Machu Picchu Day Trip from Ollantaytambo, Peru
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A visit to Peru would be incomplete without a trip to the Lost City of the Incas. Machu Picchu is the perfectly placed hill-top Inca city in the middle of the jungle. Many travel books and guides advise spending a night in Aguas Calientes prior to visiting Machu Picchu – this is completely unnecessary. Machu Picchu can be visited as a day trip from the Sacred Valley or Cusco, saving time and money without sacrificing your experience in Machu Picchu. This is a guide for visiting Machu Picchu as a day trip from Ollantaytambo: how to get there, when to visit, where to eat, and what to know before you go.
Why visit as a day Trip
If you have already decided against taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, you still have another decision to make: taking a day trip to Machu Picchu or staying overnight. If you stay overnight, you won’t actually be staying at Machu Picchu (unless you spring for a room at the expensive Belmond Sanctuary Lodge), you will be staying in Aguas Calientes. For most cases, especially if you are coming from Ollantaytambo rather than Cusco, taking a day trip is the way to do it.
Here are some reasons why just doing a day trip might be the best option for you:
You only need 3-4 Hours to fully explore Machu Picchu
And 3-4 hours might actually be too much for some people. Many people – us included – greatly overestimate the amount of time you need for Machu Picchu. We had booked our train tickets so we had 9.5 hours in Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, with some worries that it might not be enough. Well, in reality, most of that time was spent waiting around. We walked around Machu Picchu on our own at a very slow pace and got done in 3 hours. Even with the 30-minute bus ride each way, the hour waiting for the bus, and the long wait for eating lunch, we still had 3 hours to kill before our train departed. At no point did we feel rushed.
There is not much to do in Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes gets a bad rap. While I do not think it deserves the hatred it often gets, it is definitely not a destination in and of itself. Besides Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes is also known for its hot springs (hence the name). These hot springs are actually just crowded lukewarm dirty water pools that cost 20 soles to enter. I might just be spoiled, as we just got back from Iceland and its famous Blue Lagoon. However, I doubt these hot springs provide much relief for people who have hiked the long Inca trail or just around Machu Picchu.
Aguas Calientes is expensive
While there are a few hostels around Aguas Calientes where you can get an affordable room, it will still cost you far more than you would pay in Ollantaytambo or elsewhere in the Sacred Valley. In addition, food or other basic supplies are more pricey in this overly touristy town.
You cannot bring your luggage on the train
If you are planning to stay the night in Aguas Calientes, just note that you cannot take any suitcases larger than what you can fit under your seat on the train. This means you will have to figure out a place to store your luggage in Cusco or Ollantaytambo and pack a separate bag with a change of clothes and your necessities.
Being the first person at Machu Picchu for the day is overrated
The reason most people stay in Aguas Calientes is to be able to get up early and be one of the first people at Machu Picchu. Well, everyone else staying in Aguas Calientes also has this same goal. Many report lines of up to 3 hours long for the morning bus up to Machu Picchu. To actually be among the first group at Machu Picchu, you will have to start waiting well before 4am if you are visiting May - September. Sure, if you visit later in the day, you won’t be able to get a completely people-free photo. However, if you look at our pictures from Machu Picchu in this article, you will see that you can barely tell there are people in the ruins from above. Additionally, if you hope to get a beautiful sunrise Machu Picchu photo, note that the sun actually rises behind where you would be standing.
How to get to Machu Picchu
If you are going to visit Machu Picchu as a day trip, I would recommend spending the previous day in the Sacred Valley and departing from Ollantaytambo. You can easily do a day trip from Cusco, but it would likely mean waking up quite early. Furthermore, the Sacred Valley is breathtaking and a perfect introduction into Inca ruins.
Check out our 3-Day Guide to Sacred Valley
Step 1: Train
If you are not hiking the Inca Trail, the best way to get to Machu Picchu is by the Train. The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu is 1 hour and 50 minutes. There are two major train companies that run this route: PeruRail and Incarail. Both offer similar services. We chose PeruRail because they had slightly better reviews. For a day trip, book a train that leaves at or before 9am. The train to Machu Picchu, we upgraded to the Vistadome train with more windows to enjoy the scenic train ride. On the way back we booked the cheapest ticket since it was after dark. You must book your train tickets in advance. The train tickets often sell out faster than the Machu Picchu tickets.
Step 2: Bus
The train drops you off at the town below Machu Picchu. This town is Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu town. To get up to Machu Picchu, you can either walk the steep uphill path for an hour or take the 30-minute bus up the switchbacks. The bus ticket costs $24 roundtrip and is separate from your Machu Picchu entry ticket. Depending on the time of day, the wait for the bus up to Machu Picchu might be 2 minutes or 3 hours. We got the bus at 10:30am and walked right on.
New Machu Picchu Rules
Starting in July 2017, Peru’s Ministry of Culture announced new rules for entrance into Machu Picchu. At a minimum, these rules will be in place for two years. The rules were put in place to help preserve this historic site.
