A One Day Trip to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu Travel Guide
Nestled between the Andes mountains and the Amazon basin, sits Machu Picchu, an architectural marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered by many to be the masterpiece of the the Incan civilization built in the 15th century and abandoned in the 16th century with the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors. Most historians believe it served as a royal retreat for the Incan emperor. It is incredibly sophisticated constructed of polished stone in a technique known as ashlar wherein the stones are fit so snugly together that mortar is not required. Surrounded by agricultural terraces, the site is broadly divided into an agricultural zone, urban district, and royal and sacred areas. It is nearly impossible to see every part of the Citadel as it is enormous and your attention is constantly being pulled to yet another amazing site to see.
The logistics of visiting Machu Picchu can be a bit tricky and are ever changing as Peru tries to balance the lure of this iconic tourist destination and overcrowding. We visited in 2022 as the Covid pandemic was winding down so extra restrictions were part of the process. Even since our visit, more rules have been made so it’s best to check the official Machu Picchu site for anything you need to know before your visit.
From Cusco to Machu Picchu
Travel from Cusco northwest to Machu Picchu located atop a mountain in a tropical forest
There are a few options for travel to Machu Picchu. The tough approach is to arrive by hiking on the Inca Trail. Scores of companies offer this option to follow along old Incan roads to arrive at Machu Picchu and these trips vary from bare bones to more comfortable multi-day hikes with porters who schlep your gear and race ahead to set up camp and cook. There is also the Salkantay Trek which is a more strenuous route around Salkantay Mountain to arrive to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, I don’t have any first hand experience here as most of these routes were closed with the pandemic.
The next way to arrive is via train to Aguas Calientes, the entry point for Machu PIcchu. There are 3 different train companies, Inca Rail, Peru Rail and the Belmond Hiram Bingham Train. In my opinion, the Inca Rail and Peru Rail are very similar. The Hiram Bingham train is a luxury experience with white tablecloth fine dining and drinks. However, there is a bit of the best of both by choosing the Peru Rail Vistadome Train which has glass domed cars, a drink car and costumed entertainment on the way back. Most of these trains do sell out so book early if possible. Keep your eyes peeled on the train as you will pass other Inca ruins and some sky scraping peaks of the Andes.
Post train, you’ll arrive to Aguas Calientes, a very bustling tourist town that is the last stop before ascending to Machu Picchu. From here, you’ll get a bus ticket and get in line for the 30 minute ride up to the Citadel. These buses leave every 15 minutes and you can just buy your ticket the day of before you get in line. It is possible to walk from Aguas Calientes, which would take approximately 1 1/2 hours…note that it is a very steep climb up a serpentine road at altitude nearly assuring you’ll arrive a sweaty mess.
Things to Know
You’ll need to purchase entrance tickets in advance which you can do here:
There are new regulations requiring you to have a guide, follow a fixed route (or “circuit”) and have a designed entry time and time limit for visiting. Apparently, in the past, this was much more relaxed allowing you to happily wander with no time pressure.
Other rules to note are that you are limited to a small backpack and cannot bring food, an umbrella, drone, selfie stick or tripod. You are also limited to a small duffel on the train to Aguas Calientes so you’ll have to leave bigger bags in Cusco or Ollantaytambo.
Have your passport handy to show at the entrance and use the bathroom before you enter (for a small fee) as there is no bathroom once inside.
The Big Day
To do a train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu and back in one day is possible but exhausting. As I mentioned in our other Peru article, we stayed at Explora Valle Sagrado and did use their guide to escort us to and from Machu Picchu. We were a little anxious given that it was in the midst of the pandemic and ticket sales were very limited and there were so many rules to follow for health safety. In retrospect, we should have gone solo (not because Explora isn’t amazing) but because we could easily have navigated this on our own. If we had, my choice would have been to stay in Aguas Calientes which looked crazy in a good way. That way, we could take the first bus up the next morning and leisurely take the train back the next day. In our one day push, we left at 6 am and arrived back to the hotel near 9 pm.
We rode the Peru Rail and can’t comment much about food/drinks/service as these were banned in order to mask for the pandemic. However, on the way back as it started to lightly rain, we were able to change our ticket to an earlier train. This was actually a fantastic decision as for a little more money, we got to have entertainment with traditional Peruvian costumed dancers.
On arrival to Aguas Calientes, it was super easy to grab bus tickets and we did not have to wait long in line (about 20 minutes) before boarding the bus and heading up to the Citadel. They were very strict about entry times as we arrived 5 minutes early and waited for entry. We were a bit eager as fog was rolling in and we were on a mission to have the classic Machu Picchu Citadel photo! Once inside, we speed hiked up to the lookout (it’s always easy to forget you are at altitude and wonder why you are so winded…definitely the case here as I was scrambling to get out my camera gear while panting).
That first view down into the Citadel is inexplicable. We have all seen the photos but to see the wonder yourself is breathtaking. It’s amazingly intricate, shocking well preserved and the construction is incomprehensible. I will let our photos speak for themselves.
Please remember this is a sacred site. Guards are there and will chastise you (as they should) if you are being disrespectful. Avoid yelling, standing where you shouldn’t, etc…don’t be those moronic people we saw there.
We took all the time we could to wind our way through the ruins stopping so many times for photos. For one magical moment, the sun came out and bathed the site in a warm glow. We were through our circuit far too soon and heading back down on the bus. We were incredibly lucky as we dodged the rain which started as soon as we got back to Aguas Calientes. The final surprise though…alpacas are roaming the grounds. Who hasn’t lusted after a photo of an alpaca set against the Citadel? Our pictures might be a little foggy, but they are perfect because seeing this special place ourselves was perfection.
We opted for the Peru Rail Vistadome service. It’s a tiny step up from their regular service and worthwhile in my opinion for the glass domed cars and entertainment. If we had gone another year, we would have tried to get on the Belmond Hiram Bingham Train. It was sold out but I think we may have passed anyway as there wasn’t meal service in 2022.
There is a tiny station outside of the entrance to Machu Picchu where you can get a novelty passport stamp. We missed this!
Open Rhode Insider Tips
- If you really want more time near Machu Picchu, there is the Belmond Sanctuary Hotel located immediately outside the gates.
- Make sure you have a small backpack as large bags are prohibited and make sure you use the bathroom before entering (you’ll need a few small coins for this).
- If we were staying in Aguas Calientes, we would have spent more time near the gates atop this glorious mountain at the snack bar serving light food and drinks.
- The one day marathon was long and a bit exhausting. We would absolutely break it up by staying at Aguas Calientes.
- Book tickets early. The trains and entrance tickets sell out!