Recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, there’s no denying that travellers around the globe have a love affair with Machu Picchu. This 15th-century Inca citadel is revered for its rugged mountain landscapes, sacrificial mysteries and friendly llamas.
Machu Picchu’s appeal has not gone unnoticed, with many local and international tour companies setting up shop around the Inca ruins. These guided journeys are a good way to explore Machu Picchu, but can also burn through your holiday budget. Want to hike the Inca Trail as well? Expect to pay upwards of US$900.
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to see Machu Picchu without spending a fortune. Ditch the tour guide and venture out on your own, as exploring this Heritage-listed site without the script is much easier than people think. Travelling to Peru on a tight budget? Here’s our in-depth guide to seeing Machu Picchu without a tour.
Where to Stay Around Machu Picchu
If you’re planning to visit Machu Picchu without forking out hundreds of dollars for a tour, you’ll be trading the popular trails for some of Peru’s most culturally and historically rich towns. These quaint communities place you close to this natural wonder and boast their own captivating qualities. Struggling to decide on just one? Silence your FOMO by visiting two or more towns in a single trip. Here’s how it’s possible.
One of the most-recommended town for travellers to stay at around Machu Picchu, Cusco consistently lives up to its reputation as a highlight of any Peru holiday. The former capital of the ancient Inca Empire is now a World Heritage-listed site that seamlessly blends historic architecture with contemporary entertainment.
If you stay in Cusco, don’t feel bad about occasionally forgetting Machu Picchu. The town is jam-packed with fascinating attractions including the centuries-old “The Last Supper” painting in Cusco Cathedral, eclectic Mercado Central de San Pedro marketplace and the most important temple in the Inca Empire, Coricancha.
Being a significant city in Peru, Cusco is one of the easiest places to reach. Take an international flight, hop on the inter-country Bolivia Hop bus or use the PeruRail train. Compared to the three towns we’ve highlighted below, Cusco is the farthest from Machu Picchu, so it’s best used as a stopover destination before visiting one of the others. It is possible to visit Machu Picchu straight from Cusco, but be prepared for a long day.
With this, Cusco is still a must-visit city with a huge range of accommodation to suit all budgets. Popular options in the area include the four-star Sonesta Hotel Cusco, considered one of the best for shopping by HotelsCombined visitors, and the opulent Palacio del Inka A Luxury Collection Hotel, which features an exquisite on-site Turkish steam bath and Jacuzzi.
The closest town to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes is the unofficial gateway to this magnificent wonder. Almost every traveller you meet in this popular town is either on their way to visiting Machu Picchu or returning from their trek. Due to this, Aguas Calientes, also known as Machupicchu Pueblo, is very accommodating to tourists and easily accessible via trains from Cusco and other surrounding towns.
However, what makes Aguas Calientes stand out is its prime location and gorgeous natural surroundings. This place could host its own hour-long nature documentary special, thanks to what is practically an island encircled by rivers, dramatic stone cliffs and a lush forest so tall that it reaches the clouds.
You won’t need to look far to find the next stall holder eager to sell artisan goods and souvenirs. However, if you tire of the constant haggling, seek out Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon, a quiet museum housing artefacts and other informative exhibits on Machu Picchu. Perfect for resting weary muscles and bones after the hike to Machu Picchu, indulge in a day at the town’s natural hot baths.
One of the biggest positives to staying at Aguas Calientes is the opportunity for early access to Machu Picchu, letting you explore the Inca ruins without the notorious crowds that arrive later in the day. Looking for a luxurious place to stay? How about the five-star Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, set into the side of a mountain where you’ll find uninterrupted river vistas and an on-site restaurant serving traditional Peruvian cuisine.
Ollantaytambo is the second-closest town to Machu Picchu and is revered for its preserved 13th-century style. Considered the best example of an Inca city, Ollantaytambo is filled with tight cobblestone streets, quaint huts and channels running along the byways. The main plaza stands in the centre of town, where local restaurants, shops and bars immerse visitors in Peruvian fare and culture.
As beautiful as Ollantaytambo is, there’s no arguing that its most striking features are the two Inca ruins. Many visitors begin their Inca Trail trek here, but only the wisest travellers dedicate a half-day to exploring the town’s ruins, which include fortresses, terraces, intimate dwellings and breathtaking sunrise views.
