Machu Picchu is the most iconic tourist attraction to be found anywhere in Peru, and perhaps anywhere in South America. This world-famous Inca ruin is found high in the mountains, and its history is as mystical as the very clouds that swirl around the towering, snow-capped peaks.
After the fall of the Inca Empire to the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Machu Picchu was lost to records and to time.
It stood abandoned, hidden away in the mountains for centuries until it was again rediscovered in the early 20th century. From that moment of rediscovery, this ‘Lost City of the Incas’ has become an epic tourist attraction in the heart of the Peruvian mountains.
It’s a sight to marvel at, a sight like no other, where the ruins of this Inca city are perched on dramatic cliffs, in overwhelmingly beautiful surroundings.
The gateway to Machu Picchu is the old Inca capital of Cusco, and from here you can hike through the mountains or take the scenic train as close to the base of Machu Picchu as possible.
Either way, figuring out the best route can be difficult, especially as many of the multi-day treks have limited places available. It’s best to plan your trip to Machu Picchu well in advance, as it is a once in a lifetime experience, but an experience that is incredibly popular amongst travelers.
To help you out, here’s our guide to traveling from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Peru (Travel Guide)
A Brief History of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is an ever-enduring legacy of the Inca Empire that fell to the Spanish invaders in the 16th century. This once powerful and advanced civilization was wiped out by the European conquerors in an incredibly short space of time, and much of the history, culture, and traditions of these people were lost.
It’s thought that Machu Picchu served as a summer retreat for the Inca rulers, who had their capital nearby at Cusco, and that few people actually lived here all year round.
It was a guarded, secretive place built for the elite, and so when the empire fell, it’s no surprise that details of its location were lost too. This, however, is all speculation, as no one is quite sure what the site’s purpose was.
Since its rediscovery at the turn of the 20th century by explorers hoping to find gold and riches and the lost vestiges of an empire, Machu Picchu’s legend has only grown and grown. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important Inca relic that’s much loved by locals and tourists alike.
Where is Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is found in the Southern Sierra mountain range, in the far south of Peru. The closest city to the ruins is Cusco, the ancient Inca capital. This is the starting point for all travelers visiting Machu Picchu, no matter the method you choose to take, as Cusco is well connected to the rest of the country.
There are regular, daily flights to the Peruvian capital Lima, and from Lima’s international airport, there are frequent worldwide connections to North America and even as far afield as Europe.
Flight time from Lima to Cusco is an hour and a half, which is much preferred over the 24-hour bus ride, but be sure to book in advance, particularly in peak season.
Bring along this: Peru (National Geographic Adventure Map)
The Best Time to visit Machu Picchu
This high altitude region of Peru is a very weather dependent destination. The area sees very distinct wet and dry seasons, with very extreme temperature differences too.
Summer is brutally hot and experiences massive rainfall, while winter is incredibly dry with cold nights. The wet season generally runs from November to April and the dry from May to October, and this coincides with the low and peak season for tourism.
Traveling to Machu Picchu in the wet season is not recommended, as the rainfall can block roads and cause dangerous landslides. Permits may not be issued for multi-day hikes either during the rainy months, and February will see the trails closed entirely for maintenance.
The most popular months are the dry days between June and August. If you want to travel then, be sure to book far in advance, as spots on the hikes and even plane tickets can be sold out months ahead of time.
Cusco is found at an altitude of 3400 meters (11,154 feet), while Machu Picchu itself lies at an altitude of 2400 meters (7,874 feet). If you are flying straight into Cusco, and you are more used to life at sea level, then the altitude may cause unprecedented problems before you even begin your trip to Machu Picchu.
Many travelers will choose to stay in Cusco for a few days to get used to the high altitude, before attempting any hikes. Machu Picchu is at a lower altitude than Cusco, so if you have everything planned and arranged in advance, then you can travel straight onto the lower altitude.
You can spend a few days acclimatizing in the surrounding area, at lower levels, before attempting any strenuous hikes, to ensure you get the most out of your trip. In reality, you will find that it’s Cusco that causes the trouble, not Machu Picchu, but traveling to Cusco is unavoidable.
