Machu Picchu is one of the most amazing places I have ever visited.
Spending the day there was the most incredible experience and it’s something I would highly recommend you do when visiting Peru. It’s a new wonder of the world for a reason!
Machu Picchu was constructed by the Inca people in the 15th century and is probably one of the most iconic symbols of their civilisation. It was a small settlement (only around 750 people would have had space there), but was linked to the Inca leader Pachacutec (Pachakuti). Its location between the Amazon and the Andes, among the mountains and near to the Urubamba River, shows that the position of the city was extremely well thought out. It has a link with the position of the stars in the sky and the sun is taken into account in the construction, which also reflects the amazing skills of the Inca who planned and constructed the site. Along with other sites in the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu showcases the incredible stonework used in building Inca structures.
It was abandoned in the 16th century, around the time of the Spanish conquests, but the Spaniards never discovered it. It wasn’t until 1911, when Hiram Bingham shared his discovery, that the rest of the world saw it for the first time. Remains discovered there seem to suggest that people travelled from all over the country to visit this city, which only solidifies its importance at that time. It was declared a Peruvian Historic Sanctuary in 1981, a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, and was voted one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007.
I visited Machu Picchu back in 2012 and the rules have changed a lot since I visited due to growing visitor numbers and a desire to protect the site from day to day foot traffic. I thought I would put together a little guide to give you an idea of what to expect from your visit to the Inca citadel and some things you really need to know in advance. I’m not going to be giving you prices, figures and routes on how to get there (everybody will be doing it differently), but I will link to the appropriate pages to help you along the way! This is more of a starting point to help you begin to plan your trip and to highlight some important points that are absolute need-to-knows.
1. BUY YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE
You can’t buy your tickets on site at Machu Picchu, so make sure you pick them up in advance either online or while you’re in Peru. Tickets are also limited to a certain number per day (2,500) and are split between two timed entries (see below). You can buy tickets just for Machu Picchu or for the entry plus permission to hike up Machu Picchu mountain or Huayna Picchu mountain. The mountain hikes are further limited in numbers, so if that’s something you’re eager to do, then book well ahead of your visit to avoid disappointment. Be aware that ticket prices for tourists are around double the price than those for nationals and residents, so make sure you buy the correct one and don’t just go for the cheapest option! You can find all the information about Machu Picchu entry prices and ticket information on the Peru tourism site, and you can purchase tickets and check-in on the Machu Picchu site (run by the Ministerio de Cultura – I’ve linked in English).
NOTE: Entry tickets for July to December 2019 are being released on Monday 4th February, but I’ve checked a few dates and there’s still availability from now until July.
2. AVOID RAINY SEASON
This is not necessarily something that will bother everyone, but if you’re wanting to hike to Machu Picchu, then rainy season is definitely not the time to come. In fact in February, the Inca Trail is actually closed, so bare that in mind. Walking in the rain is not great at the best of times, but when landslides are common it can be pretty dangerous – hence the month of closure. I visited in May, which I think is seen as the optimum month to visit, and had the absolute best weather. It did get hot at times (and also freezing at others), but overall great walking weather. Do be aware though that the weather is not guaranteed at any time of the year, so be prepared for anything!
3. BOOK YOUR ROUTE
Decide how you want to get to Machu Picchu – hiking, train, bus, tour – and book it up as soon as you can. Passes for the Inca Trail are extremely limited (I think under 200 people per day are allowed on the trail), so these need to be reserved as far ahead as you can – I got mine through my G Adventures tour (this trip seems to have the closest itinerary to the one I chose). If you can’t get passes for the Inca Trail, then you can normally take the Lares trek instead. The Salkantay is another popular route, but only the Inca Trail gives you the opportunity to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu from the Inti Palka (sun gate), the other treks all finish down in the town. I honestly found the easiest way to do the Inca Trail was by doing an organised tour where they book the trail passes, organise everything for the route, book your bus ticket, train tickets and transfers all in one package. It may end up being a little pricier, but you don’t have to worry about reserving any of it! If hiking isn’t your thing, then you can also choose to take the train (there are different levels of service) to Aguas Calientes and then hop on a bus up to Machu Picchu, but again you’ll need to book your train up before your trip (more train & bus information can be found here).
4. PREPARE FOR THE ALTITUDE
Machu Picchu sits at just over 8,000 feet above sea level, so I highly, highly recommend you spend some time at altitude before visiting the site, especially if you plan to do a hike. I went to Lake Titicaca first, which is even higher in altitude, and then spent some time in Cusco, which pretty much guaranteed we were well acclimatised to the change in pressure before we started our walk. Obviously the altitude can still affect you no matter how well you have prepared, but spending time in the area before you go to Machu Picchu and the hikes will definitely help you. Even if you’re just heading up for the day, you will be walking around for a good few hours, which can still cause problems, so make sure you have plenty of water and take breaks when you need to. Coca tea is available everywhere, which helps to combat the effects, and there are also pills you can take to help with the sickness. If you’re worried about how it might affect you, check with your doctor before you plan a trip.
5. LIMITED HOURS
There are currently two time slots in which you can visit – from 6am to midday and then midday to 5.30pm – so if you want to be one of the first up there, then make sure you get tickets to enter with the first group (another reason to book your tickets well in advance). You won’t be able to stay longer than your timed ticket and you won’t be able to enter any earlier. Your ticket will obviously depend on the route you have chosen to take to get there and if you want to see the site at sunrise or dusk. Just be aware that you won’t be able to spend the whole day exploring the ruins.
6. YOU’LL NEED A GUIDE
You cannot enter Machu Picchu without a guide anymore. Solo wanderings are not allowed, but from what I’ve heard you can hire a guide once you arrive. I imagine that organised tours will have a guide for you, but do make sure to confirm with your tour that you don’t need to hire one yourself! Having a guide is a great way to see these historical sites, as you learn so much information that you wouldn’t otherwise, although I feel like having some time to yourself to take it all in would be an ideal balance. However, I understand that they want to protect the site and by keeping everyone in the same areas they are more able to control people’s behaviour.
7. DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT
This is probably one of the most important things to remember. If you do not have your passport, they will not let you into the site. Imagine you’ve planned everything to perfection but then at the final stage you can’t get in. How awful would that be! I’m sure the majority of you will keep it on hand at all times, but just make sure not to leave it in the hotel safe in Aguas Calientes. Plus, you can pay (I think s/1) to get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp, which is just the perfect souvenir! If you trek the Inca Trail, then you can actually get your passport stamped on every day of the trip along the route.
8. WAKE UP EARLY
Whatever your route (unless you’re taking the bus for the afternoon slot) you will need to be up very, very early, either to be at the front of the queue for the buses (and take advantage of your full time slot) or to begin the last section of the Inca Trail. On the trail we were up at 3am to ensure our place at the front of the gate queue before 4am and it was so worth it. It’s tiring, but you’re so full of adrenalin, excitement and energy that it won’t hit you until you’re on the train home in the afternoon!
I hope this guide has been helpful to you and that you have the most wonderful time when you visit this incredible Inca citadel. You’ll spend the day surrounded by lush green mountains and incredible Inca architecture and you’ll find yourself completely taken in by that gorgeous landscape and the stunning details of the ruins. It’ll be an experience you’ll never forget.