As we didn’t want to do the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu as part of a tour we decided to travel independently. We travelled by bus and collectivos from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo and after spending the day at the site we took the evening train straight to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the bottom of Machu Picchu.
You have a couple of options for making your way to Mach Picchu, the first and most obvious is via a tour agency, the second is by tourist train from either Cuzco or Ollantaytambo and the third option is to make it as far as Santa Marta by bus, then take the hydroelectric train to just outside Aguas Calientes and walk for a couple of hours to the town. There are no roads to Aguas Calientes so you have to take the train one way or another, which is why it is so expensive.
Prices start from $35 to over $150 one way, depending from where you start your journey and the class of train you take. One thing to note is that they do not allow you to take backpacks on board the train, despite the fact that the Explorer train has racks for luggage storage. You are limited to small day-pack sizes per person of no more than a few kgs.
The town of Aguas Calientes is solely catered to tourism and is not worth spending time in. There are numerous places to stay in for all different budgets, with the cheaper options being located on the way up the hill to the thermal pools. The restaurants all offer pretty much the same food, however, if you opt for a “tourist menu” then calculate an additional cost of anywhere between 15% – 20% being added for tax, which they do not advertise.
To get to Machu Picchu you have 2 options, you can hike up for free which will probably take a good 2 hours or you can take the bus which leaves more or less every 5 minutes and takes 10 minutes. The cost for the ticket is around 23 soles one way per person and if you want to save money you can always opt to walk back down instead which takes about an hour.
The entry to the site costs 128 soles per person and the ticket is valid for 1 day only. If you want to climb Wayna Picchu too there is an additional cost to pay. Tickets are bought in the main plaza in town, not at the site entrance. There is a policy of no food to the site but if you take a small backpack they wont check it, and I would recommend taking snacks at the very least as the food at the small shop has extortionate prices, think 10 soles for a bottle of water! Just make sure you take your rubbish back out with you as there are no bins inside.
We spent the whole day at the site and managed to see pretty much everything, although we didn’t opt to climb Wayna Picchu. Instead we climbed to Inti Pukku, the entrance gate for the Inca trail, which provides amazing views and is at pretty much the same height as Wayna Picchu – except it’s free to do!
The site tends to get very crowded, so to avoid hoards of people try to visit early in the morning. If you are going to climb either Wayna Picchu or to Inti Pukku try to do it before lunch time as the temperatures get very hot.
The site has plenty of areas for you to relax in, from terraces to covered benches if it rains and the views from the side terraces of the river below are pretty impressive!
Machu Picchu is definitely a worth-while place to visit once in your lifetime, but unfortunately the Peruvian authorities know this and charge very high prices for you to be able to take advantage of it.