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How to get to Machu Picchu

The access town for Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes, recently renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo. We´ll call it Aguas Calientes for now. There are two considerations:

  1. How to get to Aguas Calientes
  2. How to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu

 

The access town for Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes, recently renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo. We´ll call it Aguas Calientes for now. There are two considerations:

  1. How to get to Aguas Calientes
  2. How to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu  

How to get to Aguas Calientes

There are five routes:

  1. By train, using Peru Rail
  2. On foot, along the Inca Trail
  3. By bus, truck and train, via Santa Theresa
  4. On foot, using the "New Inca Trail", via Santa Theresa
  5. On foot, using the railway

By train, using Peru Rail

Description

You can take the train either all the way from Cusco, which is more expensive, or first go by road to Ollantaytambo and by train from there to Machu Picchu, which is cheaper and also quicker and gives you the opportunity to visit the beautiful Inca streets of Ollantaytambo and even explore the local area. Fares range from the tens of dollars return to a few hundred dollars for the luxury service. Visit Peru Rail´s Web site for the latest pricing, but it is one of the most expensive railway journeys in the world and Peru Rail are the only train service operator, owned by multinational Orient Express. The most popular and cheapest trains fill up at least a couple of days before they depart in high season. You can make email reservations and buy tickets about four days in advance in Wanchaq station in Cusco and from the station in Ollantaytambo (the latter for journeys from Ollantaytambo only).

Is It Local?

Peru Rail is owned by Orient Express, who own or part-own 49 businesses operating in 25 countries. They are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and in 2005 they had net earnings of US$40.7 million on revenue of US$447.7 million (Data correct as of April 2007; source here). In this sense, Peru Rail is definitely not local.

However, Peru Rail does employ a vast array of local staff and by enabling mass tourism to Machu Picchu, especially high-value tourism, it does bring a lot of money into the country.

For many people, time is pressing and Peru Rail is the only option for getting in and out of Aguas Calientes quickly enough. So it is a decision for each person to make, to weigh their time against their budget against their desire to be responsible tourists.

Leap Local Recommends...
  • Catch a morning bus from Cusco (soles 3 to 5 depending on the operator, or US$1 to 2) to Ollantaytambo.
  • Spend a day browsing the historic Inca streets of Ollantay, spend some time with Locals such as Lida Pillco Puma, have dinner in Hearts Cafe and stay in a hostal such as Chaska Wasi.  
  • Having been a responsible tourist, and also having had a great day, wake up early the next morning and catch the train to Aguas Calientes.

On foot, along the Inca Trail 

Description 

An hour up the road from Ollantaytambo is Piscacucho (km 82 on the railway), where the vehicle road stops and the Inca trail starts. This trail is world famous and is well described on the Web; for example, see the Andean Travel Web. To go along the Inca trail you should book at least a month in advance with a Cusco agency; there is an overwhelming choice of 140 (in 2007) (see here on the Andean Travel Web for list of some agencies) and be aware of porter issues when booking.

Is It Local?

Make sure the tour operator you choose is Peruvian.

Leap Local Recommends...

Ask your tour operator these questions about their porters.

By bus, truck and train, via Santa Theresa

Description

This is a back-door route into Aguas Caliente, using local transport and rough roads. It requires time and patience! If you have these, then it is a rewarding journey, into remote country with the amazing thermal baths at Santa Theresa being one of the highlights.

The first leg is to get the bus to Santa Maria. The bus route is Cusco to Quillabamba, passing over the stupendous Abra Malaga pass. You can pre-buy the ticket in Cusco and guarantee yourself a seat (numerous operators, visit the bus station on Ave Grau) or just hop on a passing bus in Cusco, Urubamba or Ollantaytambo. In Ollantaytambo the bus pulls up in the plaza and doesn´t visit the bus station. From Ollantay, the cost is around soles 5.

Santa Maria makes a good resting place (see Leap Local Recommends... below) before you push on to Santa Theresa. The route depends upon the road state. In April 2007 the direct road was closed by a landslide, but a roundabout road exists. This goes downriver to Chaullay then takes a left turn up the Vilcabamba valley to Chuqipata before traversing round back into the Urubamba valley and eventually to Santa Theresa. A truck cost soles 4.

Santa Theresa is literally an oasis, with an amazing thermal bath built by the municipality. Trucks run down to the baths from the obvious main street at around 3pm. Drivers in pickups, full of people holding swimmers and towels, will be shouting "Baños!", so jump on board. These baths are large, warm, crystal clear and have stunning mountain views, and you can get a beer pool-side before heading back to Santa Theresa. The lift and pool fee will be about soles 5.

The baths make Santa Theresa a definite stop-over place, so next morning catch a pick-up truck or combi to hidroelectrica, a power plant further up the Urubamba river. Pay around soles 4. In April 2007, the road was closed just before hidroelectrica because of a small landslide and the linking walk took about 20 minutes. Hidroelectrica has a number of cafes and snack shops and is the final station (on this route, the first station!) on the Peru Rail line.

Hence from here you can catch a train to Aguas Calientes. In April 2007 this cost US$8 for a tourist (soles 4 for a local!) and takes about 1hr. However, walking this part of the line seems a lot less restricted: perhaps there are fewer trains? so you could put your best foot forwards and reach Aguas Calientes within 3hrs.

Leap Local were lucky to be accompanied in this journey by Arturo Usandivares, who made the journey effortless. You can do it solo with some Spanish skills: they key phrase is to ask where the road is to Santa Theresa!

