Sally Watson

View over Machu Picchu, Peru


When I started planning my trip to Machu Picchu, I was a little confused about how to actually get there.  Did I have to walk the Inca Trail to see the ruins? Did I have to join a group or packaged tour, or preferably, could I visit Machu Picchu by planning and booking my own trip?

Visiting this wonder of the world had been a lifelong dream but I only had five days to spare, before heading down to Chile to meet a tour. I had decided my trekking boots were hung up from my days of hiking in Nepal and since I didn’t have time to walk the Inca trail or other treks, I concentrated on visiting the ruins themselves.

It did take some patience, time and effort, but I successfully organised my own four-night trip to see this awe-inspiring place. I got to Machu Picchu cheaply, easily and independently, without doing a hike.

Here’s how you can do the same.

If booking online yourself, always book well in advance. Co-ordinate the following steps at once, to make sure every part of the itinerary is available for your dates.

1) Book transport, in and out, of Cusco

It’s essentially the only transit point to Machu Picchu so you will need to fly, bus or train into Cusco, Peru - from Lima or nearby towns such as Puno (Lake Titicaca). I booked in and out of Cusco from Lima as part of a LAN airpass as I was taking several South American flights.

Alternatively, you can often include Cusco return flights from Lima as part of your international airfare. If you’re coming from Puno, you can get a number of buses or the well-renowned Andean Explorer train to Cusco.

If you arrive in Cusco by land from Lima, the climb in altitude is more gradual, so you are less likely to feel the effects of altitude sickness.

View over Cusco, Peru, South America


2) Book accommodation in Cusco

I stayed two nights in Cusco, before setting off for Machu Picchu, but I could have easily stayed three. It’s a good idea to adjust to the altitude over a few days, especially if you are flying in. Cusco is a lively and lovely Peruvian town to spend time in, with lots of museums, local and international restaurants, bars and shops. There are several other Inca ruins just outside the city, which are an easy day trip. I’s also recommend booking accommodation here for a night or two after visiting the ruins.

Sally at Cusco ruins in Peru, South America


3) Book train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and return to Cusco

Aguas Calientes is the base town of Machu Picchu. Several trains operate from Cusco with PeruRail. The cheapest option ‘Expedition’ is known as the backpacker train, the ‘Vistadome’ offers a better standard and the ‘Hiram Bingham’ is the luxury option. I took the ‘Vistadome’ and it was a pleasant experience with good scenery, snacks and music along the way. Once you have decided how much time you want to spend in Aguas Calientes, book your return train tickets.

Trains from Cusco to Aguas Calientes leave from Poroy Station, a twenty-minute transfer or taxi from the centre of Cusco. The train trip from Poroy to Aguas Calientes takes about three and a half to four hours.

Photo of Peru Rail


4) Book Accommodation in Aguas Calientes

Accommodation ranges from really basic to high end. I’d heard that this wasn’t a town to get over excited about. Yet, I thought it had a great vibe with travellers coming to, or from the ruins. I arrived here from Cusco early enough on the first day that I could have visited the ruins late afternoon, but I decided to hold off and went early the next morning for sunrise. I walked up Hyuana Picchu (the big mountain behind the ruins) at the 7am departure and made a late afternoon train back to Cusco.

If you want to take it slower, you could have another night in Aguas Calientes after seeing the ruins.

Photo of the streets in Aguas Calientes, Peru


5) Book your entry tickets for Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu (the big mountain) have daily limits of permits, so book well in advance. Permits to visit the site of Machu Picchu are available from Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura Cusco:  It’s a bit of a quirky website and not that user-friendly, sometimes reverting back to Spanish even if you have selected English. This throws a lot of people off but if you persevere you should be able to book your tickets.

Huayna Picchu departures are at 7am or 10am. I recommend the earlier time, as there are less people on the track. After taking sunrise photos at the ruins, you can walk up Huayna Picchu and then return for a tour of the site.

Photo of Machu Picchu, Peru


6) At Aguas Calientes, buy your bus ticket to the Machu Picchu site

From the town of Aguas Calientes the bus up the mountain to the Machu Picchu entrance gates takes about twenty minutes and costs around US$6-10. Many people in town, or your hotel staff, will be able to tell you where the ticket office is.

You can't buy this bus ticket beforehand, only once you get to Aguas Calientes.

Sally at Hyuana Picchu


And that is how you do it. Once you have visited this incredible place, head back to Cusco for a night or two before you continue your onward travel.

Things to know:

  • I found a wonderful guide, Wilfredo, at the gate for 100 soles ($40US). My hotel wanted to charge me US$100-150. The guides at the gate are certified with the tourism department. Find someone you connect with and go with it.
  • You can only take 5kg of luggage on the train, so only bring what you need for a night or two (store your main luggage in Cusco)
  • Take a wet weather jacket and good walking shoes
  • Bring your passport - it is required for entry, plus you can get it stamped on entry

Sally Watson is an Australian Journalist and media exec who loves to travel, discover new places and share stories on her blog Wing Woman Adventures.

Instagram: @wingwomanadventures; Twitter: @wingwomanADV.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.