I recently had the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu for the first time and it did not disappoint! It’s even more breathtaking in person than you can imagine.
As the crow flies, Machu Picchu is not far from Cusco; however, it is located deep in the Sacred Valley and cannot be accessed by vehicle! The only way to reach Machu Picchu is by foot or train.
Arrive on foot
you can choose to hike the Full 4-Day Inca Trail or the 1-day version, the Royal Inca Trail. Whichever option works best for you, it is an inspiring reward to arrive at the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu and be able to get the full perspective of this incredible achievement.
To access the 1-day hike, you first start with an early morning train from Ollantaytambo which drops you at KM104 of the hike. Hilariously, it seems as though you are getting dropped in the middle of the forest, and you then cross a sturdy bridge over the river to the check point to get your permit stamped. If you are quick off the train, you can be one of the first on the trail, which means you have the hike mostly to yourself all day.
Even the 1-day hike is so unique, it is one of the best hikes I have ever done. Fitting the 1-day hike into any Peru itinerary is well worth it, this also allows you to experience everything else the area has to offer.
Travel by train
You arrive from the station in Ollantaytambo to the town at the foot of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. There is then a bus up the steep, winding road from Aguas Calientes to the ruins, perched about 1,300 feet above town. An alternate to taking the bus, if you are up for the challenge, is a steep hike that cuts directly up the mountainside (it’s worth trying at least once!).
Machu Picchu lies right on the edge of the Peruvian Cloud Forest, a high rain forest that creates interesting weather and low clouds due to the proximity to very high mountains. Because of this, the weather at Machu Picchu is unpredictable and often shrouded in clouds. It is worth it to plan on visiting the ruins on separate days to better the chances of a clear view.
If arriving on foot, hopefully the clouds part and allow for a panoramic view of the ruins and the valley. This is then a great time to just take in the beauty and enjoy your human-powered accomplishment. I would then recommend planning to go tour the ruins the following day. In our case, it was clear the first day, and cloudy the next, so we were happy to have had at least a few hours of clarity.
Taking time to tour Machu Picchu with a guide is a worthwhile experience. There is much to learn about the history and significance of the ruins that I think is more meaningful coming from a guide as opposed to a book. Walking through the different temples, rooms, seeing the different water channels, the rock formations, gives you a very unique sense of perspective when considering the strength and ingenuity of what an ancient culture achieved.
Planning to visit Machu Picchu during the proper time of year is also key. The area can get quite rainy so planning your visit during the dry season (Peruvian winter), starting end of April through September is recommended.
Even if your visit is in the dry season, the location on the border of the cloud forest means that you still need to be prepared for finicky, potentially rainy weather so long sleeve layers and a rain jacket are necessary items on your packing list.
In summary – a trip to Peru is not complete without a visit to the magical Machu Picchu! Whether you hike or arrive via train, this wonder of the world is truly awe-inspiring and cannot be missed.