Most of us are probably familiar with that one specific photograph of Machu Picchu overlooking the rustic Inca ruins with the majestic mountain in the background. But did you know that the picture actually only represents perhaps 5%, at best, of what Machu Picchu site truly comprises?
Did you know that you could come down to and observe every single one of those ruins closely, hike the mountain in the background and also another mountain nearby, get 360 degrees panoramic view comprising that picture and all other amazing landscape from a short hike, and on top of that, chill with llamas on a green prairie overlooking the highlands?
In this post, I would like to share my experience that helped me to get the best out of Machu Picchu using the standard entrance ticket only – even as a solo traveller who does not have much experience in hiking.
My entire mountain-roaming journey is basically just hiking once in Indonesia’s Mt. Cikuray, then a couple more in Jasper, Banff, and Chéticamp of Canada, and that’s it. If you’re more experienced than what I seem to be, then you could also try out some other hiking opportunities in the Machu Picchu site that I will talk about as well, that I wished I had tried too. But you’re very welcome to simply follow my itinerary because I think what I did was already more than just sufficient to carry this as a wonderful once in a lifetime experience!
(This post is written as the second part of my three-piece articles on #PeruMarathonSeries in the spirit of upcoming Peru’s 99th independence day this 28th of July. Read the previous post on my affordable 6-day full itinerary here.)
The site of Machu Picchu is located in the town of Aguas Calientes, which is about 4-hour train trip from the main city hub in Peru for every international tourist wishing to go to Machu Picchu, Cusco city. To get to Aguas Calientes, there are several options available. Trains would be the most common option, especially for people who do not use tour agencies offering Machu Picchu package. People who choose to go with tour agencies normally either hike, or travel by trains, buses, minivans, or cars – depending on the arrangement and also the budget they feel comfortable with.
The most famous way to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco is to hike the Inca Trail. However, due to the limited amount of days I had, I didn’t choose this option. And since I personally do not have personal experiences in the tour agency-related scope for Machu Picchu trip, I’m just going to elaborate my personal self-booked itinerary because it was hassle-free, and budget-friendly as well.
One thing to note is that there are actually different types of tickets to enter Machu Picchu. I bought the cheapest one, which only did not include entrance tickets to another two mountains that you could hike up to if the whole sites of Inca ruins weren’t enough for you. Due to my tight itinerary, I didn’t opt for other tickets and only bought this basic one, which is still very much worth it.
7:30 PM, the day before: Departure from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes by train
The day before my preferred date of entering Machu Picchu site, I arrived in Ollantaytambo, which is a small town between Aguas Calientes and Cusco. From there, I took the Inca Rail train departing at 7:27 PM and arriving at 9:09 PM in Aguas Calientes.
I would personally recommend taking this train schedule at the very least if you plan to really go early in the morning to the site of Machu Picchu on the next day. This way, you’ll get enough time to sleep because the next day, you’ll want to wake up by 4 AM the latest. It’s also quite safe because by 9 PM when you supposedly arrive, there will still be many people going around in the town so it will be easier for you to ask around if you are confused about navigating around. Remember that many of the routes in the town of Aguas Calientes involve walking around narrow, dark alleyways, so be extremely careful and mindful about your surroundings!
I do not quite recommend coming to Aguas Calientes earlier than the evening though, unless you have a very empty schedule. The reason being, there is not much to do in the town anyway, except visiting Machu Picchu. I would instead recommend investing your time in travelling around Cusco city or to other places such as the Rainbow Mountain, Lake Titicaca, and so forth if you really have some free time. You can also follow my itinerary that I elaborated in details here.
One thing that I recommend you to do before visiting Aguas Calientes, is to arrange your Machu Picchu guided tour beforehand, either by browsing online or by finding an agency in Cusco. I booked mine through GoToPeru in Expedia, and I was satisfied with their services. The tour guides would most likely arrange the meeting at the station once you arrive, and hence with their help, you could make sure that everything is in the right place before you go to the site.
