If you have a travel bucket list, chances are high that Machu Picchu is on it. With its vast valleys, lush peaks and rich history, this ancient Incan citadel and UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most awe-inspiring archaeological sites in the world. Situated at nearly 8,000 feet (2,430 meters) in the Peruvian Andes, it’s the end point of the most popular trek in South America, the Inca Trail.
But the famed trail is just one way to reach this magnificent set of ruins. Here are three ways to visit Machu Picchu, so you can check it off your list no matter your circumstance.
Via train. This is the quickest and least strenuous way to visit Machu Picchu, making it a great option for those with limited time or those in less than tip-top physical shape. It’s also a great option during the unpredictable rainy season, which is why we took the train in January 2018.
Two companies – PeruRail and Inca Rail – depart from Poroy station (20 minutes from Cusco) and Ollantaytambo station (about 1.5 hours from Cusco, in the Sacred Valley) and arrive at Machu Picchu Pueblo/Aguas Calientes. From there, it’s only a few steps to the Consettur bus stop, where you can board a bus and head up the mountain.
While in Cusco, it’s easy to purchase a one-day tour that includes transportation from your hotel to the train station, a round-trip train ticket, a round-trip bus ticket, entrance to Machu Picchu and a two-hour guided tour – but it costs a pretty penny. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, arrange your own car or bus to the train station, then purchase your train ticket at the train station, and your bus ticket at the bus station (hiking up the mountain, in lieu of taking the bus, is also an option). You can purchase your entrance ticket at the top of the mountain, as well as hire a tour guide on the spot. (If you’re traveling during the high/dry season – late April to early October – it’s best to make arrangements in advance. If you’re traveling in the low/wet season – late October to early April – it’s easier to make them as you go.)
Via car and foot. If you have at least two days to spare, reaching Machu Picchu by car, then foot, is your cheapest option. Several companies in Cusco offer two-day tours that include transportation from your hotel to Ollantaytambo, then to Santa Maria, then to Hidroelectrica, where you finish the remaining 6.2 miles to Machu Picchu Pueblo/Aguas Calientes on foot. (You can also purchase a train ticket from Hidroelectrica to Machu Pichu Pueblo/Aguas Calientes if you don’t want to hike.) Once you reach Machu Picchu Pueblo/Aguas Calientes, you can take the bus or hike to the top of the mountain – often times, this is done the following morning. Of course, this entire route can be done without an organized tour, but you’ll have to handle the logistics on your own.
Via the Inca Trail. Without a doubt, trekking the Inca Trail is the most rewarding way to reach Machu Picchu – but it’s taxing, financially and physically, and must be booked months in advance. For four days, trekkers walk in the footsteps of the same people who built the long lost city and see many archaeological sites, not just Machu Picchu, along the way. Several companies offer tours that include a guide, gear, a porter to help carry your gear, meals and other necessities. With steep inclines to conquer at high altitudes, the trek is said to be one of the most challenging things one will ever do – but those who complete it say it’s life-changing.
When booking the trek, be flexible with your dates. The biggest crowds come in July and August, and the trails are closed for conservation during the month of February. (For routes to Machu Picchu that are more off-the-beaten-path than the Inca Trail, and therefore less competitive to book, check out this article from National Geographic.)
No matter how you reach Machu Picchu, one thing is for sure: seeing it with your own eyes is an experience you’ll never forget.