Overview: Planes, trains and automobiles
It took a bit of effort and time to get to Machu Picchu. There did not seem to be any direct routes, so get ready to travel a little. This was how we did it over 2 weeks:
- FLY FROM PHILADELPHIA TO MIAMI TO LIMA, PERU
- FLY FROM LIMA TO CUSCO AIRPORT (90 minute flight)
- CAR FROM CUSCO AIRPORT TO OLLANTAYTAMBO (90 minutes)
- TRAIN FROM OLLANTAYTAMBO TO AGUAS CALIENTES (2 hours)
- BUS TO MACHU PICCHU (20 minutes)
- BUS BACK DOWN TO AGUAS CALIENTES
- TRAIN FROM AGUAS CALIENTES TO OLLANTAYTAMBO
- CAR FROM OLLANTAYTAMBO TO CUSCO
- FLY FROM CUSCO TO LIMA
- FLY FROM LIMA TO DALLAS to PHL
You can shorten this itinerary as shown below. If you have less time, do this:
Read the rest of this post and do some Googling to figure out how you want to get there and how much time to spend. I can only tell you how we did it.
Preparation for the trip: MUST-DO ITEMS
- VACCINES AND ANTIBIOTICS: Call your doctor to tell them you need vaccines to travel to Peru (yes, you absolutely do). They may refer you to an office or clinic that specializes in this. The one I was referred to was literally one nurse practitioner in an office who does nothing but travel medicine. They didn’t take insurance, so I ended up spending about $500 on vaccines. I had 3, but how many you need will depend on your vaccine history. We also got prescriptions for antibiotics in the event anyone got sick from the water, which we needed. See the paragraph called “First things first” below for more about that.
- Use this link to see what the CDC recommends: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/peru
- TICKETS FOR MACHU PICCHU: You want to purchase your tickets online to avoid any issues. There is a limit of 2500 visitors per day, and only 400 people who can take the longer, more rugged hike up to Huayna Picchu. There are 2 entry times a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We actually had one set of tickets for the afternoon and bought a second set of tickets for the next day in the morning. That was lucky since one of us got sick from the food (I’ll address this later in this blog) and we could not make it up there on the first day in Aguas Calientes.
- You can buy bus tickets to get up to Machu Picchu once you are in Aguas Calientes. I bought mine the night before we went by going to a ticket sale booth in Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of the mountain where buses depart from). The booth was across the road from the small train station there, and you can ask anyone who can point you to it. However, the online service for Machu Picchu tickets might be able to include that if you ask.
- The online site I used to get my Machu Picchu entry tickets was very good, I had no trouble. I had to provide them with information and got my tickets in a PDF via email: http://ticketmachupicchu.com/availability-ticket-machu-picchu-only/
- TRAIN TICKETS TO AGUAS CALIENTES (the departing point for buses to Machu Picchu): You will need to take a train from either Cusco or Ollantaytambo to get to Aguas Calientes, where the bus to Machu Picchu is. It can not accommodate lots of heavy luggage, apparently, so we chose to leave our luggage at the hotel in Ollantaytambo and took only backpacks to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes.
- You don’t have to stay overnight. You can arrange to go on a bus with a larger group for just the day, but we wanted to do this without the crowded tour group and be able to take our time. We used Peru Rail, which has a nice VistaDome train with snack service and windows on the roof for sightseeing. This is the site for pricing and schedules, as well as booking your tickets: http://www.perurail.com
- CASH: You will need cash for tips, taxis (you can also use Uber in Lima and Cusco), souvenirs, day trip guides, etc. I would take enough cash to cover the whole trip, don’t rely on your ATM card. Mine (Santander Bank) didn’t work at all in any of the cash machines. This may be a unique problem to my bank, but you can’t be too safe.
- We both took out $500 US dollars at our departure airport (total of $1000 for 2 weeks) and had it converted to Peruvian sols when we landed (there are booths to do that right in the baggage pickup area in Lima airport). We reconverted anything left over at the Lima airport when we were flying home.
- MOSQUITO REPELLANT AND SUNSCREEN: Talk to the travel doctor about the kind of repellant you need. You want to bring this with you for Machu Picchu only. Also protect your skin from the sun anywhere in Peru. Peru has one of the highest levels of radiation from the sun in the world.
