Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is the reason to get on the plane and visit Peru, and South America overall. Because visiting Machu Picchu should be the highlight of your travels, planning this trip can be stressful. We visited Machu Picchu twice, and in this post, we've covered every topic and every single thing you need to know before visiting this sacred place in the Peruvian mountains.
Martin and I have been discussing our visits (yes, they were two) of Machu Picchu many times, and we always came to the same conclusion.
It was the best thing we've done in South America.
When speaking about Machu Picchu, you've probably heard many times poetic words about a mysterious citadel high in the mountains, about a dream-like Incan ruin hidden in the green hills and about the mist which, like a silk veil, rolls in and out, covering and uncovering all the beauty.
And do you know what?
All those statements about Machu Picchu are true.
It doesn't happen that often (at least to us) that over-hyped and overly visited places - Machu Picchu sees around 1 500 000 travelers every year - live up to the expectations, but Machu Picchu not only lived up to our expectations, it completely exceeded it.
Because of many recent changes and new regulations which came into force on January 1st, 2019, we've put together a list of things you need to know before visiting Machu Picchu, one of World's Seven Wonders, aiming to help you with planning an unforgettable day. This post covers everything we could have think of, all topics we wanted to know the answer to before visiting Machu Picchu.
Did we forget something?
Do not hesitate to contact us via comment section under this post as we want to keep our blog as up to date as possible.
MACHU PICCHU AND TOURISM
Nowadays, who does not blog about over tourism is like he doesn’t exist, and who doesn't write long captions about this problem on Instagram does not exist twice as much.
We don't want to trivialize these problematics, because over tourism is a serious issue, but everyone who wants to enjoy the beauty of traveling is part of it (including travel bloggers), and there is very little we can do about it unless we want to stay put and only read about amazing places such as Machu Picchu.
We believe that everyone has the right to see nature or architecture in the same state as others had seen it before and the only thing we can do is to behave sustainably and try to cause as little impact on the places we visit as we can.
On the other hand, governments and tourism boards have much more power to deal with over tourism.
That's why, Machu Picchu, like some other excessively famous places around the world, see many changes and regulations lately.
What can the government do to protect their shining stars to make sure that the significant and important income for the country and glue for their economy won't die out?
It is possible to increase prices, regulate how much time you can spend on the site, what can you bring with you, tell you if you need a guide or not, or how long in advance you must buy your tickets. Some of those rules have been applied on Machu Picchu this year, so we will walk you through all the changes to ensure your time on site will be well spent.
There is one small problem.
Peru is still not a first-world country, and unfortunately it is a country dealing with a lot of corruption, and many other issues and new rules don't mean that everything works the way as it should even when it is written in black and white. That's why we provide you here with official information on how the visit of Machu Picchu should have looked like in the ideal world, but there is a chance that those rules won't be 100% enforced during your visit.
WHEN TO VISIT MACHU PICCHU
You can visit Machu Picchu at any time of the year, which is great as you can plan this trip according to your schedule, yet there are still things you should know and consider before booking the flight ticket.
Peru has two distinct seasons - the dry season is Peruvian winter when you can expect sunny weather and lower temperatures at nights and in the mornings (although it still rains more in Machu Picchu even during the dry season than in the rest of the country). This season runs from May to October which coincides with tourist season which is in its peak from June to August.
If you are planning on visiting Machu Picchu during this time, you should consider booking your tickets in advance, or at least follow the official website to see if tickets for your desired date are running low or not. When you search for photos of Machu Picchu, you still can see, that blue skies are not that common in the area, not even during the dry season.
Summer, from November to March, brings higher temperatures, rain, and thinner crowds. We visited Machu Picchu twice in November, and it was not that crowdy as we have expected, but there were still quite lots of people considering it was low season. During this time you can expect anything from sunshine, overcast to light and heavy rain, sometimes all those types of weather within one day.
We visited Machu Picchu deliberately at the beginning of the rainy season because we hoped to take the killer foggy photo of the ruins with misty hills behind, and it miraculously worked out. As always weather in the mountains can turn either way, so come well prepared.
The heaviest rain is in February this is also the time when the Inca Trail is closed, as landslides can occur and the experience for hikers would not be positive, but it is also a time when you'll have the citadel almost for yourself.
HOW TO GET TO MACCHU PICCHU
You have several options on how to reach Machu Picchu, and you can opt for the way which suits your budget and level of fitness the best. Generally, there is only one way how you can reach Machu Picchu directly otherwise you need to get to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to the site, first.
