Getting to Machu Picchu is a Pain in the Butt

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Hurry up and wait.

That should be the new tagline for Machu Picchu.  I didn’t think much of it when I was standing in the world’s longest airport line for my flight to Cusco (Star Peru actually handwrote tags for checked luggage!), but that just foreshadowed what was to come.

We made it to Machu Picchu!

On Paper, It’s Simple

Don’t want to hike the Inca Trail?  No problem, I didn’t either.  That means you’ll be taking a train to Aguas Calientes which is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu itself.  From Aguas Calientes, you either hike up the mountain (90+ minutes) or take a shuttle bus at additional cost.

The reality is a little more inconvenient.  Here’s what the guidebooks don’t tell you about Machu Picchu.

I thought that taking the train to Machu Picchu instead of hiking the Inca Trail would make it an easy trip from Cusco! Here's a reality check: Peru doesn't work that smoothly. Find out how to set realistic expectations for this journey from Cuzco or the Sacred Valley and prepare as much as possible to save time along the way. After all, you'd rather be enjoying this world wonder instead of standing in line! #MachuPicchu #IncaTrail #Peru

Your Online Purchase Only Gets Half the Job Done

I was thrilled to buy my Machu Picchu train tickets online, but even after you pay, you won’t have tickets.  Instead, you receive a voucher that needs to be exchanged in person at one of Peru Rail’s offices.

You should still make online reservations because trains sell out, but allow extra time in your trip to pick up your tickets before your train departure.  Both the Lima and Cusco airport locations had lines during my visit — the process was painless, as long as you allow plenty of time.

Yes! You Have Tickets in Hand!

Once you have your train tickets, you can sit back and relax until your scheduled departure.

Arriving at the station is easy: just have your passport packed (it’s checked at the station entrance and again upon boarding).  Regardless of what your ticket says, arrive 15-20 minutes early and you’ll have plenty of time to board.

Side note: I rode the Peru Rail Expedition train both ways.  Legroom is a little tight, but cars are otherwise comfortable, clean, and prompt.

Here Come the Bottlenecks

You can buy Machu Picchu tickets online.  You can (sort of) buy train tickets online.  But there is currently no way to buy online bus tickets for the trip from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu citadel. No problem, you think, until you realize only two employees are working.  And they have to enter passport information for each and every ticket.  Prepare to stand in line.

BRILLIANCE!  A reader shared that you CAN buy bus tickets online…the information is just not widely advertised.  So, definitely buy your bus tickets online and print them in advance.  This will save you time on the day of your visit.

Once you have your bus tickets, all you want to do is see this world wonder!  But there’s another, even longer, line to actually board a bus.  We waited 45 minutes — each way.  Machu Picchu is so close and yet so far.

Here’s the kicker: there are actually plenty of buses, but they only board one bus at a time (presumably because they only had one electronic scanner for the tickets).

Lines in Aguas Calientes while waiting for a bus to Machu Picchu. Actual length is about 5x longer than fits in the photo.

You Made It!

Believe it or not, the main entrance is a piece of cake compared to everything else.  You’ll show your ticket and passport once again and be on the site in no time…unless, of course, you need the bathroom.  Then you’ll stand in another line.

Machu Picchu is pretty cool and I’m glad I went, but I wish I had realistic expectations going in.  My point is not to scare you off, just to prepare you.  I normally have a pretty easy-going attitude in countries like Peru (seven weeks in Guatemala will do that to you), but I was caught off-guard for Machu Picchu.

A Few Last Tips

In my opinion, you’ll want 6 hours at Machu Picchu, not including transport or waiting time.  That’s plenty for a standard 2-hour tour, a 3-hour hike (like Huayna Picchu or the Sun Gate), and some free time for exploring.

Along with knowing about the lines, here are a few more things to keep in mind:

  • Book your train and entrance tickets in advance.  Seriously.
  • Take the first train in the morning.  We arrived in Aguas Calientes at 6:35 a.m. and it was relatively peaceful then compared to later in the day.
  • Use sunscreen.  We went in rainy season, only saw the sun for 10 minutes, and still ended up sunburned.
  • Yes, you can pack snacks as long as you are discrete about where you eat and carry all your garbage out.

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More to Plan Your Trip:

Check out more tips from Karisa’s guide to Machu Picchu.

Acclimate to the Sacred Valley (the easy way)

Things to Do Other than the Inca Trail

Ballestas Islands vs Islas Palomino: Which is Better? –> Because there’s more to Peru than Machu Picchu!

The train and bus to Machu Picchu is incredibly time-consuming (but easy!) but it's completely worth it. Be prepared with this guide to Machu Picchu.

