Getting to Machu Picchu: A Step-By-Step Guide
Machu Picchu has been at the top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I have always been fascinated by the Incan Civilisation, and Machu Picchu is the jewel in the crown. We’ve all seen a million pictures – the dramatic mountain backdrop, the perfectly formed citadel, the eerie clouds. Everything about it seemed so magical and mysterious. I was a little worried that the real thing wouldn’t live up to my imagination. Luckily for me, it did.
For those who don’t know, Machu Picchu is an Incan citadel located 2430m above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. The city dates back to the 15th century and was a major hub for the Incan civilisation – although no one really knows its exact use. The Incas abandoned Machu Picchu when the Spanish colonised Peru, and the site remained undiscovered for centuries. In July 1911, American archaeologist Hiram Bingham accidentally rediscovered the city, and spent the remainder of his life researching the origins.
Getting to Machu Picchu isn’t the easiest of tasks. In this blog, I am going to outline my journey to the Old Mountain.
Step One: Fly to Cusco
Cusco is located in Southern Peru. The city is an impressive 3,400 metres above sea level, making it one of the highest-altitude cities in the world. Although often referred to as the ‘gateway to Machu Picchu’, Cusco is an incredible city in its own right and certainly shouldn’t be overlooked when planning your itinerary. Cusco was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and has a huge wealth of history and culture to explore. Oh, and a really fun nightlife too. Upon arriving, it’s recommended that you spend a few days here adjusting to the altitude. Don’t plan anything too strenuous, and drink plenty of water.
I stayed at the stunning Belmond Hotel Monasterio, one of Cusco’s most luxurious and prestigious properties. As the name suggests, the hotel is set in an ancient monastery – featuring courtyards, arches, fountains and even a chapel. Whether you’re staying or just visiting, you absolutely have to visit the Illariy Restaurant for the best ceviche you’ll ever try! The rooms are understated and sophisticated, with traditional Peruvian touches. I had the best evening wrapped up in my hand-woven alpaca blanket!
Step Two: The Sacred Valley of the Incas
From Cusco, you’ll need to head into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, located around 90 minutes outside of the city. This is where you’ll catch the train to Machu Picchu. I recommend a couple of nights in the Valley before catching your train, and I promise you won’t be disappointed with the scenery. The Valley is surrounded by the most majestic mountains, the prettiest rivers and the cutest colonial churches. There are perfectly preserved Incan terraces everywhere you look, and little alpacas wandering around. It’s like walking onto a film set!
I stayed at the INCREDIBLE Sol y Luna Hotel in Urubamba. The hotel is made up of 43 luxurious casitas, all nestled within lush tropical gardens. There is a gorgeous swimming pool that rivals any pool I’ve ever seen, and a cellar with over 500 varieties of local and international wines. The best part, all hotel proceeds go towards the Sol y Luna Association, a foundation that offers quality education to children of the Sacred Valley. There is even a school on site.
The Inca Ruins of Moray are a must-see, as are the Salt Pans of Maras. Out Of Office can arrange a private tour of the Sacred Valley, so you’ll be sure to see all of the best bits.
Step Three: The Train
There are a few different train stations servicing Machu Picchu, but the main station is in the town of Ollantaytambo. There are several trains to choose from depending on how extravagant you’re feeling – ranging from the ultra-luxurious Hiram Bingham (part of the Belmond/Orient Express collection) to the more economical Expedition Train. There is also the Vistadome Train that offers a happy middle – with spectacular panoramic windows that allow you to fully enjoy the countryside. Regardless of the train you choose or the price you pay, the views will be phenomenal.
I was lucky enough to catch the Andean Explorer Train, which is similar to the Hiram Bingham but half the price. The carriages are decked out with mahogany panelling, enormous armchairs and mood lamps. I felt like the queen. If you fancy stretching your legs (if you can possibly get up from your armchair), there is an observation carriage with panoramic windows and a balcony. Yes, a balcony! Even the toilet was palatial. I enjoyed a three-course meal both ways, washed down with a glass of local Peruvian wine. The train really was a highlight of my trip, and I’d 100% recommend splashing out.
Step Four: Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes, which literally translates to hot water, is a small town on the foothill of Machu Picchu. This is where you’ll depart the train and catch a short shuttle bus to the peak (you can opt to walk if you’re feeling adventurous). The town sits on the Urubamba River and has loads of cute restaurants, shops and markets to explore. You can either stay in Aguas Calientes for a few nights or catch the return train back to the Valley in the evening. If you choose to stay, you can’t beat the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel.
The bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu takes around half an hour, and the journey is an incredible (and somewhat terrifying) experience in itself. The roads are insanely steep and the mountain edge seems a little too close for comfort. Don’t worry though, the drivers are expertly trained and the buses are incredibly safe. As you ascend, the views are phenomenal. I can’t even begin to explain the views.
When you reach the top, you’ll have the opportunity to use the bathroom, drop off your luggage and collect your tickets. There are no bathrooms after the gates, so I’d definitely recommend using the facilities beforehand (I wish someone had told me this before).
The rest is up to you. I would 100% recommend a private guide for your tour of Machu Picchu. We work with incredible guides who live and breathe the Incas – and their knowledge and passion will only enrich your experience further. We explored the citadel, winding through the tiny maze of alleyways and admiring the unbelievable scenery along the way. My guide gave me his theories on Machu Picchu’s origins and shared facts and stories at every opportunity. Llamas milled around on the terraces and the whole place seemed strangely familiar.
I have travelled extensively and often find these must-see landmarks a little underwhelming. Too many tourists, too many tacky gift stops… Machu Picchu certainly doesn’t fall into this category. The whole experience was overwhelmingly beautiful, even emotional. Make sure Peru is the top of your bucket list.
When to Visit:
Machu Picchu’s dry season runs between May and October – but due to the altitude, there is always the risk of a little mist. Don’t worry though, the mist only enhances the drama. The busiest time is between June and August.