- INSURANCE: We signed up for travel insurance since it is unlikely your US insurance will help you down there. It pays to have you airlifted to a hospital in an emergency, so I highly advise it. This is the one my doctor recommended and it was reasonable enough: http://www.travelcare.com/en/insurance/index.cfm.
- CALL YOUR BANK, CREDIT CARD COMPANIES, AND CELL PHONE PROVIDER: Tell them you are traveling to Peru (and when) so they can make sure not to deny your charges. My credit card worked fine, but I still had trouble with my ATM card even though I called my bank first. I also had to get a special International phone plan for Peru (I use Verizon)…it was $10/day for data and phone calls. Check wth your provider to find out what you need to do for cell service. My phone actually worked pretty well down there, but it took a few hours for the service to kick in once we landed in Lima. Don’t expect your service to be available right when you get to the airport.
The Trip: Our Experience
What about this “not drinking the water” thing?
Good question. The short answer is, just don’t. Anything with local water is likely to make you sick. So no tap water: only bottled. Even to brush your teeth. Don’t get water in your mouth in the shower. Don’t eat any fruit that you can’t peel yourself (no berries, apples, etc, since rinsing them with bottled water still won’t remove the bacteria). Nothing with ice in it and nothing that has been sitting on ice. No fruit juice unless it is from a bottle, since sometimes they add water to juice in restaurants and hotels. No salads. No guacamole or salsa.
What did we eat? Cooked things. Chicken, empanadas, steaks, pasta, sandwiches (no lettuce, tomato, etc)…as long as it was cooked you should be fine. I stayed away from raw fruit and vegetables of all kinds. I only drank bottled things (diet Coke became a mainstay). Only one of us got sick during 2 weeks and we think it was because he ate a bowl of fruit at the hotel. But it takes a couple of days for the sickness to set in, so by the time it hit him, we were already heading to Machu Picchu. Timing is everything, so yet another reason why you should build in a little extra time on your trip to accommodate for unforeseen circumstances.
A healthy fear of food-bourne illness makes things a little less fun at times, but the alternative is pretty awful. The antibiotics we brought (Zithromax) seemed to help. You can also get antibiotics over the counter from any of the local pharmacies down there…it seemed like they were on every block like a CVS. We also had plenty of Immodium and some Dramamine for nausea.
What about altitude sickness?
I was overly worried about this. Lima is not a problem, but Cusco is over 11,000 feet up and some people do experience headaches, nausea, etc. We stopped at a pharmacy in Lima and bought prescription Diamox (acetazolamide) over the counter. We carefully read the directions and Googled up lots of information about it first. You can ask your doctor here in the US to prescribe it for you, as well. If you have any health issues, best to do that rather than buy it yourself just in case. We started taking it about 24 hours before we flew to Cusco. I think it helped, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. I’m not a medical professional and I can’t give medical advice, so make sure you understand the benefits and risks of any medications you think you’ll need. The only side effects I noticed with Diamox was it made me pee a lot and it made my fingers and toes tingle a little. My partner did not experience any side effects at all.
Everyone also says that the coca tea and coca leaves that are available in Peru help. Hotels serve the tea in their front lobby, as a matter of fact. I had some and I think the Diamox was working, so I have no idea if it affected me at all. Just read about altitude sickness and be informed. Don’t exert yourself too quickly and drink plenty of bottled water. Take some ibuprofen or Tylenol with you in case you get a headache.
We flew into Lima and arrived around dinner time. We collected our bags in the baggage claim, exchanged US dollars for sols (the exchange rate was about 3 sol to 1 US dollar when we went) and got a cab. The cab companies are set up in booths right as you walk out of the airport, so they will assign you a driver and you’re on your way. It seems like most of the people we dealt with spoke pretty good English.
Note: I would take a cab from the airport instead of Uber. Once you are in Lima, Uber is the best way to get around in my opinion (it was super cheap). If you take a cab, negotiate a price for the trip BEFORE you get in the cab, and walk away if they are quoting a price you don’t like. It is not like the US where there is meter.
The hotel: Miraflores neighborhood in Lima
We stayed at the JW Marriott in Miraflores, one of the nicest areas of Lima. Staying anywhere in Miraflores is great though. I would suggest a hotel there versus one in the center of Lima, which is much busier and “big city” oriented.
I used a great iPhone app while I was down there called “Peru Travel”- I think it is available for Android as well. It had all kinds of great information about what to see, maps, directions, etc. I accessed it a lot in all of the towns we visited. Free and totally useful.
