With the right information, getting to Machu Picchu shouldn’t be as much a mystery as the place itself. You’ll have to take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the nearest town to Machu Picchu) since this is the only form of transport. From Aguas Calientes you take a 20 minute bus ride up to the ruins.
If you visit Machu Picchu as part of a day tour you’ll usually have about 4 hours at the ruins themselves; 2 hours of which is taken up by a guide tour. You’ll also have to share the ruins with the 1500 or so other tourists who visit the ruins everyday.
If you want longer at the ruins or want to see them at sunrise when the light is more gentle and there are fewer visitors then you’ll have to stay the night. You can stay at the super expensive Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which is the only hotel adjacent to Machu Picchu ruins, or you can spend the night in one of the many hotels in Aguas Calientes.
Many tour companies allow you to spread the tour over 2 days, although you may have to pay for the additional costs of accommodation and return to the ruins early on the second day.
The ruins open at 6am and are open until 6pm. The entrance fee is 120 New Soles (which is approximately US$36). There is a 50% discount for students with a valid ISIC card. You can take small bags into the ruins but anything larger must be left at the luggage store near the entrance for US$1 a piece. Guides are available at the site. Expect to pay around US$30 per guide for a 2 hour private tour. You can join a group for as little as $3 per person depending on the size of the group.
The ruins are a lot quieter before 11am and after 3:30pm. Buses run between the ruins and Aguas Calientes approximately every 15 minutes with the last bus back to Aguas Calientes at 5:30pm. It’s a 40 minute walk if you miss the bus. A one-way trip in the bus costs US$6 per person.
Monday is the busiest day, as many people head off to Machu Picchu after visiting Pisac market on Sunday. July, August and September are the busiest months when up to 2000 people visit the ruins everyday.
The mountain overlooking Machu Picchu is called Huayna Picchu and can be climbed to get great views of the whole site. Allow 2½ hours return trip – not recommended for sufferers of vertigo. The narrow trail can be quite dangerous at times after wet weather. The path is open 7am to 1pm but you must return before 3pm. You must register at the hut at the beginning of the trail.
Another similar panoramic option, perhaps more vertical then Huayna Picchu is mount Putucusi, the climb starts just following the train track from Aguas Calientes going down to the forest. Its verticality can be a greater problem for those suffering of vertigo, as it is steeper then Huayna Picchu. There is no entrance fee, but it is recommended to take a guide from Aguas Calientes.
The only transport between Cusco and Aguas Calientes (the nearest town) is by train. The train can often be fully booked especially in the high season so it is a good idea to make a reservation in advance.
A description of the ruins in detail is beyond the scope of this web site. For an excellent guide try Peter Frost’s Exploring Cusco or Machu Picchu Inca Treasure from archeologist Kaufmann-Doig. Both can be bought in Cusco.