Experience Machu Picchu from Cusco in three amazing days

Not everyone has the time or the inclination to hike the Inca Trail. But there are ways to make the most of Machu Picchu in just 24 hours and not feel like you are missing out. Let us show you.

We visited Machu Picchu as part of the incredible Amazon and Inca Adventure with Peregrine even though we never believed we would really enjoy the constraints of an organised group tour.

Read the in-depth trip report and see if we changed our minds.

Not everyone wants to rough it in the wilderness.

Most of the stories you find on Machu Picchu written by travellers, start with them toiling away for days while hiking one of the famous trails. Some will even try to say you are not even worthy of seeing it unless you have suffered through days of tough and uncomfortable trekking.

Well I’m here to tell you these travel snobs are talking crap! And while it is one of the most amazing places in the world just to see, there is so much more that you can experience with a little bit of extra effort.

machu picchu a little extra effort

So, how should I get here?

If you decided against hiking for four or eight days then you have a chance to experience some amazing places on the way to the final destination. Cute towns, amazing ruins, unique transport, and great scenery.

We have always been independent travellers and never thought a guided tour would be for us, but it just happened that a Peregrine Adventures tour went exactly where and when we wanted to go. So we thought we’d give it a shot.

If you are time-poor then you could fly into Cusco and get the train to Aguas Calientes. Then it is just a short bus ride to the site. You’ll see some nice scenery and it can all be done with a single overnight stay.

machu picchu ollantaytambo ruins

However, on this incredible trip, we left Cusco by private minibus, explored the Sacsayhuaman (pronounced Sexy Woman, almost) Incan ruins above the city, and made our way through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo for the night.

Now this place has some ruins that are almost at Machu Picchu standard and makes the perfect lead-up to what is coming. The town is also quiet and beautiful, and it would be a shame to have travelled straight through on the train without looking around.

machu picchu moto taxis

The next day had the morning to explore the remains of the Fortress of the Inca before we took crazy little moto-taxis to the train station for our Inca-Rail trip to Aguas Calientes. After arriving mid-afternoon we had time to check the huge tourist market before dinner and an early night.

machu picchu aguas calientes

How to start the big day

Be prepared for a very early start to beat most of the tourists, avoiding the crowds and beating the hottest part of the day (depending on the time of year).

There is only one company with buses to take you to the entry gates of the site. The lines get quite long very early but don’t panic, there is a constant stream of buses and it won’t take too long to work your way to the front.

An alternative for those who want a bit more adventure is to hike from Aguas Calientes. A couple of hours each way but the general consensus seems to be your energy is better spent inside the site.

The bus ride offers some awesome views but also some nervy moments for those of us with any fear of heights. After about 20 minutes you will have reached the main gates.

machu picchu bus stop

What to do when you arrive

Obviously, lots of people waiting for the bus means lots of people at the other end waiting for the gates to open. I highly recommend a guide to show you through the city, without our guide we would have photos but no insights, and learning about the history is a large part of coming to a place like this.

The gates open at six in the morning, you file in and then you climb quite a few steps and a reasonably steep path to get to the area where everyone tries to take that iconic shot. And you try to take it without featuring the dozens of selfie-takers.

machu picchu selfie takers

We had arranged to meet a guide in a few hours so before then we had the chance to hike to the Sun Gate. This is a pretty tough slog, uphill on a roughly paved path for about 90 minutes. The altitude makes it slow and hard work.

The view is amazing and it is quite a personal achievement to get there but be prepared for no view at all as the clouds can engulf you.

In hindsight, I probably would have stopped at the first monument halfway up the path and had more time to just sit and take in the whole experience. But I am a big fan of regretting doing something rather than regretting not having done it, and I have no regrets about getting to the top.

machu picchu sun gate hike

The Guide and the City

Arriving back at the initial viewing area we met our guide and headed into the city itself. To hear the stories of the construction of the city and the daily life of these amazing people helped bring history to life.

machu picchu houses

A half-square, half-round building was spectacular but so much better hearing it was a temple to the Sun god, Inti and the reason for the curved wall was to symbolise the feminine side, his mother Pachamama. And the square walls for his masculine side create a perfect union.

machu picchu sun temple

One of the most famous areas of Machu Picchu is the sundial. More stairs lead to the top of a tower with this impressive lump of stone. It is roped off to prevent damage although that ship has sailed!

