There are no roads to Machu Picchu, the Incan archaeological site, UNESCO World Heritage site, and most famous destination in Peru. However, there are plenty of ways to travel to Machu Picchu on foot by train and even on horseback with combinations and variations to suit your travel budget and your level of adventure. Here’s how to get to Machu Picchu.
The train to Machu Picchu
The fastest and most common way to travel to Machu Picchu can be done in a single day and involves taking a short train journey to the town of Aguas Calientes from the Sacred Valley town of Ollantaytambo (27 miles/44 km) or from Poroy (58 miles/93 km) nearer to Cuzco (which is spelled Cusco locally). Aguas Calientes is the town below Machu Picchu and you may hear it referred to as Machu Picchu Pueblo as well, though that newer name has yet to really catch on. Hundreds of thousands of people travel by train on this route every year and tickets cost between US$55 and US$500 per person each way depending on the class of train you choose.
If you want to find out if a roughly three hour train journey can really be worth US$500 (each way), book passage from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes on the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train which includes meals (including tea at the Belmond Sanctuary Hotel at the entrance to Machu Picchu), a luxury bus from Aguas Calientes to the site, guides, and more.
If that’s too steep for you, investigate the different levels of train service offered by Inca Rail and Peru Rail. Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes take a bus (US$12 each way, 30 minutes) from town to the archaeological site itself. After spending a few hours exploring the Machu Picchu site, do your journey in reverse: bus down to Aguas Calientes, then train back to Ollantaytambo or Poroy.
Despite the fact that this is merely a day trip, it will still run you a minimum of US$214 per person including US$120 for round-trip train travel, US$24 for round-trip bus travel, US$70 entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. And that’s not including food, guide, and taxi to and from the train station.
Come along for part of our recent journey on Inca Rail’s 360° Machu Picchu train in our video, below.
The Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu
The most famous way to get to Machu Pichu is via a section of the Inca Trail that leads to the site. Tour companies offer 3, 4, and 5-day itineraries along this trail and all culminate at Machu Picchu. Read about our classic Inca Trail 4-Day trek with Apus Peru Adventure Travel Specialists which ended at the Sun Gate entrance to the Machu Picchu site at sunrise.
There’s also a 2-day itinerary known as the “Short Inca Trail” to Machu Picchu. On day one you travel from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo by bus, then you take the train to km. 104 (as opposed to km 82 where the Classic Inca Trail begins). From there it’s a 5 mile (8 km), 3 to 4-hour hike up from the Chachabamba archaeological site at 6,726 feet (2,050 meters) to the impressive Wiñaywayna archaeological complex at 8,792 feet (2,680 meters). Then you continue on the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate at 8,792 feet (2,730 meters) with impressive views of Machu Picchu below at 7,873 feet (2,400 meters).
You then continue down toward the site, but on this itinerary, you actually exit the site, head down to Aguas Calientes town, then return to explore it the following day before returning by train to Ollantaytambo. While the 500 permits per day allotted for the longer Inca Trail treks sell out months in advance, you can often get one of the 250 permits allotted per day for the “Short Inca Trail” route, which does not require porters or camping.
Other ways to trek to Machu Picchu
The Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu may get the most attention, but there are many other ways to hike to Machu Picchu.
The rising star trek to Machu Picchu
The most popular alternative to the Inca Trail is the Salkantay trek with 4 to 6-day itineraries that include Machu Picchu. This trek typically ends at Hidroeléctrica and some itineraries include a visit to nearby Santa Teresa before the brief walk or train ride to Aguas Calientes and then Machu Picchu before returning to Ollantaytambo by train. There are various ways to do this trek including camping, glamping, or in lodges along the way. A word of caution: the folks who run a tour company called Salkantay Trekking really, really need to work on their communication skills. A Salkantay trekking itinerary can also be combined with a section of the Classic Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu.
The Indiana Jones trek to Machu Picchu
The trek to the Choquiqueraio archaeological site, considered a sister site to Machu Picchu which may have been even more important, is long and hard but worth it for the challenge and the cultural immersion. Hiram Bingham got bitten by the Inca bug at Choquiqueraio where he was inspired to go on a quest in search of the Espiritu Santo site during which he was lead to Machu Picchu.
The challenging Choquiqueraio trek is most commonly done in 7 or 8 days including a thorough exploration of the Choquiqueraio site, which was excavated in the 1970s. This large site receives just a few visitors a day, as opposed to the thousands that visit Machu Picchu, so you can really get a feel for the place. The trek then ends at the Machu Picchu site via Hidroeléctrica and Santa Teresa after a brief walk or train ride to Aguas Calientes and then up to Machu Picchu (get details in our post about accessing Machu Picchu from Santa Teresa).
The most cultural trek (nearly) to Machu Picchu
A company called Mountain Lodges of Peru offers the Sacred Valley and Lares Trek which combines walking, natural beauty, and lots of living Andean culture. During five or seven day itineraries, trekkers walk through valleys and over passes spending each night in a string of high-end lodges built and run by the company in conjunction with local villagers. The Sacred Valley and Lares trek ends in Ollantaytambo where you get on a train to Aguas Calientes before a day at the Machu Pichu site. After visiting Machu Picchu you return to Ollantaytambo via train, and on to Cuzco.
The most economical trek to Machu Picchu
The closest road to Machu Picchu ends at the Hidroeléctrica train station, so named because there’s a hydroelectric station there. To get there, take a spectacular 6-hour bus journey from Cuzco (around 60 soles/about US$18 from Cuzco and as low as 35 soles/about US$10 from Hidroeléctrica back to Cuzco) over the 14,156 foot (4, 315 meter) Abra Malaga Pass at the base of massive Veronica mountain and then way down through the town of Santa Teresa and on to Hidroeléctrica 5,705 (1,739m), nearly 8,500 ft (2,591 m) lower than the pass.
You can choose to stop in Santa Teresa (which we’ve called Peru’s next adventure town) to enjoy the hot springs and adventure activities, and take a shared van or taxi the six miles (10 km) to Hidroeléctrica at a later time. From there, it’s a pleasant 6.5 mile (10.5 km) flat walk on a trail along the train tracks (about 3 hours), which follow the Vilcanota River, from Hidroeléctrica to the town of Aguas Calientes. A few passenger trains also travel along this line to Hidroeléctrica, however, we suggest saving the relatively exorbitant US$33 for a less than 45 minute 7 mile (11 km) train ride and walking instead. Keep your eyes open: we saw a Cock of the Rock (the hard-to-spot national bird of Peru) in a tree near the tracks.
From Aguas Calientes take the bus (or walk) from town up to the Machu Picchu site. Then spend the night in Aguas Calientes before re-tracing your route back to Hidroeléctrica and Santa Teresa, or take the train from Aguas Calientes out to Ollantaytambo.
You can easily do this route on your own or with one of the tour companies in Cuzco that advertise cut-rate all-inclusive “Machu Picchu by bus” packages. Some advertise prices that seem to be less than the actual cost of the transport, entrance ticket, guide and accommodation… buyer beware. Many tour agencies also offer adventure tours of varying length which include activities like biking more than 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) down the highway from the Abra Malaga, ziplining or visiting coffee plantations around Santa Teresa, and enjoying Santa Teresa’ss wonderful hot springs before your visit to Machu Picchu.
On horseback to Machu Picchu
It’s not common, but you can ride a horse to Machu Picchu on this 7-day itinerary that mimics the Salkantay trekking route and ends up at Machu Picchu or this 4-day itinerary which travels from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes through the Sacred Valley.
Here’s more about travel in Peru