Sacred Valley

Machu Picchu logistics

Warning: This is a very long blog post and it’s only part 1 of 2. If there was one day of our trip to Peru that I could do over again, it would be the day we visited Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu tickets

First, let’s talk about Machu Picchu tickets. It is absolutely critical that you book your tickets months in advance (3 months in low season and 4 months in high season). A maximum of 2,500 visitors are allowed per day and of this maximum, 400 are permitted to visit Huayna Picchu mountain and 800 are permitted to visit Machu Picchu mountain.

If you want to hike Huayna Picchu mountain, then you need to secure one of 400 daily tickets. Complicating matters further, the 400 daily maximum is split between two entrance shifts for Huayna Picchu (7-8am and 10-11am). If you are arriving same-day at Machu Picchu from Cusco, then your only option is the 10-11am entrance shift due to your arrival time from Cusco. Therefore, you must secure one of 200 daily tickets and they sell out fast!

We booked our tickets in July for our visit on October 2nd (low season) and there were only 18 tickets remaining for Huayna Picchu for the 10-11am entrance shift for our desired date.

To book your tickets in advance, visit the official Machu Picchu website here. The website is slightly cumbersome to use (specifically the two-part receipt and payment processes) but it will give you precise availability for your desired ticket type and time of entry and it is a guarantee that the tickets are official!

There are three popular MP ticket types:

  • Machu Picchu citadel only
  • Machu Picchu citadel + Huayna Picchu mountain
  • Machu Picchu citadel + Machu Picchu mountain

All types include free entry to the museum beginning at 12pm. Entrance tickets to the museum prior to 12pm can be purchased at the museum.

Below is a copy of my Machu Picchu citadel + Huayna Picchu mountain ticket. There is a shit ton of information printed on the ticket and the information is printed in three languages mixed together: Spanish, Quechua, and English.

  1. Beginning entrance time to Machu Picchu citadel.
  2. Entrance shift to Huayna Picchu mountain (or Machu Picchu mountain, if selected).
  3. Beginning entrance time to the museum (for free).

Note: Llaqta means “town” in Quechua, so “Machu Picchu citadel” means the same as “Llaqta Machupicchu”.

Protip: Your MP tickets are non-refundable nor transferable. Your name and passport number will be printed on your ticket and this information will be verified against your physical passport upon entry to the Machu Picchu citadel. DO NOT purchase your MP tickets until you have confirmed there is transportation available to get you to MP prior to your designated entrance time and vice versa!

Finally, I found this website to be very helpful in regard to MP ticket information; however, I recommend booking tickets through the official Machu Picchu website, not through the informational website. Treat your passport number like your social security number or unique government id and refrain from entering it on unknown websites.

Cusco-Machu Picchu transportation

Now, let’s talk about the [nightmare] travel logistics from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The combined journey to and from Machu Picchu ranks as one of my top 5 worst travel days. IT WAS FUCKING AWFUL.

There are two transportation options from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Both options include:

  • A starting point in Cusco and ending point in Aguas Calientes (“Machu Picchu town”), the town located at the base of Machu Picchu
  • Multiple modes of transportation
  • A minimum of four hours of travel in each direction between Cusco and Aguas Calientes
  • A minimum 10-minute shuttle bus wait
  • A minimum 30-minute shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu citadel entrance

The option you chose will be based on the type of MP ticket you purchase, mainly if you are hiking a mountain and the entrance time period for your hike.

Protip: Align your transportation arrival time against your Machu Picchu citadel beginning entrance time. Our itinerary was as follows which looks great on paper but the reality was different.

4:15amLeave the Cusco apartment and hail a taxi to the train station
4:30amArrive at Cusco train station as per Inca Rail guidelines
Reality: Arrive no earlier than 10 minutes prior to departure
5:00amDepart Cusco via Inca Rail’s “The 360°” train
8:00amMachu Picchu citadel beginning entrance time
8:50amArrive at Aguas Calientes
**9:00amBoard shuttle bus
Reality: We boarded at approximately 9:40am
**9:20amEnter the Machu Picchu citadel
Reality: We entered the citadel at approximately 10:30am
10:00amBeginning entrance shift time for Huayna Picchu mountain
Reality: We entered at 10:43am
**3:00pmDrink beer at a brewery in Aguas Calientes
4:12pmDepart Aguas Calientes
8:35pmArrive at Cusco via train
9:00pmArrive at the Cusco apartment

**Estimated time based on my online research.

Option 1: Train + shuttle bus

Earlier this year, Inca Rail opened its Ollantaytambo-Cusco extension which allows visitors to take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. Previously, the only way to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes was via option 2 (bus + train).

