Peru is one of the most popular destinations in South America. It’s a very diverse country with stunning nature and a rich history. In the highlands of Peru near the city of Cusco is where you can find the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu and no visit to Peru is complete without a tour of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization. The ruins of Machu Picchu however, to this day remain a bit of a mystery. Nobody knows exactly why they were constructed and why it was only inhabited for around a hundred years.
Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, but there are several different theories. The Incas built Machu Picchu around 1450 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.
The Incas were master architects and builders and visiting Machu Picchu will give you a unique look into their world.
How to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco
Once you have decided to go to Peru and visit Machu Picchu you will then have to plan how to travel to Machu Picchu. Most people take the train from Cusco, which takes around four hours. The train travels through the beautiful Sacred Valley of the Incas and shows you the beauty of this country. You will enjoy spectacular scenery, raging rivers and cute little villages, all from the comfort of your train seat.
There are trains for all different budgets; from economical tourist trains to the very luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train with its 1920s-style carriages.
The train will arrive at Aguas Caliente station. Aguas Calientes, also known as Machupicchu Pueblo, is a small town and the gateway to Machu Picchu. The town itself has many nice little restaurants for all budgets and there are several small markets to buy souvenirs. The prices here are higher than in Cusco, but if you need to fill a few hours the town has a nice atmosphere.
Aguas Calientes also has some hot springs not far from the center of town, so if you feel like a refreshing, warm dip this is the place to do it. And if you choose to spend the night here, there are plenty of hotel options, ranging from basic backpacker hostels to five star luxury properties.
I recommend using HotelsCombined to check out different hotel options.
To get to the Machu Picchu ruins you will need to take a bus that takes around twenty-five minutes up a windy road. The buses leave Aguas Calientes every ten minutes and drop you at the gate of Machu Picchu.
There is a limit to what you can do independently these days at Machu Picchu. You will need to enter the ruins with a licensed guide. Gone are the days when you could wander the ruins independently. Once inside the ruins take care not to walk on the ruins as this is not allowed and of course you simply don’t want to damage these well preserved ruins.
Hiking to Machu Picchu or taking the train to Machu Picchu
The train from Cusco is a great way to visit Machu Picchu if you are short on time. Train tickets are available for purchase online or from the Peru rail offices in Lima or Cusco. If you choose to buy your tickets at the rail office be prepared to queue for a while but you may also save money this way. Sometimes if you leave buying your tickets until the last minute, when you are already in Cusco, the tickets can be limited. There are also many agencies in Cusco on the main square who will happily organize tickets for you for a fee.
The other way to reach Machu Picchu is by doing one of the many wonderful treks. The most popular trek is the Inca Trail, a four-day hike ending the final day at Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail is by far the most famous trek in South America and is rated by many to be one of the best treks in the world.
In just 26 miles (43km) you will walk through beautiful mountain scenery, lush cloud-forests, subtropical jungle and a stunning mix of Inca paving stones, ruins, and tunnels.
People generally start the Inca Trail from Cusco, where you will be picked up from your hotel and taken to the starting point of the trek by bus.
Preparing for the trek to Machu Picchu
Although the trek to Machu Picchu is not extremely difficult, it is still a multi-day hike, and a hike at altitude. If you decide to do a trek to Machu Picchu you will need to be reasonably fit, so it might be a good idea to do some hikes before you leave home.
You will need good walking shoes for the trek and layers of clothing, as you will experience all types of climate in a single day. And please do not forget how strong the sun is at high altitude. A broad brimmed hat and sunscreen are essential.
On the fourth day of the Inca trail you will reach Machu Picchu and have a guided tour of the ruins. Trekking to Machu Picchu instead of taking the train to Machu Picchu of course makes the whole experiences even more rewarding!
At the end of day four of the trek you can catch a train back to Cusco or choose to relax in Aguas Calientes for a bit.
Before going to Machu Picchu
Speaking of the altitude, Cusco is at an altitude of 11,150 feet above sea level (3400 meters) meaning altitude sickness is a real possibility.
If you plan to do a trek to Machu Picchu, it is advisable to spend a few days acclimatizing to the altitude and Cusco is not a bad place to do so. Machu Travel Peru can help you with all your trekking needs but it is very important to take a few days to rest before leaving on your trek. Bringing your children? Then read this article about visiting Machu Picchu with kids.
Cusco, which was once the capital of the Inca Empire, is a very pretty town. The center of town features a lovely main square, which is surrounded by restaurants and bars. The town seems to be a magnet for people from all over the world, some of whom chose to stay, giving Cusco a large expat community.
If you plan to spend a few days in Cusco, there are plenty of interesting ruins and churches to check out, or if you prefer to do nothing just hang out on one of the many balconies on the plaza and drink coffee.
It might be a good idea to not drink any alcohol or eat large meals your first few days in Cusco and drink plenty of water or coca tea.
If you are looking for a more laid back experience before you travel to Machu Picchu you could consider staying at the beautiful Sacred Valley of the Incas. Located around an hour’s drive by bus from Cusco, the Valley has a warmer climate and a lot less tourists. Here you will find some other impressive Inca ruins, rivers and some beautiful hotels and resorts to cater for all budgets.
The Sacred Valley is popular with day-trippers who come from Cusco by bus, but spending more time in the valley is well worth your time before your visit to Machu Picchu.
If you decide to stay in the Sacred Valley you can either catch the train from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu or go back to Cusco first and catch the train from there to Machu Picchu. Or start your trek to Machu Picchu of course!
But, no matter how you travel to Machu Picchu, it will be a unique experience!
And if you are looking for another incredible trek to an almost equally impressive “lost city”, then check out this Guide to Trekking to The Lost City in Colombia.
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