Things we did in Miraflores section of Lima:
- Larcomar shopping center is a huge, multi-level shopping plaza that is built into the cliffside overlooking the ocean. Tons of restaurants and great shopping. There is an amazing steak restaurant there called La Vaca Loca there- they have “cheese wheel pasta”, which I can’t go into here, but will cover in another post for recipes in the future. Don’t miss it. Life changing food event.
- Huaca Pucllana is a site with ancient ruins right in the middle of Miraflores. Very interesting tour and easy to get to. They had what looked like a really cool restaurant there, but we didn’t make it to that.
- The Indian Market was fun – lots of cool things to buy as souvenirs, so I suggest finding a little time to stop by.
- Parasailing at Love Park (El Parque del Amor). This was so incredibly fun. We got there and had to wait a little for the wind to pick up. We signed some waivers, they strap you securely to a parasailing pilot, and they run off a cliff with you. Sounds scary, totally wasn’t. They video the whole trip with a GoPro camera and give it to you at the end. One of the highlights of the trip.
Things we did in central/downtown Lima
- We took Uber into the city center, using the Government Palace as our first stop. It is on a large square (Plaza Mayor) where there are a lot of things to see. There is a “changing of the guard” ceremony every day starting at 11:45AM. It was pretty entertaining.
- You’ll notice an abundance of street dogs in Peru. There are just dogs running all over the place. Very cute, but don’t try to pet any of them since they likely never had rabies shots.
- We visited the Monestary of San Fransisco, which has tours in both Spanish and English. Very cool to see with a creepy underground tour of the catacombs. Don’t go if you’re claustrophobic or grossed out by bones.
- The Cordano (right next to the Government Palace) is one of the oldest bar/restaurants in Peru (~112 years old) and is visited by Peruvian Presidents, poets, and other people far more important than I am. We had their famous ham sandwich and it was actually the best ham sandwich I’ve ever had. Obviously they have other things, but that is a specialty.
- Mercado Central is a huge market within walking distance of Plaza Mayor. If you want to see how people really live day to day in Peru, this is a great place to visit.
Travel from Lima to Cusco Airport
We booked our flights with LATAM airlines, so that was a non-issue. We showed up at the airport, checked our bags, and it went fine. We landed in Cusco after about a 90 minute flight. A lot of people choose to just stay in Cusco and go to Machu Picchu from there. For 2 reasons, I decided not to do that.
- Acclimating to the altitude made me nervous. Not everyone has altitude sickness, but some people do and I wanted to avoid it. Going down to another town (Ollantaytambo) about 1,000 feet lower sounded a little better. I also thought that going to Cusco at the end would be smarter: if altitude was a problem for either of us, it would not interfere with our getting to Machu Picchu.
- I heard from other travel bloggers that you should not miss Ollantaytambo, and I’m so glad we went. It was a highlight of the trip. Very small, very old…like a town frozen in time. We booked a hotel there and they arranged for the car to pick us up from Cusco airport. For anyone who has the time, I suggest this route.
Cusco Airport to Ollantaytambo (by car)
The drive from Cusco airport to Ollantaytambo was about 90 minutes, maybe a bit more. It is a pretty interesting trip, a little bumpy, winding through the mountains to get there. We stayed at this amazing little resort-like hotel called Hotel Pakaritampu. It was simple and just lovely. I can’t imagine there was a nicer hotel to stay in this tiny little ancient Inca town. They had an alpaca (kind of a llama) hanging around in the back yard. I loved this place, very quaint and within walking distance of the town center and the train station: http://pakaritampu.com.pe/en/
Things to do in Ollantaytambo (we spent 2 days there: one to acclimate/rest and one to explore):
- Ollantaytambo ruins: Very cool, takes a good bit of walking and gets you primed for Machu Picchu. Make sure you protect yourself from the sun and drink plenty of bottled water. This was about 2 hours. Great souvenir market right outside of the ruins, don’t miss it.
- Lots and lots of restaurants in the town square. We sat down, ordered some Peruvian food, and enjoyed people watching. And dog watching, because the number of street dogs there was astounding.
- The best part: Walk around the little cobblestone streets. Seriously, you’ve never seen anything like it.
- If you see signs for the Inca Bridge, I would say that was a disappointment. You have to walk a ways in some sketchy areas and the bridge is less than impressive. I wouldn’t spend time on this one.
