Machu Picchu had been on our radar to visit but a $270 nonstop fare from New York to Lima on LAN signaled that it was time to go. That fare was extremely popular because it seemed like the entire plane was filled with passengers who caught the same fare. We then bought a sub $200 ticket on ticket from Lima to Cuzco where we caught the train to Aguas Calientes. For those who have Chase Ultimate Points or American Express Membership Rewards, you can transfer points to British Airways Avios for that segment; it’s just 4,500 points per direction and availability has been decent of late. Our experience at Machu Picchu was a memorable one and we feel everyone should try to make it there.
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If you are reading this article you are probably already planning a trip to Machu Picchu or currently in Cuzco trying to make sense of all the options. That’s good, so I don’t have to spend time trying to convince you of the beauty of Machu Picchu. I don’t need to tell you that calling Machu Picchu a “wonder of the world” doesn’t give it enough justice. Or try to recount the sensation one feels reaching the top of an exhausting hike to see this paradise. Or even, the hours you can spend on top of that mountain imagining the lives so long past, still surround in so much mystery and mysticism.
Option A: 4-5 Day Trails – Inca Trail, Salkantay Trail, & Jungle Trek
If I have one regret of my trip in South America, it would be not doing this option. I have only heard amazing things from every friend that did one of the trail options.
The Inca Trail is by far the most popular, following what was consider the historic route taken centuries ago. This trail is known for the historic sites and a great path on an easy to moderate difficulty. The main thing to know about this trail is that it is permit regulated, and thus needs to be book 3-6 months in advance—it also closes in February due to the rainy season. [Editor’s Note – check the official site for availability here]
The other two trails are often chosen by people seeking a last-minute deal, budget options, or to visit when the Inca Trail is closed. Salkantay is fairly similar to the Inca Trail experience, but takes another route that is harder on difficulty, but comes with the reward of more striking nature sights along the way (and not as many historic ones). The Jungle Trek or Trail on the other hand is for more laid back individuals, exchanging walking for more activities along the way.
Cost of the Inca Trail varies greatly depending on level of service ($500-1000), the Salkantay and Jungle Trek is closer to the $200-350 range. The majority the operators include transportation, food, and porters in the cost and you should double check (and negotiate) to make sure. The Jungle Trail has many additional add-on activities like rafting and zip-lining which aren’t included.
Option B: One Day by Train (Tour or Alone)
If you are short on time, the best (albeit pricey) option is to do a one-day trip using the trains. Your day will start with an early rise followed by a trip over to the town of Ollantaytambo. From here, you catch a train with Peru Rail (2 hours) to the town of Aguas Calientes. At this point you have the option to either do the hike up to the top of Machu Picchu, or take the shuttle service ($24 return) for an additional cost. And then you return to the train station for your journey home.
If you are buying the tour (~$345) option, the cost is definitely negotiable. If you are doing this alone, here is what you will need: Train ticket from Ollantayambo to Aguas Calientes (~$60 to $130 depending on class), transportation to Ollantaytambo and back (~$10 return), an entry ticket ($43 purchased at office in Cuzco), and food for the day.
Option C: Two Day by Car aka The Cheapest Way (Tour or Alone)
This option for the most part emulates option B except for two things: traveling by car or shared ride to the hydroelectric station and hiking the trail that the train would take and then needing to spending the night at Aguas Calientes due to the time needed for a car ride.
A tour will organize the early morning shuttle to the hydroelectric station (5 hours) from where you follow the train tracks on a 2-3 hour hike to Aguas Calientes. At Aguas Calientes you check into your accommodation and relax for the day. The next morning you start your hike up to Machu Picchu, followed by a hike back along the train tracks and drive back into Cusco. It is a very long and tiring two days. Meals on the tour will vary and should be negotiated beforehand. [Editor’s Note – for those who plan hiking up Huyana Picchu, we recommend the morning hike. It is much better than the afternoon when it is hot and hot]
The tour (~$80) price again should be negotiable, but if you want to plan this by yourself, you need the following: negotiated transport to Aguas Calientes (varies), an entry ticket ($43 purchased at office in Cuzco), accommodation for the night (~$8), and food for two days. When I did the math, I found the tour and self-arranged price to be fairly the same. By negotiating costs and not have to worry about planning, the package ended up being worth the price.
Side note: These are the three most popular options, but there are various combinations possible such as taking the train but still spending the night in Aguas Calientes. Or hiking one way and taking a train the other way.
Packing Advice and Other Practicalities:
- For the trails, some tours have porters that will carry any larger pieces of luggage so you should organize your belongings into a day bag and then another bag for extras or heavier objects. Stray away from rollers or hard case bags in favor of backpacking styled luggage
- Hostel and hotels alike are familiar with people heading out on these hikes and should have no problem allowing you to use their storage for any extraneous items that you don’t need for the trip. Pack a duffle bag so that you can set these things aside before heading out
- Essentials to pack: broken-in pair of hiking boots, a waterproof layer of clothing, depending on the weather either a wind breaker or heavier jacket for when you reach high altitudes, sunscreen, a sturdy water bottle, and, very important, toilet paper
- The moment you arrive into Cusco you will immediately recognize the altitude different and it is recommended that spend 2 days in the town to acclimatize before starting the hike; you will find cocoa leaves everywhere in Cusco that are either chewed or steeped in water to help with altitude sickness. Grab a handful for the journey!
- Tipping is expected by almost everyone, but at the end is always up to you to decide. A few soles usually goes a long way for locals since most live outside of the city
About The Author:
Varud’s life is food–eating, reading, exploring, and creating. Voted Forbes 30 Under 30 for ‘Most Clueless Individuals’, he jumped ship from his management consultant lifestyle in October 2015 and embarked on a culinary journey to learn about cuisines around the world. His first book documented an experiment in Recipe Development (how to create and gain inspiration for original recipes) while his most recent novel narrates the journey of leaving the US to travel to Argentina and learn about Asado, or Argentine BBQ. Follow him on his blog, Bicoastal Cooks, instagram or Twitter.
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