Travel to Machu Picchu

Travel to Machu Picchu

Travel to Machu Picchu

Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

If I say Peru, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most people, it’s images of colorful markets, llamas and guanacos, vertigo-inducing mountains, and wild Pacific beaches. But whatever your idea of Peru may be, chances are that most people will associate Peru with Machu Picchu, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and definitely the country’s most iconic attraction.

Travel to Machu Picchu, the “Lost City of the Incas” set deep within the Andes Mountains, is a bucket list dream for many Peru visitors. There are many different ways to visit Machu Picchu: You can hike there, travel by bus or train, or take a multi-day tour that includes other ancient Incan sites.

However you prefer getting there, it is essential to plan your Machu Picchu tour in advance. Ever since 2007, the site has been included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in danger. Tourist numbers to the sacred site have consistently grown, exceeding 5,000 a day in 2017. This prompted the Peruvian government to introduce further restrictions on visitor numbers.

Machu Picchu travel guide

The days when you could just rock up to Cusco and take a day trip to Machu Picchu are long gone. It is now necessary to book your Machu Picchu tickets in advance. Of course, that is one of the benefits of traveling with a reputable tour operator—they handle all of the logistics and tickets.

The following guide is pretty much everything you need to know before visiting Machu Picchu with International Expeditions. It includes info on Machu Picchu history, as well as practical tips for enjoying your once-in-a-lifetime experience.

THE HISTORY OF MACHU PICCHU

Part of the reason why Machu Picchu is so popular is because it's existence was virtually unknown until 1911. That’s the year when it was “discovered” by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham, who revealed its existence to the world.

Before that, Machu Picchu was only known to the local Quechua people. As a result, it was spared from the devastating damage inflicted by Spanish colonial explorers on many other sacred Inca sites.

Machu Picchu was probably built at the height of the Inca Empire, between the 14th and 15th century. In fact, it is not known for certain why it was built. The most likely explanation historians have to offer is that it was either a religious site (due to its location in the mountains, which were considered sacred by the Incas) or a summer retreat for Inca royals and nobles.

The site was only inhabited for approximately 100 years before being abandoned. There is no evidence that the Spanish ever reached Machu Picchu, and it is not known what prompted the inhabitants to leave the city. There are still lots of mysteries surrounding this world wonder, but archaeological research continues in search of answers.

WHEN TO VISIT MACHU PICCHU

Machu Picchu is open all year round, from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM.

If you want to get the iconic Machu Picchu photo of the archaeological site surrounded by wispy clouds set against a clear blue sky, your best bet would be visiting during the dry season between May and October. But do be aware that early morning mist and unexpected downpours are likely to happen no matter what time of year you choose to travel.

The months of June, July and August are also the busiest in terms of mass tourism. During these peak times it will be difficult to move around the ruins freely. There are likely to be lines everywhere—on the way to Huayna Picchu, for the bathroom, and to access the best photos of Machu Picchu.

April, May, September and October are all good shoulder season months. During this time you’ll find smaller crowds and dry (but still pleasant) weather, with warm days and cool nights. They are probably the best all-round time to travel to Machu Picchu.

The weather in the Andes is at its warmest between November and March, but this is also the rainiest time of year. Drizzle is common throughout the entire period, and there are frequent rain showers, especially in February (when the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance).

However, those brave enough to visit during the rainy season will be rewarded with minimal crowds. You’ll also get orchids and other wildflowers, which bloom along the path between October and March.

GETTING TO MACHU PICCHU: HIKING TRAILS

The most straightforward way to reach Machu Picchu is by train and bus. But many visitors opt to hike there, allowing them to explore the magical Andes before reaching the archaeological site itself. There are various options for Machu Picchu hikes, each with their own pros and cons…

visit the Inca Trail - Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail

Let’s start with the Inca Trail, the best known of all Machu Picchu hikes and a highlight for many visitors. The main reason to hike the Inca Trail is because it’s the only path that actually allows people to reach Machu Picchu on foot. All other trails finish in the town of Aguas Calientes.

The downside is that only 500 people (including porters and guides) are allowed on the Inca Trail per day. This incredible hike is extremely popular, and permits sell out very quickly. So if you have your heart set on doing the Inca Trail, you’ll need to make bookings at least six months in advance. And do remember that the path is closed every year in February for maintenance.

The Inca Trail is 26 miles long and takes 4 days and 3 nights, with camping along the way. The second day is the toughest, with a truly challenging ascent to the 13,779-foot Dead Woman’s Pass, followed by a long descent.

