If you’re travelling to Peru, chances are you’re going to the famous Incan ruin, Machu Picchu. If you’re not, then it’s time to revisit your itinerary and add it because Machu Picchu, which was built in the 15th century and abandoned less than a century later, is as amazing as everyone says it is!
Unfortunately, you can’t just go to Machu Picchu on a whim. Because so many people have this UNESCO World Heritage Site on their bucket list, you must plan your visit carefully and well in advance. Entrance tickets are required, and the government of Peru limits the number of daily visitors to 2,500. So, I repeat, you must plan well in advance! Having gone down this path already, I’ve put together some suggestions and tips for a memorable visit.
When to Go
“When to go to Machu Picchu?” is really a two-part question. The first is what time of year you should travel to Peru, and the second has to do with the timing of your Machu Picchu visit relative to the rest of your itinerary. The first is easy. Peru has two distinct seasons – the rainy season, which generally corresponds to “summer” in South America from May to September, and the dry season, which is roughly during “winter” from October to April. The weather is much better during the dry season, and as a result, this is when most tourists visit Peru, with June, July, August being particularly busy. Traveling in the shoulder season is a good compromise – this would be in April/May and September/October, when prices and crowds diminish, but the weather is still nice for the most part.
After booking your flight to Peru, the first things you need to do are decide when you want to visit Machu Picchu and how you plan to get there. The “when” part is important because once you book Machu Picchu it’s hard to change it. Most people fly from Lima into the vibrant, historic city of Cusco, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and use it as their base for visiting the Incan ruins. Cusco is 74 kilometers from Machu Picchu, and the area in between – called the Sacred Valley – is stunningly beautiful. The Urubumba River tumbles through fertile lands that have cultivated a multitude of crops, including quinoa and over 3,000 varieties of potatoes, since Incan times. Steep canyon walls rise on either side, with snow capped peaks visible in the distance.
Assuming you’re at the start of your Peru trip, my recommendation is to fly into Cusco and immediately head to one of the Sacred Valley towns for a day or two (or more depending on how much time you have) before going to Machu Picchu. Why skip Cusco at the start? Because at 11,500 feet, many people flying in from sea level experience altitude sickness, with symptoms ranging from light-headedness and shortness of breathe, to nausea and vomiting. Towns in the Sacred Valley, like Pisac, Urubumba, and Ollantaytambo, are about 2,000 feet lower than Cusco, and by staying here first you’ll have an easier time adjusting to the altitude.
Despite Machu Picchu’s relatively low elevation of 7,900 feet, acclimatizing is important, especially if you plan to do the strenuous Huayna Picchu hike while you’re there (more on that later.) After visiting the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, you can then head back to Cusco for a few days. Having given yourself ample time to adjust to the thinner air, you’ll be able to better enjoy its colonial charms, and your lungs will be better equipped to handle its steep, hilly streets.
How to Get to Machu Picchu
There are three ways that most tourists travel to Machu Picchu.
- By foot, hiking the Inca Trail
- On a day trip by taking a train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley
- From Aguas Caliente, which is the village at the base of Machu Picchu
The Inca Trail
The fabled Inca Trail is by far the most adventurous and bucket-worthy way to see Machu Picchu. While technically there are thousands of miles of trails that were built by the Incas to connect far-flung corners of the vast empire, it is a particularly important and beautiful 26-mile section of this network that has come to be known as the Inca Trail. It is considered to be one of the world’s top five hikes, taking trekkers through mountains, cloud forest, sub-tropical jungle, and Inca ruins over four days.
Besides the adventure of a strenuous, four-day hike, the big reward of doing the Inca Trail is that you arrive at Machu Picchu for sunrise – entering the ruins in relative solitude through the pass above Machu Picchu called the Sun Gate. Arriving at sunrise means you’ll be among some of the first visitors to the site. The downside, if you can call it that, is that you might be so tired at this point, you’ll want to go straight to bed!
Access to the Ina Trail is strictly controlled. You must go with an authorized trekking operator, and the government issues only 500 permits per day, with 300 of those for guides, cooks, and porters. For more information about hiking the Inca Trail, including a list of authorized trekking guides, visit www.incatrailperu.com.
Day Trip by Train
The vast majority of tourists in Peru visit Machu Picchu by train, which is a safe, relaxing, and beautiful way to go. Peru Rail has service to Aguas Caliente at the base of Machu Picchu from Cusco and Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From the Poroy Station 20 minutes outside of Cusco, the journey is about four hours. From Ollantaytambo, the train ride is one-and-half hours. If you can only spare a day to see Machu Picchu, it’s best to stay in Ollantaytambo and take the train from there so you won’t have to spend half your day traveling. Ollantaytambo, which is at the base of an impressive ruin itself, is well worth a visit anyway.