Home to some of the oldest continuously occupied houses in South America, a visit to Ollantaytambo is almost akin to stepping back in time. Fortunately, not all the buildings date back to the 13th century. El Albergue Ollantaytambo is a highly-rated hotel with tranquil gardens, 15 cosy rooms and free Wi-Fi. Another option is the three-star Hotel Sol Ollantaytambo, which HotelsCombined visitors love for its river views and proximity to attractions like the Ollantaytambo Terraces.
Just like all the towns featured above, Urubamba is located on the PeruRail train line, making it easy to reach whether travelling from Cusco, Aguas Calientes or Ollantaytambo. However, there’s also plenty of other reasons why you should start your Machu Picchu holiday at this charming countryside town.
Considered Machu Picchu’s more upscale destination, Urubamba boasts numerous five-star hotels, which have all scored a 9/10 or higher rating from HotelsCombined visitors. This collection of hotels includes Casa Andina Private Collection Valle Sagrado, a mountainside oasis with luxurious villas, an on-site spa and sauna, a Peruvian restaurant and a planetarium. Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado has earned an almost perfect rating on HotelsCombined, thanks to its epic mountain views, llama feeding, yoga classes, horse riding and deluxe villas with fireplaces.
The largest town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Urubamba is a popular base for Machu Picchu travellers due to its lower altitude and accessibility to the Inca ruins. There’s also one other Inca ruin you should tick off when staying in Urubamba. Easily accessed via taxi or bus, Moray is comprised of three sets of farming terraces and is an excellent example of ancient Inca agricultural experimentation.
Urubamba is also a great launching pad for reaching the Salinas Grandes, a magnificent salt flat that stretches across 2,300 square kilometres. Be sure to check out the local ceramic workshops and football field, which often plays host to local matches. If you visit in the first week of June, you can see the town’s streets come alive with dancers and other performers celebrating the El Senor de Torrechayoc festival.
How to get to Machu Picchu Without a Tour
All self-guided routes to Machu Picchu go through Aguas Calientes, which is why many travellers opt to spend the night and get an early jump on the other visitors the next day. Thanks to the convenient and reliable PeruRail train line, it’s possible to base yourself in one of the other towns and still see Machu Picchu within one day. Regardless of where you start, here’s how to reach Machu Picchu without a tour.
For those staying in Cusco, Urubamba or Ollantaytambo, the PeruRail trains are invaluable, offering consistent services from these towns to Aguas Calientes where the journey to Machu Picchu begins. PeruRail train tickets can be purchased online from the official PeruRail website or in person at Lima and Cusco.
This isn’t your typical A-to-B train ride. PeruRail does an excellent job of making the trip to Machu Picchu enthralling, as you will find plenty of long windows for soaking up the scenery along with complimentary snacks. Your PeruRail experience will also vary depending on which train you decide to take.
The Expedition and Vistadome are the same price and offer similar services, except for Vistadome’s more modern cars with bigger windows. You can expect complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, along with beer, wine and souvenirs for sale.
PeruRail’s third train, Hiram Bingham, is basically the Taj Mahal compared to the other two. There is live music, dancing and cocktails upon boarding, complimentary gift bags, gourmet meals, beer and wine throughout, and live bands playing throughout the journey. This train costs more than three times the price of Vistadome, but it does include entry to Machu Picchu, a return bus ticket to Machu Picchu, a local Machu Picchu guide and access to the Machu Picchu restrooms, which typically cost extra.
PeruRail only allows carry-on luggage no greater than five kilograms, which means smart packing is essential (read more on that below). This packing restriction shouldn’t be a problem for those embarking on a day trip, but if you’re hopping from one town to the next with the plan of spending a few extra nights, you might want to consider organising a taxi or bus. Most hotels often allow checked-out guests to securely store their bags on site for pick up that afternoon or night.
Bus from Aguas Calientes
Forget what all the adventure travellers tell you; Machu Picchu is just as magnificent without the arduous three-day trek. In fact, you don’t have to walk far at all thanks to shuttle buses from Aguas Calientes. Bus tickets are very reasonably priced and can be purchased in Cusco or Aguas Calientes.
Running from 5.30am until 4pm, the buses depart around every 10 minutes and drop you off right in front of the entrance to Machu Picchu. Talk about service! It’s also on a first come, first serve basis, so be sure to arrive about 30 minutes prior to your preferred departure time.