Train | There does not exist a more iconic way how to get to Aguas Calientes than by train, sneaking through valleys and offering an extraordinary experience. Currently, there are two companies running trains to Machu Picchu - Inca Rail and Peru Rail, which also runs the most upscale Belmond Hiram Bingham train. There are several types of tickets, and the cheapest are likely to sell out fast, so make your reservation in advance. You can take a train from Cusco (the station is not directly in Cusco but 20 minutes away by car in Poroy) or from Ollantaytambo. We traveled by train twice during our time in Peru, and it was an extraordinary way how to get from Machu Picchu back to Cusco.
Bus | It might come as a surprise that Aguas Calientes is not connected with Cusco or Ollantaytambo by road, and the only way how to get to Aguas Calientes when using public transport or when traveling by rental car is to get to a place called Hydroelectrica. There is no direct bus from Cusco to Hydroelectrica, but you can get there, only by using several vans. From Hydroelectrica, you must either take a train (it will be cheaper than from Ollantaytambo or Poroy) or walk 3 to 4 hours to Aguas Calientes. All the cheapest tours from Cusco offer this service, which is called Machu Picchu by bus.
Hiking | One of the most popular ways, especially among backpackers and all nature enthusiast, is to reach Machu Picchu on foot. There are several hikes which will take you through magnificent scenery to this famous sanctuary in the mountains, but there is only one trek in the world which will take you to Machu Picchu directly. This trek is called the Inca Trail, and we believe you've already heard about this one. The Inca Trail has been many times voted among the best hikes in the world and needs to be booked several months in advance. If you think that this trek would be the right adventure for you, you can read more about it in our post dedicated to hiking the Inca Trail.
Because the Inca Trail is expensive and often fully-booked, Salkantay Trek is a great alternative for all who wants to enjoy Peruvian mountains without breaking the bank and without planning too much ahead. The only difference is that you will finish your hike in Aguas Calientes, not in the Machu Picchu. Unlike many, we've done both hikes, so you can read our comparison of the Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek to better decide which trek would be the right one for you.
Another alternative (and less crowded) routes to Machu Picchu are for example Lares Trek or Chaski Trail, but they finish even further from Aguas Calientes, so you will still need to use bus or train to get there.
HOW TO GET FROM AGUAS CALIENTES TO MACHU PICCHU
There are two ways how to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, and good news, one of them is free!
Hiking | If you decide on hiking, you need to get to the edge of Aguas Calientes, cross the bridge across Urubamba River and start making your way up to the hill. Be ready for an hour-long ascent (it takes about 45 minutes to get down), as Machu Picchu sits 600 meters above Aguas Calientes. This is for sure a way for all people who from whatever reason want to reach Machu Picchu on foot or for those who want to save some money.
It is good to know in advance how's your physical ability - you don't want to arrive at Machu Picchu exhausted. You don't need to be worried that you'll be hiking all the time on the road as there are short cuts between zig-zags, and stairs in the hill, also this trail is well-signposted.
If you want to reach Machu Picchu early (it opens at 6 AM), do not forget headtorch!
Shuttle Bus | The 25-minutes long ride by shuttle bus is the most comfortable how to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, but it is also bloody expensive for what it offers. One way ticket cost $19 and a roundtrip ticket is for $34.
You can buy your ticket via the Machu Picchu official website, on the bus stop one day in advance or here .
The first bus (Consettur company has a monopoly here) leaves from Avenida Hermanos Ayar at 5:30 AM, and then regularly every 15 or so minutes. Because most of the visitors want to visit Machu Picchu early in the morning, there were usually people queuing at the bus stop at least one hour before as the bus ticket was not for a specific time slot.
At the moment, you can still buy open shuttle tickets which we found a bit confusing taking into account the new Machu Picchu entry system. Until 2018, there were two slots - morning and afternoon, and it depended on a visitor what time he wanted to arrive. However, from 2019, you must book your Machu Picchu ticker for a specific time, therefore we don't understand why you can not make a reservation for the shuttle for the exact time as well. We can only advice you to come to the bus station well ahead of time (at least a half an hour) because you don't want to spend precious minutes from your visit on the bus (more about the new ticket system later).
Apparently, workers for the bus company create every day separate queues for every time slot to ensure everyone will get to the entrance on time, so when you have a feeling that you are running late look for them and they should give you priority.
HOW TO BUY TICKETS FOR MACHU PICCHU
At the moment, you can buy your Machu Picchu tickets via the official website, which is the most direct and stress-free way how to purchase them. In that case, you must pay online.
