Not everyone who visits Machu Picchu wants to take a 3- or 4-day tour through the jungle to get there. Luckily, a Machu Picchu train trip only takes one to one and a half days. It is possible to reach Machu Picchu by yourself, without booking through a tour company. You will miss out on certain parts of the experience, but you’ll experience the main highlight of seeing the ancient city.
You have two choices if you want to see Machu Picchu in a day: Leave that morning from Cusco, and spend a limited amount of time on the mountain, or leave the previous evening and spend a night in the town of Aguas Calientes to enjoy a full day at Machu Picchu. You’ll travel by train either way. There are two Machu Picchu train companies to choose from: IncaRail and PeruRail.
Aguas Calientes is the town at the base of Machu Picchu, and has grown to accommodate the needs of tourists in the past decades. In fact, it’s name was recently changed to Machu Picchu Village. It is inaccessible by car, but a Machu Picchu train runs daily from Cusco. Hotels and hostels have popped up to allow people to sleep at the base of the mountain, and start their ascent early enough to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu. However, it is still a small town, and advance booking is necessary during busy season! The most famous accommodation is the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel, which provides luxury services in the middle of the cloud forest. Located next to the entrance of Machu Picchu, it is accessible only by hike or half hour bus ride up winding mountain roads. Prepare to be blown away by the mountain view rooms, fine dining, and breathtaking setting. Also be prepared, though, to book months in advance and pay upwards of US$1,000 per night. The Sanctuary Lodge partners with PeruRail, and offers discounts for booking your train and hotel together. For those looking for more wallet-friendly lodging, check out other hotels or hostels in town.
If you start from Cusco, you will get a later start, because you will need to take the Machu Picchu train to Aguas Calientes before starting your trip up the mountain. The trip takes slightly over 3 hours each way, and trains leave Cusco starting at 6:40 in the morning. The train station, called Poroy, is about 20 minutes outside of Cusco by taxi, so factor that into your schedule. You can book a Machu Picchu train through either PeruRail or IncaRail. Return trips to Cusco begin in the early afternoon and run almost hourly until 9:30pm. If you take an early train to Machu Picchu and a late train back, you can easily spend 5 or 6 hours exploring the ruins. You will miss sunrise and be there during the late morning and early afternoon hours, when it is most crowded. Either way, be sure to book train tickets in advance during busy season.
Whether you spent the night or took a train in that morning, Aguas Calientes will be the beginning of your ascent to Machu Picchu. You can hike up the mountain, which takes a little over an hour if you’re in reasonably good shape, or opt for the bus. The bus takes 20-30 minutes, costs about S/.45 round trip, and begins running at 5:30am. Buses run every few minutes all day and extra buses handle crowds when trains arrive. Buses back down the mountain run all day and leave when full. You do not need to pre-book the bus, but if you’d like to avoid lines in the morning you can buy a ticket at the small ticket office in Aguas Calientes the night before, or at the Consettur offices in Cusco before you leave. Lines for the return bus get long in the early afternoon, so be prepared to wait in line upwards of 30 minutes.
During busy season, it is imperative to secure your Machu Pichhu tickets before even leaving for your trip. During wet season, you may be able to buy tickets the day you want to ascend Machu Picchu, but it is not recommended to risk them being sold out. If you do decide to chance it, you can buy tickets at the Machu Picchu Cultural Center in Aguas Calientes. Bring exact change, because they only accept cash and ATMs are hard to come by at 5:15am in the jungle. More detailed instructions on buying Machu Picchu tickets online can be found here.
Although there are a number of steps to follow, you can see that it isn’t that difficult to visit Machu Picchu by yourself, and see it in a day. As long as you are comfortable booking a train from Cusco, buying your own Machu Picchu entrance ticket in advance, and catching a bus from Aguas Calientes or hiking, you will be fine, and save a little money over booking a full tour.