Visiting Machu Picchu: A guide for lazy pandas
The activities and accommodation in this post were NOT sponsored.
It takes a second or two for the sight to reach my brain, even though it is right before my eyes, larger than life. Then I feel my lips stretch wider into gaping grin and my eyebrows arch for the sky as I gaze upon the ruins of Machu Picchu. Amazement doesn’t quite cover it. I feel like someone just took my spark of wonder and poured petrol on it. The smile I show on the outside can’t adequately reflect what I feel inside; it’s like every neuron of my brain is trying to fire in both directions at once – the best kind of paralysis.
Visiting Machu Picchu is on most peoples’ bucket lists but before I visited, I was slightly worried. What if I had seen so many photos of this site that it actually wouldn’t be impressive in reality? And while it seems like an incredibly narcissistic thing to say, it happens when you’re a frequent traveller- the things you see online just don’t seem that amazing in reality. But fear not, I am here to dispel your worries! Machu Picchu is every bit as awe-inspiring in person as it may seem in photos. Even more so to be honest!
But truthfully, visiting Machu Picchu was a mission and required a lot of help and planning especially as I don’t speak Spanish and had never been to (or knew anyone who had planned a trip to) Peru! In this post I will provide a detailed guide to how I go to Machu Picchu, what to take, what to wear, how fit you need to be and where to stay.
Please note this is blog post for people who do not want to camp or trek for days to see Machu Picchu. While its incredibly courageous that people do these things, they’re not feasible for everyone.
Watch our video about visiting Machu Picchu here:
If you’re too lazy to finish reading the rest of this blog post then don’t worry- I have you covered! Polar & I discuss our journey to and time in Machu Picchu in this video… grab some popcorn and get comfy!
For those Visiting Machu Picchu, the closest airport to Machu Picchu is in the city of Cusco. It’s nearly impossible to find a flight to Cusco without flying into the Peru’s capital city- Lima- first. Lima airport is chaotic as its really small and services both domestic and international flights from one building. Allow yourself extra time when navigating this place.
Tip: If you have a long layover and don’t want to venture too far from the airport, walk outside for 10 minutes and find the Inoutlet Mall where you can enjoy a meal and browse some stores for a fraction of what things cost in the airport.
Flying from Lima
From Lima to Cusco takes 55 minutes. There are a few airlines offering this route but the two airlines I used are the most popular- Avianca & Latam. They’re similarly priced but remember they charge extra for baggage on domestic flights.
What to pack:
If you’re travelling to Cusco in winter: DON’T. Just kidding, we were there in winter and we survived. But pack warmly because temperatures drop to below zero at night and it can get windy. Remember that the train to Machu Picchu only allows a small amount of luggage on the train (around 5kgs) so you will need to divide your luggage up and leave the large suitcases at your hotel. So come prepared with more than one bag in anticipation of this.
Also, walking up to Machu Picchu requires proper footwear so pack shoes you would feel comfortable hiking in. For more info on what to pack, read this post.
NOTE: For Visiting Machu Picchu, your starting and ending point is Cusco. So you will need to book accommodation before your train journey to Aguas Calientes and after your return journey. So book multiple nights at the same hotel but leave at least one night blank for when you will be in Aguas Calientes. It’s easiest if you arrange to leave your luggage at the hotel (most places offer this service for free). We stayed one night in Aguas Calientes with a small backpack.
Arriving in Cusco
Before Visiting Machu Picchu you will need and want to spend some time in Cusco. Its quite a cute little town with charming architecture and llamas walking the street. Remember Cusco is extremely high in terms of altitude and each person may be affected by this differently. While Polar got headaches, I suffered from shortness of breath. Other symptoms are include nausea and dizziness. Spending some time here is important as it allows your body to adjust. So plan at least one day just to relax in Cusco.
Where to stay in Cusco
We stayed at the charming Tariq Boutique Hotel which sits on the top of a hill offering stellar views over the town of Cusco. It’s a small and cute place with strong WiFi!