But all struggles and hardships disappear on the last day, when—after a 3 AM wake up call—hikers reach Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu (assuming the weather cooperates). This hike also allows visitors to reach other Inca sites along the trail through the Sacred Valley, which are inaccessible to non-hikers.

visit the Lares Trail - Machu Picchu

The Lares Trail

The Lares Trail is the most popular alternative to the Inca Trail for those that can’t secure a permit, or simply don’t want to share the path with many other tourists.

This hike is 20 miles long and it also takes place over 4 days and 3 nights, so it is slightly shorter than the Inca Trail. However, it is just as challenging, if not more so. Condor’s Pass, the trail’s highest point, is 1,312 feet higher than the maximum altitude reached along the Inca Trail.

Lares is also sometimes referred to as “the community trail.” It doesn’t include as many Incan ruins and scenic viewpoints as the other hiking trails. But it crosses lots of little villages, providing an opportunity to experience local life. Moreover, it is far less crowded than the Inca Trail, and the campsites along the way are in far better condition.

The Lares Trail ends at Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu.

visit the salkantay Trail - Machu Picchu

The Salkantay Trail

Another alternative to the Inca Trail, for those who prefer hiking in total solitude while surrounded by spectacular views, is the Salkantay Trail. This trail was selected “one of the world’s most epic trails” by National Geographic. There are no limits on hiker numbers here, but the people on the trail generally average around 50 a day.

The Salkantay Trail is 46 miles long from start to end and usually takes 5 days to hike, though it is also possible to shorten it to 3 or 4 days. The trail also climbs higher than the Inca Trail, looping around Mount Salkantay, and includes stunning views over picturesque mountains and lakes.

Experienced hikers and backpackers may choose to hike the Salkantay Trail independently since guides are not compulsory. This trail also offers more flexibility in terms of accommodation, including some luxury lodges. So it’s ideal for those who enjoy adventure by day, but fine feather pillows at night!

GETTING TO MACHU PICCHU

Non-hikers, do not despair! It’s not necessary to hike for days on end to reach Machu Picchu. The quickest and most convenient way to travel to this world wonder is to take the train to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the ruins, and then take a bus to the entrance.

If you’re a Peruvian national, you can take the local train all the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu. But if you’re a foreigner you have no option other than taking a tourist train.

PeruRail departs from the Poroy station, which is about 8 miles and 20 minutes from the center of Cusco. International Expeditions’ Machu Picchu & Cusco tour includes your ride on the Vistadome, with large panoramic windows as well as free snacks and drinks. Looking for a more luxurious option? IE’s Custom Travel Planners can arrange passage on the Hiram Bingham, which includes entertainment on board and a gourmet dinner with excellent Peruvian wines.

Getting to Machu Picchu

NEW MACHU PICCHU ENTRY RULES

In 2017, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture introduced new, stricter rules for admission to Machu Picchu in an attempt to regulate tourist numbers throughout the day. These rules have since been updated and remain subject to change. So it’s definitely worth double-checking before you visit Machu Picchu.

Tourist entrance to Machu Picchu is now divided between a morning and an afternoon shift, with 10 possible staggered entry times. Color-coded stamps for each slot are placed on tickets for to help with time management. Once a ticket has been purchased, the entry date and name on it cannot be changed.

Each Machu Picchu ticket allows for a maximum of 4 hours at the sacred ruins. International Expeditions includes two tickets into Machu Picchu in your tour.

Upon arrival, guests must choose between one of two circuits. Circuit 1 is more complete and includes most of the Machu Picchu highlights, but takes approximately 3 hours. Since the maximum time allowed with each ticket is just 4 hours, visitors who like to spend time exploring independently should opt for Circuit 2, which takes about two and a half hours.

WHAT TO SEE AT MACHU PICCHU

Those hiking to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail will get their first glimpse of the ruins at Inti Punku (a.k.a. the Sun Gate), a fortress overlooking the city. Hikers usually reach Inti Punku in time for sunrise, but the view is often covered by clouds since the weather in the high Andes changes frequently in the morning.

For other visitors, Inti Punku is not included in the official circuits that visitors accompanied by guides must follow. You can hike there independently after your guided tour is over, but be aware that getting there and back takes about half an hour.

The main entrance to Machu Picchu is closer to the citadel, where most of the buildings and other points of interest are located. It’s worth taking a closer look at the stones in order to appreciate the exquisite technique of Incan masonry. You’ll see that all rocks have been precisely cut to fit to one another without the use of mortar, so that the walls would stay up like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle.