Hiking from Aguas Calientes
If you’d rather immerse yourself in Peru’s beautiful mountain scenery and nature, it’s possible to walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu in a little over an hour. You should be aware that this is no leisurely stroll. The uphill trek is steeper than Miley Cyrus’ post-Disney decline, zig-zagging in a strenuous fashion that will excite avid hikers and leave couch potatoes cursing their decision to lace up their boots that morning.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of fascinating nature around to distract you from fatigue, including a babbling river, native trees, bridge crossings, llamas and vicunas. That feeling of accomplishment when you eventually arrive at the Machu Picchu entry is almost as good as laying eyes on the ancient Inca site for the first time.
If you are hiking to Machu Picchu, you’ll need to pack more water, food and other supplies than the average traveller. It’s also a good idea to have a means of communication and a map of the local area in case you get lost. Fortunately, there are plenty of signs along the route to help guide you, and the path often intersects with the main road.
How to Enter Machu Picchu Without a Tour
While tours include Machu Picchu entry tickets, if you’re opting to visit Machu Picchu on your own you will need to organise an entry ticket. These are relatively easy to purchase and can be done so in person at the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre in Aguas Calientes or the Ministerio de Cultura in Cusco. You can also buy tickets online from the Machu Picchu government website or a third-party retailer.
Tickets can sell out, especially during high season (June to September), so be sure to book in advance of the day you want to go. There are three types of tickets, all of which grant entry to the main Machu Picchu area. However, certain tickets also give you access to areas otherwise off limits for the basic ticket holders.
The cheapest ticket, Machu Picchu Entrance to Main Grounds, allows entry to all the sites you see plastered on Instagram pages, Google image searches and holiday albums. These include the main ruins, temples and terraces. However, you won’t be able to trek Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu.
The Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain ticket is pretty self-explanatory, combining all the main Inca sites with entry to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. This mountain doesn’t have any ruins, but is the tallest peak at 3,082 metres and isn’t usually as busy as Huayna Picchu.
Finally, the Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu & Temple of the Sun ticket grants entry to Huayna Picchu, which is a worthwhile climb if you want spectacular panoramic views of the region. Temple of the Sun is built into the mountainside and features various towers, a mausoleum and many sacrificial areas.
Every Visitor’s Must-Do Machu Picchu Guide
Along with the main Machu Picchu area, there are many highlights when visiting this fascinating holiday destination. Here are the must-do experiences around Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu Mountain
Machu Picchu Mountain is easily one of the most underrated mountain hikes around Machu Picchu. The 3,082-metre-high behemoth offers some of the most majestic uninterrupted vistas of the Inca ruins and undulating mountain ranges. Considered a moderately difficult climb, Machu Picchu Mountain takes about 1.5 hours from Machu Picchu to summit while traversing well-marked trails.
Along with incredible views, this mountain trek includes a stone gateway and stone steps. There’s a round hut near the peak for shelter and seating, which is also where you can leave your name in a registry. Only 400 hikers are allowed to climb it each day, so book your ticket early to ensure your place among the adventurers.
Huayna Picchu is actually the mountain most-seen in traveller’s photos, rising up behind Machu Picchu. At 2,693 metres tall it’s slightly smaller than Machu Picchu Mountain, but is far more popular with visitors seeking out its many Inca terraces and temples, including the Temple of the Moon, Great Cavern and Temple of the Sun.
It takes closer to two hours to reach the summit, with steps cut straight into the mountain at certain points. Passing through tunnels, traversing paths around the side of the mountain and soaking up views of Machu Picchu below make this hike an unforgettable experience.
Temple of the Sun
Accessed on the Huayna Picchu hike, the Temple of the Sun is a semicircular rock construction built into the side of the mountain. According to historians, this was the site where the Incas held their most important ceremonies and events, including many rituals. It was also where they worshipped mummies and created the Inca calendar using a sundial, which still stands today.
Like many of the ruins at Machu Picchu, there’s always more than meets the eye. If you wander underneath the Temple of the Sun, you’ll uncover a small underground cavern carved from stone, which is believed to be an old Inca crypt.
Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon
If you’re interested in learning the history behind Machu Picchu, Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon will soothe your cravings. Often missed by travellers, this informative museum is located at the base of the footpath leading to Machu Picchu, about 30 minutes from Aguas Calientes.
Wandering through the museum, you’ll be able to see exhibits showcasing construction tools, native wildlife and the ancient Inca city’s metallurgical expertise, among other displays. There are also multimedia exhibits such as photos, and a lovely botanical garden outside.
Stay at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge
Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is the only hotel located at Machu Picchu, providing once-in-a-lifetime accommodation right next to the Inca citadel. Staying at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge means you can access Machu Picchu even after the buses stop running and most of the visitors have left.
This is just the beginning of what this five-star hotel offers, including a range of wellness treatments at the on-site spa, two restaurants serving gourmet international and Peruvian cuisine, and tranquil gardens overlooking Machu Picchu. The luxe One-Bedroom Suites are worth the steep price tag, boasting marble bathrooms, mountain vistas and plush king-sized beds.
What to Pack for Machu Picchu
Whether you’re trekking to Machu Picchu, riding the bus or wandering over from Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, it’s important to bring only the essentials. Here’s the complete list of what you need to pack when visiting Machu Picchu.
- Suitable hiking shoes or boots (epecially if you plan on scaling the mountains)
- Breathable pants
- Multiple t-shirts (short sleeve for when it’s hot and long-sleeve for when the temperature drops in the early morning and late afternoon)
- Waterproof jacket (you’ll be glad you brought it when it rains)
- Sun-protective hat
- Food and water (enough for an entire day)
- Bus ticket
- Machu Picchu entry ticket
- Money (you’ll need it to use the bathroom in front of the entry gate)
- Bug repellent
- Spare pair of socks
- Swimming gear (essential if you intend to use the hot springs at Aguas Calientes)
Machu Picchu Tips for First-Time Visitors
Machu Picchu is a relatively easy and straightforward destination to visit, but here are a few expert tips to help you make the most of your holiday.
- Book ahead for the lowest price. We’re all for spontaneity, but sometimes a little pre-planning goes a long way to saving you money. Organising your accommodation, entry tickets, transport and other big expenses in advance is often the key to keeping your holiday budget in check.
- Purchase food and water in Cusco. The other three towns around Machu Picchu know they have the monopoly on visitors, so the shops inflate their prices. Being a bigger city with a diverse range of travellers, Cusco has many grocery stores selling goods at reasonable prices.
- Stay at least one night in one of the Sacred Valley towns to acclimate yourself to the altitude. Cusco will be your first introduction to Peru, but at 3,400 metres above sea level, it’s significantly higher than Machu Picchu at 2,430 metres. Going straight from Cusco to Machu Picchu can cause intense fatigue and sometimes even altitude sickness. The Sacred Valley towns, Aguas Calientes, Ollantaytambo and Urubamba offer an excellent mid-range altitude for letting your body slowly adjust.
- Yes, you can actually pet the llamas. Many visitors expect the llamas to be off limits, but the locals are more than happy for you to get acquainted. The animals themselves are very friendly and used to people coming up for a cuddle.
- Stamp your passport for free. While visiting Machu Picchu, there will be plenty of locals happy to give your passport the Machu Picchu stamp, for a price. Politely say “no thank you” and wait until you exit. There’s an official stamp table with people doing it for free. It sure looks good on its own page.
- Arrive early. If you want to avoid the crowds, make sure you get to Machu Picchu early. Plan ahead and hike or catch the bus from Aguas Calientes.
Ancient Wonders Should Never Break the Bank
Machu Picchu is undoubtedly one of the world’s must-do travel experiences. Unfortunately, tourism companies have picked up on this and are promising travellers carefree holidays at an inflated rate. The truth is, Machu Picchu is very simple to visit without a tour, thanks to the exceptional PeruRail trains, nearby towns with a range of accommodation and shuttle buses offering easy access to the Inca site.
No matter what welcoming town you choose to make your gateway to Machu Picchu, you’ve got a great selection of hotels to call home, from five-star villas to budget-friendly havens. Organise your Machu Picchu adventure of time, and you’ll be well on your way to witnessing a truly memorable piece of ancient history without the hefty price tag.
Machu Picchu is just one brilliant part of this unmissable world. For more inspiring holiday destinations and expert travel tips, check out the HotelsCombined blog.