How to visit Machu Picchu — the complete guide
A visit to Machu Picchu had long sat the the very top of my travel destinations list. I’ve wanted to go there and see these mysterious Inca ruins for myself for many years.
However, planning this trip of a lifetime was a journey within itself. You see, I work in the travel industry and have done so for just about my entire career — airlines, online travel agencies, hotels, you name it, I’ve likely done it. I also work on the digital side of the travel business and I’m not afraid to tell you that internet travel is my jam. I think I know some inside tips and tricks (and for the record, I do know a good trick or two), but planning this trip was a challenge and I was surprised at the lack of complete information from my favorite internet travel sites.
Industry researchers say, on average, people visit 38 websites before booking their trip. I think I visited ten times that amount in planning this trip. So, upon returning from this fabulous trip of a lifetime (spoiler alert: it was great!) I’ve decided to write it all down — in one place — for anyone else it may help.
Here we go…
- Why visit Machu Picchu
A mysterious Inca ruin on top of a mountain in the middle of a Peru? Why would you NOT want to go there? Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century for unknown purposes and was soon abandoned. The architecture of this hidden city, including the use of huge stone blocks skillfully arranged without any mortar and the placement of buildings that align with astronomical alignments is truly spectacular. The scale of it is unbelievably impressive. And, OMG, the views. If you want to learn more about what Machu Picchu is and why it’s important, I suggest you start at UNESCO’s website.
Machu Picchu is located in the Sacred Valley which includes the valley along the Urubamba River from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Not only is it very beautiful, but there are dozens of archeological sites located in the Sacred Valley.
2. When to visit Machu Picchu
While open all year long, the time of year to travel to Machu Picchu will be a balance between rains and crowds. Officially, rainy season is October through April but it can rain at any time. Officially, the busy season is July and August, but you should always expect to see crowds.
May or September appears to be the best balance of both crowds and weather if you can manage a trip then.
3. How to actually get to Machu Picchu
All routes to Machu Picchu go through Cusco, Peru. You have to get there first (but you don’t have to stay there first and I’ll talk about that below). You’ll likely get to Cusco via airplane from Lima but there are also flights from other destinations in Peru and from La Paz, Bolivia.
To find out which airlines are currently operating into Cusco and from what cities, go here. Airfare was super cheap for us as we cashed in frequent flyer miles for this journey. If want to learn more about how to do that, go here.
From Cusco, there are two main ways to get to Machu Picchu. One is by hiking several days along the Inca Trail. If you have the time and are physically able, I’ve heard that hiking the Inca Trail is an amazing experience. You’ll travel to Machu Picchu as the Incas did and see several more incredible (and less crowded!) ruins along the way. Hiking the Inca Trail is capacity controlled and requires a licensed guide/tour and a permit. They issue only 500 permits a day (covering both guides and tourists). If you choose to go this route, definitely book your guide and get your permits issues in advance. Find more information here.
The second and most widely accessible way to Machu Picchu is by taking PeruRail from Cusco (actually nearby Poroy) to the Machu Picchu train station that is in the tiny town of Aguas Calientes. There are three types of trains you can take - Expedition ($81 one-way), Vistadome ($93 one-way) and Hiram Bingham ($460 one-way). The Vistadome train offers the best views and the ride is quite scenic. I recommend traveling on the Vistadome train in at least one direction. The Hiram Bingham is operated by the Orient-Express and not only is it extremely expensive but it looked far too stuffy for my tastes (but I hear the food is good…and it better be for that kind of price premium, amiright?).
All PeruRail trains travel on the same tracks along the Urubamba river and the ride takes a little over 3 hours. Book your tickets as far in advance as you can. We booked our train ride from Ollantaytambo (more on that below).
4. How to get from the Machu Picchu train station (in Aguas Calientes) to Machu Picchu
Unless you are staying at the $1,000/night Belmond Sanctuary Lodge that is located at the entrance of Machu Picchu, you need to make your own way from the train station to Machu Picchu itself. Again, there are two choices — you can ride the bus or you can hike.
The bus ride takes about 30 minutes with buses operating consistently through the day. As Aguas Calientes is tiny, you’ll have no problem locating the bus stop on the only main road in town. The first bus departs at 5:30am and last bus departs around 3:30pm. The last bus departs Machu Picchu back to Aguas Calientes around 5:30pm.