One of the best places where this can be seen is the Principal Temple, the largest building in the entire Machu Picchu citadel, facing the main plaza. Another is the torreon or Temple of the Sun, an elliptical-shaped tower once used for astronomical observations. It is believed to be a sacred place where only high priests and dignitaries were allowed to enter.

Inside the temple there is a rock, which was probably used as an altar. During the summer solstice, the sunrise shines through the temple window on the rock. This is only one of many places around Machu Picchu that were built in accordance with the movements of the sun and the stars, giving further evidence to the Inca’s advanced knowledge of astronomy.

Visit Machu Picchu and Cusco, Peru

The most mysterious location within Machu Picchu is probably Intihuatana, a huge carved slab of rock found on the highest point of the citadel. Intihuatana means “the sun’s hitching post,” and it is believed that the Inca thought that the stone was what kept the sun in its place in the sky. The rock casts no shadow at all during the two equinoxes. It was probably used as a location for ceremonies to honor the sun and give thanks for good harvests, but not much else is known about its purpose.

Other places worth visiting within Machu Picchu include the Caretaker’s Hut, from which you can get the iconic Machu Picchu shot found on all the postcards; the Temple of the Condor, with a giant bird carved outside; and the agricultural terraces. The latter are the reason why this isolated town– which is located at high altitude and surrounded by steep mountains on all sides– was self-sufficient, and even exported food to other locations within the Inca Empire.

Not far from the Caretaker’s Hut, it’s possible to take a look at the Inca Bridge from afar. This narrow bridge spans a passage carved along the mountainside, with a gap covered by two tree trunks. The trunks could be removed when needed, preventing access to the city. The Inca Bridge is very scenic, but the trail is very narrow and slippery, with a big cliff drop-off. After the death of a tourist there in 2010, it is no longer possible to hike right up to the bridge.

Those that want to hike to a viewpoint to see Machu Picchu from above have two main options—Huayna Picchu (the tall, conical mountain overlooking the ruins) and Machu Picchu Mountain. Huayna Picchu is much more popular than Machu Picchu Mountain, but the trail is also steeper and more exposed, so it’s not recommended to those who are afraid of heights. Machu Picchu is taller and the hike is longer, covered in vegetation for most of the way, with incredible views over the archaeological site from the top.

Both Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu require a special entry ticket, since numbers are strictly limited. Please talk to you Expedition Advisor for details on adding those tickets.

PRACTICAL MACHU PICCHU TRAVEL TIPS

The introduction of new Machu Picchu rules was not limited to tickets and entry times. Bear in mind that selfie sticks, tripods and even hiking sticks are not allowed at Machu Picchu now, and may be confiscated at any time.

Strollers for children are also not allowed into the site. Children and babies can enter, but they must be in a Baby Bjorn or similar carrier if they’re unable to walk. Backpacks larger than 20liters/15x13x7 inches are also not allowed, and you cannot fly drones over Machu Picchu. The entire archaeological area is full of whistle-wielding guides who are constantly checking for unruly behavior, and misbehaving tourists are routinely fined and expelled from the site.

The only bathrooms in Machu Picchu are located right at the entrance, and they cost 1 sol (around 30¢) to access. There is also a snack bar where it’s possible to buy water and food. The lines are very long during the day at both places in peak season, so plan accordingly. It’s better to fill up your own water bottle and bring your own snacks, especially if you’re planning to hike to Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain (since there’s nowhere to get water along the way).

Machu Picchu is located at an altitude of 7972 feet, and it is not uncommon to experience altitude sickness there. To prevent it from happening, it’s a good idea to take it easy when you arrive in Peru and try to acclimate slowly. Also, be sure to stay hydrated and limit the consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Don’t try to tackle big hikes on the first or second day after reaching high altitude. Start with easy hikes, and spend a few days getting used to the thin mountain air in Cusco, which is even higher at 11,150 feet.

Coca leaves are a common remedy against altitude sickness: You can either chew them, as locals do, or have them brewed in tea. They are widely available and legal to buy in Peru. But don’t try to take them back home, as they’re illegal pretty much everywhere else.

It may sound like planning travel to Machu Picchu is something of a feat. It’s really not that hard, but it only requires a bit of forethought to ensure you’ll be able to see and do exactly what you want. This helps prevent frustration, wasted time, and joining unnecessary queues.

Machu Picchu is truly a world traveler’s dream, and the rules and regulations that have been put in place will allow explorers to enjoy the sacred site for many more years to come.

Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.