Even 100 years after its “official discovery” Machu Picchu is still not easy place to get to. It is more than 1,200 kilometers from Lima; it is set on top of a steep mountain, and it is 1,000 meters above the valley floor.
Many travelers visit the archeological site with the help of a tour guide. Cruise ship passengers can disembark at Lima and catch a flight to Cusco. From the airport at Cusco they are conducted directly to South America’s number one tourist attraction. They usually are back aboard the next day having spent a single night in the Sacred Valley.
Flying into Cusco is a remarkable experience. The airport’s high altitude (3,400 meters or 11,200 feet) makes it seem as though your plane ascends for the landing. Add the tight confines of the valley and you have a flight that is impossible to forget.
The cost of a plane ticket ranges from $70 U.S. to $200 depending on the airline and schedule. LAN Peru and Aero Condor offer daily flights. The trip lasts a couple of hours, and comes with the potential disadvantage of taking you from sea level in Lima to about 12,000 feet above sea level in Cusco; so the risk of experiencing altitude sickness is greater than if you arrived the slow way.
Another option is taking the bus from Lima to Cusco. This takes up to 24 hours. The quickest bus will reach Cusco in 18 hours, provided the road is clear and no traffic or mechanical problems occur. Cruz de Sur and Ormeno bus companies have direct, fast and regular service.
Some travelers feel confident enough to drive a rental car around Peru. I am not one of them. The traffic in cities strikes me as chaotic. Four way stops are approached with horns blaring and engine revved to intimidate oncoming drivers. But for adventurous drivers it is an option. The drive through the Andes is complete with hair bends, cliff hanging drops and switchback climbs, potential landslides, and other hazards. You can also expect goat herds, chickens and lamas to obstruct your progress near mountain settlements.
Once in Cusco it is another 112 kilometers to Machu Picchu. The most popular way to arrive is by train. The journey from Cusco is three-and-a-half hours through some rugged scenery. I arrived by rail on one occasion and the train attendants also acted as entertainers, fashion models and tour directors. They performed Native dances and music, modeled Alpaca sweaters and gowns, as well as served food and drink.
Another time I reached Ollantaytanbo by private car with a tour guide. This was a great way to go since the driver provided a running commentary on the sights and scenes and was willing to stop at any point for photos and exploration. From Ollantaytambo I took the train the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes, then ascended the mountain to Machu Picchu by mini-bus.
The most idealized way to arrive at Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca trail. Time constraints, and an aversion to discomfort, kept me from doing this. For those ready, willing and able, it is an 80 kilometer hike. Your guides will carry most of the gear, but you will still have to carry your sleeping bag, mountain-proof clothes and personal pack for four days. At high altitudes it is not an easy walk in the park, and can defeat the physiologies of even young healthy people – altitude sickness can strike anyone without warning or apparent cause.