The other alternative is to buy tickets to Machu Picchu in an authorized travel office in Cusco (in the Garcilaso House or on Calle Maruri 324, but there is a risk there won't be tickets available for your selected day. In Cusco, you can pay for the tickets either by credit card or cash.
TICKETS TO MACHU PICCHU
Buying the Machu Picchu ticket is the most important process, so we will walk you through it step by step.
There are no more morning and afternoon slots, but from the beginning of this year you must buy your ticket for a specific time slot - you won't be allowed to enter Machu Picchu site before or after this time slot, so make sure you will arrive at the gate on time. You can buy your ticket only for the ruins or for the combination of ruins and ascend to one of two mountains.
There is around 6000 tickets available daily, but believe it or not, this enormous number of tickets is very likely to sell out, especially between months of June and September.
The most popular time was always early morning, so if it is relevant for you to visit the place among the firsts on that day (and enjoy the sunrise when lucky), you must book your ticket well ahead as this time slot is usually the first sold out. There are hourly time slots from 6 AM with the last one at 2 PM.
As per the new rules, you can stay in the Machu Picchu area only 4 hours, but it is almost impossible to enforce this rule unless visitors would have been all the time harassed by guards who would have to ask them over and over again what time did they enter (this rule should be more strict).
The entrance for Machu Picchu ruins only cost $70 and $ 41 for students under 25 and for minors between age 8 - 17.
HUAYNA PICCHU & MACHU PICCHU MOUNTAIN TICKETS
Not many people know before their visit that the mountain behind the ruins of Machu Picchu is not Machu Picchu Mountain, but Huayna Picchu. If you are fascinated by the sublime beauty of this place, you can choose to climb one of those mountains (climbing two during one visit would have been overkill, and there is not even possible to buy such ticket).
When climbing to either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, you can spend 6 hours on the site instead of generally allocated 4 hours. Both hikes are pretty strenuous, the trek to Huayna Picchu is almost entirely made of stairs, and takes two hours while the hike to Machu Picchu Mountain takes three hours return.
When you decide to extend your time in Machu Picchu and get the view from above providing you with a different perspective about the Incan city, you need to book your ticket in advance - Huayana Picchu is the more sought-after trek out of those two.
Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu Ticket | This ticket cost $86 per adult person ($57 for students under 25 years or kids 8 - 17 years old), and only 400 people can do the hike daily. There are three specific time slots to climb Huayna Picchu (sometimes spelled Wayna Picchu), but because of the limits, it is better to make your reservation at least three months in advance, especially during the dry season as this hike is more popular than the one to Machu Picchu Mountain.
Huayna Picchu time slots:
Entrance to Machu Picchu from 6 AM with access to Huayna Picchu between 7 AM and 8 AM
Entrance to Machu Picchu from 7 AM with access to Huayna Picchu between 7 AM and 8 AM
Entrance to Machu Picchu from 8 AM with access to Huayna Picchu between 10:30 AM and 11:30 AM
Machu Picchu & Machu Picchu Mountain | Hike to Machu Picchu Mountain is less demanding, and although the views are equally beautiful, not that many people are interested in climbing to its top, that's why the quota is 800 people daily.
The cost of this combo ticket is also $86 per adult person ($57 for students under 25 years or kids 8 - 17 years old) and Machu Picchu Mountain time slots are the following:
Entrance to Machu Picchu from 6 AM with access to Machu Picchu Mountain between 7 AM and 8 AM
Entrance to Machu Picchu from 7 AM with access to Machu Picchu Mountain between 7 AM and 8 AM
Entrance to Machu Picchu from 8 AM with access to Machu Picchu Mountain between 9 AM and 10 AM
MACHU PICCHU & MUSEUM
The least demanded ticket is the one combining Machu Picchu site and the museum of Manuel Chávez Ballón which cost $77.
If you want to know even more about Machu Picchu, go for this option, but we are not sure if it is worth it, especially when you'll get lots of information from your guide (when you take one).
Also, the entrance to the museum is free after 12 PM, so we don't see any reason to pay $7 more for this service.
ONCE YOU'VE BOUGHT YOUR TICKET
Once you've secured your spot, congratulations!
Now, you need to print out your ticket and do not forget to pack it with you. Also, if you are eligible for a student or minor discount, you need to send your student ID, passport or ID card to this email after you make the booking otherwise your reservation can be canceled!
YOU CAN RE-ENTER MACHU PICCHU, BUT...