As of this writing, bus tickets cost $12 each way. If you visit Machu Picchu during high season, you will absolutely be waiting in a line to board the bus, likely in both directions. If you want to catch an early bus (and you do!), plan to line up early. You can buy the bus ticket before you board.
You can also choose to hike up the road and then the trail to the Machu Picchu entrance. The hike takes between 1–2 hours. On the one hand, this option is free and you don’t have to wait in a bus queue or endure heavy crowds. On the other hand, it’s largely a hike though forest without many scenic views. The payoff of the hike is when you arrive at Machu Picchu itself.
My advice is to be careful of expending too much of your energy on this hike if it will be at the expense of other physical activities you’ll want to take advantage of for the rest of your day (like hiking Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain).
We choose to hike and while we didn’t have to wait for a bus, I didn’t think the hike was worth it. I would choose the hike for crowd avoidance vs. the actual hiking experience itself.
5. Getting into Machu Picchu itself
Nope, you are not done spending money yet! Now you need an entrance ticket into the historical site. You also need to buy this in advance as site entrance is capacity controlled. Furthermore, tickets are NOT available at the entrance gate. You have to buy your entrance tickets online in advance or through an agent (but get them online before your trip because if you can’t get into the site itself, then what was the point of all this madness?)
- Machu Picchu entrance tickets: limited to 2,500 per day; S/128 per adult (about $37)
- Machu Picchu entrance & Huayna Picchu hiking access tickets: limited 400 per day (for 2 access times); S/152 per adult (about $45)
- Machu Picchu entrance & Mountain hiking access tickets: limited to 800 per day (for 2 access times); S/142 per adult (about $42)
Check out this handy calendar showing ticket availability here. You can also buy your tickets through this (more user friendly) agency website for an extra fee or you can buy your tickets directly at the official (but far less user friendly) website here.
Be aware the official website is a mess and requires three separate steps to reserve, pay and check-in. You then need a printed copy of your check-in document. This post explains the process pretty well. We forgot the check-in part but thankfully the nice porter at our hotel in Aguas Calientes saw that and fixed it.
To repeat, all of this needs to be done BEFORE you arrive at the actual Machu Picchu entrance gate or you will be turned away. Besides actual site entry, no other functions are performed at the gate.
6. Should you add on a hike? Should you hike Huyana Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain?
If ticket availability permits, there are two hiking options you can chose from at Machu Picchu — hiking up Huyana Picchu (also called Wayna Picchu) or hiking up Montana (or Machu Picchu Mountain). Both are pretty strenuous hikes and for individuals who have appropriate fitness levels. Hiking tickets are also checked and enforced so you do need to reserve this in advance if you want to try either hike.
Most people choose Huyana Picchu (elevation 8,750 feet) as the views from the top looking down on Machu Picchu are spectacular. Crowds are managed as only 400 tickets/day are sold that allow access to Huyana Picchu. 200 are allowed in each wave, the first one between 7:00am and 8:00am and the second wave between 10:00am and 11:00am. The hike takes about 3 hours.
Montana (elevation 10,111 feet) is a bit less steep and a bit farther removed from the archeological site. Look for the large rainbow flag on top. 800 tickets/day are sold that allow access to this hike. 400 in each wave that operate at the same two times. The views are still stunning and you get a good view of Huyana Picchu from the top as well as the mountain range. The hike usually tickets between 2–3 hours.
My advice is that if you are fit enough for this option, choose Huyana Picchu if it is available. It has the better views. But rest assured, if Huyana Picchu is not available you will not be disappointed in hiking Montana.
7. How many days should I plan to visit?
One. I know, I thought that was crazy too, but it’s true. If you get up early and catch one of the first busses and plan to spend the entire day there, then you really need only one day to see all of Machu Picchu.
You should try to see the sunrise there, but very often it’s pretty cloudy in the morning, so that’s never a sure bet. You should hike to the sun gate. You should check out every inch of the buildings and the archeological site. Take your time and enjoy your day.
