sessions begin at 6 a.m. and end at noon, while afternoon sessions are from noon to 5:30 p.m. There are a limited number of tickets for each session and rules state that you can’t stay past your allotted time, however, it’s unlikely anyone will notice.
Circuits | Huayna Picchu & Machu Picchu
There are two trails or “circuits” with varying schedules. Machu Picchu is the most famous route lying 7,970 feet high, while Huayna Picchu is the taller of the two peaks standing 8,835 feet. Huayna Picchu is the large mountain directly behind Machu Picchu and offers a more difficult climb. Be aware Huayna Picchu climbs begin very early in the morning.
Entry & Reentry (No Restrooms Inside)
Some sites say you can only enter Machu Picchu with a licensed guide but we didn’t find that to be the case and entered alone. A maximum of 4 hours is allowed inside Machu Picchu and monitored with colored bracelets according to your session but no one appeared to be enforcing this rule. Rules also state that you cannot reenter once you leave even though restrooms are just outside the entrance. Esau and I ran into this problem but staff was kind enough to allow us back in after using the washrooms (just ask before you step out).
Day 1: Morning | Catch a Ride to Ollantaytambo
Our train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes was set to leave at 9 a.m. Esau and I arrived thirty minutes early just to be safe. He would be riding a cheaper local train and I’d be on the fancy “tourist” train, costing much more.
On the way to the station, we picked up breakfast from a street vendor - a warm quinoa drink and avocado sandwiches, plus extra snacks for inside Machu Picchu (no food or drinks are sold inside). Just before 9 a.m. my train took off from the station and slowly rode through the jungle for an hour and a half. The ride was so relaxing; mountains, trees, flowers and waterfalls flew by the windows and glass rooftop. Staff served drinks and carrot cake.
Once the train arrived in Aguas Calientes everyone emptied into a small station which spilled into a huge market. For a moment I panicked and wasn’t able to find my my friend in all the commotion but eventually, we connected. The market was massive and full of blankets, scarves, bags and so many other beautiful souvenirs.
Esau and I crossed the bridge and made our way to the tourist building near town square for entrance tickets ($50 US). With tickets in hand we decided not to waste time hiking but would rather catch a bus to the top. The bus station near the bridge sells tickets for the ride up, as well as the return ($24 for foreigners & $15 locals). Make sure to buy round trip tickets if you’d like a ride back down the mountain.
Buses are scheduled often and take 25-30 minutes to reach the top. The ride up the mountain was terrifying. The dirt road is a single lane even though huge buses pass one another heading in opposite directions. It was bumpy, muddy and slippery. Round and round and round we went until we reached the top of the peak. Relieved and anxious, everyone unloaded.
Here we entered Machu Picchu through a security checkpoint (don’t bring a tripod, they aren’t allowed) and climbed up a number of steps until reaching a clearing in the brush. The pathway was marked for tourists to find their way and security constantly watched, so no one was able to stray.
Once the brush opened, the views of Machu Picchu were everything I had imagined. The site was much larger than I originally pictured in my mind, almost maze-like with paths and viewpoints around every corner. The mountain was incredibly busy and tough to get a photo without a million people in the background but definitely possible with a little patience.
Because we visited during rainy season it was super cloudy and a bit wet. The peaks are so high up that the clouds move swiftly through the air, almost as if they’re on fast forward.
We found ourselves exploring every corner of the peak and soon learned Machu Picchu only has one way in and one way out. It took some time to discover the loop or “path” which leads through the ruins. Initially, everyone enters the peak from above, overlooking the mountain, and then makes their way down through the ruins and out toward the bottom right-hand side. It was so interesting to notice the views change as we circled the peak.
Llamas were grazing everywhere. They had no problem getting close up or even snooping through your bag (one tried to steal my banana). The llamas were very curious and ate everything in sight.
Each and every corner of the mountain had something new to offer. We climbed up to the highest point and looked deep into the valley on the left-hand side, discovering the river and train we had arrived on down below.
In the late afternoon, Esau and I took a moment to eat our snacks and drink the water we brought into the site with us. Thank goodness we did, because there’s nothing whatsoever sold inside Machu Picchu.
We tried to be silly while taking photos but security wasn’t happy with us jumping around and scolded us. No one is allowed to jump or climb on any of the ruins which makes sense.
Toward the late afternoon, the sun finally poked out from behind the clouds for a few moments. It was absolutely breathtaking.
Near the end of the afternoon session, we followed the trail toward the exit and left Machu Picchu. We jumped back on the bus down the mountain toward Aguas Calientes and finally relaxed even though the ride down was no less terrifying than the way up.
Back in town and with a little time to spare we ate at an open-air food market above the shops, then boarded our trains back to Ollantaytambo (not as nice as the way there). When the trains arrived in Ollantaytambo hundreds of people unloaded and it was utter chaos. Esau and I were able to agree on a price of 10 soles for a collectivo back to Cusco. The drive was nearly two hours. What an incredible day and dream come true.