I was delighted when I read the line extension announcement because, like with any travel, the fewer travel legs and layovers, the better. The bad news is that the journey time from Cusco to Aguas Calientes did not decrease by omitting the bus leg of the journey.

Both options take about four LONG and UNCOMFORTABLE hours in each direction.

After arriving in Aguas Calientes, you need to take the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu citadel entrance (not included in your Inca Rail train ticket).

Option 2: Bus + train + shuttle bus

Inca Rail refers to this option as the “bimodal” option. This is misleading because the journey is actually trimodal but only two modes are supplied by Inca Rail.

With this option, the first leg of your journey is a two-hour bus ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. The second leg is a two-hour train ride (you will join the people who boarded the train in Cusco) from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The third and final leg is the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu citadel entrance (not included in your Inca Rail bus/train ticket).

The earliest Cusco departure time with this option is 4:10am. This departure is the most realistic time that you should depart Cusco if you have a 10-11am entrance shift time for Huayna Picchu mountain and is the only transportation option if you have a 9-10am entrance shift time for Machu Picchu mountain (option 1 will not arrive early enough for you to make your 9-10am entrance shift time).

MP shuttle bus tickets

If you alight the train in Aguas Calientes and aren’t absolutely hating life, then the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu citadel entrance will probably push you over the tipping point. And remember, your day of touristing hasn’t even begun yet!

Protip: Buy an espresso drink at the train station coffee shop. It is your only hope for what is about to be thrown your way.

Get ready to queue! We waited in the queue for approximately 20 minutes.

Was the shuttle bus queue and ticket buying process a total cluster fuck? Yes. It absolutely was a cluster fuck but lucky for you, you are reading this blog post and can avoid the mishaps we experienced.

The going rate for an adult roundtrip (“return”) shuttle bus ticket in 2019 is $24 USD. One-way (“single”) tickets are also available for purchase if you are teetering on hiking up or down. If you decide to hike up or down, know that you will not be walking along the dusty switchbacks as buses barrel past you. As I understand it, there is a hike trail/stairs are adjacent to the road, however, you will need to cross the road at some points during the hike.

There are two ways to purchase shuttle bus tickets.

  • The ticket office in Cusco
  • The ticket office in Aguas Calientes

We planned on purchasing our shuttle bus tickets in Cusco for the sole purpose of being immediately ready to board the shuttle bus in Aguas Calientes. We knew our arrival time from Cusco was already eating into our MP time so getting to MP as quickly as possible once in Aguas Calientes was our priority.

When we collected our Inca Rail tickets in Cusco (yep, you have to collect the actual tickets in-person even when you purchase them online!), we found out that the shuttle bus ticket office in Cusco was on the other side of the city near the train station. Due to its proximity to where we were staying, it would have required a taxi to-and-from and so we decided to take our chances and buy our shuttle bus tickets in Aguas Calientes. This was a mistake that cost us a significant amount of time.

Protip: Purchase your MP shuttle bus tickets in Cusco. This website lists the shuttle bus ticket offices.

I read that the shuttle bus stop in Aguas Calientes is “a five-minute walk” from the train station. I cannot confirm or deny this statement because it was a chaotic scene when we arrived at the train station. A party had taken place in Aguas Calientes the day prior and everyone who attended the party was trying to ram their way into the train station to board our train that was bound for Cusco. Police were present and people were being trampled as they tried to push through the closed gates. The best way to describe the scene is by shoppers trying to push their way through store doors on Black Friday.

The police stopped letting people out of the train station and started allowing people into the train station. The problem was that there were about a dozen of us who still needed to get out of the train station.

After about 10 minutes (it felt like two hours!), an Inca Rail employee came to our rescue and guided us out a back entrance, busting the gate lock in the process. Since this entrance is not used by the public (or anyone?), there were no signs guiding us to the shuttle bus stop. We had literally been dumped out onto the railroad tracks.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the railroad tracks slice through the center of the town.

With the near-riot at the train station, being locked in the train station, being dumped onto railroad tracks, and knowing our entrance period timer was ticking made for a chaotic and stressful situation.