In my case, for instance, I had no idea that the paper that I printed out from online purchasing the Machu Picchu entrance ticket wasn’t actually the actual ticket that I’d need. Fortunately, my tour guides were able to tell me that it wasn’t the correct paperwork and then they printed it out for me with the help of my hostel’s receptionist, for no extra charges.
One of the guys even actually walked me all the way to my hostel, which was such a major help because the town was only accessible by really long stairs from the station, and it’s going to be really troublesome for me to carry my suitcase by my own in such late hours as well.
After checking in at the hostel, I set my alarm for 4 AM. With this plan, I would be leaving my hostel by 5 AM with my tour guide who would pick me up to walk together to the bus stop, and hopefully, by 7 AM we would have reached the site. Taking the bus is the most conventional and convenient way to go to the site of Machu Picchu, which would take about half an hour all the way up. The only other option is to hike for approximately one and a half or up to two hours because no other mode of transportation is allowed. But obviously, I chose to take the bus as most of the other tourists did as well.
This schedule, however, is not the plan you want to use if you’re thinking of catching the sunrise, because then you would have to line up from 4 AM at the bus stop. I wouldn’t personally recommend the sunrise plan, though. I actually wanted to see the sunrise as well, but my tour guide said that the sunrise is not the actual picture-perfect sunrise of tangerine skies emerging from the dark that you’d imagine and expect to see. Because by 5:30 AM the sky will already be bright, by around 6 AM when the sun actually emerges from behind the mountain it’s going to be a bit of anticlimax and you’re not going to get the expected kind of dramatic sunrise people imagine about. So I agreed that the 5 AM plan would suit me just fine.
5 AM: Leaving the hostel and going to the bus stop
The next morning, my tour guide and I left the hostel by 5 AM, and the other two gentlemen from the UK who were in the same guided tours with us had already been there so I could line up with them without going all the way to the back. I bought a round-trip bus ticket which costs me USD 24 at the site. After one and a half hours of waiting in line and moving only bit by bit, we finally got to get on our bus and we began our actual journey up to the site of Machu Picchu.
The views from the bus were pretty awesome, although you’ll get better views of the same landscape once you get to the site. This is why I didn’t regret to not hike to the site because the road was terribly long and narrow and the views were mostly just forest. It was also kind of foggy, hence I figured that taking the bus was the safest option as well.
7 AM: Arriving at the site, beginning the guided tour to all ruins in the main grounds
We then began our guided tour upon arrival. Important tip: if you’re a solo traveller bringing a tripod for the sake of having the right gear to take your own picture, do not bring a large tripod as they are apparently prohibited. This is actually the only thing that I find a bit upsetting from the site because while tripods are banned, the selfie sticks are not. Meanwhile, I think we all know that selfie sticks are much more dangerous than the use of tripods. While it doesn’t make too much sense for me and I had to be frowning for the next couple minutes when the security guard forced me to store my tripod in the storage office, there was nothing I could do anyway.
But if you do have a small tripod that could fit your backpack, then great. In my case, mine was the large one that was designed for actual landscape photography in an outdoor setting. But even if you do have the smaller type of tripod, be careful when using it inside the site because there are many security guards inside, particularly in the most photograph-worthy areas where most tourists take their pictures, and sometimes they still prohibit you from using them just because it’s considered to bother the pedestrian space. Which makes sense, indeed, particularly for such a world-class tourist destination.
Another tip from me is to consider bringing a gorilla pod – which is a smaller tripod unlike what its name implies – instead. But because I didn’t have one, I simply managed to connect my camera to my phone using WiFi and Bluetooth, and then carefully put my camera on top of some flat-lying rocks to take a picture of myself. Not a really comfortable way to utilize the camera and it got complicated at first, but what has to be done needs to get done!
