Machu Picchu is one of the new wonders of the world and well worth a visit. We were absolutely awestruck. Considering the location of this citadel high above a valley on top of a mountain, how did they build here? And the precision of the Inca’s in building and the layout of the citadel is something to be admired.
It is one of those bucket list, once-in-a-lifetime trips you just have to do.
So here are the planning tips to get there:
When to go:
The time you visit might be influenced by seasons or not but here are a few tips.
Peak season is from June to September coinciding with the European summer holidays. This is also the dry season in the Peruvian Andes.
From October to the end of April it is apparently much less crowded, however, this is the time that most South Americans have holidays, and the Christmas holidays also fall within this period. It is also summer in the Southern Hemisphere so many people travel here during this time.
It is the rainy season, so you can expect rain.
We visited at the end of April. There were still many people visiting the site.
How to get to Cusco in Peru
To get to Machu Picchu, you have to get to Cusco in Peru as this is the gateway city to get to Machu Picchu. Luckily South Africans don't need visas for Peru. You will need an exit ticket though.
Flights on Travelstart start from around R10 000 from Johannesburg to Lima (capital of Peru) if you book in advance. Thereafter you have to get a bus (which is the cheapest option) to Cusco, alternatively a connecting flight if you are on a tight timeline.
The bus takes around 20 hours and bus ticket prices vary depending on the company you choose and your comfort level. Cama seats, the most comfortable, reclining 160 to 180 degrees, start from S./150 (about R560/$46). You can get cheaper seats that recline about 140 degrees for S./60 (R225 or $20). Go to the bus terminal and shop around asking for prices. The most reputable bus companies are Oltursa, Civa and Ittsa. You can check availability and times, as well as book in advance on https://www.redbus.pe/en/.
Once in Cusco, find accommodation close to Plaza de Armas which is the hub of the city, close to attractions and the starting point for many excursions. Alternatively, you can book accommodation in advance on booking.com.
Note, due to the altitude, it is advisable to stay in Cusco, at 3 399m above sea level, for a couple of days to acclimatise before heading to Machu Picchu.
How to get to Machu Picchu:
There are 3 ways to get to Machu Picchu, depending on the time you have and your budget: by train, by bus and by hiking. All these options will take you to the town of Aguas Calientes, also called Machu Picchu de Maipu, where the uphill trek to Machu Picchu starts.
In Cusco, around the Plaza de Armas, there are hundreds of tour agencies selling tours to Machu Picchu. It helps to ask around to get the best prices and options for you.
The Inca Trail
There are shorter treks but the 4-day, 82 km Inca Trail hike is the most popular, authentic and original way to get to Machu Picchu. From Cusco, you will hike through the mountains and Sacred Valley to Aguas Calientes and then to Machu Picchu. Note that you typically have to carry camping gear and food (depending on the agency you choose). You will pass quite a few other ruins and historical sites on this trek as well.
Note that you have to book a permit for this trail, and only 500 are allowed per day. Permits cost US$250 (R3000) and it is highly recommendable that you book this permit in advance as it gets booked out, sometimes 3 months in advance. You can check availability and book online at www.incatrailreservations.com. If you want to take a chance, you can book with a tour agency in Cusco when you arrive. You might get lucky, but it is not guaranteed.
The Jungle Adventure:
A tour that is gaining a lot of popularity at the moment, is the 4-day Jungle Adventure tour. This tour includes some hiking, cycling, ziplining and white—water river rafting to get to the City in the Clouds. This is a great option for adventure lovers. Ask around at tour agencies in Cusco for the best price and option for you. You can often choose which activities you want included in your tour with different prices. Tours typically start from $250 (R3000) upwards, depending on the included activities.
2. By Train:
From Cusco, PeruRail and IncaRail take you to Aguas Caliente. They have different types of trains based on luxury and schedule. It would no doubt be an amazing journey by train through the Sacred Valley to Aguas Caliente, however, it is quite pricey starting from S./160 (R 600/ US $50) one-way per person. Routes and embarkation points also differ.
3. By Bus:
We opted for the bus which you have to book at least the day before at one of the previously mentioned tour agencies. It is the cheapest option and you can do it in 2 or 3 days depending. We recommend 3 days.
You will be picked up by minibus around 7am from your accommodation in Cusco, please confirm this with the tour agency as not all of them offer this pick-up service. You will then embark on a very scenic route up through the Sacred Valley to the Hydroelectric Dam. You make 2 stops on the way: in Ollantaytambo for a quick break (bathroom, snack, smoke) and again in Santa Teresa for lunch. Although the scenery is amazing, our bus driver was literally speeding around hairpin bends on a very narrow road (so maybe carry an extra pair of undies). We paid S./60 per person for a return ticket. You can choose to spend 1 or 2 nights in Aguas Calientes, once again confirm your date of return with your chosen tour agency.
