Machu Picchu Travel Guide

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Machu Picchu Travel Guide

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Rediscovered in 1911 and combed through by Yale archaeologies in the ensueing years, the ancient ruins of the Machu Picchu citadel are held in high esteem around the world. The Lost City of the Incas is a stunning and significant Inca site that ranks as the top attraction in Peru, if not South America and the world. Whether you visit Machu Picchu for a day trip or approach it on the renowned Inca Trail over the course of three days, you’ll be entering a mystical, marvelous site – a relatively small plateau between two lush peaks high in the Andes and site of the Inca Empire’s greatest city. Here are the answers to your common questions about a Machu Picchu tour and what not to miss while there.

What is the best month to go to Machu Picchu?

While this ancient and sacred site is accessible year-round, the peak season to visit Machu Picchu is July and August. You’ll battle crowds at this time, but the weather is the most optimal then. The official rainy season is October through April. Expect Sundays to be the most crowded – this is when Cusco residents get in free.


What is the best time of day to visit Machu Picchu?

Plan to visit Machu Picchu in the early morning or mid-afternoon. The heaviest crowds can be expected between 11 AM and 3 PM. The site opens at 6 AM, when trekkers along the Inca Trail start arriving. The first buses from Aguas Calientes leave for the site around 5:30 AM.


How do I avoid altitude sickness at Machu Picchu?

A perfect Machu Picchu tour plan can quickly be thwarted by altitude sickness, characterized by headache, fatigue and nausea. You’ll likely be coming from someone much lower than Machu Picchu (8,000 feet) or Cusco (11,000) feet, so it is imperative that you build in a few days of exploration and sightseeing at lower levels. Either spend the night in Cusco or head to the train station for the rail journey to Aguas Calientas (Machu Picchu Pueblo) and stay there for one or two nights. The Sacred Valley is lower in elevation as compared to the surrounding area, so consider some sightseeing time there as well. Other tips: avoid alcohol and physical exertion as you slowly acclimate to the thinner area, and drink a lot of water.


How many days do you need for Machu Picchu?

It is recommended that you spend a minimum of two days to visit Machu Picchu, with an overnight. To really enjoy the region, consider adding on a day or two in Cusco and Aguas Calientes.


If you are hiking the Inca Trail, you can assume 4 days and three nights on the 26-mile journey. Most of the trail follows the path originally built by the Inca and passes through lush cloud forest and alpine tundra. While there are other routes available, including the Salkantay trek, this is the most classic.

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What is the best way to visit Machu Picchu?

You’ll likely be accessing Machu Picchu from Cusco. From the Cusco train station, take the train to Aguas Calientes (and like we mentioned above, consider a night or two here to acclimate to the elevation). The rail trip is three and a half hours along the Urubamba River canyon the Sacred Valley. Choose from Inca Rail, Peru Rail and the luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham. Other options are to travel from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or overnight in Urubamba.


Perhaps the most renowned way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is via a multi-day trek. Join with a tour operator to hike the Inca Trail (Camino de Inca) – while there are variations in length of hike and the comfort level, all of the treks require camping. Your Machu Picchu tour will enter through the stunning Sun Gate (Inti Punku), making all of your exertion worth it.


Some choose to hike to Machu Picchu by trekking around 20,569-foot Salkantay Mountain. If you’re interested in archaeology, consider the Choquequirao trek, adding on a Machu Picchu portion. You’ll pass through the steep Apurimac Canyon and the Choquequirao archaeology site.


Another option is the Lares hike. This moderate, 21-mile trail is less crowded than the Inca Trail and there are fewer restrictions on the path. It’s a more solitary experience than Inca, for sure.


How difficult is Machu Picchu hike?

The Inca Trail trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu isn’t your standard weekend backpacking trip. You’ll want to have a good base of physical fitness before arriving in Peru and make sure that you acclimate before starting the hike. It’s not one of the world’s most physically challenging hikes, but it’s dramatic ascents and descents and overall conditions make it a task worth training a bit for.


How much does it cost to visit Machu Picchu?

Expect an Inca Trail tour to cost anywhere from $700 to $2,000 per person, the higher end being much more luxurious. Check with your tour operator to ensure that it is registered, maintains its operator’s license and has all the necessary permits required. A middle-range Inca Trail tour may include two nights in a hotel in Cusco, an extra hotel night in Ollantaytambo, private transportation, meals on the trail, the permit, camping gear, entrance ticket and a guided tour of Machu Picchu and a support team (porters, chefs, etc.).


How many steps are there in Machu Picchu?

There are around 1,600 steps laid down by Inca builders when they were creating the trail. The National Archeological Park of Machu Picchu has recently helped restore the path, cementing this as one of the top attractions in South America.

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Can you spend the night at Machu Picchu?

You can spend the night near Machu Picchu, in Agua Calientes, or at one of the luxury resorts, like Sanctuary Lodge, that are right near the entrance. If you are visiting on a day trip from Agua Calientes, as opposed to doing the full trek from Cusco, you’ll have about four hours at the Lost City of the Incas (and can explore the ruins after most of the tourists have left). You can hike the steep trail from Aguas Calientes to the site (about 90 minute each way) or take purchase a bus ticket for the 30-minute ride.


