Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Every year, millions of people visit the imposing and mysterious Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru. But getting to the massive agricultural terraces, intricate stone constructions, and epic hilltop views of this UNESCO World Heritage site isn’t cheap, and it involves some trickier-than-usual logistics. Here’s how to expertly navigate your way to Peru’s most famous destination.
When to Go to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is open year-round. October through April is the official rainy season, but it can rain at any time. And while peak season is July and August, you should always expect crowds. Sundays can be the most crowded, because that’s when people who live in the Cusco province are allowed into the site for free, in addition to the daily quota of 2,500 paying visitors. As of December 2020, however, that daily quota has been reduced to just 1,116 tourists per day due to the coronavirus pandemic; 75 visitors will be allowed entry into the site per hour.
How to Get Acclimated
Wherever you’re coming from is probably much, much lower than Cusco (11,000 feet) or Machu Picchu (just shy of 8,000 feet). Unless you’ve booked a trip to Machu Picchu that requires an overnight stay in Cusco, we recommend immediately taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town nearest Machu Picchu. Spend a night or two getting used to the relatively low elevation of Aguas Calientes, at about 6,700 feet, then explore Machu Picchu before returning to Cusco. You can also spend time elsewhere in the Sacred Valley, which, by nature, is lower in elevation than the surrounding mountains. This will help minimize the unpleasant or even dangerous effects of altitude sickness, which commonly include headache, fatigue, and nausea. Avoid alcohol and physical exertion while acclimatizing and drink as much water or coca tea as you can stand to help your body slowly adjust to the thinner air.
Getting from Cusco to Machu Picchu
The easiest way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to take the train to Aguas Calientes. It’s a scenic 3.5-hour trip each way along tracks that run right along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley, with dramatic canyon walls on either side.
Some train tips:
• The so-called Cusco train station is actually in the nearby town of Poroy. It’s a cheap taxi ride, but give yourself at least an hour to get from central Cusco to the train station. Traffic in Cusco can be brutal and seemingly never-ending road work makes things even more congested.
• There are three train companies to choose from: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham train. The Hiram Bingham service is on a gorgeous train gleaming with brass and polished wood and includes a white tablecloth meal with wine during your journey. It’s also much more expensive than Inca Rail or Peru Rail, both of which offer comfortable passage on different types of trains — including ones designed with panoramic windows for an additional fee.
• Whichever train you choose, book as far in advance as possible. Tickets sell out weeks ahead in some months.
• If train tickets from Cusco are sold out, all is not lost. Try to buy a ticket to Aguas Calientes that departs from the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or vice versa. Taxis and mini vans between Ollantaytambo and Cusco (just over an hour each way) are plentiful. If you have the time, plan an overnight in Ollantaytambo to check out the town, which still features many Incan-built streets and buildings, as well as the archaeological site of the same name. Arrive as early as possible to the site to enjoy sunrise light and beat the tour buses.
• You can also stay overnight in Urubamba, a 20-minute drive from Ollantaytambo, which has a bevy of luxury and boutique hotels such as Tambo del Inka, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa; Sol y Luna, Relais & Châteaux; and Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel & Wellness.
Machu Picchu Treks
The other way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to walk as part of organized multi-day Machu Picchu treks. Thousands of people hike to Machu Picchu each year. Here’s how.
• The most famous way to hike to Machu Picchu is along a section of one of the hundreds of Incan roads built as the empire expanded. Dozens of tour operators offer Inca Trail hikes to Machu Picchu, with varying durations and levels of comfort (though all require camping). Note that the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu is closed for the entire month of February every year for maintenance.
• For those who would like a less crowded experience, or are looking to see and experience other aspects of Peru on their way to Machu Picchu, there are a number of diverse hiking alternatives: the second most popular way to hike to Machu Picchu is around massive Salkantay Mountain, one of the most imposing peaks in the Peruvian Andes at 20,569 feet. Many tour companies offer Salkantay Treks, but Apus Peru, an established and well-regarded Cusco tour company with a focus on sustainable and responsible tourism, offers an express trek, which shaves a day off the normal itinerary for those who want to push their physical limits on their way to Machu Picchu.
