Machu Picchu is a dream of many travellers and history geeks, just like it was mine. However when you are planning a trip to Peru and you research how to actually get to Machu Picchu, it might come as a surprise how far it is and how limited the options of visiting are. The most popular way to get there is by train, which is quite expensive. If you are not too into jumping on a train or taking the 4-day Inca trail hike is too much to handle, there's a third, not as well known option when it comes to visiting Machu Picchu.
There are some tour operators in Cusco offering tours to Machu Picchu by car. The prices are very good compared to taking the train or paying the Inca Trail hiking fees. Usually, these car tours last two days and one night. However, it is possible to stay an additional night in Aguas Calientes if you wish. That's what I did. My tour cost me 65 dollars in total (including the student entrance ticket to the ruins). Here's my experience on taking a car tour to Machu Picchu.
I booked my tour through the owner of the hostel I stayed in Cusco only a few days before the beginning of the tour. The tour itself includes transportation from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, lunch on the way, one (or two) night stay in a hotel in Aguas Calientes, dinner at the hotel, guided tour at Machu Picchu ruins & transportation from Hidroelectrica back to Cusco.
The tour started in Cusco. A private van picked us up from our hostel early in the morning and brought us to Plaza de Santa Teresa, near the main plaza (Plaza de Armas). Where we changed the vehicle to slightly bigger one and waited for the guides to gathered us together. We were around 15 people in the van. The journey started around 30 minutes behind the original schedule when we finally started to drive but we ended up catching up the time on the way.
The car journey was rather pleasant when taking in consideration of driving 7 hours in the middle of Andean mountains. We drove past the town of Chincero (3700m), through the Sacred Valley where we passed through the city of Urubamba and to Ollantaytambo (2800m). From there we continued higher to the mountains and passed the highest mountain on the route, snowcapped Mt. Veronica which reaches 5,700m. The views from car window were amazing so it kept me entertained for the whole drive. You could clearly see the nature changing to more tropical and green towards Hidroelectrica.
By midday, we had reached a small village called Huaman Marca where we had a buffet lunch. After the lunch, we drove through villages of Santa Maria and Santa Teresa following the Urubamba river. The road was unpaved from time to time especially when we got closer to our destination. Finally the car left us to the beginning of the railway tracks in Hidroelectrica where each of us could continue either on foot or by taking the 30-minute train to Aguas Calientes. Our guide told us that we'd meet in the centre Plaza of Aguas Calientes in about 3 hours.
The train from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes costs 29 dollars/one way for foreigners & 5 soles for Peruvians.
We decided to walk to Aguas Calientes following the train tracks, just like many others. You could either choose walking the paths on the side of the tracks or simply walking on the actual track, though there were many signs warning about the train traffic. The train passed us maybe 3 times in total during our 2.5 hour walk but I didn't find it dangerous as the trains moved slowly and gave sound signals far in advance.
The walk was easy as there was a clear path to follow and the whole length was flat, so there was no need to actually hike.
We arrived at Aguas Calientes around 6PM and found our guide and registered to him. He told us to go purchase the entrance tickets to Machu Picchu in the office next to the Plaza. As a student with an ISIC card, you get a good discount off the ticket price. Make sure you have your entrance ticket before leaving to the sanctuary as it is not possible to buy the ticket from the entrance of the ruins.
Then when the rest of our group had arrived at the plaza we walked to our hotel where we had a dinner and an information session about the following day.
Our tour didn't go as expected as the hotel was overbooked and I and my friend were transferred to another hostel where we didn't have a private room as we had reserved. We had also problems with our reservations as the guides weren't aware we wanted to stay an extra night. There was a lot of hassle but we ended up getting some of our money back in the end. Just make sure to check the TripAdvisor before booking the tour!
The following morning was the time to visit Machu Picchu sanctuary. There are two ways to reach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The first option is to walk around 2 km to the sanctuary. It takes around 1,5 hours as the way is uphill consisting of 1700 stairs to climb.
We decided to save our knees and take a bus which left at 5AM from the bus station of Aguas Calientes. Make sure to either book the bus tickets the day before or arrive at the bus station at least 1 hour (preferably earlier) before the departure as the lines are very long and slow.
People start lining up for waiting the buses early. The lines end up being hundreds of meters long. There are around 40 buses leaving to Machu Picchu between 5AM and 6AM. You can purchase a ticket either for one way or both ways. The cost of the return ticket is 24 dollars and the one-way journey took around 30 minutes.
Machu Picchu opens at 6AM, that was the time we also arrived there. The lines moved quickly so we got to enter the ruins rather quickly. The sun hasn't had risen yet so it was a little bit cold until the sun showed up.
If you take the one night tour, it means that you have time to explore the ruins until 11 AM. The optional guided tour took around 2 hours meaning there was still some free time to see around and snap pictures. Those leaving back to Cusco had to return to Aguas Calientes and take the train or walk back to Hidroelectrica so that they'd arrive before 2PM when the car van left back to Cusco. You will be back in Cusco around 9 PM.
We had another night in Aguas Calientes so that we could spend the whole day exploring the ruins. We left around 2.30 PM back to Aguas Calientes. In the evening we had a nice Peruvian dinner in one of the many restaurants of Aguas Calientes and then had a long good night sleep before walking back to Hidroelectrica the next morning.
The following day we walked back to Hidroelectrica by 2PM and took the car van back to Cusco.
Overall the tour was great. We felt that staying two nights instead of only one was a good choice as we had more time to explore the ruins without having to hurry. Despite the small size of Aguas Calientes, it was charming place to stay. However, the prices there are naturally a lot higher than in Cusco and the town is very touristic.