9:30 AM: Finishing the guided tour and beginning the self-guided tour
The tour itself lasted for two and a half hours until 9:30 AM, and we visited every single ruin that you could see in the typical Machu Picchu photograph. One thing that I found quite a bit of a bummer, is that our tour guide didn’t bring us to the Guard House which is the tourists’ favourite spot to take the typical Machu Picchu picture. One of my purposes of having the tour guides was to have someone to take a picture of myself in that particular spot (other than having someone to explain to me about all the historical sites for sure) but it just didn’t happen as I expected. Thankfully, I still managed to take some good pictures by myself, in which I’ll share the tips as well in a bit.
After 9:30 AM, I was free to do the rest of the exploration of the site by myself. The first stop I approached was the Sun Gate because it offers a panoramic view of the whole Inca complex and beyond.
On the way to the trail that takes you to the Sun Gate, you’ll arrive at some spots that are occupied with tons of tourists as those are the spots where you could take the typical world-famous postcard-worthy Machu Picchu photograph. After exchanging some help with a few strangers and felt devastated because none of the pictures they took was satisfying enough for me (I know I’m being so petty and annoying about it, but, can’t help!) I decided to just leave and continue marching my way up to the Sun Gate.
10:00 AM: Hiking to the Sun Gate
It took one hour approximately to get to the top of the Sun Gate, but the scenery along the way was very much worth it. You’ll get to see the meandering river down in the valley, the zigzag roads that took you all the way up from the town, the amazing mountainous views of the Inca site, and best of all… Llamas!
The llamas in the Machu Picchu site are the ones that have been trained to interact well with human visitors, hence they wouldn’t be afraid of you if you take pictures with them or even touch them. I found three llamas on my way to the Sun Gate, and it was instantly the most amazing moment I’ve had that year thus far.
I spent an hour at the site of Sun Gate because I enjoyed too much being surrounded by those llamas. This is also a pretty nice spot to have a little picnic, enjoying your brunch, relaxing and unwinding after one hour hike that’s pretty demanding. Not to mention cherishing the wonderful expanded views of the Andes that you won’t be able to get every day.
11:30 AM: Leaving the Sun Gate and going to the Guard House
After the llamas left and went down the hill to find more grass to eat, I kind of followed them too and went to the next spot: the Guard House. It took another hour to go down, mostly because the llamas were blocking our way many times when they stopped to munch some bushes.
And when I got to the Guard House… An even better scenery was waiting: tens of llamas and alpacas were grazing under the sun on the green prairies! The best part was that we could actually hang around with each one of them as other tourists did as well. They were very friendly and not minding us humans being amazed at their cuteness, and so I spent another hour just to “hang out” with them.
1 PM: Walking to the Inca Bridge
After spending a bit too much time with the llamas, I decided to go to the last site that I could go to with my standard admission ticket: the Inca Bridge. The road to the bridge was absolutely spectacular and the views were breathtaking even though the actual site of the bridge was pretty small. But it was very well worth it, and it only took half an hour round-trip walk to go to the site and be back to the entrance spot.
1:30 PM: Trying to take a perfect picture, hanging around with the llamas and alpacas at the Guard House
It was only 1:30 PM when I came back from the bridge, hence I still got a couple of hours left before the site closes and the last bus departs at 5:30 PM. Realizing that I haven’t got the proper picture of myself in front of the Machu Picchu site, I walked around to find some quiet and strategic spot where I could conveniently put my camera onto some rock or cliff’s edge without bothering (or being bothered by) the passing tourists. And there I found it: on the sharp edge of a secluded small space, next to the stairs across the Guard House. But just be creative because this definitely wasn’t the only possible spot!
