Machu Picchu is the largest tourist attraction in Peru and one of the most popular in world, so you want to make sure that you do everything you can to make the most out of your trip and to make it an unforgettable experience.
Most tourists will make a day trip to Machu Picchu from the Incan capital city of Cusco. Here are some steps to help you on your trip if you don't pay for a full day tour with a specialist tour operator. The most important things that I can advise is to get to Machu Picchu as early as possible to make sure you can do everything in the one day. Also you should buy your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu in Cusco to save you time when you get to Aguas Calientes, as you can no longer buy tickets at the entrance of the site.
Catch the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes
There are 4 train departure times from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and if you are not staying overnight the night before in Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu, I would recommend that you get the earliest train, which is normally around 6.30am and will get you to Aguas Calientes at around 10am. The train journey takes you through the Andes and along the Urubamba River of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the scenery is truly breathtaking, so don't keep your cameras locked up in your bag.
Get the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
Once you get off the train at Aguas Calientes it is very tempting to have a look around the town and go to the market, but you should do this on the way back from Machu Picchu. The train will stop at Puente Ruinas Station where there is a small booth selling bus tickets to the Machu Picchu citadel. There are regular buses at around 10 minute intervals leaving from here, so you don't need to book in advance. Please note if you have not purchased your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu then you have to buy it from the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre first before you get the bus to the site. The bus zigzags the steep climb up the mountain, which can be quite an adrenalin rush due to the bus driving along the edge of the cliff with a steep drop down into the forest. Keep your camera and/or video camera ready as there are some great shots to be taken on this short trip. It reaches the citadel in around 20 minutes.
Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu
If you want to climb Huayna Picchu (the main mountain that you can see in the typical pictures of the Machu Picchu citadel, shown below), as soon as you enter Machu Picchu you should walk over to the base of Huayna Picchu to get a free ticket to climb the mountain, as there is a limit of 400 people per day that can make the climb, which is down to preserving the area. This is done in 2 groups of 200. It takes roughly an hour to make it to the top and can be quite nauseating at some points due to the height, so take your time in walking and admire the views of the Incan ruins at the same time.
Once you have returned back to the foot of Huayna Picchu you can make your way back up to the main site and explore this magnificent city of the Incan Empire that will give you goosebumps for sure. You can go with a guided tour in different languages, which will take around 2 hours or alternatively you can just walk around yourself at your own pace. If you choose for the latter, make sure you buy a tour guide book to ensure that you don't miss anything whilst you are there. And of course, make sure you bring lots of spare batteries and memory cards for your camera, as you will definitely need them.
If you feel that you want to stay over to explore more of the area, then you can either stay in the luxurious hotel at the entrance to the site called the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge or alternatively head back down to Aguas Calientes to pick from one of the hostels or hotels there.