Getting to Machu Picchu is a tough nut to crack. The online information is confusing, at times misleading, and generally stresses you out. When you research it from the States, information is one-directional or inconclusive.
Do you need a tour? Is booking ahead of time the only way? Did I just buy a ticket to the ruins, the mountain hike, or the Inca trail?
We were thankful to be traveling during the off season because a lot fewer people means a lot more flexibility.
Upon arriving in Cusco, we immediately started piecing together the puzzle to get to Machu Picchu. As we've learned and crafted our travel style, it is much cheaper to do-it-yourself than take a professional tour. With a few starter questions at our hostel, we got it figured out in an afternoon.
We started at the ticket office just off of Plaza Regocijo and bought ruin access tickets for 3 days in advance. Then the attendant pointed us to the PeruRail office, just around the corner, for our train tickets from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, now known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. (The train used to run much closer to Cusco, but for some reason it only currently goes to Ollantaytambo, 1.5 hours away.) $160 USD per person later, we had one leg of the trip booked.
We were told we could catch a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo at the "collectivo" (private group bus) station located on Calle Pavitos. We stopped by and learned we could just show up the morning-of because the collectivos leave every 30 minutes or so (funneling tourists like pro's). We also were told that you can't book a bus up to MP until you're in Aguas Calientes.
Umm...the planner in Lindsay went crazy. Don't 2000-3000 people go up to this site every day?! You can't book in advance?! (This cloudiness of certainty is why people usually book organized tours.)
We ended up saving only about $100 by booking ourselves, but the experience was unique and certainly not touristy.
Here are the options for booking and getting to Machu Picchu:
1. Book a tour. Find it online, book it, and they handle the rest. This is truly a great option during the high season when nearly 3000 people slam Aguas Calientes every day. It saves you the small headache of planning it yourself.
2. Piece it all together:
Step 1: Arrive in Cusco a few days in advance to give yourself a few days of flexibility.
Step 2: Go to the tourist office on the corner of Garciloso & Heladeros to purchase your tickets for MP ruins ($85 USD/person and your Wanya Picchu mountain hike if you like.)
Step 3: Stop by PeruRail to purchase your round trip train from Ollantaytambo to A.G. and back. The office is located just around the corner from the ticket office on Heladeros and San Juan de Dios.
Step 4: Show up at the collectivo station the day of your departure to A.G. on the corner of Pavitos and Lechugal. You can't miss it as they will be yelling for anyone to board to OLLANTAYTAMBO!!!
Pay your S/.10 per person upon arrival at the rail station in Ollantaytambo.
The bus ride is 2 hours, so plan accordingly to ensure you arrive with plenty of time before your train departure time.
Step 5: Once you've arrived and made the train in Ollantaytambo, you will arrive in A.G. about 1.5 hours later.
Step 6: Get off the train and walk North along the tracks - do not go up the stairs into the market - and cross the river. On your right you will see buses lined up. Find a window to purchase your ticket up the mountain. Cost is $24 USD/person for a round trip. You can leave any time the next day every 15 minutes.
To save money, you can also make the 1.5 hour hike up to the ruins. (Not a glorious hike. You mainly follow the same switchback road as the buses and have to dodge them along the way. Only do the hike up if you are super serious about saving money.)
Simply show up in the morning at the bus station and they will herd you onto a bus for the 25 minute ride to the ruins.
Plan to spen 3-6 hours at the ruins, depending on how much you want to see and if you want to hike up Wayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountains.
Step 7: Grab a bus or walk back down after your M.P. experience and head back to the train station. You simply get off the bus and walk up the stairs to head straight through the market to the train terminal.
Step 8: Once you arrive back in Ollantaytambo after your MP experience, there are plenty of people yelling for you to jump on their collectivo back to Cusco (10 soles per person), where you will be dropped off at San Francisco Square in the heart of the historic district.