My visit to Machu Picchu was a real learning experience, in more ways than one. Between booking online, paying online, emailing back and forth, eventually having to go to the tour operator’s office, and then finding out that the trek I booked had been cancelled? The disappointment, confusion, overpayment, rebooking, and asking for a partial refund were just all too much. I learned a lot and know what I would do differently the next time I decide to go trekking in Peru, or anywhere in South America. I decided to write about my experience and what I learned in hopes that my readers won’t make the same mistakes I made.
I’ll explain the different options for booking, paying, planning, and how to finally get to Machu Picchu without getting confused or taken advantage of. Don’t do it the hard way, like I did. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great trek to Machu Picchu and finally seeing this wonder of the world felt a bit surreal. Seeing it from above and getting that iconic photo (sans selfie!) is a moment I will never forget.
There is definitely a tourism infrastructure in Peru and Cusco, specifically. But my experience, and that of several other tourists I spoke to, lead me to believe that some tour operators have difficulty connecting all the dots. Booking an excursion isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
Booking your trek or transport
Trekking isn’t the only way to get to Machu Picchu. The combination of taking a train and a bus can get you all the way to the entrance. But even this can be confusing.
Here’s some information that can help before you even start looking at treks online.
- The Inca Trail is always closed for the entire month of February for maintenance. If you want to do the Inca Trail, you will have to book your trek at least 4 months in advance. The number of people allowed on the trail in any given month is limited, and it books up quickly. Shop around online.
- If you want to trek, but not on the Inca Trail, there’s actually no need to book in advance. I don’t recommend doing so. The Salkantay Trail can be closed on short notice due to bad weather conditions. That’s what happened to me. I was forced to choose between an alternate trek or taking a bus. Except, the Salkantay Trail wasn’t really closed and some tour operators did go ahead with it, but not mine.
- I also learned that people who book online almost always end up paying more than those who just arrive several days early to Cusco and book their trek from a local operator when they arrive. This was definitely the case with me. I paid 400 USD for the Inca Jungle Trek. That’s what I would have paid for Salkantay without a porter. Of the 16 people in my group, no one else paid more than 180 USD.
- Not interested in trekking? No problem! You can be delivered right to the entrance of Machu Picchu on a chartered bus, and if you book it yourself and forgo the tour companies, you’ll save money. Another option is to book a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, and take the train from there to Aguas Calientes. Travelers can book the entire voyage themselves with IncaRail or Perurail. IncaRail has some luxury options. Perurail seems cheaper. Choose your accommodation in Aguas Calientes and enjoy this beautiful town for a night, or even two.
- When you arrive in Aguas Calientes, head to the bus station (first thing!) and book your bus ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu for the next day. First buses leave at 5:30AM and the cost is 12 USD one-way at the time of this posting. Be in line by 4:15AM, even if you have a ticket for 5:30, if you want to be on one of the first buses and at the entrance by 6:00AM to get in first. This is when it is least crowded.
Paying for your trek or transport
- The majority of tour companies don’t have a very user-friendly way to pay online, and if using a credit card, they may only accept Visa and charge additional fees. I managed to pay the deposit online using PayPal, and I had to pay additional fees as well. It took two attempts and I still got an email from the tour operator saying I hadn’t paid. All of this can be avoided by just booking your trip to Machu Picchu after you arrive in Cusco. You will always pay less if you pay in cash in person, and you can haggle with the operators over the price. Almost everyone in my group did, and out of 16 people, I was the only one who booked online, and I paid more than twice as much as anyone else.
- If you’re planning to hike the Inca Trail, I’d suggest calling the tour operators you’re interested in and getting all of your questions answered before booking. Make sure you confirm the price and all of your payment options. I don’t know if you can haggle and try to get the price down, but it’s worth a shot and will only be possible over the phone. You may be able to save money by using a wire transfer.
- If you’re not trekking, I’d suggest buying your train tickets in advance and printing them at home, especially during peak season. It’ll save you time, and you’ll be sure to get on the train you want. Payment for train tickets through IncaRail or Perurail is easy and secure.
- If you’re paying in cash, most tour operators will accept USD, but I think it is always better to use local currency.
Planning for your trek or trip to Machu Picchu
When planning for your trip, keep in mind that Cusco is at 11000 feet (3350 meters) and Machu Picchu is at 8000 feet (2440 meters). People can experience altitude sickness at both of these elevations. This is why most tour operators suggest arriving in Cusco at least five days early so you can adapt to the elevation. If you choose to trek, you will go above 11000 feet, but I’m not sure you will camp at those higher elevations.
