How to Plan a Trip to Machu Picchu (without a tour agency): A step-by-step guide

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If you learned anything from my previous blog, it’s that I LOVED Machu Picchu. It’s an absolute must-do in my mind, but it’s also an expensive and complicated thing to plan. There are tons of tour agencies that will happily arrange everything for you (and honestly, this might be the best option for a lot of people). But if you, like me, enjoy planning, and if you, like me, are on a tight budget, then this guide is for you.

Here is a step by step guide to planning and booking your trip to Machu Picchu – no tour company required.

Step 1: Book your tickets

If you know your schedule, I highly suggest booking your Machu Picchu tickets online before you leave home. Tickets can sell out in the high season (especially if you want to do Huyana or MP Mountain), so it’s best to have everything booked and ready. It is possible (though difficult) to book directly through the government MP site, but I had a LOT of trouble with this (and from reading online reviews, I’m not the only one). Because of that, I decided to book through ticketmachupicchu.com. It was super easy, simple to pay online, and they emailed me my official tickets within a couple days. The other big plus to this option is that it allows you to book Huyana Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain tickets as well. These two hikes are inside MP and come at an additional cost. We chose to do Huyana Picchu (a very steep, very amazing climb) and absolutely loved it. With the regular admission, the HP admission and the processing costs on the website, we paid $75 USD each for our MP tickets.

We also booked our PeruRail train tickets in advance using their website.

And we booked our hostels on hostelworld.com before we left the states, too. In my mind, it was great to have so much of the legwork done ahead of time.

Step 2: Get yourself to Cusco, Peru

From the States, this means flying through Lima to Cusco. LAN and Aerolineas run dozens of flights a day at reasonable prices, so just pick something that works with your schedule.

Step 3: Acclimate (or take some pills)

Everything I read before I came to Cusco told me that I should take a day or two to acclimate to the altitude before making the trek up to Machu Picchu to avoid getting sick. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a day or two. I had an hour. Whoops. So I skipped the acclimating and opted for some sorojchi pills instead. These little capsules (which you can buy in any farmacia in town) are essentially aspirin mixed with caffeine, but they do a great job of curbing altitude headaches and making it a bit easier to get around at 10,000 feet.

Step 4: Get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo

There are several options on transportation for this leg of the trip. I had the great fortune of meeting my friend Felix earlier in the day, so I had a ready-to-go driver willing to take me the 1.5 hours from Cusco to Ollanta. Other options include hiring a cab (about $25-$30 USD) or hopping in a colectivo (a shared mini-bus). The cab option is a nice one, especially if you are traveling with a couple friends and can split the cost. One way or the other, make your way to the Ollantaytambo train station.

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Step 5: Take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes

Book tickets online ahead of time for a train to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town). We used PeruRail and had a great experience. Their online booking system is easy – and you can choose seats in either¬†Expedition (think economy) or Vistadome (think economy plus, or maybe business class if you’re feeling generous). We took one ride in each, and the differences were minimal. The Vistadome does afford you a LOT of windows, so if you’re traveling during the day, it could be nice for the views. You’ll get a snack and a drink, and the ride lasts about 1.5 hours. The prices vary for each train departure time, but it should cost about $60 USD each way.

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Just hanging with my headlamp in power-outage city.

Step 6: Spend the night in Aguas Calientes

Our night in Aguas ended up being an adventure in and of itself because the whole town was without power! Assuming you don’t face the same predicament, Aguas is a total tourist trap (as you would imagine). We booked a room at Varayoc Hostel on Hostelworld.com before we left, and it was nice – clean, simple, free breakfast (even SUPER early before MP sunrise), and they’ll send a staff person to the train station to meet you. We didn’t do much in Aguas except for walk around and eat some dinner, but there are hot springs should you feel so inclined.

Step 7: Purchase bus tickets or prepare your legs for a LONG walk

When you arrive in Aguas, go to the little stand by the green bridge that sells bus tickets to Machu Picchu. Unless you are prepared to walk all the way up there and then walk around the ruins all day (totally possible, by the way…just tiring), you’ll want to get a bus ticket. The tickets are a rip-off at $12 each way, but there is no other option. The buses run every 5-10 minutes from 5:30am to 5:30pm, and you can use your ticket any time.

Step 8: Take the bus to Machu Picchu

Hop on the bus whenever you are ready to head up to the ruins (you’ll see a long line of busses on the road that runs along the river…impossible to miss). We went early because we heard good things about the Machu Picchu sunrise and our Huyana Picchu hike was scheduled for 7am. Make sure you have your passport, entry tickets, water, snacks, and a rain jacket with you. It rains intermittently all year long, so it’s best to be prepared.

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View from the Inka Bridge

Step 9: Enjoy and explore!

I don’t need to tell you what to do here – you do you. That said, when you arrive at MP, you’ll be bombarded with lots of tour guides outside of the gate. I suggest finding a guide that you like (and that speaks English well), and bargaining a rate. We met an AMAZING guide named Eli and paid him $40 USD for a 2 hour private tour (split between 3 of us). If you booked a Huyana Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain climb time, make sure you pay attention to when you need to be where. Otherwise, enjoy this amazing place! I suggest walking to the Inka Bridge in addition to all the regular stuff – you get some great views on the backside of the mountain.

Step 10: Take the bus back down to Aguas

If you booked a roundtrip when you first bought your bus tickets, then you are all set. If you didn’t, you can buy a return ticket at the bus stop outside of the MP gate.

Step 11: Take the train from Aguas to Ollanta

If I’m honest, there is not much to do in Aguas. I suggest booking your train ticket for the evening of the day you plan to do MP. That way, you can finish the ruins and keep moving, getting back to Ollanta, or even all the way to Cusco if you want. We really enjoyed Ollanta, so I was glad we spent a night there.

Step 12: Stay the night in Ollanta (or keep going to Cusco)

Like I said, we loved Ollanta. It’s a super cute town with a little plaza and LOTS of natural beauty. If you aren’t hiked out after MP, there are some great hikes around here as well – and some more Incan ruins, too.

Step 13: Make your way back to Cusco

Like the initial journey, you can go with a cab or a colectivo. We went with Felix again and made a great stop to visit a weaving co-op on the way. There are a million people soliciting rides both in the Plaza de Armas and by the train station, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a way back to Cusco.

Back in town, relax, celebrate and rest after a successful Machu Picchu adventure! For us, a 3 day/2 night MP trip with private car, trains, busses, hostels, tickets and tour guides cost just under $300 per person. Not too bad for an incredible, one-in-a-lifetime adventure!

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