At the moment, according to the official Machu Picchu website, you can re-enter Machu Picchu once, although you can often read that it is not possible - there is also a sign saying that you cannot return once you leave close to the exit gate, so it is a bit confusing- to be 100% sure, ask the guards.
From our understanding, it seems that only those, who had booked climb to one of two mountains, either Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu, can re-enter the site because it would have been impossible to make the climb and the sightseeing part within four hours.
What is for sure impossible is to retrace your steps.
If it is cloudy and rainy and you will leave the viewing platform where the most classic photos are taken from and start the tour around Machu Picchu, with a hope to come back when the weather improves, we would like to inform you that this is impossible.
Once you are on the trail you only have to move forward and follow the circuit - there are many guards with whistles watching, and you won't stand a chance.
Sun Gate is one of the most sacred places in the whole Machu Picchu.
It is the place from where you can see the Lost City for the first time when hiking the Inca Trail which feels both magnificently and rewarding. And why is this structure, Sun Gate alias Inti Punku so important? Through this gate, the rising sun would pass each year on the summer solstice (December 21 in Peru) - this phenomenon was crucial for Inca people and is still celebrated in Peru every year.
There is only one tiny little disadvantage of climbing to Sun Gate - it is very often foggy up there in the morning, so getting a clear view is almost a miracle.
If you decide on hiking to Sun Gate, do it right after you enter Machu Picchu grounds. It takes approximately one hour, and you will gain an additional 300 meters. Once you get back, you will emerge on the viewing platform and from here you can start your tour.
DO YOU NEED A GUIDE FOR MACHU PICCHU
As of January 1st, 2019, it is compulsory to have a guide in Machu Picchu - in other words, you cannot enter Machu Picchu without one.
You don't need to worry about it if your visit of Machu Picchu is a part of a tour, or if Machu Picchu is your final destination on an organized Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek because your guide for the entire trek has also a license for showing you around the citadel.
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It is different when you are visiting Machu Picchu on own.
You can find your guide in Aguas Calientes, but there are also guides standing at the entrance where you can choose one. The guided service should cost around $50 based on two people and two and a half hour long tour - although every guide must speak English and have a degree in tourism, quality can vary, so do not hesitate to 'test' your guide before hiring him.
You don't need to have a guide for your second visit in case you plan on entering Machu Picchu the same day in a different time slot or the day after (believe it or not, but some people book more visits just in case the weather won't be perfect the first day) - you only need to prove that you had a guided tour the day before (the ticket from the previous day and the name of the guide).
A guide for climbing Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayana Picchu is not compulsory.
As of May 2019, we don't have any information that this new rule would have been strictly enforced in Machu Picchu and it seems, that you can still visit the site on own, although it is against official rules.
When you arrive in Cusco, which is for many a base for visiting Machu Picchu, you will soon find out that the whole city is buzzing with stories about people who failed to travel to Machu Picchu because they were struggling with altitude sickness.
You for sure don't want to be a part of these stories. Machu Picchu itself is not that high, 2430 meters above sea level (some people can feel the altitude there as well though), but Cusco, Sacred Valley area, Salkantay Trek, the Inca Trail or Rainbow Mountain are high in the mountains, and you need to acclimatize properly to adapt your body for functioning in the thin air.
We believe that you would want to enjoy your time in Cusco area to the fullest, so give yourself at least two days to acclimatize!
One girl from our group on the Inca Trail had joined us only for the last day because she ended up in the hospital after hiking the Rainbow Mountain.
Drink lots of water, don’t drink alcohol, buy a herbal substance for inhaling in any pharmacy in Cusco, chew coca leaves or drink coca tea - all of these things help to deal with altitude sickness.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCOCusco offers a large network of reasonably priced hotels in the historical part of the city, and you don't need to stay anywhere on the outskirt to save money when traveling on a budget.
Budget | Cusco Bed and Breakfast - Spacious and clean rooms, comfortable beds, very quiet at night, excellent location.
Mid-range | Tierra Viva Cusco Centro - Providing a tranquil environment, beautiful rooms and also has one of the top-rated locations in Cusco.
Luxury | JW Marriott El Convento Cusco - The hotel features impressive interiors, has a charming colonial courtyard, luxury rooms and Cusco’s cathedral or main square are only 3 blocks away.
WHAT TO PACK FOR MACHU PICCHU
It is likely that you want to look pretty on your pictures from Machu Picchu, so wear whatever you think is appropriate, but after our two visits to this place, we've handpicked five essentials you should not visit the citadel without.