After 2 days in Ollantaytambo, we took the Peru Rail Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes. It is right at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located. We were told that you can’t bring all of your huge luggage bags on the train, so we took enough clothes for one night in a backpack and left our luggage in storage at the hotel for safekeeping. NOTE: You don’t have to stay overnight at Aguas Calientes, we just wanted to do that so we could go up to Machu Picchu 2 days in a row. You could do it in a day trip if you leave early in the morning.
We stayed at Casa Del Sol Machupicchu, which was very nice. It is literally right across the road from the train station. In fact, everything in Aguas Calientes was walking distance from the train station. No cars required. The hotel was a bit pricey but worth it. http://www.casadelsolhotels.com. It sits overlooking a river at the base of the mountain, and the entrance is on the main railroad tracks that run right through the town.
The hotel arranged for a Machu Picchu guide in advance. If you are not with a tour group, this is something you will want to do. Apparently there are guides hanging around by where the buses depart, too (near the train station). We originally planned to go up to see Machu Picchu in the afternoon of the day we arrived, but my partner was still under the weather from eating some local fruit, so we were glad to have bought entry tickets for the following morning, as well.
The night before we went up to Machu Picchu, our guide came to the hotel to meet us and make sure we were all set. He showed me where the booth was to buy the bus tickets across the street, so I walked over and got those right after he left. He told us to bring plenty of water and warned us that there are no bathrooms after you enter Machu Picchu, so plan for that.
Early the next morning (around 7am), our guide met us at the hotel and we walked across the street to where the buses line up. We waited in a pretty long line, but it went fast since there are multiple buses. I’m not going to include all of the logistical details about Machu Picchu since they are available at this site, which was great reference for me as I planned this part of the trip: http://ticketmachupicchu.com/machu-picchu-ticket-faq/
My advice overall:
- I would reserve the morning entry time to avoid huge crowds and hot sun.
- Even thought they say you can’t bring a walking stick, I brought a collapsable one I purchased in Lima and no one said a word.
- They also say no water bottles allowed, so I brought water in containers made for hiking. But I did’t see them making anyone throw out their water bottles.
- Remember to use the bathroom at the entry point before you go in, since there are no bathrooms after you enter the site.
- Pace yourself. I am not particularly athletic and I did fine, but you have to stop once in a while when climbing stairs and let yourself catch your breath. The guides are good about doing this.
- Keep an eye on kids if you bring them, there are no safety rails.
After Machu Picchu, we got back on the bus, picked up a few things we left at the hotel, and walked over to the train station. We took the train back to Ollantaytambo station and walked down to our hotel to pick up all of our luggage (they held it for us) and got in the car they arranged to take us to Cusco.
We were getting pretty tired, so the car ride to Cusco (about 90 minutes or so) seemed bumpy and long. We were ready to get to our hotel (another JW Marriott) and relax for a few days. I didn’t plan any excursions to ruins around the area, but other people suggest that you should. We were just tired of riding around in cars by that point. Instead we walked all over Cusco. It was a much bigger version of Ollantaytambo, many more people (about half a million I think), and frankly a little less quaint. I’m glad went, but I would say 3 days there was too many for the activities we did.
I actually hired a local guide to spend the day with us and show us all over Cusco, although in retrospect I realize that wasn’t necessary. If you feel the need for a guide in any city in Peru, I would suggest booking through Viator: https://tourguides.viator.com
We happened to be there when they had the annual celebration of the patron saint of Cusco, so there were a lot of parades and cool things to see right in the town squares (there are at least 2 squares that I saw). For me, 2 days would have been the right amount of time in Cusco, but if you want to go out and see ruins or the salt mines, you will want another day.
We also saw the cutest baby alpaca ever, since there was a local lady in the hotel with it. She had a big warm bottle of milk for him and she let us take some pictures. She only stayed for about 2 hours, but it was really adorable.
After a few days in Cusco, we went back to Cusco airport, caught a flight to Lima, stayed another day and then departed for the US. We exchanged our unused sols for US dollars at the airport before we left.
That’s it, everything I can tell you about how we did Machu Picchu. I hope some of the information helps someone plan a little better and avoid some pitfalls. Overall, the planning was totally worth it and being able to pace ourselves was critical.
Be safe, have fun, and enjoy one of the most amazing trips you’ll ever have!
Questions about this article? Feel free to email me.