In 2000 a film crew was shooting a commercial for the local Cusquena Beer when a lighting crane fell and chipped one of the corners of this famous stone. Locals and archaeologists were outraged, and rightly so.

Needless to say, they haven’t filmed any more commercials since but it also means you can get close, but not too close.

machu picchu sundial

Be amazed at what they achieved

The masonry on display throughout the city is arguably better in many places than is achieved today, even with the use of modern tools. With stones joined so tightly that you can not even push a knife blade between them.

To hear about how and why they built the tiered foundation walls down the mountain and to see them at the highest points on some of the surrounding mountains bears witness to the skill, courage, determination, and ingenuity of these people.

Most amazing to me was the Sacred Rock. A massive 8-metre monolith in the shape of the distant Yamantin Mountain. Some say it was completely covered in gold in its day but even today is impressive.

machu picchu yamantin stone

The city is not the only thing to see

There is no view from any point on the mountain that would leave you disappointed. Whether bathed in bright sunshine or with a heavy cloud cover you can’t help but be left breathless. And not just because of the altitude.

From monuments to houses, temples to mountains, and llamas to rivers, the only problem may be running out of space on your camera’s memory card.

But when all is said and done the main reason you are here is to witness the view across the city with the rugged mountain backdrop.

machu picchu cloudy

So take a moment, hey why not take a lot of moments, and just find somewhere to sit to just take it all in? Forget about the people, forget about your camera or phone, just look at it and think about where you are and what this place actually is.

It was number one on my bucket list and, as has happened before, there is a chance the massive hype surrounding some places results in an anti-climax.

This is definitely not one of those places.

machu picchu bucket list

Time to head back

At some stage in the afternoon you will want to head back to town. Remember the day started here at 6am so it’s already been a fairly long day. Maybe you have a train to catch or maybe you need a break from the sun.

Aguas Calientes, roughly translated to hot waters, has hot springs. Perfect for relieving those tired muscles? Well yes and no.

It would be perfect but remember all the sweaty hikers that have spent days trekking through the jungle? They also think this would be a perfect remedy for the pain but it also doubles as a bath for many of them.

machu picchu markets

We decided to skip the thermal pools and opted for a meal instead, and to spend some time looking through the large and colourful Incan markets before catching a train back to Ollantaytambo.

These are arguably the best markets we visited in Peru. Some of the stuff is slightly more expensive than elsewhere due to the high tourist numbers, but the range was exceptional, and for visitors from Australia, Europe, or USA, still really cheap.

machu picchu photo op

So how long do you really need?

I recommend taking the morning train from Ollantaytambo which will arrive mid-afternoon in Aguas Calientes. Check in to a hotel and do a bit of local exploring before dinner and an early night.

The next morning will be early as I said before and you will comfortably see all you want and more over the next six to eight hours around Machu Picchu. This means you can comfortably leave on the afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo or Cusco.

machu picchu iconic photo

You could stay longer but there is so much to do throughout the rest of Peru that it would mean missing out on something else.

Our Peregrine trip had this stage perfectly planned and timed. Giving us support when we needed it and enough free time to explore everything the others may not have wanted to see or do.

So what’s the verdict?

As I said, Machu Picchu was top of my bucket list and pretty high on Pauline’s as well. The following day was our 25th anniversary and so this was even more special for us.

Not only did it exceed our expectations as a destination but will hold a special place in our hearts because of the time we went there and also because of the thoughtfulness of our Peregrine Guide Vanessa.

machu picchu anniversary

She had the group pose with us in the ruins with a Happy Anniversary sign. Just one more reason why we can’t speak more highly of this company and are happy to promote them to all over 40’s who want more activity and not just see the world through a luxury coach window.

Have you travelled with Peregrine or visited Machu Picchu? We would love to hear what you thought or if it’s on your bucket list.

Dean Williamson
Dean Williamson
Dean is the main creative force behind Reasons to Visit. A road trip veteran with over 35,000 miles of driving in more than a dozen countries. He has also worked in the Australian travel and tourism industry for the past 10 years.

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  1. Excellent article and pics Dean!
    The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the most famous treks in Peru. There are several tours from 1 to 5 days, however the most requested trek is the traditional 4-day trek. Each year the government of Peru has 500 spaces that normally run out for May, June and July. If you want to do the Inca Trail for those dates you must anticipate the reservation with at least 6 months.