Rain Poncho | It rains a lot in Machu Picchu, so bring your rain poncho as there is no place to hide.
Re-usable Water Bottle | You can take water with you to the grounds, but you should not bring any plastic bottles with you. It is possible that you won't be let in with single-use plastic bottles.
Hiking Boots for Him & for Her | There are many steps in Machu Picchu which can be slippery at times, and although you should be fine only with your sneakers, for better comfort we recommend proper hiking boots.
Daypack | According to the fine print, your backpack should not be larger than 20 liters - it is enough to pack inside water, warm layers and rain gear.
We've also created Packing List for the Inca Trail to help you figure out what to bring and what to leave behind.
PASSPORT & PASSPORT STAMP
When visiting Machu Picchu, you must bring the passport with you.
When booking your Machu Picchu entrance tickets, you need to fill in your passport number, and an employee behind the country will check if the number on the ticket matches with your passport. It is also essential to have your passport ready (original, no photocopies), when you are going to hike the Inca Trail otherwise, they won't let you on the trail.
Machu Picchu is a unique site, and if you want, you can get a pretty unusual stamp into your passport.
When we visited Machu Picchu for the first time, we couldn't see the place where we can stamp our passport (we were not looking for it hard anyway), but during our second visit our guide pointed us to a small wooden table - it is on your left when leaving the gate of the site - sometimes there's an employee who will handle the process for you, but often you need to stamp your passport by yourself!
There are many regulations you need to meet in order to be allowed entry inside the Lost City of Machu Picchu, but the question is how hard those regulations will be enforced on the day of your visit.
When visiting the site, your backpack should have the following size: 40 cm x 35 cm x 20 cm (20 liters or 5 kilograms in weight), but we were let in with 34 liters backpack. We think that this rule has only one goal: you should not show up with your regular travel backpack because you could cause damage when walking around the ancient walls otherwise there should not be a problem.
It is not allowed to enter Machu Picchu with drones, hiking poles, tripods or selfie sticks as well. Older people can carry a cane, but with a rubber tip, not with a metal one.
If your backpack is larger or you carry one of the things mentioned above, you can leave it in the lockers before entering Machu Picchu.
BATHROOM & FOOD
Bad news, there are no bathrooms or food stalls in Machu Picchu. Make sure you use the bathroom before you enter the site. It is right in front of the entrance and costs two soles.
When it comes to food and water, bring your own. The ticket says that eating inside the site is prohibited, but you can bring a small snack with you, only try not to eat too openly, and it comes without saying that you should not litter. Also, you should bring your water in re-usable flasks or canteens, because Machu Picchu tries to fight against single-use plastic bottles.
Aguas Calientes is a small town benefiting from its proximity to the entrance of Machu Picchu, and the chances are that you will visit this place at least once during your time in Peru. If you are taking the train to Machu Picchu, you will get off at Aguas Calientes, and you will also board the train here back to Cusco. All hiking tours finish here as well. Generally, it does not matter if you are traveling to Machu Picchu independently or with a tour, you will spend some time in Aguas Calientes.
The town 'unexpectedly' lives from tourism. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops or ATMs. If you have some time to kill, there are hot pools in Aguas Calientes, therefore the fitting name, by the way.
Travelers usually spend one night in Aguas Calientes, either before or after visiting Machu Picchu, and you can feel the atmosphere of excitement all over the town. We've handpicked three hotels for every budget, so you can make your reservation ahead - hotels tend to fill quickly, especially from June to May, when the high season is in full swing.
Budget | Machupicchu Packer - For the price, this is the best pick in Aguas Calientes. Breakfast, strong wifi, solid water pressure and luggage storage are the main features of this hotel.
Mid-range | Casa Andina Standard Machu Picchu - Magnificient hotel overlooking Urubamba River offers the real five-star comfort where you can make this trip even more special.
Luxury | Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel - Magnificient hotel overlooking Urubamba River offers the real five-star comfort where you can make this trip even more special.
There is only one hotel close to Machu Picchu, outside of Aguas Calientes, and if you can afford the ridiculously overpriced rooms, Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is the place where you can wake up with the views of mountains surrounding the citadel.
TRAVEL SMART - SIMPLE AND FLEXIBLE TRAVEL INSURANCE
We never leave our home without travel insurance which is designed to help cover your expenses if something goes wrong on your trip. World Nomads Travel Insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover your trip essentials. Don't forget to arrange your insurance before arriving in Peru!