Machu Picchu is made up of a complex of palaces and plazas, temples and homes may have been built as a ceremonial site, a military stronghold, or a retreat for ruling elites—its dramatic location is certainly well suited for any of those purposes. It is evidence of the urban Inca Empire at the peak of its power and achievement—a citadel of cut stone fit together without mortar. The ruins lie on a high ridge, surrounded on three sides by the windy, turbulent Urubamba River, 2,000 feet below.
1. When To Go
Peru has two seasons, wet and dry. Deciding what time of year to visit Machu Picchu involves balancing tradeoffs. May through October is the dry season. This means less likelihood of rain but also greater crowding, especially of Peruvian travelers for whom it is prime vacation time, and higher pricing.
During the rainy season, November through April, prices and crowds drop considerably but mudslides have been an occasional problem, temporarily stranding visitors. The Inca Trail is closed in February for maintenance, though visitors can still tour the Machu Picchu ruins.
2. How to get to Machu Picchu, from Cusco
By train: There are a number of different types of train offered by Peru Rail, Machu Picchu Trains and Inca rail, varying in luxury. Trains depart from Poroy and Ollantaytambo. Poroy is 8 miles from Cusco and is accessible by bus and taxi. Ollantaytambo is roughly 56 miles from Cusco and is accessible by bus, taxi and train.
By foot: Visitors can take the Inca Trail for the full experience and to explore the surrounding environment in its fullest. Trails vary in route and length – the classic path takes four days to compete but alternative options are available.
3. Trail tickets and park passes
Visitors can visit the Machu Picchu ruins, for which there is no cap on admissions. Admission to the park is by pre-purchased ticket only, and you will need your passport for both purchase and admission.
Tickets for the Machu Picchu ruins and Huayna Picchu must be purchased either before leaving Cusco from the Instituto Nacional de Cultura off the Plaza de Armas or once you arrive in Aguas Calientes at the Machu Picchu Cultural Center set off the central plaza.
The entrance fee to the ruins is S/126 and you must pay in soles. Entry to the Inca Trail leading into Machu Picchu is by permit only and with a licensed guide accredited by the Unidad de Gestion Santuario Historico de Machu Picchu.
To reduce damage to the trail from traffic, the Peruvian government strictly limits the numbers of passes issued to 500 per day. Inca Trail permits must be bought in advance, either before leaving Cusco or online from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. If you plan to arrive during the peak season, reserve your pass four to five months ahead. If traveling in the off-season, you may be able to purchase passes before leaving Cusco, particularly if you’re able to be flexible in your hiking dates.
Passes are issued by passport, eliminating the possibility of exchanging passes. Booking through a tour company does not guarantee you an Inca Trail ticket as tour companies are limited to a set number of Inca Trail passes per group.
Hiking Huayna Picchu, the mountain that forms the backdrop of nearly every photograph of the Machu Picchu ruins, will require you to acquire a permit in advance. Four hundred passes are issued per day on a first-come first-served basis: 200 for the 7:00AM slot and 200 for the 11:00AM slot. Entrance to Huayna Picchu is on the path behind the Sacred Rock in the Machu Picchu Ruins.
4. Guided tour or Independent
It’s entirely possible to visit Machu Picchu independently. However, there are no information boards to explain what you’re looking at, what the buildings were for or any other background information. If you want someone to help bring the site alive for you, it’s worth investing on a good guide.
One disadvantage of a guided tour is that you’re required to follow the one-way system through the site – enforced by very polite and friendly, yet firm guardians.
However, there’s nothing stopping you going round once with your guide and then going round a second time on your own to experience more of the site at your own pace.
5. Aguas Caliente
Most people only stay one night between finishing the Inca Trek and before visiting Machu Picchu, or having arrived by train. Staying longer gives you a lot more options.
The town at the foot of Machu Picchu has a few of its own attractions and activities including the hot springs the town was named after and nearby activities such as white water rafting and cloud-forest hiking trails. However, the main advantage is that you can visit Machu Picchu at different times of the days.
Some people prefer to be at the site in the afternoon when the larger morning crowds have gone and you get golden afternoon sunlight. Alternatively on day one, you could visit the main site before climbing the very steep steps up Huanya Picchu for a view down to the site. On day two, hike the longer but steadier climb to Machu Picchu Mountain for views down towards Huanya Picchu.
6. Sacred Valley
Don’t miss the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
If you arrive in Cusco and only hop the train to Machu Picchu, you are missing out on the jewel of the Andes. This region of rugged mountains and colorful market towns is one of the top places in all of South America. Be sure to allow time to visit the vibrant villages of Pisac, with its famous Sunday market and handicrafts, and Ollantaytambo, where the streets date back to the Incan times.
You can choose to explore the valley trails by bicycle, on horseback, or on foot. Near the highland village of Chinchero, try lake kayaking at the Piuray or Huaypo lagoons to take in the beautiful views of the snowcapped Urubamba range rising above the network of farms.
Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, is located at a very high altitude, 11,152ft. Many travelers arriving into this city experience symptoms of altitude sickness that range from a splitting headache to an upset stomach.
Whenever possible, you should plan your trip to move from lower to higher altitudes so that you can acclimatize as you go. Most trails leading into Machu Picchu involve summiting a 14,000 foot pass. The traditional Inca Trail involves summiting two passes of this altitude. The traditional remedy for altitude sickness is coca leaf tea. It’s safe and won’t get you high, but avoid bringing back to the States as coca is a controlled substance in the U.S.
Four tips on preventing altitude sickness on the Inca Trail:
- Spend two to three days in Cusco prior to trek. You can explore the nearby Inca ruins, visit a weaving community in the neighboring Sacred Valley, wander through the local market while you give your body a chance to acclimate.
- Slow down. On the Inca Trail, slow and steady wins the race. It’s normal to feel the urge to keep up. Instead of giving into the temptation to rush, slow to a pace that allows you to keep your breathing under control. Huffing and puffing is a sure sign that you are hiking too fast.
- Hydrate. Dehydration is your enemy at high altitude. This is because in the thin, high altitude air, sweat evaporates almost as fast as it forms. Dehydration makes you more vulnerable to altitude sickness. So, make sure to drink plenty of fluids as you hike.
- Medication. Talk to your doctor about taking medication that can help your body adjust to the altitude. The two biggest mistakes people who bring medication make are to start taking it too late and to stop taking it too soon.
8. Recommended Vaccinations for Machu Picchu
- Hepatitis A
- Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
- Diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus (DPT)
- Yearly flu shot
9. Machu Picchu entrance rules
General access rules.
Every visitor must have valid identification that matches the details on his or her ticket. Without such identification, access can be denied.
the ticket must be used on the correct date.
The following will not be granted entry into Machu Picchu:
- customers found under the influence of toxic substances, alcohol, drugs or other substances
- firearms or air guns, ammunition, explosives, inflammable substances or other similar objects
- bows and arrows, hunting or fishing implements, axes, machetes, knives whose blades exceeded 7 cm in length, picks, shovels or other tools.
- any type of trap to capture fauna specimens
- fuels such as kerosene, diesel oil and gasoline
- sound equipment
- pets and exotic species
- visitors who demonstrate bad behavior
10. Machu Picchu “New” Rules
The use of hiking poles, even with rubber tips, is now also prohibited. In addition, Machu Picchu will also be debuting a new schedule designed to increase the number of visitors who can access the park.
The park will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and again from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
To cut down on the inevitable wear and tear that comes with increased use, park personal may soon require visitors to wear shoes with rubber soles to explore some areas of the archeological site.