In the previous post "How to get to Machu Picchu", I mentioned about the few ways on how to get to the ruins. You can go straight from Cusco, or you can go to Ollantaytambo first, stay there overnight, and then take the morning train to Aguas Calientes. Many people recommend this stay in Ollantaytambo, because in Aguas Calientes (start point to Machu Picchu), there is not much too see, it is built mainly to accommodate and serve tourists.
However, if you have only one day to visit the Machu Picchu site, I would say it is better for you to be in Aguas Calientes the night before. This is because you really have to wake up and start climbing as early as possible, and if you decide to visit Wayna (or Huayna) Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, you will need a lot of time for this.
This is how I did it and it worked perfectly for me: My friend and I had only one day to visit the ruins and I arrived in Cusco around 3 pm. We took a taxi from the airport to the city centre (for 10 soles - 3 EUR, 4 USD). We briefly visited the city, walked through the Plaza de Armas, saw the Inca Museum and, around 5 pm, we took the colectivo (local mini-van) to Ollantaytambo. Colectivos departure not far from Plaza de Armas and the Inca Museum, ask anyone they will direct you. Even if you don't know Spanish it's enough to say "colectivo Ollantaytambo". The journey takes around 2 hours and costs 10 soles per person (3 EUR, 4 USD). The views are spectacular.
We arrived in Ollantaytambo around 7.30pm and walked down the narrow but beautiful streets. The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes departed at around 9pm. The journey took another 2 hours. The train is made specially for tourists and you get a little treat on board (banana chips or peanuts) and some coca tea or coffee. Compare the fare - from 40 USD for the train vs 4 USD for the local colectivo...
We got to Aguas Calientes at around 11 pm, it was quite chilly and because it was February - rainy season, the rain was pouring down. In Aguas Calientes you can choose from a wide range of different types of accommodation - from budget to luxurious. Hostels and B&Bs are very cheap, we paid around 14 EUR or 16 USD per person per night for a double bed private room.
The breakfast was served from very early hours (4 or 5 am) but was not filling at all. It's just tea, 2 bread rolls with butter and jam and papaya juice. If you decide to climb the hill to the ruins, it's surely not enough, you should have some food prepared with you. Early morning, it is very difficult to buy food in Aguas Calientes, except snacks and crisps. There is a cafe on top by the ruins but the prices are ridiculous.
We left the hostel at around 7 am and, luckily, the weather wasn't as bad as it had been the previous evening. We went along the river which was pretty rough because of heavy rainfalls and after 20 minutes or so we got to the gate where you have to present your printed ticket and passport or ID. If you don't have the pre-booked ticket, you will be denied entry to the site. It is not possible to buy the ticket there.
Right after that point, the path became very steep and turned into rocky steps leading up to the top. After about 1.5 h of climbing through the forest we reached Machu Picchu. We had some rest and admired the absolutely breathtaking scenery of the Andes and the ancient city. Unfortunately, we didn't have too much time for that because we had paid to visit the Machu Picchu Mountain too, so we had to hurry up as it is allowed to enter the trail to the Machu Picchu Mountain only until 11am. This is because the way up (one way from Machu Picchu ruins) takes another 2 hours and is much more difficult than the climb from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu city.
Before entering the Machu Picchu site, your ID and the ticket will be checked again. Visiting hours are from 7 am to 5 pm, however at 4 pm the gates are closed and after that time it is not possible to re-enter anymore.
Right at the entrance to the site you will be pestered by many guides offering guided tours within the city. We didn't have time to take one, but I think it's a good idea to have a guide to help you understand better the meaning behind the ruins.
When we got inside the Machu Picchu city, we were amazed by it's beauty and grandeur. Not often you have a chance to see something so magnificent. The city built among such high mountains, in the forest, so remote that even Spanish conquistadors didn't found it makes you wonder how the Incas had constructed it without electricity and modern machinery. We decided not to visit it at that moment though, but to get to the Machu Picchu Mountain first.
By the time we were half way to the top of the Machu Picchu Mountain, the weather had gotten worse and it started raining. The surface became slippery and we had to be more careful not to slip and fall off the cliff. What's more, the clouds and mist covered all the view so we weren't able to see anything what was down in the valleys. And although we met some people that had given up and started going down, we decided to keep on climbing. At around 12.30 we finally reached the 3080 metres above sea level top. Although soaking wet and exhausted, it was a very rewarding feeling.
There were a couple of people on top already, waiting for the clouds to go so they could take a picture. Some gave up after a few minutes and went back down. We didn't. We were waiting around 1 hour or so, not knowing if the weather would improve but it finally did. The clouds moved away unveiling one of the best views I had ever seen in my life. The ruins looked pretty small from such a distance, but the whole impression was undoubtedly spectacular.
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