8. My other advice for visiting Machu Picchu
- Bring your passport. Not only do you need your passport to buy a ticket to Machu Picchu, you need to show your passport at the entrance gate. Do not forget this.
- Take sunscreen and bug spray. Trust me when I tell you that you need both — even if it looks cloudy. And, I’m not kidding about the bug spray. When we were walking around I saw a poor girl with welts all over her legs, she had the worst bug bites I’ve ever seen. I then woke up the next day with a few of those bites myself where my skin was exposed. Those bugs are tiny and those bugs are fierce, and their bites take weeks to go away. Don’t believe me? Google search on “Machu Picchu bug bites” if you don’t believe me. Maybe the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu because of the bugs. Possible…
- Dress for hiking, dress in layers and bring something for rain. You will be walking a LOT. Temperatures ranged from hot to pretty chilly, so be prepared. I strongly suggest you take a hat too.
- Hiking shoes are definitely preferred. This is especially true if you choose to hike Huyana Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.
- There are no bathrooms inside the site. There are bathrooms outside of the entrance, but inside the park you are on your own. This is obviously easier on guys than gals (if you know what I mean and I know you do). Oh, and the bathrooms are not free, so bring some local change.
- Bring snacks and water as there is no food inside the site (and there are limited food options outside of the entrance). All you’ll see at the entrance is a choice of a vending machine or an expensive buffet at the Belmond Hotel. They had an ice cream cart too, so you can probably get some expensive ice cream if you really want it.
9. My suggested Machu Picchu travel plan and tips
I recommend that when you land in Cusco you don’t stay there but rather head directly to Machu Picchu. Go right away and experience what you came for, and better ease your way into the high elevation. Cusco is at 11,152 feet, Aguas Calientes is at 6,693 feet. Ease in to the higher elevation there and then visit Cusco after Machu Picchu.
I recommend you book a car upon airport arrival (you can reserve in advance or I saw many of them there) and travel to Ollantaytambo. More trains leave from Ollantaytambo throughout the day and the ride from the airport to the train station is about an hour and a half away. If you get there early, check out the ruins in Ollantaytambo(they are pretty amazing and located in town) or walk around the market and shops.
Take an afternoon train in to Aguas Calientes and plan to spend the night there so you can get up early and hit Machu Picchu. There are many hotels there for all budgets. We stayed at the Inkaterra El MaPi, which I highly recommend. It’s right in town and has wonderful staff, nice rooms and really great food. Do spend some time checking out the town and you can even visit the local hot springs.
Get up super early the next day and plan to get on the 5:30am bus or as close to that as possible and get to Machu Picchu by sunrise. Spend your entire day there and see every inch you can.
You can store your bags at your hotel and plan a late train back, but I recommend you plan a second night in Aguas Calientes. Trust me, if you saw Machu Picchu right, you will be exhausted. You can then take a train in the morning back to Ollantaytambo or back to Cusco (depending on what you reserved).
Do plan to spend a day or two in Cusco as there are many things to see and the people are very nice. Cusco is a beautiful city (and you will now be more acclimated to the elevation!).
Do try and see as much as you an in the Sacred Valley. There are dozens of archeological sites you can visit. Do try to see a few beyond Machu Picchu. We hired a private car from Ollantaytambo and made stops at several in our ride back to Cusco. It was a great decision and worth the money.
Looking for more on your trip? Consider taking PeruRail from Cusco (Ponroy) to Puno (Lake Titicaca) and spending a few days there. Lake Titicaca is the highest elevation (12,507 feet) navigable lake in the world. I could write a whole other post on the sites and wonders of Lake Titicaca (and how I like to say Lake Titicaca) but, this PeruRail journey is an unbelievable experience through the mountains. If you go to Puno, don’t fly there, take this train. You won’t forget the experience.
10. In conclusion
Peru is an incredible country full of amazing things to see and Machu Picchu is simply the gravy on the mashed potatoes. Take your time, and balance your trip planning with allowing free time to connect with the locals and see the many things that will serendipitously come your way. There is just so much to see and do.
As you plan your trip, I’m sure you’ll visit at least 38 websites like I did — and so you should! I just hope this essay helps to put some of the logistical details in a single place. Logging my experience will certainly help me when I visit Peru again (and I definitely plan to return).