•Travelers interested in archaeology should consider the Choquequirao trek with a Machu Picchu extension. This itinerary includes spectacular (but very tough) hiking in the steep Apurimac Canyon and exploration of the Choquequirao archaeological site before arriving to Aguas Calientes and then exploring Machu Picchu.
• The Lares Adventure from Mountain Lodges of Peru offers a great combination of Andean hiking and cultural encounters within Quechua communities before arriving in Aguas Calientes to explore the citadel. Other tour companies offer treks through the Lares region, but only this itinerary includes luxury accommodation in their own lodges and full service along the way.
•The Inca Jungle Tour combines hiking, biking, rafting and zip-lining on your way to Machu Picchu.
• Luxury tour operator andBeyond offers several Machu Picchu itineraries.
• You can also drive (most of the way) to Machu Picchu from Cusco to the town of Hydroelectrica (there’s a hydroelectric plant there). From there it’s a three hour hike up to Aguas Calientes and then on to Machu Picchu. Many tour companies in Cusco offer this route as a one- or two-day trip using private vans.
• Coronavirus update: As of December 2020, only half of the Inca Trail (the two-day hike, not the four-day hike) is open to visitors at this time.
Machu Picchu: Tips for Visiting
•Entrance tickets: If you’re traveling independently, you can buy individual Machu Picchu entrance tickets here, though you should note that you’ll be required to hire a local guide before entering the site. (There will be plenty waiting at the gates to Machu Picchu.) If you book a tour package through an operator or a hotel, entrance tickets should be included. As of 2019, all entry tickets are timed, allowing entrance on the hour, and you’re allowed to stay at the site for up to four hours.
•Bring: Water and a rain jacket, even if it looks like a beautiful sunny day. And speaking of sun, remember that the ozone layer over Peru is compromised. That, combined with the elevation, makes the sun extremely strong here, so wear a hat and use plenty of high SPF sunscreen. Bring insect repellent as well. And keep some one soles coins in your pocket. You’ll need them to access the lone bathroom at the entrance to the site. To use the bathroom or grab food, you’ll have to exit the gates, so bring your passport and hang onto your ticket. You’ll need to show both to re-enter the citadel.
• Don’t bring: Drones, umbrellas, or walking sticks or trekking poles since they’re all prohibited at Machu Picchu. Travelers who require sticks or poles for mobility can bring them in but only with protective rubber tips over the ends.
• Don’t miss: Just outside the entrance gates, there’s a barely marked station where you can get the novelty Machu Picchu stamp in your passport.
• Bus: You can take a very steep 90-minute hike up to the citadel from Aguas Calientes or you can take a 30-minute bus ride. You’ll need to purchase your ticket from the ticket office in Aguas Calientes, though you can do so the day of your trip. Buses operate every 15 minutes or so starting at 5:30 a.m., and people start lining up well before that. Lines to board will be long in both directions.
• Ditch the crowds: When you arrive at the citadel, peel away from the throngs streaming toward the main structures and head for the Guard House instead. This is an area slightly above the main part of the site, and it’s usually less crowded up there as people rush to the heart of the site. Pause here to enjoy the lovely overview of the citadel and to get your bearings.
• Morning? Afternoon? There is no perfect time to visit Machu Picchu. These days, the site is crowded at all hours and weather is unpredictable. However, during the rainy season the mornings are most likely to be foggy. Depending on your disposition, fog ruins the view or adds a patina of mystery to it. Afternoons can be slightly less crowded as day-trippers return to the train station for their trip back to Cusco.
• Huayna Picchu peak: You’ll need a separate ticket to climb this peak at the site, and you need to book in advance — there are a limited number of tickets. The view looking down on the Incan ruins is a highlight for many but be aware that some sections of this strenuous trail are very narrow and steep. You’ll have the choice of starting your climb at 7 a.m. or 10 a.m. Go at 10 a.m.; there’s a better chance any clouds will have lifted by then. (As of December 2020, Huayna Picchu is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
• Machu Picchu Mountain peak: This also requires a separate ticket — and good knees. The trail is almost entirely stairs. You’ll have the choice of starting your climb at 7 a.m. or 9 a.m. (As of December 2020, Machu Picchu Mountain peak is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
• Free hikes at the citadel: Though Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu both require additional tickets, anyone can walk up to the Sun Gate (about two hours round trip along a relatively gentle trail with few stairs) for fantastic views of the overall site. You can also make the short walk to the Inca Bridge (less than an hour round trip along a mostly flat trail) to check out a precarious section of trail, now closed, which the Incas built along a rock face. (As of December 2020, the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
• Guides: Guides are required at Machu Picchu, whether you’re on an organized tour or traveling independently. Hire one outside the gates, or make a booking in Aguas Calientes.
