Aguas Calientes is a small town that’s a staging area for trips to Machu Picchu. Officially named Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town is referred to as Aguas Calientes to avoid confusion with the archaeological site.
Train to Aguas Calientes:
We took Peru Rail from Cusco to this town for $70 per person. Note that for the lower end fares you are limited to one bag that weighs less than 11 pounds. We left our bigger bags with our hotel in Cusco and took school-sized backpacks with what we needed for two days.
We had a good experience with Peru Rail. They offer a free beverage and cookie during the trip. The views of the tiny villages and mountains are amazing. Plus they have pre-recorded messages that will explain some about the villages you pass through. Full disclosure, there was a train crash that injured passengers a couple of weeks after our visit.
Note that Peru Rail tickets will have their destination as “Machu Picchu”. Unless you’re backpacking, the only route is train. Once you arrive, there are no taxis. If you’re part of a travel group, someone will likely meet you at the train station exit to lead you to your lodgings. Otherwise, you’ll walk on your own, but it likely won’t be more than a 15 minute walk.
Since this is a tourist destination and supplies have a long journey to get there, expect prices to be higher than Cusco.
We prefer touring places that don’t solely revolve around tourism. Because of that, this town wasn’t particularly intriguing to us, but it’s a great place to rest before and after your visit to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu Museum
If you walk down the long dirt road towards the Machu Picchu trailhead, you’ll come to a three-way fork in the road. To the left is the road that buses go to take people up to Machu Picchu. The middle is the hiking trail up to Machu Picchu, and the right one leads you a little farther to the Machu Picchu museum. Online resources said it would cost 20 S/ per person ($6.15); however, it ended up being free. You’ll just need to put down your passport number. The museum can be toured in under an hour. Most of the text on the information plaques is translated to English. This museum explains a lot about Inca architectural design, which makes this a nice stop before you visit the ruins.
Additionally, the museum has artifacts from the site. The ruins themselves only contain what is attached to the ground. Over 40,000 artifacts have been excavated and removed from the site. So to see pottery, tools, etc. that the Inca used, you need to visit the museum. While I recommend the museum if you have the chance, your trip will still be complete without it.
We didn’t seen any well-known hotel chains here, but there are a lot of options. We stayed at the Supertramp Hostel in a private room which was 100 S/ ($30.77) for both of us. The staff was helpful and allowed us to leave a backpack with them before we had checked in and after we had checked out.
The social environment is both an upside and a downside to hostels. The downside is that it might be noisy when you’re trying to rest.
Extra Notes to Consider...
Some people never spend the night in Aguas Calientes. They take an early train to Aguas Calientes from Cusco, go to Machu Picchu that afternoon, and take the train back to Cusco that evening. That’s a lot for one day and would likely prevent you from hiking to the top (the bus would be needed instead) and visiting the museum. I recommend traveling to Aguas Calientes the day before visiting Machu Picchu. You can tour the museum which also gives you a chance to find the trailhead. After going to sleep early, you’ll be set to wake up early for your trek to the ruins.
Peru Rail only does these routes in to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes):
Cusco to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes)
Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes)
The only trip back to Cusco is from Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes). There is not an option to go from Ollantaytambo.
Trains out of Cusco are actually out of Poroy which is about 30-40 minutes from the Cusco city center. It cost us 40 S/ ($12.31) to get there.
So here are a few options:
Early train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (One day). Visit Machu Picchu in the afternoon. Take the train back to Cusco in the evening. That’s a lot for one day and may prevent you from hiking up and back down (the bus would be needed instead). It may also prevent you from visiting the museum.
Train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (Two days). After arriving and checking into your accommodations, tour the museum, which will also give you a chance to find the trailhead. Go to sleep early and head up to Machu Picchu early the next day. This is what we did. You can then either head to Cusco or Ollantaytambo that afternoon/evening. If the latter, note that you will need a taxi to get back to Cusco, as Peru Rail doesn’t run that way.
Take a taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo one morning. It will be about an hour and 45 minutes and cost 120-140 S/ ($38-$43). Tour Ollantaytambo and then take an afternoon or evening train to Machu Picchu. Go to Machu Picchu in the morning. Then tour the museum in the afternoon and take a train to Cusco that evening or take an afternoon train out and skip the museum. If I had to do it again, I think I would go with this option.
There is also Inca Rail which has some similar options.