The key to taking proper pictures of yourself without the help of other tourists is: to be confident, not mind people staring at you, and take some time to find the perfect spot to put your gear on. After some patience, I finally managed to be satisfied with the pictures I’ve got! Here’s one of the shots to give you the proof:
I didn’t want to waste the remaining time I’ve got so I proceeded with going to the Guard House area where most of the llamas and alpacas were still grazing around. The rest of the day, I was just relaxing there while eating my lunch, listening to my playlist, and chilling with those beautiful mammals just because I was so obsessed with them. Didn’t feel like wasted time at all!
5 PM: Bidding farewell
By 5 PM, I decided to bid farewell and went back to the town. It was sad, yet still surreal at the same time, knowing that I had spent the whole day exploring one of those wonders of the world and made it this far to witness such grandeur at last!
However, another precaution is that if you leave some stuff at the storage office, don’t forget to take them back! The second thing that I don’t find comfortable about this site is that because the exit door is located away from the entrance level where they build the storage office, I didn’t quite remember that I still had to pick up my tripod which was kept inside the main entrance. The bus stop is also closer to the exit door, so I just went to the bus directly and only realized that my tripod was still left up there after the bus had almost reached the bus depot back in town.
Fortunately, I met some extremely nice Peruvians who were able to help me out even with my terrible Spanish skills, and half an hour later a staff who just got back from the site brought my tripod back with him!
6 PM: Dinner and rest
I then spent the remaining of the evening enjoying a Peruvian dinner and bought some souvenirs, before heading to bed early to catch the next early morning’s train to Ollantaytambo to be back to Cusco. This schedule is also something I’d recommend because as far as I realize, there’s no early morning train to Cusco. The train to Cusco is also a lot more expensive than if you take a train to Ollantaytambo, then use a colectivo to get to Cusco, despite being slightly more practical.
And that’s how I did the majestic Machu Picchu and managed to get the best bit out of it even with a standard ticket! Some other tips that might be useful for your best time in Machu Picchu:
- You don’t necessarily need hiking shoes unless you plan to hike to Waynapicchu or Machu Picchu Mountain – which requires additional tickets. All I wore was casual Nike walking shoes and they were still as good as they were before. The routes to everywhere including the Sun Gate and Inca Bridge were already carved out very well so you can walk on solid surfaces like rocks, and not just some wet soils.
- Prepare your lunch beforehand. The site has a restaurant but it’s more expensive than if you buy some things from the town. You can buy your lunch from your hostels by asking them in advance to prepare the meals for you early in the morning – which was what I did. Also, when you’re lining up for the bus to Machu Picchu in the town, the shops along the queue line would’ve been opened already no matter how early it was and you could buy your lunch there.
- Bring hand sanitizers. I did not, and regret it very much because I then could not eat anything from the moment I touched the llamas until I headed back to the town. Still worth the hunger though!
- Wear lightweight outfits. It’s very warm up there and a jacket is unnecessary unless it’s a wind- and water-proof one, like the one I was wearing.
- Sunglasses, hats, and even headscarves are essentials, and maybe some masks as well because it gets super dusty big time.
- Bring a headset, a book to read, and a thin picnic mat for the best quality time while enjoying the outdoorsy green space at the Guard House with a view of grazing llamas and alpacas.
- Realizing that I could actually get around and visit all the important areas within half a day, I would recommend you buying the ticket entrance to Waynapicchu or Machu Picchu Mountain as well if the tickets were still available by the time you’re trying to buy one. Waynapicchu is basically the sharp-looking mountain you’d easily spot in every background picture of the Machu Picchu, while Machu Picchu Mountain is a bit further on the opposite side of the picture. I’ve heard that it wasn’t too demanding to hike both, except that if you have a phobia about heights. Also, with a single ticket, you could actually enter the site twice, so if you do decide to hike any of these two mountains but plan to come back the next day to have a more slow-paced tour of the remaining sites, then you’re very welcome to do that.
And that’s it for my Machu Picchu experience. To see how I fit Machu Picchu into my 6-day affordable trip in Peru, do read this post here and also here to have a glance over essential things you need to know before visiting the country. Until next time!