Peru Rail has three levels of service ranging from the less expensive, but still very nice, Expedition (formerly the Backpacker), to the super-deluxe Hiram Bingham, which provides a gourmet brunch on the morning train to Machu Picchu and dinner with cocktails and entertainment on the way back. The mid-range option, the Vistadome, is actually much closer in price to the Expedition than it is to the Hiram Bingham. As its name suggests, the train cars have panoramic windows so passengers can enjoy the amazing scenery. They serve sandwiches, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages on board, and even provide cultural entertainment with dancing and a fashion show!
Keep in mind that Peru Rail has restrictions on baggage size and weight. Technically, bags are not supposed to weigh more than 11 pounds or measure more than 62 linear inches, so you may need to leave some luggage behind. Most hotels in Cusco and the Sacred Valley will store your luggage for free. The train stations also have lockers. For information about Peru Rail, including their schedule, visit www.perurail.com.
From Aguas Caliente
The main problem with doing a day trip to Machu Picchu is that you inevitably end up spending only a couple of hours there, smack in the middle of the day with the crush of tourists. The busiest hours at Machu Picchu are between 10am and 2pm. To make your trip to Machu Picchu more memorable and relaxing (and get better pictures!), build in time so you can enjoy a full day at the site – either by getting there at sunrise or lingering till closing, or both. To do this, you’ll need to stay either at the very luxurious and high-priced Belmond Sanctuary Lodge just outside the entrance gates of Machu Picchu (the only hotel right near the ruins) or in the village of Aguas Caliente for one, or ideally, two nights. Aguas Caliente, also called Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a bustling but overpriced tourist thoroughfare at the base of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Caliente, visitors take a 20-minute bus to the Machu Picchu entrance or hike there in about an hour.
Here’s a sample plan to make the most of your Machu Picchu visit, assuming a two-night stay in Aguas Caliente:
- Stay for a few of days in the Sacred Valley, visiting the other impressive Incan ruins and enjoying adventure activities like zip lining, white water rafting, or horseback riding.
- From Ollantaytambo take a late afternoon or evening train to Aguas Caliente, and get a good night’s sleep at your hotel before your day at Machu Picchu. If you end up staying in a Sacred Valley town other than Ollantaytambo, you’ll need to arrange private transport, catch a taxi, or take a local bus to the Ollantaytambo train station.
- Wake up early to catch the bus to Machu Picchu; it’s a steep and hairy 30-minute ride, and the lines are long, even for the first bus up. Fortunately the hotels all serve breakfast at the crack of dawn to accommodate the early risers, which is basically everyone. Plan to wait in line for the bus at least half an hour, or longer, especially during high season.
- Arrange your guided tour of the ruins in the morning; 8 to 10am is a good time.
- If you’re up for it and you’ve booked it in advance with your Machu Picchu reservation, start the Huayna Picchu Hike around 11am (more on that below).
- Exit Machu Picchu for lunch around 1 or 2pm depending on when you return from your hike. By this time you’ll be exhausted and hungry anyway. Make sure you get a re-entry stamp as you exit.
- Re-enter Machu Picchu around 3pm when the day-trippers are leaving to catch the train back, and linger till closing. The solitude and the lighting are simply magical, and by staying late, you’ll avoid the long lines to catch a shuttle bus back to Aguas Caliente. Keep in mind the latest you can enter Machu Picchu is 4pm.
- Return to your hotel, relax, and enjoy dinner in Aguas Caliente. Sleep in before taking the train back to Cusco or Ollantaytambo the next day.
Booking Your Tickets to Machu Picchu
As mentioned in the first paragraph, you must plan and book your visit to Machu Picchu well in advance, as the government of Peru restricts the number of daily visitors to 2,500. Probably the easiest way to book Machu Picchu is to go through a tour operator; there are a number you can find online. If you’re using a travel agent to plan your entire trip to Peru, they can take care of this for you. Of course, by using a third-party agency, you’ll pay a convenience surcharge. The cheapest way to book your Machu Picchu tickets is through the official government website. But be warned – this site is not user friendly and requires Flash. (If you are on a Mac, chances are this link won’t open.) And again, I cannot emphasize enough the need to book this part of your trip as far in advance as possible. You wouldn’t want to go to Peru and miss out on this remarkable experience because you didn’t book your ticket early enough.
Where to Stay
Unless you’re hiking the Inca Trail or taking a day trip to Machu Picchu, you’ll likely be staying in the town of Aguas Caliente, which is actually more pleasant than the guide books make it out to be. There are dozens of accommodations here to meet all budgets, but regardless of your price range, don’t expect any deals. Hotel owners know they have a captive audience in town, so you’ll pay a premium for what amounts to mediocre value. My advice would be to book a hotel that is close to the waiting area for the shuttle buses to Machu Picchu and, if possible, the train station as well. Keep in mind the train drop off spot may not be at the train station, which is where all the trains depart from.