26 thoughts on “Getting to Machu Picchu is a Pain in the Butt”

  1. We’re in the early stages of possibly planning a trip to Machu Pichu so this was helpful to understand. Shame there’s so much queuing and waiting but sounds like it’s ultimately worth it. Thanks for the tips!

    1. My tip would be to NOT be in the bus queue in AC for the ‘first bus’ the queue is ridiculous, we were there from 04.40 when we opened our curtains at 04.30 and saw people already queuing. Despite this by the time all the group the guide was waiting for were through, it was long past sunrise.
      If you decide the down queue is too long and you can walk, you can, easily, BUT not from the end of the queue, that way you do a lot of road with hairpins, somewhere near the entrance (I don’t know where as we just walked from where we found ourselves in the end of the queue when it started raining) is a much shorter route down through the vegetation.

      1. @Jackie, Just to add in case anyone else wants to walk down — the pedestrian trail starts from Machu Picchu on a staircase near the front of the queue.

  2. If you’re going to go to this much trouble to see one of the most amazing places in this world…then why just spend 5-6 hours there on a single day (that may not have good photo ops)?

    Better to either hike the Inca or Salkantay trail, or spend a night in Aguascalientes and go up to Maccu Pichu two consecutive days. Going two days also increases your chance of great, non-fogged-in photos.

    1. @Gadfly, A lot of places recommend longer stays and for some people it may make sense. It’s important to think about how you tend to visit cultural/historical sites. Some people linger and visit every corner; others want a basic overview.

      We had 12.5 hours scheduled from our arrival in Aguas Calientes to our train departure (so easily 9 hours at the site) but were content after 6 hours. That’s just MY travel style, not everyone’s, and for every person that wants to spend longer, there’s probably someone who’s ready to leave after 3-4 hours because they aren’t photographing/hiking/asking questions.

  3. My family and I stayed at one of the hotels overnight. It was very expensive, but totally worth it. We went the last week of May and had an amazing trip. The hotel reserved a specific time for the bus and we went up and down with no waiting. Late in day 3pm or so, the site is relatively empty and the best way to experience the site. I would hire a guide right outside the gate. They are serious about their guides and we enjoyed it for a nominal cost. A bucket list trip for sure.

    1. @Chris, That is definitely the way to do it if you can afford it but $800+/night was out of my budget. In fact, I think I paid less than that for hotels on my whole trip!

      1. Yes, that’s a very fair point. That one night was the big expenditure of the trip for us. The rest of our nights were budget friendly hotels. We did a few Air BnB’s and had stayed in great places.

  4. I took a package tour with Trafalgar. They dealt with ALL the details from the time I got through customs in Lima to taking us back to the airport at the end of the trip and making sure we were headed to the correct gate. Minimal waiting in line, EVERYTHING paid for. Fantastic way to get to Machu Picchu. Not the least expensive, but the easiest. And I HATE paying more than I have to for anything (rarely pay $ for airfare or hotels).
    Other tour companies do similar trips but only Trafalgar included the internal flights.

  5. Really? I’ve been there twice, and didn’t have any issues, the key here (and that is for every trip) you must investigate a lot about where you’re going, what to buy in advance and what you can buy on-site. For me both times great experience, first time by train, second time doing the Inca trail.

  6. I hired a guide in Cuzco months in advance who took care of all this tickets issues. You have to mention that there is a limited amount of people they allow to enter the site each day, and there is a real posibility that they are sold out if you don’t do it with enough time.
    The train we took departed from the Tambo del Inka hotel in Urubamba. Tambo del Inka is a SPG hotel luxury collection located in Urubamba in the sacred Valley. The hotel has its own train stop and it is one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever been in my life. Machu Picchu was one of several excursions we did starting from this hotel.

  7. I was there last year with my friends, we enjoyed more with Greenperuadventures a good travel agent. This service helped us in every situation.

  8. Great Post! I haven’t been to Peru yet but it is on my bucket list for sure. Really informative, I will expect some queuing and waiting if I ever go to Machu Picchu 🙂

  9. Having just returned, we can say our journey to Machu Picchu was quite a breeze. Yes — it involves multiple modes of transportation and takes time but because we went during “off season”, the queues were much shorter, buses half empty at times and we had the whole place to ourselves towards the end of the day. And for us, even after two days, we felt that we could revisit! The place enticed us so much! Regarding weather — we got super duper lucky. A clear afternoon and perfect views of the citadel and on the next day it rained after we were done with our Montana hike. I think visiting such places is also a bit about luck! – Supriya

    1. @Surpriya, Thanks for chiming in! Even in high season, it was “empty” at Machu Picchu toward the end of the afternoon so I think that part may hold true for everyone 🙂

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