Machu Picchu is a destination on almost everyone’s bucket list, and rightly so. It’s one of the seven wonders of the world. But even just getting to Machu Picchu is a hassle. There are no roads going there, meaning your travel options are limited.
Most people get to Machu Picchu by train, but that’ll cost you $130 or more round-trip. On top of that, you’ll need to pay for entry into Machu Picchu itself, which runs about $40.
Some more intrepid travelers get to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail trek with an established outfitter — but that could set you back several thousand dollars, and you’ll need to book it weeks or months in advance.
So, what’s a last-minute, adventurous, and/or budget-minded traveler to do? Luckily, there’s another way — but you’ll need to be able to hike for a couple hours, carry an overnight change of clothes, and not be afraid of heights!
Step 1: Purchase Machu Picchu tickets
Heads-up: You can’t buy the tickets to get into Machu Picchu at the gate. There are only 2,500 tickets sold per day into Machu Picchu, and so you’ll need to buy a ticket in advance. You can do this through a travel agency, or directly from the Ministerio de Cultura, either in-person or online. (Here’s a great overview of how to navigate the confusing website).
Step 2 (optional): Book accommodations in Aguas Calientes
No matter how they arrive at Machu Picchu, most people will stay overnight in Aguas Calientes. It’s the town closest to Machu Picchu, and its name comes from the hot springs nearby.
Many accommodations in Aguas Calientes are fully booked in advance, so if you decide to stay, make sure you reserve a room or bed before you get there. Don’t worry; this doesn’t need to be done months in advance as if you were hiking the Inca Trail, but it’s still a good idea to do it before you go.
Step 3: Take a mini bus ride from Cusco to Hidroelectrica
You’ll need to make a mini bus reservation from Cusco to Hidroelectrica (a hydroelectric plant located near Aguas Calientes). You can very likely do this through your hotel or hostel, or any booking agency in Cusco. Alternatively, you can book your tickets on MachuPicchuBusTickets.com. Round-trip tickets cost about $30, and the minibuses will leave Cusco in the morning.
It’s best to pack a light overnight bag. Leave the rest of your luggage at your hotel or hostel for when you come back.
Make sure to buckle up once you get on the mini bus (also known as a collectivo, or combi in the local lingo) because it’ll be a seven-hour ride through some pretty harrowing one-way mountain passes. Drivers usually stop once for food and bathroom breaks along the way, otherwise just sit back and enjoy the scenic (and sometimes fear-of-heights-inducing) ride.
Step 4: Hike from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes
The path from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes passes through a shady tropical forest and follows a crystal-clear river. Listen for the chirping and chattering of bright green parrots.
The bus driver will let you off at Hidroelectrica. From here it’s a flat, easy, and beautiful walk through the jungle along the railroad. There is a small footpath that weaves its way back and forth along the tracks, as well as a few small railroad bridges.
Make sure to stay on the footpath where possible, and if you do need to cut across the tracks, check in both directions for oncoming trains. They can be very quiet and sneak up on you quite easily. It’s a two- to three-hour walk along this track, but it’ll be over before you know it.
If you need food or water, there are plenty of local families with small stands set up along the route. If you can, at least buy a fresh banana from them, likely picked from the plentiful banana groves that line the tracks!
Step 5: Find your accommodations
Now, on to relax before your big day! Soak in Aguas Caliente’s hot springs, or enjoy a nice meal in a local restaurant. You’ll need to get up early the following day if you want the best views of Machu Picchu.
Step 6: Make your way to Machu Picchu
You have two options to get up to Machu Picchu from here. The easiest is taking the bus to the top, but be prepared to spend a long time waiting in line (not to mention the $12 one-way ticket fee). The only way to buy this ticket is in-person at the little kiosk right next to the bus station (across the street from the visitor information kiosk). It may be better to buy your ticket the night before you actually plan to go up to Machu Picchu, since people will start queuing up for the bus as early as 4 a.m.
Look for this kiosk next to the bus station in Aguas Calientes to buy tickets to Machu Picchu.
If you’re really pinching pennies, however, it’s free to simply hike up to the top and back down. To be one of the first in line to get into Machu Picchu (and get the best uncluttered photos) you’ll need to head up before the sun even rises, so be sure to pack a headlamp. The hiking trail to the top is well-marked and starts across the bridge on the outside of Aguas Calientes (the one you passed coming into town).
Be prepared; this hike is a quad-buster. It’s straight uphill for one or two hours before you reach the top.
Step 7: Through the gates to Machu Picchu
The most diehard photographers and explorers will be in line to get into Machu Picchu well before the sun comes up. The gates officially open up at 6 a.m., however.
When you’re done, you can either hike back downhill or take the bus (for another $12) back to Aguas Calientes.
Step 8: Return to Cusco
It is possible to go back to Cusco on the same day you visit Machu Picchu, but you’ll need to cut your visit short. Most mini bus drivers leave Hidroelectrica at 2 p.m., so you’ll need to head down from the mountain and hike to Hidroelectrica to meet them in time. You can hike back the way you came to Hidroelectrica and wait for the driver to call out your name for your ride to Cusco.
Alternatively, you could stay in Aguas Calientes for another night so you have a full day at Machu Picchu. It’s a bucket-list item, after all — you don’t want to miss out!