You know the scene — crumbling gray ruins amid vibrant, towering, green mountains with mist rolling in from all sides and a cheeky llama or two in the frame.
Machu Picchu tops many a traveler’s bucket lists, and, indeed, this Peruvian UNESCO World Heritage Site sees around one million visitors every year. The Inca Empire abandoned the mysterious site during the Spanish Conquest of the 1500s, only to have it rediscovered by a curious explorer in the early 1900s. Today, Machu Picchu stands as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
- Location: Urubamba province (70 miles northeast of Cusco)
- Culture: Inca
- Built in: The mid-1400s
- Abandoned: Around 1572
- Height: 7,970 feet (2,430 meters)
- Etymology: Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain” in the Quechua language
- Rediscovered by: Hiram Bingham in 1911
Planning Your Trip
Between entrance tickets, transportation information, booking a group tour, and deciding on whether or not to hike, planning a trip to Machu Picchu can be stressful, to say the least.
First and foremost, you must plan your trip in advance. Don’t expect to be able to just show up and see the famous ruins — it doesn’t work like that. A certain number of visitors are allowed into the site each day, and tickets sell out fast. To ensure that you get to visit during the time that works best for you, plan at least six months in advance (more if you can swing it).
Deciding when to visit is entirely dependent on your own schedule, but there are some seasons you’ll want to avoid. Peak tourist season coincides with dry season (June to August), and although you’ll experience better weather during this time of year, you’ll also have to contend with thick crowds and run the risk of tickets selling out. If you can, try to visit during shoulder season (September to October and April to May), when you’re likely to experience rainy or misty weather, but thinner crowds.
Rainy season lasts from November to April, but note that rain can fall at any time (even during the “dry” season). Also keep in mind that the Inca Trail, the famed trek that leads to the ruins, is closed during the entire month of February for yearly maintenance.
Expect to pay roughly 152 soles ($45 USD) per entrance ticket. You can purchase tickets on the official government website, or from third-party tour companies (but be sure to do your research ahead of time, if you choose to do the latter).
Tickets for the Machu Picchu ruins are available for two separate timetables: morning (from around 6 a.m. to 12 p.m.) and afternoon (from around 12 to 6 p.m.). Always take your arrival plans into consideration when choosing when to buy a ticket. If possible, get to the ruins as early as possible — that way you’ll avoid midday crowds and possibly be able to stay into the afternoon, if you’re lucky!
Though it’s essential to purchase your entrance ticket ahead of time, the same isn’t necessary for your tour ticket. Some visitors choose to visit the Machu Picchu ruins independent of tour groups or guides, while others decide to take advantage of the more structured experience. Unless you’re planning to trek the Inca Trail, it’s okay to book your tour when you get to Cusco. And, if you make it up to the ruins and decide you want to hire a guide after all, there are plenty located outside the entrance available for hire on the spot.
The final thing to keep in mind when planning your trip to Machu Picchu is that you’ll need to acclimate to the high altitude. Thankfully, travelers arriving from Cusco won’t have trouble as the nearby city actually sits at a higher point above sea level than the ruins. Regardless, be sure to bring plenty of water and take breaks if you’re feeling the effects of the altitude.
Most international travelers will arrive at the airport in Lima. From there, you’ll need to make your way to Cusco — either by domestic flight, train, or other transportation — and on to Machu Picchu.
From nearby Cusco, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo, it’s possible to travel by train to Aguas Calientes, the small town that acts as the gateway to the Machu Picchu ruins. There are a variety of options for train travel — PeruRail, IncaRail, or the Belmond Hiram Bingham line (run by PeruRail) — so do a bit of research, check out the timetables, and choose whichever works best for you.
Once you reach Aguas Calientes, you can either hike up to the ruins (plan for at least 90 minutes), or take a bus. Buses leave every 15 minutes, and tickets can be bought in the town for roughly 78 soles ($24 USD) round-trip.
Hiking the Inca Trail can be one of the most fulfilling ways to reach and experience Machu Picchu. The trek takes two to four days, depending on if you complete the full route.
Unlike simply traveling to Machu Picchu, hiking the Inca Trail must be done with a guide, which can make it more expensive than other options. For those wanting to trek to the ruins by way of the famous route, be sure to book your guide well in advance. Like the Machu Picchu entrance tickets, these tours can sell out quickly, considering there are only a certain number of people allowed on the trail at any given time. For that reason, book your Inca Trail guide and your entrance ticket at the same time to ensure your ideal travel plans work out.
Tips for visiting
When packing for your journey, leave drones, umbrellas, walking sticks, and trekking poles at home. All are prohibited at the ruins — with the exception of the latter two, which can be brought in with appropriate coverings on the tips.
Even if your Machu Picchu adventure is scheduled for summer, bring a rain jacket just in case. Peru’s weather is unpredictable, and “dry” season may very well bring unexpected showers.
Be sure to also pack plenty of water and snacks, but don’t eat your food at the ruins. Also note that there is a small café located outside the entrance, which also happens to house the only public bathroom. If you do plan on using the facilities, remember to have some change on hand, as there is a small entrance fee. Your Machu Picchu entrance ticket usually allows for one re-entrance (though not always), so keep that in mind when taking your bathroom breaks. If in doubt, go before you head inside.
To access the ruins of Machu Picchu, you’ll need your passport (and your entrance ticket), so why not add a stamp to its pages while you’re at it? Inside the entrance gate, you’ll find a small passport-stamping station, where you can add your very own Machu Picchu stamp to your collection.
The tall mountain that sits behind the ruins in every Machu Picchu photo isn’t actually Machu Picchu Mountain. It’s called Huayna Picchu. Machu Picchu Mountain is actually behind the photographers taking those traditional, beautiful photos. If you plan to take a guided tour of Machu Picchu, your guide will surely tell you this — but it’s good to know anyway.
Visitors who want to hike should note that separate hiking tickets are required to climb both Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, and tickets can be purchased for roughly 48 soles ($15 USD). These hikes aren’t for the first-timers, either — the Huayna Picchu trail requires a strenuous trek up a steep, narrow path, and the hike to Machu Picchu is almost entirely made up of stairs. But, good news: there are several free hikes from the Machu Picchu ruins. The path to the Sun Gate is a mild two-hour hike round-trip, while the short walk to and from the Inca Bridge will only take you an hour — both of which provide beautiful views of the ruins.
To avoid the crowds upon arrival, head straight for the Guard House. Most visitors rush right into the heart of the ruins, so this scenic overlook will be far less crowded.
Finally, those furry friends you see photobombing everyone’s pictures? They’re friendly. Machu Picchu’s resident llamas are accustomed to being around people, so they’re used to having visitors pet and take photos with them. It’s okay to get close, but, as always with animal encounters, be careful!
Header image by Farhad Panahi