Here are some tips to get yourself ready for trekking to and visiting Machu Picchu. I went during the rainy season, and sure enough, it rained the entire morning of my visit. My trek, however, was lovely and dry, but hot and humid.
- Be prepared for rain, no matter what season you travel. A rain jacket, maybe rain pants, and a good poncho are all recommended. You can buy the cheap ponchos everywhere in Cusco, but good ones are hard to find. I recommend the ones that are more like capes, rather than the ones with sleeves. They cover your backpack better and make getting into your pack much easier. Thicker ones are less likely to rip. Also, be sure to bring a pack cover for your daypack as well as your backpack, and a ziploc for your camera and lenses.
- Insect repellant is a must. I wore long pants and long sleeves while trekking so I wouldn’t have to deal with it, even though it was hot. Everyone else in my group was covered in bites even though they used repellent.
- Many tour companies do not supply sleeping bags, so bring your own or plan to rent one for between 25 – 40 USD.
- Think carefully about what to bring in your day pack because you will be the one carrying it (raingear!). Lots of girls in my group brought cute little outfits and makeup (what??) to wear at night because we were in hostels in small towns (Inca Jungle Trek). They looked cute at night, but not while they were hauling those big-ass heavy packs 20km on day two…
- Make sure the tour operator has a place for you to leave anything you don’t want to carry on your trek, such as a laptop. Many hotels and hostels will allow you to leave these things, especially if you are coming back to stay there after your trek.
- You MUST carry your original passport! You will need it to enter Machu Picchu and buy bus tickets if you’re taking the bus up to or down from Machu Picchu. Be sure to carry all relevant documents with you in a ziploc bag.
- Invest in good, comfortable shoes and quality socks. If you’re an experienced hiker, wear your favorite trekking shoes and socks. If you’re not, get fitted for a good pair of hiking shoes or boots and break them in. Starting out in a shiny new pair of boots is not a good idea. NOTE: For the Inca Jungle Trek, which is the one I ended up doing, you don’t need hiking shoes or boots. I wore trainers and was so glad I did! Unless you have knee problems, you won’t need trekking poles for the Inca Jungle Trek either.
- Don’t wear cotton anything. It’ll never dry out.
- I didn’t see a lot of places to buy gear or hiking clothes in Cusco, and the ones I did see were mostly expensive. I recommend bringing everything with you so you don’t have to spend your time and money shopping. You will likely be able to rent a sleeping bag from the tour operator.
How to prevent confusion and chaos before, during, and after your trek/trip to Machu Picchu
First I’m going to tell you my story of confusion and chaos, and then I’ll tell you how I think you can avoid having the same thing happen to you. Originally I booked a 5-day Salkantay Trek online about 3 months in advance. I chose a local tour operator in Cusco, who I am not going to mention, because they had a good website that was very informative and the English was mostly correct, so I felt I understood everything.They answered all my email inquiries promptly, although not on the weekends.
I did good, right? Well, not exactly. I believe they are a good tour operator, even after what happened to me. But my first mistake was booking online. The trek I wanted was described in detail on their website. I confirmed that I would have a porter to carry my big backpack, and that this luxury would cost me 100 USD more than if I carried it myself. This would bring my total cost for the 5 day Salkantay trek to 500 USD. I’ve done a lot of trekking. I’m 47 years old. I have nothing to prove. I wanted a porter, dammit, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. LOL! After all the confusion, I realized there was no porter and that’s why they only charged me 400 USD. They just didn’t want to tell me there was no porter because then I might cancel.
I promptly went online to the tour operator’s payment portal, and after two attempts, I was able to pay the 200 USD deposit via PayPal. So I thought I still owed 300 USD in cash when I arrived in Cusco. I noticed later that my bill showed I only owed 200 USD. But by then, I’d already learned that the Salkantay Trail was closed (it wasn’t) and I had to choose a different trek. Here’s how that went down.
I had also booked a day trek to Rainbow Mountain. You can read about that experience here! But two days before I was supposed to go to Rainbow Mountain, I’d heard nothing from them about pickup time and location, so I went to their office in person in Cusco. First, I spoke with a manager and we quickly sorted out the details of Rainbow Mountain and that trip went off without a problem. After we sorted that out, he broke the news to me that I would not be doing Salkantay. My options were to choose the Inca Jungle Trek or a bus tour that included two places I’d already been. I didn’t come to Peru to ride a bus. I chose the Inca Jungle Trek, for the price of 400 USD. It was 4 days, not five, and that is a very important detail.