• Stay for lunch: There’s a casual café and bar with a lovely deck just outside the entrance gates, but the Sanctuary Lodge’s buffet lunch is your only sit-down-restaurant option. It’s very good, if pricey.
• Coronavirus update: Upon arriving at Machu Picchu, your temperature will be taken — if you’re above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you will not be allowed to enter. Individuals must wear masks and remain six feet apart (2 meters) at all times. Tour groups are limited to eight people, and they must remain 66 feet apart (20 meters) from other groups.
Aguas Calientes Travel Tips
Where to Stay in Aguas Calientes
• For a luxury stay, you have two main options in town: the elegant Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo resort, located near the train station, and design-forward SUMAQ Machu Picchu Hotel, a boutique property near the foot of Machu Picchu Mountain. But there are dozens of mid-range options, too, plus super-affordable hostels for backpackers.
• You can also stay right at the gate to Machu Picchu at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, which gives you easy access to the site, but you’ll be far away from the dining and shopping of Aguas Calientes (either a strenuous 90-minute climb down the mountain or a harrowing 30-minute drive.)
Where to Eat and Drink in Aguas Calientes
As a whole, Aguas Calientes isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of Peruvian cuisine. But walk down Av. Pachacutec and you’ll find a number of low-key eateries and bars, some serving a selection of Peru’s growing crop of craft beers. There are also high-end restaurants inside the two luxury hotels, which are open to non-guests.
Things to Do in Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes was named after the thermal springs in town, which are open to the public for a low fee. There’s also plenty of shopping for souvenirs at the major market near the train station. While Machu Picchu is the main attraction, of course, you can also visit the Mariposario de Machupicchu butterfly sanctuary.
Cusco Travel Tips
Don’t skip Cusco. Its pre-Columbian buildings have given this city UNESCO World Heritage status, and its cobblestoned streets, great hotels, museums, nearby archaeological sites, and relaxed atmosphere make it worth spending at least a couple days here.
Where to Stay in Cusco
Cusco has more than its share of large, full-service hotels including Inkaterra La Casona, an 11-suite hotel in a 16th-century mansion; Belmond Hotel Monasterio in a former Jesuit seminary; the museum-like JW Marriott El Convento Cusco; and the stately Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel. If a contemporary boutique is more your style, try El Mercado or Atiq Hotel Boutique.
Where to Eat and Drink in Cusco
• Cicciolina is a classic which feels very much like a local hangout, serving international and Andean dishes out of an open kitchen. At the tapas bar, you can order from both the tapas and dining room menus.
• Kion, from the growing Cusco Restaurants group, is a stylish place to enjoy Cantonese cuisine. The décor is Chinese vintage, flavors are subtle and the atmosphere is festive.
• Chicha is the first restaurant in Cusco from Peruvian superstar chef Gaston Acurio of Astrid y Gaston fame. Located on the second floor of a Colonial building, the restaurant offers haute Andean cuisine (alpaca carpaccio, quinoa with duck) in an airy, bright, and well-lit space.
• Cholos pub, near the main plaza, keeps around a dozen different Peruvian craft beers on tap and the Peruvian owner Rodrigo Cardenas is passionate and knowledgeable about all of them.
What to Do in Cusco
Cusco is filled with historic sites both from the Incan and colonial times: don’t miss the impressive Coricancha (also spelled Koricancha or Qorikancha), an Incan temple–turned–Spanish church; the Sacsayhuaman Incan ruins; and the Cusco Cathedral. Wander through the streets of the hip San Blas neighborhood, people-watch on the Plazas de Armas, and shop the San Pedro Market.
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