The start of our 2 Day 1 Night Machu Picchu Tour began in the little Inca town of Ollantaytambo, a basecamp for travellers heading onwards to Machu Picchu or any of the numerous hikes surrounding this mountainous area.
The legendary hike — the one everyone talks about — is the intense 4-day Inca trail, which needs to be booked nearly a year in advance because of permit limits set out by the Peruvian government. But in our case, we signed up for a shorter version, the 2 Day 1 Night Inca Trail “Express”.
Beginning in Ollyatatambo, we would take an early morning Peru Rail train to KM 104 and hike until we joined the 4-day Inca trail hikers on the last day of their journey. We would then hike the entire day until we arrived to Sun Gate (the high point of our hike) for our first view of Machu Picchu. We would then hike downhill and explore Machu Picchu, then head further downhill and spend the night in Aguas Caliente (AKA Machu Picchu Town). The second day of our tour, we would thoroughly explore Machu Picchu before taking the train all the way back to Ollyatatambo and a car ride to Cusco.
Read on for our Machu Picchu experience and 2 Day Inca Trail review.
The Peru Rail Train to KM 104
At the Ollyatatambo train station by 6am, we boarded the comfortable Peru Rail train headed towards Aguas Calientes. There was no need for us to buy tickets — our Peruvian tour operator Hector with Head Expeditions has already taken care of that so there was no need for us to worry about the logistical details of tickets, permits, passes, transportation, and accommodations. In fact, the day previous, he had already driven us to Ollyatatambo so that we could rest comfortably the night before and wake up at 5am to go straight to the train station, rather than waking up at the ridiculously early time of 3am and driving all the way from Cusco.
The Peru Rail train goes all the way from Ollantaytambo to Macchu Pichu town, following the Urubamba River. A free drink (water, tea, coffee, juice) and snack was included on our ride.
For handful of us doing the 1 Day Hike to Machu Pichu, we got off at Chachabamba, also known as KM 104, the starting point of our “Inca Express” hike. We were left on the side of the railway tracks — there’s no platform or station where we got off. We watched the train depart from the side of the tracks while waving goodbye to the “lazy people” continuing comfortably onwards to Machu Picchu town.
Our round trip train ride was included in our tour price.
Our Inca Trail Hike Begins with Switchbacks
The hike began at 2000m in elevation. We crossed a bridge then passed a checkpoint where the park rangers checked our passports and stamped our tickets (our guide kept ours for safekeeping) and then our hike officially began!
The most intense part of our hike was at the beginning where we climbed uphill on stairs and switchbacks. There were so many beautiful viewpoints and as we ascended the mountain, the view of the river we crossed at the beginning of our hike got further and further away.
We went slowly, taking stops whenever necessary to catch our breath, being reminded that “Machu Pichu is not going anywhere, take your time”.
- Modern Mix Travel Tip: Bring lots of water — we each consumed about 2L of liquids (water, Gatorade, juice, tea on the train) that day.
Winaywayna Inca Site
After nearly two hours of switchbacks, ascending over 600m in elevation, we arrived at the Inca site Winaywayna and were rewarded with a stunning view of the Inca Valley before us. We were told a bit of Inca history about the site, about how the area was divided into three sections: farming, residential and religious. We had some time to explore on our own before eating our packed lunch.
Lunch on the Inca Trail
Our lunch was fresh, healthy and simple: a few fruits including bananas, passionfruit, mandarin orange, and an apple, and nutritious quinoa cooked and packed by none other than our tour guide’s mom!
Our packed lunch was included in our tour price.
- Modern Mix Travel Tip: Bring an extra bag for garbage, there are no trash cans along the hike.
Winaywayna to Sun Gate (Intiptunku)
At this point, our path intersected with the 4-day Inca trail hikers. We were essentially joining up on the trail with the last day of the 4-day hike. We saw some porters setting up tents for hikers who would be arriving later that afternoon.
The next part of the hike was long but not as intense. We hiked on a stone path, original rocks from the Inca trail, carved on the side of the mountain.
After about two hours, we ended up at the “gringo killer” steps, a series of high stone steps…which finally led up to Sun Gate!
Arriving at Sun Gate (Intiptunku)
Sun Gate was where we had our first view of Machupicchu. It was from a distance, from afar, but its castle-like stone formation and grass terraces were distinctly recognizable and familiar from all the photos I have ever seen of Machu Picchu.