Getting to Ollytantambo Station
In order to take the train to Aguas Calientes- the town at the base of Machu Picchu- you will need to choose one of the two stations- Poroy or Ollyntantambo. While Poroy is closer to Cusco (30 minute drive), Ollyntambo has more trains leaving from there (2 hour drive). Our train departed from Ollytantambo so we made our way there. Now its important to note that you have various options on how to structure your journey.
You can ask your hotel to find your a driver; you can walk around Cusco and book a driver through one of many tour agencies that exist to help tourists visit Machu Picchu; or you can book a whole package in advance like we did.
I looked for and sourced a locally owned and operated tour operator and then booked everything online with them. You can find their website here. They took care of our drivers, accommodation in Aguas Calientes, train tickets, bus tickets and guide at Machu Picchu. If you want to go the same route, I highly recommend this company.
Our train was the PeruRail Vistadome. All the rail companies run the same route so any difference in price is based on your train timing and what level of comfort you want. Our train was on the higher end of the price scale but it was 100% worth the extra money.
Tip: When you arrive at the station make sure you are there are least 20 minutes before departure time. You can use the wifi at the station while you wait.
Arriving in Aguas Calientes
By now you’ve had at least 2 plane journeys to get here, as well as possible altitude sickness and the 1.5 hour train journey. You may be tired and that’s understandable. It’s why I advise spending at least one night in Aguas Calientes. This is a teeny tiny town built purely to accommodate and cater to tourists visiting Machi Picchu. It’s cute and there’s a lot of yummy places to eat at and take photos of. Staying here gives the opportunity to rest and prepare for your Machu Picchu visit the next day.
Where to stay: We stayed at the 3 star Waman Hotel. While it was nothing fancy, it was clean, had a comfy bed, hot showers and breakfast was included. You’re literally in this town for a matter of hours so in my opinion, we didn’t need anything fancy.
Where to eat: The Tree House Resturant. Recommended by my blogging buddy, Hijabi Globe Trotter, we were keen to eat at a place Gordon Ramsay enjoyed a meal at and were not disappointed. Do yourself a favour and order one of their soups!
Visiting Machu Picchu
Our day began early (4am) as we were up for breakfast and then off to catch the first bus up to Machu Picchu. Make sure you get a good night’s rest the night before if this is also your plan! We had met with our guide- Alisha- the night before so she briefed us on our plan for the day. I was grateful that she was guiding us because I didn’t know what to expect and it was really chaotic once we walked outside our hotel. Alisha deposited us in the line for the bus at 5am and we waited 20 minutes until the buses started operating.
Important: Check your Machu Picchu ticket to see what your allocated entrance time is. For example, my entrance time was 6am which meant I was eligible to take the bus at 5:20am. If your entrance time is 7am, you can only take the 6:20am bus and that pattern continues for the rest of the day.
If you don’t wish to take the bus, you can hike up. The signs say its takes 90 minutes to hike up but it will probably be closer to 2 hours for the average person especially if its warm. It’s extremely steep stairs so be prepared for that.
The bus (30 minute ride) deposits you at the entrance and you’ll wait a bit if you are the first bus of the day as the site only opens at 6am. If you arrive later, there will be no waiting for you.
Have your passport with you as they will check your name against the ticket (this is non negotiable and I saw people who had no ID being turned away). You’ll also want your passport so that you can stamp it with the creative Machu Picchu stamp as you exit.
How fit do you need to be to walk around Machu Picchu?
Can you climb a few flights of stairs? Can you walk around for about an hour? If the answer to both these questions are yes then really you will have no difficulties visiting this site. If you feel tired, you can always find a spot of the grass to sit and recover. I am not the fittest panda in the world and I didn’t think it was particularly strenuous at all. Polar- with all his old rugby-related knee injuries- also didn’t find it strenuous. Don’t believe all the hype that people try to scare you with- any reasonably fit person can visit and enjoy Machu Picchu. But do come prepared with decent footwear that will allow you to navigate the gravelly paths and steep stairs.
Let me give you a brief PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson, so that you have a basic understanding of what Machu Picchu is exactly.