If you’re not with a tour operator, who already has procured your admission ticket, you can purchase one at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Agua Calientas. You will be required to hire a local guide in order to enter the gates of Machu Picchu – if you haven’t procured one already, there will be plenty waiting at the entrance.


Machu Picchu Travel Trips


What to Bring: Lots of water, a raincoat (even when it looks sunny, rainstorms pop up frequently), loads of SPF, a sunhat, insect repellents, one soles coins for the bathroom. Ditch the umbrella, drones and hiking sticks – they’re all prohibited.


Be Sure To: Get a Machu Picchu “stamp” in your passport just outside the entrance gates.


How to Climb Huayna Picchu Peak: Purchase a separate entrance ticket to climb this iconic peak (only a limited number of tickets are sold, so book in advance). You can depart at 7 AM or 10 AM – the clouds will have lifted by 10 AM, so if you can, consider the later start time.


How to Visit Machu Picchu Mountain Peak: You’ll need a separate ticket for this hike, too, which is most comprised of stairs and departs at 7 AM or 9 AM.


Sun Gate Hike: There is no charge to take the gentle walk up to the Sun Gate (it takes about two hours roundtrip). Or, take a shorter walk to the Inca Bridge to view areas of the trail that are now closed, but which ran right along a steep rock face.

Highlights of Machu Picchu

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Intihuatana Stone

Climb the staircase to this sacred stone pillar, whose name translates to “hitching post of the sun.” Notice that the corners point to the four cardinal points. The sun indicates the positioning of the sun. The creators designed it such that, at noon or on either equinox, the stone’s shadow disappears momentarily.


The Royal Tomb

More than 100 skeletons have been excavated from the Royal Tomb, where it is believed that sacrificial and burial rituals were performed. There are ceremonial baths located to the left of the tomb – marvel at the masonry and engineering skills of the Incas.

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Huayna Picchu

Hike the triangular mountain that juts up behind Machu Picchu – but book your ticket in advance (you’ll get an allocated time slot). It takes about an hour to climb the steep trail, but the views of Machu Picchu from above are worth every courageous step.


Temple of the Moon/The Great Cavern

If you’re climbing Huayna Picchu, consider taking the long way back. You’ll go behind the rock and visit the Temple of the Moon and the Great Cavern. It’s a nice break from the crowds and a fantastic opportunity to see less-visited sites.


Guards’ Quarters

You’ll enter the south side of Machu Picchu through the Guards’ Quarters, then walk to the Caretaker’s Hut and the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock. The latter is one of the site’s highest viewpoints, allowing you to see more than 100 agricultural terraces where the Inca grew their year-round crops.


Main Gate/Temple of the Sun

The Main Gate is a massive entrance door leading to the Royal Tomb and the Temple of the Sun. Notice how the temple’s windows are positioned for summer and winter solstice. The Sacred Plaza nearby has three sides – the Principal Temple is the most stunning with its monolithic horizontal stones.

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Machu Picchu Mountain (Montana)

Like Huayna Picchu, book a ticket in advance for this hike to gain a rarely seen view of the site. The trailhead is near the Caretaker’s Hut.


Prison Group/The Temple of the Condor

Look to the east side of Machu Picchu and you’ll see a jumble of cells that were together known as the Prison Group. The Temple of the Condor – with its carving said to resemble the massive bird – is here, as well.


Machu Picchu Walks
Take one of the many short, easy walks around the ancient site – particularly if you’re not up for the steep trek up Huayna Picchu. As you head up to the Caretaker’s Hut, go right to the Inca Drawbridge. Or, take the hour roundtrip hike to the Sun Gate – this is where trekkers on the Inca Trail first see Machu Picchu.

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Machu Picchu Sunrise

The early bird gets the most sublime views at Machu Picchu. Catch the earliest bus, get ahead of the crowds and catch the sunrise at The Lost City of the Incas.


Temple of Three Windows

Think you have a great sunrise view out your picture window at home? Check out the Temple of Three Windows, one of the oldest structures at the site. The windows (there used to be five and now are three) were built so they exactly align with the sunrise.

Other things to do around Machu Picchu

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Spend a few extra days in the Sacred Valley if you can. Tour Cusco and Ollantaytambo. Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire and offers an interesting look at pre-Colombian heritage and architecture. Include the sites of Sacsayhuaman, Koricancha and the Cusco Cathedral in your visit. Ollantaytambo reflects Andean culture and Peruvian indigenous culture – it has been inhabited since the 13th century.


Stop into the vibrant Pisac traditional market and Pisac ruins. Or, visit the Moray ruins and the Salineras salt mines. In Moray, you’ll notice terraced circular depressions, a reminder of the Inca’s crop experimentations.

Consider, too, a day trip from Cusco to the mind-blowing Rainbow Mountain, a dizzying sight of red, yellow and orange. The mountain has always existed, yes, but this colorful feature was not discovered until climate change caused the thick layers of Andean snow and ice to melt away. A somber fact, to be sure. If you’d like to hike to the summit, it is suggested that you have already acclimated to the higher altitude.


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