Machu Picchu is an incredible place. It’s really one of those rare places where the hype and the photos actually live up to the reality. That being said, it’s not the easiest place to get to. And there are blogs upon guides upon entire websites dedicated to helping you plan a Machu Picchu trip.
You can hike the Inca Trail for 3+ days. You can also stay in Aguas Calientes — a small town that’s main attraction is the fact that it’s at the foot of Machu Picchu — the night before and/or after your trip to the ruins. And these are both great ways to experience what this place has to offer.
But if you, like us, want to see the most you can see in the limited amount of time you have, then you might be better served planning a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco. It takes some planning, but it’s more than feasible.
Before Your Machu Picchu Trip
Most travelers will recommend arriving in Cusco 1 to 2 days before you plan to make your way to Machu Picchu, and there’s a good reason for this: altitude sickness is no joke. At over 11,000 feet, Cusco is well above the height at which people start to be impacted by altitude sickness. I’m not going to go into the details of symptoms here — you can Google those — but suffice it to say you’ll want to avoid this.
When you first get to Cusco, take it slow. Like, figure out how slow you think you should take it, and then cut that in half. Fortunately, neither of us got sick during our trip, but I definitely felt lightheaded and had a pretty nasty headache our first day walking around the city. If you can find a hotel in your budget range that oxygenates the guest rooms, we highly recommend booking one of those. It helped a lot when we were trying to sleep at night.
Machu Picchu is actually at a lower altitude, just under 8,000 feet. That’s why acclimating yourself to the altitude in Cusco is a good way to avoid getting sick at Machu Picchu.
How to Buy Tickets
You can buy tickets to Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes, but it is highly recommended to buy your tickets online, ahead of time. Particularly if you’re planning to travel during peak season (June through September). You can do this through Peru’s Ministry of Culture website.
As of January 1, 2019, Machu Picchu is now selling timed entry tickets with a one-hour expiration time — meaning that if you book an entry ticket for 6 AM, you have until 7 AM to enter the ruins. Maximum stay times are also now limited to four hours or less.
The Ministry of Culture website is where you can buy entrance tickets to Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu (Waynapicchu) and Montaña Machu Picchu. See our notes about hiking Huayna Picchu below. The site will load in Spanish, but you can change the language to English easily by clicking on the British flag in the upper right corner.
There are two train lines that run from Cusco to Machu Picchu: Inca Rail and Peru Rail. We used Inca Rail because the schedule was more amenable to our plans, but either train line will do.
Here’s the important part. There are two train stations in the vicinity of Cusco. The first is Ollantaytambo, and that is where the majority of the trains depart from and arrive to. So finding convenient travel times to and from this station is fairly easy. But it’s important to note that this station is a 3.5+ hour drive from Cusco, so you will need to have transportation to and from the station planned out ahead of time.
We took the train from Poroy, which is about 30 minutes from Cusco. The train schedules to this station are much more limited, but we found that the convenience of the proximity to the city outweighed this con. From downtown Cusco you can easily take a taxi to the station. If you depart from Poroy, the train ride to Aguas Calientes will take approximately 3 hours.
Arriving in Aguas Calientes
When you arrive at the train station in Aguas Calientes, you have two options to get up to the ruins: take a bus or hike. If you’re planning to see the ruins in one day and/or are hiking Huayna Picchu, we strongly advise against hiking up to the ruins. You’ll waste a lot of time and you’ll be exhausted by the time you get there — the hikers and buses also share the same road, so it’s a little precarious.
You can buy your bus ticket when you get to Aguas Calientes, BUT it will save you a lot of time if you buy it online, in advance. The lines can get pretty long during peak and shoulder seasons, and if you don’t already have your ticket you will have to wait in line for that before catching the bus. If you want to spend a full day at the ruins and especially if you want to hike Huayna Picchu, get your ticket in advance.
The bus ride to Machu Picchu takes approximately 30 minutes and departs roughly every 10 minutes. You can purchase the bus tickets on the bus company’s website (Consettur). The website is only in Spanish, so if you’re as rusty from high school Spanish as we are you, open the link in Google Chrome and use the translate function. The translation will be arguably bad, but you’ll get what you need to book the tickets.
A Note About Huayna Picchu
Huayna (or Wayna) Picchu is the picturesque-looking mountain that dominates Machu Picchu’s skyline. You can purchase tickets to hike to the summit, but tickets are limited to 400 per day, divided into two entry times: 7 – 8 AM or 10 – 11 AM. If you’re planning a one day trip to the ruins, you can only purchase tickets to the 10 – 11 AM entry group, as the first train from Poroy arrives in Aguas Calientes just before 9 AM.
There are a lot of varying reports about the hike up Huayna Picchu in terms of difficulty and scariness-level. Here’s the thing: it’s a little on the bananas side. Like, there will be times where you have to carefully consider your next step or hold onto something nearby to make it up/down some “stairs”. That being said, if you’re in somewhat decent shape (basically, you can hike a reasonably tall mountain without passing out) it’s worth the hike. Move slow, be careful, and take notice of who’s around you — because even 200 people can feel kind of crowded on the narrow paths here.
When you arrive at the ruins, it’s a good idea to go straight to the entrance to Huayna Picchu, which is on the opposite side of the entrance, to make sure you can enter right at 10 AM. Each entry block is limited to a 2 hour time period on the mountain, so 10 AM entrants will have to leave by 12 PM — so make sure you get there by 10 to have plenty of time to hike up and enjoy the view.
One last thing: Buy. Your. Tickets. Early. That is all.
Walking Around Machu Picchu
Once you get inside the ruins, try not to get overwhelmed — there’s a lot to see. As we mentioned, if you’re planning to hike Huayna Picchu go directly there to make sure you have plenty of time on the mountain. Once you’re done with your hike, you’ll be able to see some of the ruins on your way back.
However, a lot of the traffic in Machu Picchu is one way so you may find yourself — as we did — walking towards the exit without having seen all of the ruins. If this happens, don’t panic. You can re-enter Machu Picchu with your ticket and visit some of the sites you may have missed, like the short hike to the Guard Tower.
Another important tip: there is only one bathroom on the Machu Picchu grounds — it’s outside of the main entrance and it costs a small amount of money to use. You will not find any bathrooms inside the grounds — so plan ahead.
Getting Back to Cusco
Machu Picchu is big and sprawling, so make sure you pay attention to the time so you can make your train back. And leave plenty of time to get back to the train station — the line for the bus back down to Aguas Calientes can get pretty long in the afternoon and we waited close to 30 minutes to catch a bus.
Just one final reminder — make sure to have transportation from the train station back to your hotel in Cusco ahead of time. The trains arrive late in Poroy, and there may be taxis available but unfortunately there’s no guarantee.
Okay that’s it. As you can see, it’s totally doable to visit Machu Picchu with a day trip — even if you want to hike Huayna Picchu. It just takes some planning ahead and a little organization.