There is one alternative to Aguas Caliente. If money is no object, consider a luxurious stay at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. Owned by the Orient-Express company, this is the only accommodation right by the entrance gates of Machu Picchu, but it will put you back about $500 night.
Bus Tickets to Machu Picchu
Consettur is the agency that operates the modern, air-conditioned shuttle buses between Aguas Caliente and Machu Picchu. It is a steep and winding 30-minute ride to the entrance gate of the ruins, and the cost for adults is $24 round-trip (in June 2016). Kids 5 to 11 are about half that, and children under 5 are free. The buses to Machu Picchu run from 5:30am to 3:30pm, and the return buses to Aguas Caliente run from 6am to 6pm.
Even though you must book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu and the train well in advance, you can purchase bus tickets on the day of your visit. You can buy one-way or round-trip tickets at a Consettur ticket office or booth in Cusco, Aguas Caliente, or by the Machu Picchu entrance gate. They are not for sale on the bus. Of course, if you are using a tour agency to help with your trip planning, they can always book your bus tickets in advance so you don’t have to wait in line.
If a bus ride up the steep side of a mountain is not your thing, you can also hike from Aguas Caliente to the Machu Picchu entrance. It cuts a steep path through the zig-zag road used by the buses and takes about an hour.
The Huayna Picchu Hike
Many visitors to Machu Picchu also complete the strenuous, but once-in-a-lifetime hike to the peak of Huayna Picchu for an unparalleled bird’s eye view of the ruins. Huayna Picchu, which means “Young Mountain” in the native Quechua language spoken by the Incans and still today by eight million people in Peru, Bolivia, and several other Andean countries of South America, is the highest peak you see in typical photos of Machu Picchu, which means “Old Mountain.” The hike is steep and can be a little unnerving for those afraid of heights, but is totally worth it.
The Huayna Picchu trail starts at the Main Plaza in Machu Picchu, so you have to be in the ruins in order to do it. You must also book these tickets in advance and choose between two time periods to start your hike – between 7 and 8am, or 10 and 11am. Only 400 hikers are permitted to do the hike each day. Staff strictly enforces this limitation by checking passports and requiring each hiker to sign in and out at the trailhead. You should book these tickets at the same time you book your Machu Picchu tickets. On the government website, the hike is offered as an add-on.
Which time period is best for the hike? It’s really personal preference, but most people recommend 10 to 11am. The 7 to 8am time slot is cooler and a little less crowded, but there’s also greater potential for the views to be obstructed by early-morning fog and low clouds. It’s also nice to do your Machu Picchu guided tour on the earlier side, before the crush of visitors, followed by the Huayna Picchu hike and then lunch. Having gotten the lay of the land from your morning tour guide, you’ll be better equipped to enjoy the ruins at a more leisurely pace in the late afternoon when the crowds thin out and the lighting is ideal for picture taking.
Now that you know about the different strategies for getting to Machu Picchu and booking your visit, I’d like to leave you with some “insider tips” for the big day.
- Make sure you have your passport. Before you leave your hotel in the morning, pack these, along with your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu (and Huayna Picchu if you’re doing that too.) They will not let you in without it!
- Plan to wait for the bus in Aguas Caliente for at least half an hour during the busy season. So, if you have a guided tour booked at 8am, shoot to get to the bus staging area no later than 7am (6:30am ideally) to be on the safe side.
- Dress in layers, as the early morning and late afternoons are cool, but the afternoon sun can be hot, especially if you’re hiking Huayna Picchu. Sunscreen is a must, too!
- Umbrellas are not allowed in Machu Picchu in case you’re there during the rainy season, so it’s wise to have a rain slicker or poncho during the rainy season.
- Bring a daypack with snacks and water. Even though it says food is not allowed in Machu Picchu, no one checked and it’s nice to have something to nibble on. There are two places to have lunch outside the entrance gates – one is at the high-end Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, which offers a nice buffet lunch for $40 per person (in June 2016). The other is a self-serve snack bar with pizza, burgers, and other basic lunch fare right by the entrance. Even though the lines can be long and everything is overpriced, it’s faster and less expensive than the buffet.
- Be sure to have one sol Peruvian coins with you. There is one large bathroom outside the entrance gate at Machu Picchu, and it will cost you one sol to enter.
- If you want get a passport stamp from Machu Picchu, there’s a place to do this right inside the entrance gate.
- Avoid the long return bus lines. If you don’t have to catch the mid-afternoon train from Machu Picchu and have flexibility with when you leave, stay later when the bus lines are short to non-existent! The last bus leaves Machu Picchu at 6pm.