Eventually, we found the shuttle bus stop and saw the enormous queue snaking up the hill. There were hundreds of people in the queue and it was drizzling. We assumed that there would be a prominent kiosk or podium set up near the shuttle stop but no, there was no podium or kiosk.

To buy your shuttle bus tickets, you must go to the physical ticket office which is at the top of the hill. Being located at the top of a hill is mean. Being located at the top of a hill at an elevation of 6,700 ft / 2,040 m is cruel.

Protip: Look for the tiny “Shuttle Bus Tickets” sign hanging off of the side of the building.

Protip: A passport is required for each shuttle bus ticket! Do not send one member of your group to purchase tickets for everyone in the group without having their passports in hand!

All of that chaos for this stupid ticket.

Inca Rail stuff

We booked Inca Rail’s “The 360°” train which is their mid-tier train and is probably the worst value for money of the three tiers.

We departed Cusco at 5:00am and returned to Cusco at 8:35pm. The train journey in each direction was about four hours.

First, boarding.

Inca Rail states that you must be at the train station 30 minutes prior to departure. My gut told me this was bullshit but, at the same time, we could not risk missing our train so we arrived at the train station at 4:30am. My gut was correct. Arriving 10 minutes prior to departure is more than adequate. Just know that the train leaves the station at the departure time with or without all passengers.

Inca Rail gets one point for timeliness.

The Cusco train station has a large waiting area with seats, toilets, and an almost-lethal dose of diesel fumes as black smoke puffs out of the top of the train whilst it sits at the platform warming up. The fumes collect in the somewhat enclosed waiting room and platform. It is quite the jolt to the senses at 4:30am!

Next, seating.

Seating on the “The 360°” train is table-style where you have clusters of four very narrow seats with a table in the middle. This is the WORST SEAT CONFIGURATION for traveling because (a) you cannot stretch your legs out in front of you and (b) it is uncomfortable if you have a stranger seated in your cluster like we did on both journeys.

Making seating more uncomfortable is that there is no overhead storage for your daypack, jacket, and other items due to the overhead windows. Personal items must be tucked under your seat or laid on your lap for FOUR HOURS. If tucked under your seat, then you will find yourself not able to stretch your legs forward nor tuck them under your seat. In other words, your knees will be bent at a 90° degree angle for the entirety of the journey. I dare you to sit with your knees bent at a 90° angle for the next five minutes and then imagine sitting in that position for FOUR HOURS.

Combined, the table-style seat configuration, narrow seats, and lack of storage will make this train journey one of the most uncomfortable journeys you will ever take.

Next, “feature” overhead windows.

“The 360°” train has windows on top of the carriage so that you can theoretically peer out at the great scenery as the train rocks slowing down the rails.

The windows are one of the train’s worst “features” because:

  • Approximately 70% of our journey was done in pitch-black darkness.
  • There is no vertical scenery.
  • When raining, the windows are covered in droplets and streams of water, making them impossible to see through.
  • Overhead storage is removed to allow for the windows.

Next, tracks.

I had never been on a train that followed switchbacks until the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. Cusco is surrounded by steep mountains so to get in/out of Cusco, the train must travel over the mountains and the only way to do this is via switchbacks.

For the first 45 minutes of the journey from Cusco (and vice versa), the train will follow switchbacks. It will roll for a few minutes until it runs out of tracks and then it will stop. A human being will then appear in the darkness to manually flip the rail switch and then the train will begin rolling forward until it, again, runs out of tracks and then will stop. It is a lot of back-and-forths as the train ascends through Cusco’s suburbs.

In addition to switchbacks, the train will rock back-and-forth as it very slowly rolls down the tracks, even in flat plains.

What I’d do differently

If I could do the day over again, I would travel to Aguas Calientes the day prior and stay at the hotel located at the Machu Picchu citadel entrance. This would require doubling up on accommodation (we’d still have had our apartment in Cusco) but it would have been worth it (and then some). I’d then travel back to Cusco the same day as our MP visit.

As for the disaster known as shuttle bus tickets, I do not know how it would work with the hotel stay since the hotel is literally located at the MP citadel entrance. The hotel may have a private shuttle that runs from Aguas Calientes to the hotel but if not, I would buy the shuttle bus tickets in Aguas Calientes since we wouldn’t be pressed for time.

Next, Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu (aka part 2).

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