Every day, thousands of people visit the ancient and mysterious Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru. 3000 people per day during low season and up to 7000 per day during high season (July/August). Getting to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the terraces, stone constructions, and spectacular hill tops isn’t cheap and it’s rather tricky to get the full experience.
Here’s what you should consider and think of when going to Peru’s most famous destination.
Best time to go to Machu Picchu
The site is open all year-round. During peak season – July and August – you should expect a looot of people. Anyway, it will be crowded at any time with at least 3000 people visiting Machu Picchu each day on average. Sundays you should expect it to be even more crowded than on week days because that’s when people from the Cusco province are allowed to enter the site for free.
Officially, the rainy season is from October through April. However, it can rain any day and any time.
Do not underestimate the altitude and its possible consequences. You can minimize these effects by knowing that Cusco is located at an altitude of 3416 m.a.s.l. – 1000 meters higher than Machu Picchu at 2430 m.a.s.l. – and acting accordingly. You should avoid alcohol and physical exertion during the first few days when arriving to Cusco and drink plenty of water or coca tea (available everywhere). Due to it’s lower altitude it is recommended that if you’re not acclimated yet that you you should go straight to Machu Picchu Pueblo (also called Aguas Calientes), the town closest to Machu Picchu and exploring Cusco when you get back.
Getting from Cusco to Machu Picchu
There are different options to get from Cusco to the Machu Picchu site. Depending on what you’re up to you can book guided tours starting from Cusco (you’ll find offers in almost any hotel, hostel, or offices in town) or you can go there on your own. If you choose to organize the trip on your own you should be aware of a few things.
The easiest way to get to Machu Picchu is to take the train to Aguas Calientes – the town located closest to the site. It is a beautiful 3.5-hour trip running along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley. In order to get the train you need to take a bus, shuttle, or a taxi to the town called Poroy. It is roughly 1 hour from Cusco (may be longer due to horrible traffic at certain times).
Once you’re in Poroy you get on the train. There are three train companies you can choose from: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and Belmond Hiram Bingham train. Belmond Hiram Bingham is the nicest but also the most expensive one. Notice that you must buy the train ticket in advance. The more in advance the better since it is likely to sell out weeks in advance in certain months. However, if train tickets from Cusco are sold out you should also check tickets starting from Ollantaytambo – a town in the Sacred Valley. Taxis and shuttles between Ollantaytambo and Cusco are plentiful.
Machu Picchu Inca Trail
The other way, as mentioned, is to walk as part of a multi-day tour. Plenty of tour operators offer Inca Trail hikes. Note that these tours are closed for the month of February. Depending on the tour and the operator it may vary in length and levels of comfort.
The most common and most crowded tour is the regular Inca Trail tour. However, there are other options. Some of which include the tour around the massive Salkantay Mountain, one of the most imposing peaks in the Peruvian Andes, or the Jungle Tour which combines hiking, biking, rafting, and zip-lining. Usually, they are a little bit more expensive but less crowded.
Aguas Calientes – The Machu Picchu pueblo
As mentioned before, a very popular option is to take the train from Poroy to Aguas Calientes. If you do so, you are likely to end up spending a night in this town. Even though it has grown a lot over the past few years it still is a pretty small town. The most popular thing to do on your afternoon off is to go to the thermal springs (Aguas Calientes means hot water). Note that it is usually very crowded in the afternoons. It is open from 5am to 8pm and the entrance fee is 20 soles (6 USD). Otherwise you can walk through the town and taste some Peruvian cuisine in one of the many restaurants.
The advantage of staying at Aguas Calientes is that you can get up very early the next day and make your way up to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu – some tips for a better experience
- Traveling independently you can buy the entrance tickets on the official page. It is 152 soles (45 USD) for just the Machu Picchu experience. There are different options with other sites included (see below).
- The site opens at 6am and you can leave and re-enter until 4pm. You should exit latest at 5pm when everybody needs to leave. Anyway, if you stay in Aguas Calientes the night before you have the option to take the bus (24 USD roundtrip). The busses take like 20 minutes to get up to Machu Picchu and start running at 5.30am. However, people start lining up way earlier. Note that you should buy the ticket the day before. Bring your original passport to buy the ticket!
- The other option – the option where you need to earn your visit to Machu Picchu – is to walk up there. It is pretty steep and quite exhausting but rewarding. It takes roughly 70-90 minutes. It is also possible to walk up and go back down by bus (you can buy the ticket up there at Machu Picchu). Anyway, you won’t be the only one waiting for a bus – lines to board will be long both directions.
- What should you bring: bottled water, a rain jacket (even if it looks like a beautiful day), sunscreen, insect repellent, a hat (if you’re a hat person), some change and cash (for snacks or the toilet), and most importantly: your PASSPORT along with your ticket!
- What should you not bring: a buffet of food (some snacks are okay), drones, umbrellas, walking sticks (except if there are some protective rubber tips over the ends)
- Don’t forget to get the famous Machu Picchu stamp in your passport just outside the gates when you leave the site
- What time should you go: As mentioned, your ticket allows you to enter and re-enter multiple times between 6am to 4pm. Honestly, there is no perfect time to visit the site. Some suggest to go very early, some say rather late. Machu Picchu will be crowded at any time and the weather kind of unpredictable. However, in the mornings it might be more foggy than in the afternoons. It leaves the site with a mystical view. But it could also happen that you won’t see much at first. Later in the afternoon it might be a little less crowded since day-trippers will be headed back to Cusco earlier. Anyway, it is up to you and how much you want to get out of Machu Picchu.
- In addition to just entering Machu Picchu, you can also buy tickets to Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu peak – each one a separate ticket. Again, you must buy the tickets in advance since there is only a limited number of tickets available. Note that there are two different groups. When you buy the ticket you have the choice to start your climb earlier or later in the morning. There’s a time window to enter – so don’t miss it (it’s on your ticket). It might be worthwhile to enter at the end of you time window since people tend to go in the beginning. Moreover, very often it is foggier in the mornings and you may be forced to wait until you actually see something. However, once you entered you technically could wait as long as you want up there. Note that the trails are very narrow and steep at certain points with a lot of stairs! Each separate ticket to one of the two peaks cost 48 soles (15 USD).
- There are also free hikes to different sites within the Machu Picchu site, for example the Sun Gate or the Incan bridge
- You basically can explore the entire site individually. However, you should not underestimate what a good guide can add: local perspective and the history behind the site. Book a guide in town or find one at the entrance to Machu Picchu.