Coming: Many people do one of the multi-day treks to Machu Picchu (MP). They’re tough, but beautiful and so much fun. Unless you’re doing the Inca Trail, if you’re wanting to arrive early at MP you’ll be spending the night in Aguascalientes the night before. I would equate Aguascalientes to having a similar vibe of a ski town. Everyone there is a tourist except the staff but still manages to have a decent vibe to it. It’s also surrounded by some stunning mountains which doesn’t hurt.
Train- Take the Inca Rail to Aguascalientes. I’ve heard it’s super easy to book this without an agency. Take the train into Aguascalientes, spend the afternoon wandering around.
Price- One-way $80
Treks- Take a multi-day trek to arrive in Aguascalientes (unless you’re doing the Inca Trail) and wake up early to trek up the stairs to Machu Picchu. More information about each trek below.
Price- Varies by trek, amount of time, and mode of transport back
Sleeping: Our accommodation was included in the trek, but there are no shortage of options throughout Aguascalientes.
Eating: If you’re doing a trek you’ll get all your meals included except the first breakfast and very lunch on the afternoon you go to MP. All the restaurants in Aguascalientes are very touristy but most looked like they had decent food. There is a café at the entrance of MP but food is quite pricey. There’s also a restaurant but it doesn’t open until 11 am.
Doing: Here is a little more information on each of the different treks.
Salkantay- This is the trek I did. The norm is to do it in 5 days, but it’s also possible to do it in four with a slightly different schedule. Day one is a long morning of transport and getting everything ready. Breakfast is not included in the price this day but the restaurant isn’t too outrageous. Then you take a little time meeting your guide and your group and spend the rest of the morning hiking a pleasant and relatively flat trail. You’ll arrive at your campsite, have lunch and get yourself set up. Then there is an optional hike to Humantay Lake which is about an hour to an hour and a half hike upwards to a breathtaking lake. Do it. Even if it’s raining.
Sleep in tents.
Day two is a long day- hiking up in the morning to arrive at Salkantay pass and then the rest of the day heading downwards (which gets a bit hard on the knees). The pass was really cloudy for us so we couldn’t see too much but even in the clouds it was awesome!
Sleep in tents.
Day three you’ve descended into the jungle and spend the day hiking through the jungle. It rained heavily the night before so we had to hike on the road due to landslides and the path in the jungle being blocked. In the afternoon there is an optional trip to hot springs which was lovely.
At night you’ll try some Inca tequila and then they throw a bonfire and a party. Beers and tequila flow as you dance the night away with all the other groups who are also doing Salkantay and you’ve seen every day along the way.
Sleep in tents.
Day four is an optional zip line in the morning. This costs an additional $15 and should be booked in advance. You can book last minute as well but it’ll cost you a lot more money.
If you zipline then you’ll bus to lunch where you’ll meet up with the rest of the group and after lunch is a three hour hike along the railroad tracks to Aguascalientes. If you choose not to zipline you’ll hike about three hours to the lunch spot. Sleep in a hostel/hotel.
Day five is MP! Wake up early and wait in line for the gates to open. Then it’s a hike up, up, up. It was a pretty tough hike but we flew through it and arrived in about 45 minutes. The faster you get up there the earlier you get into MP! A shrt tour with your guide is included and afterwards you’re on your own! The weather was great early and then got extremely rainy and cloudy (I went early January though which is during rainy season) before eventually clearing up around noonish. There is an option to climb either Waynapichu or Machu Picchu Mountain (both tickets must be reserved in advance with a specific time slot) and cost an additional $15. The people who bought tickets didn’t even bother going because it was so cloudy and you very literally could not see anything.
It’s also not ideal to climb more mountains after trekking the previous four days. Spend the rest of your time wandering around at your leisure exploring. It’s a HUGE complex and there is a ton to see.
If you do the four day trek you’ll do everything the same until the afternoon of day 3 where you’ll skip the hot springs and zip lining and hike a bit farther to take transport directly to Aguascalientes.
For this trek DO NOT book online it’s going to be way more expensive. You’ll need a few days in advance to book in Cusco, but it’ll be much cheaper to book in person.
Price- $180 with bus $240 with train
Inca Trail- The majority of the people I’ve talked to who have done the Inca Trail have absolutely LOVED it. It’s a four day trek and you enter MP at the Sun Gate (the other side of where everyone from Aguascalientes is coming from). It’s a tough trek with no showers along the way but, again, almost everyone has had an absolute blast. I have heard it’s full of tourists, though, making it a lot less pleasant.
Contrarily, I have also heard that there is a limit on how many people can do the trek so during high season all of the people who didn’t get spots do the alternative treks making those extremely crowded as well. But, honestly, everything is going to be crowded. It’s Machu freaking Picchu. For me it was too expensive and I just don’t like being tied to a schedule by booking things that far in advance.
This trek you MIGHT be able to get availability if you come during the low season, but otherwise it’s necessary to book 3-6 months in advance if not more. The Inca Trail is closed during the February for maintenance (but all other treks are still available).
Price- I’m not sure what the prices are in person, but I’ve seen anywhere from $500 upwards online
Inca Jungle- I’ve also met a lot of people who did this and had a great time! It’s a three day adventure where you bike down a mountain, go rafting, zip lining and hiking. It’s a great for those shorter on time. Everyone who I’ve talked to that has done it has had a blast.
Price- $140 with bus $210 with train
Lares Trek- I know literally nothing about this, but I would imagine it’s more off the beaten track since I’ve never met anyone who has done it.
Staying: I stayed at MP for seven hours and didn’t feel like I saw even close to everything- but was also quite ready to leave because of the amount of crowds that arrive in the afternoon. There are two ticket timeslots (6 am- 12:00 pm and 12:00 pm – 6 pm). With both tickets you’re allowed leave and re-enter one more time (so a total of two entrances), but if you have a 6am-12pm ticket, you must re-enter before 11:30 am, otherwise they will not let you back in. There are no bathrooms in MP which is why you’d probably want to leave and come back once. Once you’re back in you can stay past 12:00 pm but it does start to get extremely crowded.
Going: If you’re doing a trek, there are two options to leave back to Cusco. The cheaper options is to take the bus and the more expensive option (about $80 extra) is to take the train. In my opinion, it’s SO worth it to take the train. Those taking the bus only get to spend around three hours exploring MP. During rainy season the weather is super cloudy and unpredictable and therefore it’s usually necessary to wait out the clouds.
But even if you have perfect weather, you’ll most likely only be at MP once in your life and three hours just wasn’t enough time to explore. The people taking the bus have to store their things at the entrance, leave MP at 11 am, hike down the mountain, hike three hours back on the railroad tracks (not a particularly great walk), and then take a six hour bus back to Cusco.
Those taking the train can spend all day in MP and arrive in Aguascalientes a half hour before their trains. We took the 4:12 pm train giving us plenty of time to visit MP, drink pisco sours in Aguascalientes for a bit and arrive in Cusco around 8 pm. It’s a lovely train ride and then about a two hour bus ride after that.
If you didn’t come via trek then you’ll get back to Cusco the same way you came on the train.