The bus arrives at the Hydroelectrica at around 2 pm. You then walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, approximately 10 kms which takes about 2 hours. So pack light, a day pack is ideal and you can often leave the rest of your luggage at your accommodation in Cusco (this is a common service offered due to this excursion). Besides you will more than likely have to spend at least another night in Cusco when you return.
Accommodation in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu de Maipo)
Stay the night in Aguas Calientes. We didn’t book any accommodation in Aguas Calientes beforehand. The average price for a hostel bed in a shared dorm is S./20 (R75/US $6). When we arrived, a lady named Jonny approached us asking if we need accommodation (this is a common thing in South America). We got a double private room with a private bathroom for S./25 per night. It was a really good place to stay: super clean, comfortable bed, spacious and the shower was amazing. We highly recommend this place. Hospedaje Qory Killa is situated on Av. Hermanos Ayar No. 903. You can contact her on +958 295005 or firstname.lastname@example.org or just pitch up and ask for a room. Jonny is awesome and honest, she gave us the best tips on where to eat and info about the town.
Alternatively, book on booking.com. The town literally exists only for tourists, so there are many accommodation options available.
The next day you hike up to Machu Picchu. Note that you can also take a bus up to Machu Picchu. You can book it in Aguas Calientes and it costs $(US)12 per person 1-way. Honestly, the hike up is amazing and you get really awesome views of the surrounding mountains. It is strenuous and all uphill but totally worth it.
It takes approximately 2 hours, the time will depend on your level of fitness. Once you enter the citadel, there are several other trails to the Sun Gate and the Inca bridge, you will need time and energy. Take food, snacks and water.
Entrance Tickets to Machu Picchu:
You need to buy entrance tickets to Machu Picchu. It is advisable to buy your tickets to Machu Picchu in Cusco, especially if you are booking a tour as they can get sold out. However, you can also buy them in Aguas Calientes.
We bought ours the day before we left in Cusco with no problems.
Please note high season is between June and September. If you are planning to travel in high season, you should buy your tickets months in advance. Only 2 500 tickets are available per day and it can get booked out very quickly. Important: during the month of February, the citadel is closed for maintenance.
You can buy your tickets online at www.machupicchu.gob.pe or at the offices in Cusco at the Ministerio de Cultura.
We paid S./152 per person (R573/US $47). There are 2 time slots for entering the citadel.
1st slot is the morning slot from 06:00am to 12:00pm and the 2nd from 12:00pm to 17:00pm. Note that this is the time you can enter the citadel. You can stay as long as you want however the first slot is super busy because this is the time the trains and buses arrive with hundreds of tourists. You literally have to que to enter the ruins and as you can imagine you will not have the best photo ops. We booked the second slot and by 2pm there was almost no people and we had the place to ourselves.
If you choose to stay 1 night in Aguas Caliente, you will have to take the morning slot which will be very rushed. Machu Picchu is massive, there is lots to explore and many other hikes/trails to different sections once you enter. You would then have to hustle to get back to the Hydroelectrica in time for your ride back to Cusco which leaves at 3pm.
Once in the citadel, there is another mountain called Wayna Picchu. This is also a very strenuous hike along a very narrow path that takes you to the top of a mountain peak overlooking the whole citadel. It takes approximately 1 hour to ascend. The ticket costs S./ 200 (R752/US $62) which includes entrance to Machu Picchu and the hike. You can ask for this ticket when purchasing your main entrance ticket either in Cusco or in Aguas Caliente. With 2 time slots of 7-8 am and 10-11 am.
Another option is Machu Picchu and Montana, another trail that takes you further away, up another mountain peak that overlooks the citadel. Time slots are between 7-8 am and 9-10 am. Also S./200.
We were informed by a friend that it is not worth it as you would have to be very lucky to get ideal weather in order to see the views, which by the way are just as awesome without having to climb another mountain and paying an additional fee. The poor guy ended up with pics of white and no views because of all the cloud cover. In addition because of the time slots it is rushed and can get crowded if you don’t reach the top first.
Stay at least 2 nights in Aguas Caliente. It is a touristy little town but it is charming and worth exploring.
Buy snacks, smokes and whatever else you might need and are willing to carry in Cusco. Everything is more expensive in Aguas Caliente.
Buy a ticket for the 1st slot (06:00am – 12:00pm), start your hike at approx. 9 am to get there on time. Once in, chill and take your time, you can still leave at 17:00. No one checks.
For your hike up to the entrance of Machu Picchu, take as much food, snacks and water(wine) as you need in a day pack. Its really expensive on the top. They say its not allowed but no one checks and its cool to have a little picnic whilst admiring the ruins.
Additional things to carry for the hike: sunscreen, hat, shades, mozzie repellent, warm jacket. It can get really hot during the day and if you leave at 17:00, it can get really cold.
Don’t forget when you get to the top, where the buses stop and the trail ends, there is a little hut on the right-hand side where you can get a free Machu Picchu passport stamp. Stamp your passport when you arrive, to avoid ques and before the ink runs out.
We hope that you find this information helpful to plan your trip to Machu Picchu.
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