  2. I went hiking solo to Machu Picchu and loved it! One day is basically okay to go around and appreciate the place. It rained intermittently so I was in this guardhouse up the hill with other tourists. I talked to a Peruvian family for a while, they didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Spanish but we understood each other a bit LOL I miss Peru, especially Cusco!

    • If I had another day I would have done the walk from Aguas Callientes but the walk up to the Sun Gate was tough enough. Did you feel too tired to really appreciate Machu Picchu at the end of your hike or do you think you appreciated it more because you worked harder to get there?
      I miss Cusco too. My favourite city in South America.

  3. Hi, Dean!

    It seems like you and Pauline had an excellent time at Machu Picchu. Visiting the ruins are definitely on my bucket list – my friend just visited a few months ago and he mentioned they’re going to be closing it down to the public within the next few years as well. Bummer! I guess that means I’ll have to visit sooner rather than later.

    I enjoyed reading your article – it was both informative and personal.

    Funny thing about the hot springs – I’ve been to three places with hot springs recently and for one reason or another have been unable to go to them – but hot springs are DEFINITELY on my to-do list (never have before). Maybe Machu Picchu will be the place for me haha!

    Thanks for posting 🙂

    • Great to hear from you Steven. I hope you do get to visit Machu Picchu, i’m sure it would rank as one of your greatest travel memories as it has for me. We have done hot springs in New Zealand when it was freezing cold outside. Maybe find somewhere with a bit of snow and some outdoor hot springs for the best experience.

  4. Hello! I saw your tag line, active travel for the over 40s, so I thought I’d better follow you and say hi! I’m 50, that birthday was 4 weeks ago in Bangkok. I’ve been doing this active travel thing a long time. Your beautiful images above took me back almost 20 years. My husband proposed to me at Macchu Puchu at the end of the trek. We haven’t returned yet with he kids, but it’s on the cards. We like climning hills, it was Everest in February. Anyway, I’m hee now and following. Cheers! Alyson x

    • Thank you for your story Alyson. You sound like you have a very similar philosophy to us, except your hills are bigger than ours! We still travel with our 18 year old daughter sometimes but she also has her own travel thing going on.
      I am heading over to check out your blog now but thanks again.

  5. Let me begin with this: 25th anniversary! So cool :). Perhaps, way belated but – heartfelt congratulations. As for the rest, I love the narrative and insights. We will be back to South America in about two years. That’s when this guide might become handy. Happy travels!

    • Thanks Elena. We did so many incredible things in South America but didn’t even scratch the surface. Looks like many more trips will have to be had!

  6. Thank you for the blog and I enjoyed it very much. Useful information too because I am visiting Macchu Picchu in 2 weeks!
    I guess there’s nothing wrong to join a tour while it gives you a peace of mind to truly enjoy the amazing site! @ knycx.journeying

  7. I’m definitely saving this. Machu Picchu is on my list for 2017. I’ve heard a few rumors that it won’t be open to tourist for much longer (not sure how true that is) so I want to get in while I can.

    • I didn’t hear any news while we were there about closing down but wouldn’t be surprised if they close sections off to the public Mags.
      Don’t miss out on seeing it. I know you’ve been a lot of places but I’m sure this will rate very high on your list.

  8. Never been to Macchu Picchu, sadly because other things keep getting on the way. And true all he of other post I’ve come across about Macchu Picchu starts with hiking. It’s great to read from another perspective. And Happy Anniversary to both of you!

    • Thanks Mark and Kate. As we were making our way to the Sun Gate early in the morning dozens of hikers were heading down after days on the Trail. Most of them seemed so exhausted they wouldn’t really enjoy the destination anyway. Makes much more sense to spend your energy there rather than getting there.
      And thanks for the anniversary wishes.

  9. Never been to machu picchu sadly but it IS on my list. I have been hearing a lot about how commercial it has become – is that true? Did you ever feel it was one of those places that disappoint coz of the crowds or you found your own spot/ place to avoid the rush? Would love to hear more about that and thanks for sharing that it can be done in a day – def do-able for me then as I often spent few weeks in a country and love to maximize my stay by exploring more.

    • I didn’t find it too commercial. There weren’t hawkers trying to get you to buy trinkets like at many other sites. Yes there was a lot of people but it’s a big place and you can easily find somewhere to take it in peacefully.
      We had a little over 2 weeks in Peru on the tour. So many amazing places and we will be going back in 2021 for their bicentenary of Independence.


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