There are now split entrance times. You can get tickets to enter in the morning (6am-noon) or afternoon (noon – 5:30pm). The written rules specify that you must leave once your session is over. However, this is not being enforced for those with morning tickets staying past noon. While there are guards throughout Machu Picchu, none of them will kick visitors out at noon. It is only enforced for those trying to re-enter. You may only enter (or re-enter) during the time stated on your ticket. They typically allow in afternoon-ticket holders starting at 11:30am.
Morning tickets typically sell out faster and are more expensive.
The new rules also state that visitors are only allowed into Machu Picchu if accompanied by a guide. This is not being enforced as of September 2018. There are many licensed, official guides standing outside of the entrance. If you wish to have a guide while visiting, you will not be able to miss them – they will likely shout at you before you see them.
We were able to enter Machu Picchu without a guide. Instead of having a guide, we downloaded an audioguide to listen to while walking around Machu Picchu. We used an app called Tupuy, which I can recommend. It costs $2.99 for the Machu Picchu audioguide, but that is a fraction of the price of a guide and we were able to walk at our own pace. I would recommend either getting a guide out front of Machu Picchu or downloading an audioguide. Machu Picchu is beautiful, but it is so much more magical if you understand what you are looking at.
Machu Picchu Tips
Buy Tickets in Advance
There are only a limited number of tickets for Machu Picchu each day. For the peak season, these sell out weeks in advance. Even if they don’t sell out, you cannot get tickets at the Machu Picchu entrance, so you must buy tickets in advance. You can either buy tickets through the official Machu Picchu website (which is hard to navigate, especially if you don’t speak Spanish) or book it through a 3rd-party site (FYI, you will need to get the foreigner ticket).
You can Hike Huayna Picchu for an extra fee
You know that large mountain the background of nearly every Machu Picchu picture? That mountain is Huayna Picchu, and you can hike it! The hike is quite grueling and you might meet the top of the mountain with large clouds blocking your view – but many say it is worth it. When you are booking your Machu Picchu tickets, you can pay a bit extra to hike Huayna Picchu at a set time.
Machu Picchu is at a lower altitude than the Sacred Valley
Machu Picchu is at 7,972 ft (2,430 m). If you are not used to a high altitude, you will likely experience some level of altitude sickness at Machu Picchu. However, Machu Picchu is actually significantly lower than Cusco and the Sacred Valley. We spent the 2 days previous in the Sacred Valley, so while in Machu Picchu, our altitude sickness symptoms had mostly eased.
There are no bathrooms in Machu Picchu
There are no bathrooms past the Machu Picchu entry gates. You can exit and re-enter Machu Picchu (within your time shift) to go to the bathroom, but you will have to walk the entire way around Machu Picchu (there is only a one-way path through the ruins). Think ahead – go to the bathroom before you enter. Note that the bathroom does cost money (2 soles) to use.
You must bring your Passport
To get to Machu Picchu, you will need to show your passport at least 3 times: getting on the train, buying bus tickets, and entering Machu Picchu. Just past the entrance, there is also a desk where you can get your passport stamped with a Machu Picchu stamp.
Wear Pants and Bug Spray
Machu Picchu is at just the right elevation where there are mosquitos – and lots of them. To avoid getting eaten, bring bug spray and wear long pants.
Where to eat Near Machu Picchu
Spoiler alert: Everything is expensive.
There are very few options for food once you take the bus up to Machu Picchu, and none once you get into the Machu Picchu complex. Most likely you will want to get a meal in Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes solely exists for tourists visiting Machu Picchu. What does this mean? You will be hard pressed to find a cheap meal on par with elsewhere in Peru.
Peru is known for its amazing cuisine – that is not the case for Aguas Calientes. You will likely find mediocre to average food. If you are lucky, you might find some food that is “pretty good”. Most of the restaurants will have waiters with menus standing on the street calling for you to come in.
Some of the better affordable restaurants in Machu Picchu are:
The Tree House Restaurante – location slightly hard to find, but more authentic Peruvian options
Tasty Machupicchu – good burgers, located away from the main street
Check out our Vegetarian Food Guide to Peru
Highlights at Machu Picchu
Okay, now you have finally gotten to Machu Picchu, here are the top things to look out for at Machu Picchu. While visiting Machu Picchu, you will have to stick to a one-way path through ruins, with a few detours or off-shoots possible. There are a couple of circular path options, with the most popular being the one that starts walking uphill to get the famous panoramic views of the city.
After entering through the gate and a short uphill climb, your first sighting of Machu Picchu will be that iconic view. There are several platforms in the area to get pictures with the ruins in the background. Now I was a bit worried when visiting Machu Picchu that it would not live up to my expectations. There are so many places that photograph well, but the reality of visiting isn’t quite the same. Machu Picchu is not one of those places. Machu Picchu is magical in pictures and just as magical in reality. We spent a while taking in the view.
From there, you walk along through the guardhouse and the agricultural terraces, providing several more opportunities to get a picture with Machu Picchu below you.
Temple of the Sun
After walking down to the city and passing through the city gate, make a right turn to find the temple of the sun. This temple shows some of the amazing stone work of the Inca and their interest in astronomy.
This is the large grassy area in the middle of the city. Frequently, there is a group of llamas grazing here.