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Want to visit Machu Picchu? Of course you do! Or you wouldn’t be reading this article.
After a recent trip there, I’ve put together tips and my suggested itinerary so you don’t feel lost in the Lost City of the Incas. Enjoy as you read about how you can make the most of your time at this iconic Incan archaeological site.
Getting to Cusco & Altitude Sickness:
Take a hour and a half flight from the Lima airport to Cusco. Our friends at Mava Travel (experts on planning a trip to the Lost City) say “Our clients usually pick LATAM, Star peru or Peruvian Airlines. Us personally recommend the first two options because they barely have cancellations or delays. If you want to save some money and good service, we recommend Star Peru for that matter..”
Regarding the time for your flight, you should aim to get the earliest ticket, departing super early in the morning so you can arrive early to Cusco and get some rest, that way your body can adjust to the altitude while you are sleeping.
Upon arrival in the airport there will be coca leaves provided for you. Make sure you grab a small handful to prepare for potential altitude sickness.
Once you retrieve your bags, you can either call a taxi or if you had organized a tour service they may be able to provide one for you. Since we planned our trip with Mava Travel they had a driver ready at the airport with “SarahFunky” written on a sign. It was easy as pie!
Getting from Cusco to Machu Picchu:
The easiest and fastest way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is by train since there is no airport located closer to Machu Picchu than Cusco (Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport). Machu Picchu is located in a city called Aguas Calientes, therefore, you should book the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes if you are planning a short visit (1-2 days).
If you have more time, I recommend taking a day tour from Cusco to Ollantaytambo then catching the train from there. We took a day tour with Mava Travel. It allowed us to visit more historic sites, one-of-a-kind restaurants and have authentic cultural experiences through the highlands of Peru. It is a more well-rounded experience than if we simply took the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. We did a 5 day trip (click to see our suggested itinerary here) and opted for this route.
If you have loads of time, you could walk the Inka trail or do one of the many hiking routes from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Make sure you book several months before though, it’s said the Inka trail can be booked up to four months in advance.
Where to Stay:
Both Cusco and Aguas Calientes are relatively small towns. It is recommended that you stay in the city center to be able to easily walk to all of the local attractions.
For those on a budget, stay at one of the hundreds of hostels in either town.
If you’re looking for a more memorable experience, there are historic properties that have been transformed into hotels, such as the Palacio del Inka in Cusco (once an Incan palace), for you to stay at.
What to Pack:
It is significantly colder in Cusco than it is in Lima. Don’t arrive unprepared thinking you’ll be comfortable in the clothes you were wearing in Peru’s capital. Check out this temperature scale month-to-month comparison of Lima vs. Cusco on AndeanTravelWeb.com for reference.
A basic bag should have the below items. The more layers you bring, the better because the temperature can vary up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) depending on what month you’re visiting.
Hiking boots or sneakers
Warm hat (with brim if possible to protect from sun)
Warm fleece jacket
Long sleeve shirt
Camera (Phone camera is fine of course!)
Where to Eat in Cusco:
There are hundreds of restaurants in Cusco and we were never disappointed. The three we particularly enjoyed were:
Inti Raymi Restaurant (Peruvian fusion, fine dining, expensive)
Papacho's (hamburgers, casual dining, inexpensive)
Restaurante Pachamama (authentic Peruvian, charming atmosphere, inexpensive)
Where to eat in Aguas Calientes:
Aguas Calientes doesn't have a great food scene, however, there was one new restaurant that stood out as a star.
Mapacho Craft Beer & Restaurant (Great selection of craft beer, tasty food, Amazon river view, inexpensive)
Things to do in Cusco:
As the former center of the Incan empire, there are tons of things to do in Cusco. It is worth saving a day or two to explore during your trip.
Plaza de Armas: This is the cultural center of the city. The plaza is lined with restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. It’s a great place to people watch and acclimate to Cusco’s elevation.
San Pedro Market: An open air market filled with fruit, vegetable and meat stands. For lunch, the market has a number of empanada and tamale vendors, as well as food stalls that serve menú – a two-course meal – for around S/5 or $1.50.
Nightlife: Cusco is the party capital of Peru and supports one of the liveliest nightlifes in South America. Cusco’s most popular club, Mama Africa, blasts electronic, hip-hop, and dance music until 5:00am or 6:00am. Ukukus, another favorite spot, includes live bands and local acts, in addition to DJs.
Korikancha (Sun Temple): Korikancha is the embodiment of the intertwining Spanish and Incan influences in Cusco. Once lined with lavish gold sheets, this Inca Temple of the Sun was ransacked and destroyed by the Spanish before they built the Church of Santo Domingo on top of the ruins. In fact, parts of Palacio del Inka Hotel are made from the Sun Temple!
Explore the Local Street Markets: Cusco is filled with locals selling alpaca wool sweaters, hats, ponchos - you name it, it’s made with alpaca. Pick up some warm clothes here for a low price.
Things to do in Aguas Calientes:
Aside from the obvious (visiting Machu Picchu) there isn’t much to do here besides visit the springs. Aguas Calientes was named after the thermal springs in town. They’re open to the public from 5:00 am to 8:00 pm (entrance is 20 soles/$6).
Tips on visiting Machu Picchu (located in Aguas Calientes town):
Entrance tickets: If you’re traveling without a tour guide, you can buy individual Machu Picchu entrance tickets at MachuPicchu.gob.pe for (152 soles/$45 per person). There are also official ticket offices in Cusco and an office in Aguas Calientes where tickets can be purchased in person the day before you wish to enter.
Bus: You can walk up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes (at least 90 minutes) or you can take a 20-minute bus ride. I took a bus and from my view, the walk up did not look enjoyable. Hikers were walking up steep hills, along the bus route, dodging the big buses as they passed. However, if you love hiking, this could be an awesome experience. Buses operate every 15 minutes starting at 5:30 a.m. ($24 adult round trip, $12 child round trip), and people start lining up well before that.
Guides: One can absolutely see Machu Picchu with a simple detailed guidebook. But don’t underestimate what a good guide can add; local perspective, as well as all the historical, architectural, and biological info you’d expect. Plus they can answer any questions you may have in the moment. If you’re not on an organized visit with your own guide, you can book a guide in town, or find one at the entrance to the site. We booked our guide through Mava Travel and there wasn’t a question we had that he couldn’t answer!
Hiking: If you want to see more than the standard Machu Picchu tour there are several hikes around the area that can be explored. Huayna Picchu peak provides views looking down on the Incan ruins but some sections of this strenuous trail are very narrow and steep. The Machu Picchu peak hike is an incredible workout and another way to further explore the area. Beware, this hike is almost entirely stairs. Tickets for both the Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu hikes are 48 soles/$15 per hike per person and can be purchased at machupicchu.gob.pe. The Sun Gate hike is FREE and offers fantastic views of the overall site, however, it is about two hours round trip. This hike is easier than the others and has few stairs.
Exciting bonus: Just outside the entrance gates, there’s a barely marked station where you can get a one-of-a-kind Machu Picchu stamp in your passport.
What to Bring: Powerful sunscreen! The sun is very strong at the top because of compromised ozone layer and altitude. In addition, wear layers/comfortable walking shoes and bring a rain jacket/water.
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