Machu Picchu is an ancient and isolated Incan village. It took a lot of effort to build, and it seems to be in the middle of nowhere. All of the buildings at Machu Picchu are made entirely of stone.
To build Machu Picchu, the Incas may have brought some stones all the way from Cusco. Others came from the mountains surrounding the village. Some of those stones weigh tens of thousands of pounds, but the Incas managed to build the entire village with no construction cranes, drills, or trucks. It may have taken them almost 100 years to complete the city.
Machu Picchu is a great mystery of both history and architecture. No one is sure why it was built. One theory is that it served as a military site for an Inca army. Others think it was a luxury retreat for the Inca king, Pachacuti. Many scholars, however, feel that Machu Picchu was a sacred site for ceremonies and worship. Machu Picchu was abandoned right after the fall of the Inca Empire, due to the Spanish invasion and was left intact until its discovery in 1911. This is a very brief history and I recommend hiring a guide for the full details!
The whole trail (which starts at one point and ends at another- its not a round trip), will take you two hours and that’s if you go slowly and absorb it all. I don’t understand people publishing posts about which path to follow. There is only one path and one way to go. You’d be an idiot to get lost. You will also witness a gorgeous sunrise if you’re one of the first people up there.
At the end, you’ll exit and stamp your passport and then catch the bus down. We were in at 6am and exited at 9:40am. And that’s with stopping to take photos, listen to our guide, have a picnic and go looking for llamas.
The return journey
The entire journey then happens in reverse. You take the bus back down the mountain and depending on how much time you have in Aguas Calientes, you wait for your train back to Ollyntantambo/ Poroy. And then make your way back to Cusco. There are tons of taxi drivers waiting at the station when the trains arrive so if you didn’t organise transportation for yourself, you will be able to make your way back to Cusco with ease (although I can’t comment on the price of that journey). Our driver was waiting for us (as organised through our tour company) and I slept like the panda that I am on our way back to our hotel.
If you were smart you would’ve booked an extra night at the same hotel you initially stayed at in Cusco just to rest and recover. We spent 1 night in Cusco, 1 night in Aguas Calientes, 1 more night in Cusco and flew out the next day. There are a lot more day trips you can do from Cusco but unfortunately we were pressed for time and had to start a long return journey to South Africa.
Doing a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco
While its entirely possible to do a day trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu, your day would be a bit chaotic. You could take a train leaving Ollyntantambo around 8:30am to arrived in Aguas Calientes around 10am. Head on one of the buses straight up, explore and come back down around 2pm. And then there are a few trains departing after 4pm. However you’d need more time at the top as it would be busier than when I went. As I left Machu Picchu (just before 10am) I could see it getting incredibly busy with large tour groups. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you were EXTREMELY pressed for time and had no other option. If you want to get nice photos and really feel the essence of the place, take your time visiting out of peak hours.
At the end of the day- however you decide to do it, visiting Machu Picchu will be an amazing experience. Whether you trek to, hike up, take a train or hop on a bus, it will be one of the awe inspiring experiences you will ever have- even if you’re a seasoned traveller.
If you are looking for more tips to help plan your South American trip, do click here.
WHERE DO I FLY INTO TO see Machu Picchu?
You can fly into Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport (CUZ) from Lima. From Cusco you will follow the above mentioned methods to get to Machu Picchu.
HOW LONG SHOULD I GO FOR?
For those visiting Machu Picchu, a minimum of 3 nights would be ideal. One night in Cusco, the next night in Aguas Calientes and then back in Cusco for the last night.
SHOULD I book things in advance?
There are a limited amount of visitors allowed into Machu Picchu daily, so make sure to plan accordingly. Work on purchasing tickets either online or through a trusted tour operator as soon as your plans are firm so they don’t sell out on the day you want to visit. You could definitely book your accommodation spontaneously though.
DID YOU APPLY FOR A VISA?
No. Peru is visa-free for South African passport holders. You can stay in Argentina for 180 days.
SHOULD I CARRY US DOLLARS?
No. The only accepted currency was Peruvian Soles at most places.
Have you been to Machu Picchu? Or is it on your list of destinations? Let me know in the comments below!