A stress-free guide on how to travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is Peru’s top tourist destination, so you’re in good company with wanting to visit this famous Inca citadel. Although the route to Machu Picchu is the same for anyone who isn’t hiking the Inca Trail, you’ll be faced with several choices for how to arrange your journey. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Machu Picchu three times. So, I’ll share tips that I’ve learned along the way on how to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

Understanding the basics of Machu Picchu travel

If you’ve taken an Oltursa Cusco bus from Lima, you’re no stranger to a long travel time. But regardless, you’re likely trying to plan your itinerary and wondering, how far is Cusco to Machu Picchu?

The distance from Cusco to Machu Picchu is about 72 kilometers. However, this distance is a poor reflection of the actual travel time it takes to get there; you can expect to spend around seven hours on a train if you travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu round trip in a day. 

©Dennis Binzen/Flickr

Yes, it’s a really slow-moving train. But trust me—you’ll be grateful for it so you can soak in the mountain and river views along the way.

Another important item to consider when planning your trip to Machu Picchu is booking your train tickets in advance. That’s especially the case if you’ll be traveling during the high season of May – September. You’ll likely be able to get on some kind of train if you book your ticket at the last minute, but it might not be for an ideal time, and you might have to travel by car to get to a train station in the Sacred Valley instead of traveling directly from Cusco.

Selecting the best train

The best way to travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu is by train. Tourist trains run daily, operated by the following two companies: 

  • Peru Rail
  • Inca Rail

In both cases, you’ll have several train classes to choose from. The Peru Rail service from Cusco offers the luxury Hiram Bingham train, the mid-range Vistadome train, and the economical Expedition train. The Inca Rail service to Machu Picchu offers everything from the economical Panoramic train to the luxury First Class train.

©Kipperspics/Flickr

In all cases, you can expect your train to have large windows for excellent viewing as you wind through the Andes Mountains and travel beside the beautiful Urubamba River. The ride takes about 3.5 hours each way, and you should arrive at the train station 30 minutes before your train departs.

Since both trains offer luxury and economical classes, Peru Rail and Inca Rail’s schedules often help people determine which train they should take. I recommend booking one of the earliest options since there’s a lot of travel time involved with going from Cusco to Machu Picchu on the same day. 

But before confirming your ticket, consider checking the sunrise time for your travel dates—it would be a shame to miss out on the beautiful views for the first portion of your journey! 

Understanding bimodal season

Regardless of the train company you travel with, the time of year you travel impacts the kind of experience you’ll have. If you travel from May 1st – December 31st, you can expect your train to run directly from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the town below the mountain where Machu Picchu sits. 

©arcibald/Flickr

In contrast, January 1st – April 31st is bimodal season. In this case, your train company will arrange a group bus transfer to drive you from Cusco to the Ollantaytambo train station in the Sacred Valley. Upon your arrival in Ollantaytambo, you’ll board your train and finish the approximately 1.5-hour ride to Aguas Calientes.

©David Stanley/Flickr

What’s the reason for bimodal season, you ask? 

Mudslides. 

The months of January – April receive the heaviest rains in the Andes Mountains, so it’s common for mud to cover the train tracks between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The rain could literally “derail” your trip if it weren’t for bimodal transportation!

Is it worth it to visit Machu Picchu in a day from Cusco?

Taking a day trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu is entirely possible, but it involves a long day. So, if spending around seven hours on a train the same day you criss-cross the Inca citadel sounds daunting, you have two alternative options.

The first is to spend the night in Aguas Calientes. This is a great choice if you’d like to visit Machu Picchu over two days, especially if you’ll be hiking Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. Aguas Calientes is a small town built as a means for people to get to Machu Picchu. So, it’s a good place to get some rest, unless you’d like to venture to the town’s (questionably clean) hot springs.

©Steven dosRemedios/Flickr

Your other option is to spend the night in the Sacred Valley either before or after your Machu Picchu visit. The Sacred Valley sits between Cusco and Machu Picchu, so it’s only about 1.5 hours by train from Machu Picchu. One of the most popular ways to do so is by taking a full-day tour of the Sacred Valley from Cusco, which will drop you off at your hotel in the Sacred Valley. 

Here’s an insider tip: If you want to avoid an extra early wakeup call the following morning when you travel to Machu Picchu, consider staying at the 3-star El Albergue hotel, located beside Ollantaytambo train station. 

Are you ready to see the land of the Incas?

Many travelers think of Machu Picchu as the place to sightsee. But the train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu makes both the journey and the destination a sightseer’s dream. So, have your camera ready to snap what will perhaps become some of your favorite photos of your Peru trip.

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