Travel From Cusco to Machu Picchu
There are several different routes and methods available when it comes to traveling from Cusco to Machu Picchu. For those who have the time and the relevant fitness, the most popular method is to undertake a multi-day hike, allowing you to really immerse yourself in the incredible mountain scenery.
Those who are pressed for time or who would prefer not to hike, are best taking the train.
The Train From Cusco To Machu Picchu
Aguas Calientes can be reached by a combination of road and train. There are no direct trains from Cusco, instead, you need to make your way to the town of Poroy, about twenty minutes away.
From here, there are two companies running direct trains to Aguas Calientes. These companies are Peru Rail and Inca Rail. This journey takes about two hours and 45 minutes each way.
The second option is to travel to the town of Ollantaytambo, which is a ninety-minute bus ride from Cusco. From here are there more trains to Aguas Calientes, a journey time of around one hour and fifty minutes.
This can be a cheaper option or a good way to break up the journey by staying overnight in Ollantaytambo and exploring the other nearby Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.
Luxury travelers may want to consider the Hiram Bingham Train, run by Peru Rail and named after the explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu. It’s an opulent journey, complete with gourmet dining and cultural displays, but there’s a price tag to match and limited reservations.
Our top recommended tours including Hiram Bingham Train:
- Machu Picchu Full Day Tour by Train
- Hiram Bingham Luxury Train to Machu Picchu
- Belmond Hiram Bingham Train to Machu Picchu
Hiking The Inca Trail
The most popular long-distance walking route from Cusco to Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail. This is the classic hiking trail, and there are two or four-day options. It can be tough, as you endure drastic changes in altitude, so it’s best to acclimatize before and be physically fit.
The classic four-day hike begins at kilometer 82 of the railway line to Aguas Calientes, while the two-day hike begins further along and is a good option if you are pressed for time.
There are only a limited number of permits available for the Inca Trail so it’s necessary to book in advance. You can reserve your spot with tour companies before permits are even released each year to give you a higher chance of securing one, particularly in peak season, although even this isn’t guaranteed.
We recommend booking the Inca Trail with G Adventures, which operates an award-winning and sustainable Inca Trail experience. They are the best in the business and are frequently recognized for their program that operates out of Cusco.
Both of these trails lead through the iconic Sun Gate, for the best but busiest views of Machu Picchu.
The Salkantay Trail
The Salkantay Trail is a new addition to the Cusco to Machu Picchu multi-day hikes. Known as the Llama Trail, it’s essentially a back road into the ruins.
It’s an excellent option for those who either can’t get the Inca Trail permits or who prefer a quieter hike. It’s much more arduous, however, as it crosses the Salkantay Pass which at its peak height rises to 4600 meters (15,091 feet), so acclimatization is a must.
The trail takes five days to complete. The trek is best experienced with an experienced agency and we highly recommend booking the Salkantay Hike with G Adventures. They are an award-winning small group tour company that offers incredible trips.
Inka Jungle Trek
The Inka Jungle Trek is another popular alternative to the Inca Trail hike, and as the name suggests, this takes walkers through the jungle from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
It’s not just a hike, but more of an adrenaline-fueled journey to Machu Picchu. The trip involves off-road mountain biking, zip-lining between trees and trekking along rivers and through the mountains. It’s an epic trip that takes around three days to complete.
Our top recommended tours of Inka Jungle Trek:
Where to Stay – Aguas Calientes
The closest town to Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes – also known these days as Machu Picchu Pueblo. This is a ragged, tourist hub that has expanded quickly, as it’s literally in the shadow of the ruins.
A road leads to Machu Picchu from the town and it’s an uphill walk of one and a half hours each way, or you can take the tourist bus to speed things up exponentially.
There is one expensive hotel in the town and many budget rooms to choose from, but technically you could make the trip to Aguas Calientes, then to Machu Picchu in a day from Cusco.
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