Before you go
I always thought that Machu Picchu was only for young fit people. That you had to trek in and walk up a mountain to get there. Not true. Even old less than fit people can easily visit. You don’t have to sign up for an expensive tour either, it’s easy to do on your own as an independent traveller. A cab or Uber from Cusco to Poroy (US$8), a train from Poroy to Machu Picchu Pueblo (US$70 p/p), a comfortable bus to the site itself (US$12 p/p), and leisurely walking around the site (US$50 p/p). All prices are one-way.
Machu Picchu is about the same altitude as Cusco (and Machu Picchu Pueblo is significantly lower.) We wanted a chance to acclimatize so we spent a few days beforehand in Cusco. Plus Cusco is also a great destination in itself. I’m glad we did. I don’t think we would have enjoyed walking around Machu Picchu nearly as much if we hadn’t taken that time. You can also take sorojchi which is a painkiller with caffeine, or coca tea. We did drink coca tea and it helps but we skipped the sorojchi.
Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes)
The easiest and most comfortable way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to take the train. Unfortunately unless you’re a Cusco resident (and can prove it) you have to catch the train in Poroy, about 30 minutes from Central Cusco. You can take a cab or we took Uber, getting to Poroy should cost about s/. 25 one way (about US$8 in 2018.) There are two train operators, PeruRail and IncaRail, with similar prices, schedules, and equipment. We opted for PeruRail “Vistadome” (with snacks and soft drinks) on the way out and PeruRail “Explorer” (no snacks) on the way back. The cost is about US$50-80 each way. You should buy and print your train tickets beforehand either at home, your hotel, or at PeruRail in Lima or Cusco. They tear off and keep half of the printed page at the station. Luggage on the train is limited to a single small bag of no more than 5kg per person (though they didn’t weigh ours.) It looked to me like some people were bringing larger bags or even small suitcases, so maybe you can get away with bringing a carry on sized bag. You can store luggage at Poroy station for free and we did. The train trip itself is beautiful. The views are stunning. The route follows the river through picturesque gorges. You see wildlife, pretty flowers, grazing animals, ancient farming terraces, Andean towns, and of course stunning mountains.
Machu Picchu Pueblo to Machu Picchu
The town of Machu Picchu Pueblo is all about the tourism. That’s not so surprising, Machu Picchu is the most popular tourist destination in Peru. The restaurants are pretty much limited to tourist Peruvian, tourist Hamburger, or tourist Pizza. There are a couple of nicer restaurants but nothing too special. We picked restaurants for the views and that worked out for us. There’s supposed to be a hot spring in town as well, but after reading the reviews we decided to skip it.
We had decided to splurge a little bit and stay at a fancier hotel in a room with a view of the river. I’m really glad we did. The views were great, right overlooking the river, the room was big and airy and the bed was HUGE. It was a nice break from the mid-range three star hotels we’ve been staying in and the price was quite reasonable (US$60/night.)
To get from town to Machu Picchu itself there is a shared bus (US$12 p/p each way). The stop is just a block or two downhill from the center of town. It leaves when it’s full which in practice is quite frequently. The bus goes up some exposed feeling switchbacks and eventually drops you right at the entrance. You should get your bus tickets beforehand to save a little time, you’ll need your passport and cash (our hotel took care of it for us.) The bus just scans the ticket so you might be able to buy online just on your smartphone but our hotel gave us printed tickets.
Logistically there two time slots for getting in to Machu Picchu. Either morning 6am-noon, or afternoon noon-6pm. Each slot has a maximum of 2500 tickets per day. You may hear scary stories about having to buy your ticket weeks in advance, but in the low season they don’t sell out. Tour operators and guides in particular will try to scare you into buying a ticket from them in advance. It took us about 3 hours at our relaxed pace to see all of the regular parts of Machu Picchu. We did not get up insanely early, we had time for breakfast at the hotel and a calm stroll to the bus stop.
I do recommend starting by walking up to caretakers hut for the view. It’s immediately to your left as you enter, and this is where you get the classic “postcard” overview of the entire site. It requires some steps but you can just take your time. After that, you follow the suggested path through the site (look at the map as you enter, note their route) and you’ll see everything. We did not hire a guide and we’re just as happy that we didn’t. We could go at our own pace, take the detours we wanted, and you can still hear guides everywhere. Because a lot is still unknown about how Machu Picchu was used most of what you’ll hear from the guides is authoritative sounding speculation.
Machu Picchu seems like it was a big highly developed reserve for Inca elites with a stunning amount of astonishingly high quality stonework. The precision joinery is hard to believe. You definitely get the feeling that this was a living city full of people going about their lives. We overheard one person ask their guide “Why did the Incas leave Machu Picchu?” “The Spanish came.” Indeed.
It’s the same process but in reverse. Come down the mountain on the bus, go to the Machu Picchu Pueblo train station, show your passport and ticket, get on the train. Head back to Poroy. Catch a taxi from Poroy to Cusco (Uber is pretty limited in Poroy.) People will tell you to pre-book a car service or taxi but we didn’t find that to be necessary. We took our time in the station, collected our luggage, and were the last ones out long after everyone else had left and still we had no trouble getting a taxi back to Cusco.
On our way back we knew we were booked on the “no free snacks” train, so ate before we left. Rather than overpriced underwhelming train station food, Debbie had noticed when we arrived that there were people in the station eating real food from styrofoam containers. We know from experience that means there are vendors nearby selling pre-packaged hot meals. You just have to find them. In Machu Picchu apparently they have to be somewhat discreet, so you look around for people idling around big plastic bags and ask if they’re selling food. We managed to get fried chicken, yucca chips, plantain, tomato, cucumber and rice for s/. 10 (about US$3) each. I asked if I could take a photo of the vendor and her bag but she said no.
Machu Picchu is totally doable even for old out of shape people and it’s worth it. The train ride is a lot of fun, the site itself is beautiful and awe inspiring, and it’s not that complicated logistically. If you come to Peru you really should go to Machu Picchu. Just don’t forget to do all the other cool things too! (Like eat food in Lima, and see condors in Colca Canyon.)