Our guide told us on the 4-day trek, he has seen people cry upon reaching Sun Gate because it was such an emotional experience to finally see Machu Picchu. There have been many marriage proposals and #shesaidyes moments here too! We took a 20 minute break here before continuing onwards to Machu Picchu.
Exploring the Upper Terraces of Machu Picchu
Although we’ve reached the high point of our hike, our journey was far from over. The path from Sun Gate to Machu Picchu was all downhill and took about 45 minutes.
We arrived at Machu Picchu around 2pm, and entered the grounds of Machu Picchu from the upper entrance.
Although we were totally tired from 5 to 6 hours of hiking, our arrival at Machu Pichu reenergized us. Our guide looked after our daypacks (good thinking, Hector!) while we explored the upper terraces for about 45 minutes and took photos of the adorable llamas grazing on the fields.
- Modern Mix Travel Tip: Note that the late afternoon at Machu Picchu is way less touristy than in the mornings. If the weather is good, take your photos here — the next day we didn’t have energy to climb back up!
We could have explored the entire site at this time too. However, we had all of next morning to visit so wanted to conserve our energy. We didn’t want to spend ALL our energy here as we knew we still had a two hour hike ahead of us to get to Machu Pichu Town (Aguas Calientes).
The Walk to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town)
To get to Aguas Caliente (Machu Picchu Town) from Machu Pichu, we could either walk or take the bus for $12USD (not included in our tour price). One look at the curvy road and the lineup of tourists, and we decided to walk.
We walked downhill on stairs for about an hour. On occasion our path intersected with the road and we waved at the bus passengers taking the easy way down.
- Modern Mix Travel Tip: You will come a small store after completing the stairs downhill. This is a good place to buy water for the rest of your walk into Aguas Calientes.
Then we took a half-hour walk into Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town) and finally made it to our hotel and settled into our room at 5pm.
Our hotel stay at Aguas Calientes was included in our tour price.
One Night in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town)
The 3-star accommodations at Hotel La Cabaña were nicer than any other place we‘ve stayed at for the past two months of our round the world travels. I’m pretty sure we were booked the honeymoon suite as we were on the top floor and there were rose petals everywhere.
There were also fresh flowers, free bottled water, fruits, and chocolates, which we hungrily scarfed down right away.
- Modern Mix Travel Tip: Pack your leftover fruit — they make a good snack for exploring Machu Picchu the next day!
With our two hours of free time before dinner, we had the option of visiting the hot springs in town. But after taking a shower, all I wanted to do was lay in our clean and comfortable bed and not head out again.
We met our guide for dinner at 7:30pm. A 3-course dinner at a local restaurant was included in our tour package.
Day 2: Exploring Machu Picchu
Included in our tour was a round trip bus ticket tfrom Aguas Calientes to/from Machu Picchu, meaning we didn’t have to climb up and down the stairs to Machu Picchu, like we did the day before.
After entering the premises, our tour package included a guided tour of Machu Picchu. I always knew Machu Picchu was some kind of site for Inca ruins, but I learned that they are actually the remains of an Inca village. We walked through the remains of Inca houses, bathrooms, schools, religious monuments, farming terraces, store houses and anything else you would expect to find in a 1500’s village.
- Modern Mix Travel Tip: Get your passport stamped with a free, commemorative Machu Picchu stamp.
The re-entry into Machu Picchu was included in our tour package.
The End of Our Tour
We took the 2pm train back to Ollyatambo, and then were driven back to Cusco by our guide.
- Modern Mix Travel Tip: Every restaurant in Aguas Calientes is overpriced for tourists. Despite this, we enjoyed having lunch at Mapacho a contemporary Peruvian and craft beer restaurant! We had a table right by the river, and it was located right by the train station so we could relax until it was time to board our train.
The train ride back to Ollantaytambo and the private car ride back to our accomodations in Cusco was included in our tour.
Overall, the Inca Trail express is a good option for travellers who want a taste of the Inca trail but don’t want to commit to several days of back-to-back hiking and sleeping in a tent. The hike was challenging and the day is long, but you can find motivation in knowing that you only have to do ONE day of this.
The 2 Day 1 Night Inca Trail express private tour with Head Expeditions is $590USD per person. We received a slight discount as a travel blogger through a friend’s referral.