Updated on June 13, 2015
Machu Picchu on Your Own
Machu Picchu is on many people’s list of places to go while in South America-and it should be. It’s an absolutely stunning site with an immense amount of ancient history.
Most travelers start their journey to Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Peru. Cuzco is a charming, rustic-feeling town and offers many options for travelers. There is an immense number of tour agencies that off everything from Inca trail treks, alternative treks, and treks or tours of Machu Picchu. The only thing negative about this abundance of services is that it’s really quite hard to determine which tour company is reputable.
The Peruvian government has recently made it mandatory for people that want to go hiking on the Inca trail to go with a guide. This is the government’s way of restricting the amount of travelers and what they do there in an effort to keep the Inca trail pristine.
Unfortunately, I do not have a list of reputable tour companies. When I asked at the hostel we stayed at, we were told that many companies earn a bad reputation through bad business practices and selling tourists an all-inclusive tour (as the price implies because many are quite high) but then they fail to follow through in providing everything. One girl we ran into was supposed to be on an all-inclusive 3 day tour if the Inca trail and Machu Picchu, but was instead given a tent to sleep in and only 1 meal a day.
One of the main issues with this is that tourists learn which tour companies are bad and quit using them. So the tour office closes down and reopens a few days later in a new location, under a new name. There are so good companies and guides, but do some research before going with one. Generally, the cheapest tour packages are not going to be good, many fail to provide equipment, lodging or meals, while the expensive agencies may not be all that much better.
Because of this, my friend and I decided to just do Machu Picchu on our own. To do this we first went to the train station on Chaparro and San Pedro (If you hop in a taxi and ask to be brought to the train station, they know exactly where to take you) to buy our tickets. We decided to go and come back within one day. There is a town that travelers can stay in at the foot of Machu Picchu, called Aguas Calientes, but it is not really a nice town at all, so many other travelers have suggested to stay away from it. (Aguas Calientes survives solely on tourism to Machu Picchu; therefore it is incredibly expensive, touristy, and I though really just ugly.)
Luckily we could buy the train tickets for the next day. We were told to go buy them as soon as we got into Cuzco because the train tickets sell out fast. As the train line was still somewhat destroyed from the recent mudslides, we had to take a bus to the train station.
The morning we went to Machu Picchu, we first took a taxi to the bus station (which is really just a street that multiple busses leave from-we asked at the train station where to go to get the busses.) Then we took a bus (really a van) from Cuzco to the train station in Piscacucho. There is more than one train station. From here it was a little over an hour into Aguas Calientes.
You can buy tickets to Machu Picchu either in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes. The prices are $126 soles (about US $45) for adults or $63 soles (US $23) with a student ID. The student discount is hard to get, though. You must have an ICIS card or a student ID card from your school to get this discount. Or maybe that was just what the men we talked to the day we went told us, as government officials have way too much discretion in South America. Students may be able to get in with other identification.
From Aguas Calientes, you can either hop onto a bus that will drive you to the top of Machu Picchu (maybe 10-15 minutes) or you can walk. The walk we were told is about 2 hours, but it is possible to do it in less. It is along the bus road for a little while and then up a ton of stone steps. If you are having any issues with altitude though, this will be much more difficult.
At the entrance of Machu Picchu there are two places where you can leave you bags, or you can take them into the site. I just suggest taking lots of water and photos! The park closes at 5p.m. so do try to get there fairly early in the afternoon for at least a few hours. If you get there early in the morning, you can walk up to another site on another part of the mountain, overlooking Machu Picchu. This site is closed to late-comers so if you want to get up to the highest point, you must go in the morning. Generally, this means you would have to stay in Aguas Calients the night before.
Machu Picchu is an incredibly beautiful and rich historical site. It is a must-see for many travelers to South America and can be done either through an organized tour or on your own.