Time to get ready for my trek. I still didn’t know what time I would be picked up and if they would pick me up at my Airbnb or not, because it was outside the center. So, via email, I managed to get a straight answer about pickup time and commitment that they would send a driver to my flat. They did, and he was on time. I was dropped in the center at the location where buses pick up tourists for treks and day trips. I expected to be met by Edwin at 7:30AM.
At 9:15AM, I was still standing there. Finally I heard someone call my name. It wasn’t Edwin, but close enough. He had my name on his list. I got on the bus with the rest of the group, and we went to load up the bikes and gear for our two hour bike ride on this day. We started our bike ride two hours later than I was told we would, but it was fun anyway. We drove to the top of a 14000 foot mountain, and headed down the paved road in full body armor, no joke. Two hours later, my sore ass was so happy to see the lead van at our stopping point. It was a blast, though. We drove to the hostel in Santa Maria. We had a late lunch, rest, walk around, dinner and briefing, and off to bed.
The second day we walked 17km, took too many breaks, but it was a beautiful walk, minus the “monkey house” which we all could’ve done without. Very unhappy monkey on a short rope used as a money-making scheme to sucker tourists into buying candy bars, etc. That’s all I’ll say about that. At 6PM we arrived at the hot springs, which cost an additional 10 soles to enter. Totally worth it. Beautiful place, but it was dark already. Took a bus the last 5km to Santa Teresa, had a late dinner and tequila shots, and I went to bed while some of the others danced till midnight.
Day 3 began with one group going off to zipline, and the rest of us taking a collectivo for 5 soles each to the “town” of Hydroelectra where we relaxed until lunchtime. We had lunch when everyone arrived. Then walked an easy and flat 11km along the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes. Loved this town! Took some pictures and two hours later we all went to dinner. That’s where I saw the real flaw in communication between the tour operators, guides, and numerous other middle men.
The guides came to me during dinner, and I had to leave with them to go back to the hotel to get my passport. No one had changed my bus ticket, entrance ticket, and return train ticket to move everything up one day. Not a huge deal, but it could have been. The guide changed my entrance and bus ticket. I didn’t even know this was included, but I took it because it meant I didn’t have to climb the 1750(?) steps up to Machu Picchu. He handed them to me later after I had returned to the restaurant.
Spent day four at Machu Picchu, starting with a guided tour in the rain. The guide is included in the price of everyone’s ticket if you book through a tour operator. And I learned the hard way that there was no need to tip the guide. I did, and she looked at my like I was trying to sell her heroin. But she took it. After the guided tour, we exited and could then enter one more time on our own. It had stopped raining, so this was my chance to take pictures. I left around noon to head down the 1750(?) steps, and go to the train station to sort out my train ticket. The guide was able to change it, but he wasn’t able to give it to me.
I ended up changing it to a better time, got it printed, and was back in Cusco by 8PM.
The bottom line is there was a lack of communication among all the parties involved in organizing this change in my trek. Because of this, I ended up being confused about a lot of details. Since I was a last minute add on, the guides were constantly having to explain things to me and ask me questions about my arrangements.
So, how can I avoid all of this confusion, you’re wondering? It’s easy. Unless you’re doing the Inca Trail, DON’T BOOK ONLINE! Book directly from a good tour operator as soon as you arrive in Cusco. Try to arrive at least 5 days before your desired trekking date to acclimatize, book your trek, and get prepared.
- Shop around when you arrive in Cusco. Don’t book with the first tour company you find. Go to three or four and see who gives you the best rate and seems the most organized. Tell them you’re shopping around. Remember, I paid more than twice as much as the other people in my group.
- Ask questions. Here are some questions I’d suggest asking, based on my experience.
- Will I be picked up at my hotel? What time?
- What do I need to take with me? Do you provide a packing list?
- Who is the guide(s)? Does he work for your company or multiple tour operators?
- Where can I leave my belongings in Cusco while I’m trekking?
- Decide if you want to take the steps up to Machu Picchu or the bus. If you want to take the bus, ask if the tour operator will buy the ticket for you. It’s 12 USD one way.
- Decide if you want to take the bus from Hydroelectra back to Cusco, or the train from Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo, then get a mini bus to Cusco. The train means a much shorter walk. But, the bus from Hydroelectra is much cheaper. You would also have to leave Machu Picchu by 10:45 and walk to Hydroelectra to get the 2:30 bus.
- When will I receive my bus, train, and entrance tickets?
I hope this helps you to plan your trip and avoid the pitfalls I experienced. In the end, a visit to Machu Picchu will be worth all the planning. I was amazed by this wonder of the world.