Aguas Calientes is a small town, and quite honestly, is a tourist trap. However, the town does have its own charm. If you step away from the main tourist drags and/or avenues, you can easily find the real town, with locals playing football on squares, children buying snacks from cart vendors outside their schools, and the elderly out for their nightly stroll. All of the hotels and hostels in town offer breakfasts as early as 3:00 in the morning, and most of them offer their guests the option to take with a packed lunch of bananas, sandwiches, and water. If your hotel/hostel offers this service, take it. There is no restaurants, food vendors, and bathrooms for that matter inside the complex. The only dining option up the mountain is the Sanctuary Lodge restaurant right next to the entrance. It is on the pricey side, and the food is average at best.
There are two ways of getting to Machu Picchu once you’re in Aguas Calientes. The easiest and most popular route is to take one of the buses at the foot of the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu. The ride takes about twenty minutes, and traverses the side of the mountain. The hairpin turns and the steep ascent makes this trip equally terrifying and exciting. There is a bridge separating the mountain from the town’s boundary, and just right before you cross it is the bus station. The first bus leaves at 05:30H, and gets you up to Machu Picchu in time for its opening at 06:00H. The fare is $10.00 each way, and a bus leaves every 15 minutes, or whenever it’s full. The trip takes about 20 minutes. Make sure you get your bus tickets the night before to save you time from queueing up the next day. Also make sure to buy roundtrip tickets to avoid the long lines at Machu Picchu of people wanting to go down.
I would also recommend staying a second night if you can, and head back to Ollantaytambo early the following day. Aguas Calientes, as the name implies, has hot water, or very hot springs to be exact. A nice way to end your Machu Picchu excursion is to take one of the last buses back to town, have dinner in one of the many restaurants along, and cap the night off with a trip to the springs. By the time 2pm or 3pm rolls around, the day trippers start heading back to town, afraid they’ll have to wait long for the bus and miss their trains. This gives you the opportunity to watch the sunset and enjoy the complex a little bit more without the overwhelming crowd. Do make sure to catch the last bus at 18:00H.
A second, relatively more independent option, is to still come to Aguas Calientes the night before, and head out at the crack of dawn the next day. However, instead of taking the buses, there is a trail that goes directly up the Machu Picchu complex from the bridge just outside of town. According to the hikers I spoke with, a fit person can manage the climb between 1 to 2 hours. There are steps carved in the mountain and the trail is well marked. If you choose to do this route, make sure you are fit enough to finish it. The buses very rarely stops to pick up hitchhikers along the way.
Regardless of which option you choose to go up to Machu Picchu, remember that they do not sell tickets at the site itself. You need to get the tickets beforehand. You can either buy it at an authorized seller when you get to Peru, or you can order it online. Access to Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 people each day, that’s 200 tickets per scheduled ascent. You need to book those online ahead of time especially if you are set on your date and if it’s the high season.