Visiting Machu Picchu is both expensive and logistically complicated. This Machu Picchu Travel Guide has all of the info you need to plan your trip.
Machu Picchu is Peru’s most iconic landmark and biggest tourist attraction. Built by the Incas in 1450, Machu Picchu is one of the 7 new wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located atop a mountain 7,900 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca ruler Pachacutec and it was used for about 80 years. During that time, up to 750 people lived at the estate. The hills of the estate have terraces which were used for farming. And the estate itself had living quarters and temples.
The estate at Machu Picchu was abandoned at the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru. The Spanish never learned of Machu Picchu, and therefore did not destroy it as they did other Inca sites. Although the Spanish didn’t find Machu Picchu, it wasn’t forgotten as locals in the early 1900s were able to help Yale researchers locate Machu Picchu. It was that research mission introduced the site to the outside world.
When the researchers reached Machu Picchu it was covered in vegetation (much like Borobudur). The site was excavated between 1912 and 1915, and it was later restored.
When you travel to a place like Machu Picchu you don’t expect it to look just as it does in the photos you see online, but Machu Picchu does. It’s even more spectacular to see it in person.
Machu Picchu Travel Guide:
You Must Book Machu Picchu Tickets in Advance
Only a certain number of entries to Machu Picchu are permitted each hour. Tickets must be pre-booked online and often sell out weeks or months in advance. You cannot purchase tickets on site.
Once you book your tickets you will receive an email confirmation followed by another email requesting your passport information. It might raise some red flags, but you need to send your passport information.
There are different types of tickets, and some include access to hiking trails (the photo above shows what the hike trails look like). I hiked up Machu Picchu Mountain which was a strenuous 3+ hour hike up to the top of the mountain beside Machu Picchu (it took almost 2 hours to get to the top and just over an hour to get to the bottom). If you are going to do a hike, you definitely want to acclimate to the altitude for a couple of days first.
Planning Your Trip to Machu Picchu:
You will want to fly into Cuzco, it is likely you will need to connect in Lima. Bring your A-game since the Lima airport is not the easiest to navigate. Be warned that some boarding passes are printed with the time that boarding ends, not the time that boarding starts. And you will need to go through security again, and you might need to show the bording pass for the flight that got you to Lima in addition to the boarding pass for your Cuzco flight.
Where to Stay near Machu Picchu:
I don’t recommend staying in Cuzco since it is 3 hours from Macchu Picchu. Plus, Cuzco has an elevation of 11,200 feet, which can cause altitude sickness.
Urubamba / Sacred Valley
I recommend going straight from the Cuzco airport to the Urubamba area of the Sacred Valley which is closer to Machu Picchu and has the added benefit of a more manageable elevation (about 9,500 feet). Plus, you will need to go through the Sacred Valley to get to Machu Picchu anyway, and there are some incredible Inca ruins to explore in the area. A cab from the Cuzco airport to the Sacred Valley is about $55 and takes 90 minutes – I recommend against renting a car, it’s a bit of a wild drive.
Tambo del Inka
A luxury hotel property in the Sacred Valley with a private train station that will take you to Machu Picchu. This is a splurge, I spent one night here and the grounds were stunning and the staff packed me a big boxed breakfast the morning I went to Machu Picchu.
Aguas Calientes is the town closest to Machu Picchu, and its elevation of 7,800 feet is lower than Cuzco and Urubamba. It’s also where the train to Machu Picchu arrives. If you have any early morning ticket to Machu Picchu you may want to consider spending the night in Aguas Calientes.
Getting to Machu Picchu:
Hiking to Machu Picchu:
You can hike to Machu Picchu or you can hike at Machu Picchu. The full Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu takes four days and there are many different tours available. You may need to book your ticket to enter Machu Picchu separately from the Inca Trail tour.
If you don’t want to spend several days hiking, you can opt to hike just the last section of the Inka Trail. The train to Machu Picchu Station makes a stop so that people wanting to do this can get off. This hike takes 5-6 hours.