Is It Local?

Apart from using Peru Rail at the end, this journey is entirely local. Refer to the route, "By train, using Peru Rail" for a discussion on using Peru Rail in the context of responsible tourism. If you prefer not to use the train, you can walk the last section for a wholly local journey.

Leap Local Recommends...
  • Day 1: Catch a late-morning bus (10am to 11am) from Ollantaytambo to Santa Maria. Enjoy the stunning views over the mountain pass and arrive in Santa Maria (4pm) with enough time for a chicha. Stay with Zaraida Guillen.
  • Day 2: Take a leisurely breakfast at Restaurante Auqui and inquire about the local roads. At time of writing (April 2007) you´ll need to go via Chaullay (see description). Aim to arrive before 3pm to ensure you have time for the wonderful hot baths.
  • Day 3: After staying with Norma Vivanco Salas, catch a lift at midday to Hidroelectrica. Lunch with Mercedes, which is a great place to wait for your train to Aguas Calientes, where Punuy Wasi offers cheap accomodation. 
  • Day 4: Visit Machu Picchu! then reward your hard work with a beer, pisco sour or mate de coca in one of the many locally owned cafes on the street leading up to the thermal baths (you can skip the baths themselves having been to Santa Theresa!).
  • Day 5: Catch the train back to Ollantaytambo or if feeling adventurous, walk to km82 (see below, "On foot, using the railway") and get a combi back to Ollantay.

On foot, using the "New Inca Trail", via Santa Theresa

Description

There is an emerging cycling / walking route that follows the "By bus, truck and train" route above. In April 2007, the itinerary involved:

  • Day 1: Cycling into Santa Maria
  • Day 2: Walking to Santa Theresa, arriving at the baths
  • Day 3: Walking to Aguas Calientes
  • Day 4: early start to Machu Picchu and the last train back to Cusco

A lot of the walking involves Inca road and so this is an interesting route with nearly as much heritage as the Inca Trail itself plus the hot baths at Santa Theresa as a bonus. Accomodation is entirely in hospedajes, so it costs less than an Inca Trail excursion.

The Santa Theresa municipality are marketing this as the "new" Inca trail to attract tourism to their village.

Is it Local?

Unfortunately we do not know the agencies operating this route. As with the Inca trail, check the agency is Peruvian. Arturo Usandivares knows this route and would be able to guide it privately as a round trip from Ollantaytambo.

Leap Local Recommends...

Until we know more about the agencies and guides working on this route, contact Arturo for a privately guided circuit of the "new" Inca trail.

On foot, using the railway

Description

Strictly Peru Rail say no walking on the railway. However, the railway is reasonably well used by Porters taking a shortcut off the Inca Trail and locals tending farmland and cattle on the river banks.

We investigated this route as a means to return from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, so obviously the reverse is possible.

It is 28km from Aguas Calientes to km82, the road-head. This involves a gentle uphill gradient from around 2000m to around 2700m. The way underfoot is heavy, being mostly rough railway aggregate, and so a relatively slow average speed of 3-4km per hour should be allowed for. In total, 7hrs walking, 1hr waiting for a combi and 1hr for the drive saw us back in Ollantay at 3pm after a 6am start.

En-route the journey takes you from rainforest through cloud forest to farmland, with a fascinating variety of birds, plants, butterflies and animals on the way. Starting early, the cock of the rock and big blue macaws will see you out of Aguas Calientes. The occasional tarantula-like spider might be visible! The trees gradually give way to graceful eucalyptus, butterflies and red hawks and by km82 you emerge into the grasslands. These are farmed using traditional Inca irrigation and terracing and support barley, maize, red rice plants and huge prickly pears! From here you can hop off the railway onto a footpath on the north side of the Urubamba (cross on the spectacular sandstone arch over the railway using precipitous steps), which follows an Inca road and passed three Inca sites, including a beautiful abstract sculpture, surely intended as a resting point. Salapunco is noteworthy for the size of the blocks used in the masonry.

km82 is an alternative start to the Inca Trail and there are two small stands selling much needed food supplies - and chicha!

Once you reach km88 you can catch a combi back to Ollantaytambo for soles 2.

Is It Local?

Entirely!

Leap Local Recommends...

Strictly speaking we do not recommend this route. Peru Rail do not allow people to walk on the tracks and there are several short tunnels which can be dangerous. Trains appear round blind corners with little warning - it is hard to hear them over the noise of the river. As an alternative route in or out of Aguas Calientes, it works, but use your own judgement before deciding to do it, and be responsible for your own safety.

How to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu  

Description

Aguas Calientes is a very commercial place that exists solely to service the tourists who visit Machu Picchu. To get to the site of Machu Picchu on the hill above this town you can walk, which takes between one and two hours uphill and less than an hour downhill, or take the bus, which is $6 each way. There are departures every fifteen minutes til mid afternoon and also an early morning bus (5.30am) for those who want to get there first before the crowds. The last bus down in 1740.

 

For simplicity we recommend buying your ticket to Machu Picchu itself the day before you go there. The ticket office is just off the Plaza Armas. You will need your passport number.

Is It Local?

The buses are owned by Orient Express, the parent company of Peru Rail.

Leap Local Recommends...

Walking, of course! The route up uses Inca path and makes for a much more rewarding arrival at Machu Picchu. Maybe you can catch the bus down as a reward.