Taking the Train:
The trains from Machu Picchu leave from Ollantaytambo, a small village in the Sacred Valley that is home to a massive Inca fortress. It takes 90 minutes to get from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo. The train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu is another 90 minutes. This is another reason why it is easier to stay in the Urubamba area.
Book your train tickets once you have your Machu Picchu tickets, many trains sell out in advance. There are two railway companies that run trains to Machu Picchu Station: Peru Rail and Inka Rail.
Arrive at the train station 30 minutes early for boarding, and allow a little time to pick up your ticket at the ticket counter. Your tickets are not refundable and you can’t use them to take a train at a different time.
The Tambo del Inka hotel has a private train station with a couple of trains to and from Machu Picchu each day. I spent a night there and took the train straight back to the hotel. While it might be convenient, it is slow. Oh so very slow. Even though the drive from Ollantaytambo station to Tambo del Inka takes just 20 minutes, the train takes an hour.
Taking the Bus:
The train doesn’t take you straight to Machu Picchu. Even though the station is called Machu Picchu station, it is in Aguas Calientes. From the station, you will need to take a bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu. The line to buy tickets can easily take 30 minutes, and it can also take that long to board a bus. The drive up to Machu Picchu takes about 20 minutes.
You will likely need to take a taxi to Ollantaytambo station (if you are coming from Cuzco allow at least 90 minutes), then you take the train to Machu Picchu station, and finally, you take a bus. Bring your passport.
Timing Your Arrival at Machu Picchu:
Getting to Machu Picchu takes longer than you think. I took a 6:10 am train from Ollantaytambo station and I didn’t make it to Machu Picchu until 8:40. From what I hear, they won’t let you in early if you arrive early, but they will let you in late if you arrive late.
Booking a Train Back:
It can be hard to predict how much time you will want to spend at Machu Picchu. I had booked a train back to Ollantaytambo but missed it because I wanted to spend more time at Machu Picchu. You can’t change your train tickets, which means that I had to pay for a new ticket home. There are many trains departing from Machu Picchu and going to Ollantaytambo each day. It might be best not to prebook your train back. I spent a total of 6 hours at Machu Picchu, and 3 ½ hours of that were spent doing the hike.
What to do at Machu Picchu:
Hiring a Guide:
You can hire a guide to take you through Machu Picchu right at the gates to get in.
Hiking at Machu Picchu:
There are two hikes that you can do at Machu Picchu. Tickets for the hikes are limited and need to be booked as an add on to your Machu Picchu ticket. I did the hike up Machu Picchu Mountain which is considered to be the longer and harder hike.
The other hike is up Huayna Picchu, and tickets are for the hike are limited to 400 per day. The hike must be booked 3-4 months in advance.
I really want to stress that you want to give yourself a few days to acclimate to Peru’s higher altitude before you do these hikes.
The mountain behind this llama is Machu Picchu Mountain, and this photo does a good job of illustrating how long and high that hike is.
Make sure you wear hiking boots that are broken in and that you have worn recently. It’s also smart to trim your toenails.
What to Bring to Machu Picchu:
Your ticket – Print out your ticket to enter Machu Picchu.
Passport – You will need this to enter the gates.
Water – Bring two bottles. They don’t sell water inside Machu Picchu but you can buy it outside the gates before you enter.
Bug Spray – I didn’t see many mosquitos inside Machu Picchu but they were present on the hiking trail, and they were massive.
Sunscreen – The high altitude means the sun is strong. I kept layering on sunscreen and skill got burnt – mostly because I kept sweating off the sunscreen during the hike. An SPF shirt would be smart to wear.
An Extra Shirt – If you do one of the hikes, it isn’t a bad idea to bring an extra shirt since you will get sweaty.
Dress in Layers – In Peru, it is cool in the mornings and evenings and hot in the afternoon, it’s wise to dress in layers.
Hiking Boots or Sneakers – If you are doing the hike, you will want hiking boots, otherwise comfortable sneakers will work.
Snacks – No food or drinks are sold inside Machu Picchu and you need to pack your own.
Camera – You will want to take photos!
If you have been to Machu Picchu and have any tips I would love to hear them in the comments!