The ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is perhaps one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. While those who crave more undiscovered gems may be hesitant to join the crowds, even tourist-wary travelers will be utterly astonished seeing the 15th century Inca archaeological site for the first time. A trip to the nearby city of Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley is well worth the effort—no amount of quality photography can capture the wonderment of the region.
The UNESCO World Heritage site was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World for a reason—the stunning natural setting, history and Peruvian culture make it a top travel destination for travelers from around the world. But because the area is such a popular destination, you’ll need to do some pre-planning to ensure you have the permits you’ll need and understand how to prepare for the trip.
If you’re just starting to explore the idea of travel to this fascinating destination, this article will cover:
- Why Visit Machu Picchu?
- How to Visit Machu Picchu
- Planning Your Trip
Why Visit Machu Picchu?
Situated at 7,900 feet on a high point above the Urubamba River and in a saddle between Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu, the Machu Picchu citadel is an idyllic display of architecture and history combined with a beautiful natural setting. On the eastern slope of the Andes in the Amazonian basin, the area is home to a fascinating and rich diversity of flora and fauna.
Early morning sun and mist rising from the river below often encompasses the area with a mystic feeling. And with a number of hiking options to and within the site, it’s no wonder it’s a popular destination for a cultural experience blended with exceptional outdoor adventure. More than one million people visit the site each year, and an organized permit system manages the crowds.
Top Things to Do Within Machu Picchu
Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu
The structures of Machu Picchu were built in the 15th century and abandoned soon after. Since the site was rediscovered in 1911, archaeological excavations have uncovered the ruins to what we can see today. An entrance ticket covers access to the main sanctuary site, though a few popular destinations within the site need additional reservations.
The exact purpose of the Intihuatana, or what is often referred to as a sundial, is not entirely clear, however it is a notable carved rock pillar that most likely is related to the astronomic clock or calendar of the Inca. Even with the uncertainty of its purpose, the sundial is one of the more beautiful and mysterious landmarks at Machu Picchu.
Temple of the Sun
The rounded building is one of the most impressive structures within the site. According to archaeologists, the Temple of the Sun was an important place for ceremonies and worship, but also an important solar observatory where the sun’s movements were tracked in order to make decisions about the harvest.
Note: Permit required
The craggy 8,924-foot mountain of Huayna Picchu that looms behind the citadel is a recognizable and stunning backdrop to Machu Picchu. Though only two kilometers long, the trail to the summit is a challenging climb. The steep and exposed route ascends a stone paved trail that has stair steps and steel cables in sections. Because of the nature of the trail, hikers are limited daily. Permits are required to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu and need to be reserved far in advance.
Machu Picchu Mountain
Note: Permit required
The highest point within the site, Machu Picchu Mountain stands at 10,000 feet in elevation. Though slightly less steep and exposed than Huayna Picchu, the trail climbs significantly higher and offers the best lookout point within Machu Picchu. From the summit, you’ll be looking over the citadel and on a clear day can see the high snow-capped peaks of the Peruvian Andes. The trail to Machu Picchu Mountain requires a permit that needs to be reserved well in advance.
Intipunku (Sun Gate)
The popular Inca Trail ends at a notch in the horizon at Intipunku, or the Sun Gate, which was the Inca’s main entrance to and first sight of Machu Picchu. Early morning is the best time to see this site, but to walk through the Sun Gate at sunrise you’ll need to be on the Inca Trail with a guide and a permit. Those who visit Machu Picchu via an alternate route can still walk up to the Sun Gate from the main entrance gate near Aguas Calientes. Walk up the trail through the ancient city for about one hour following signs on the trail to the Sun Gate and you’ll likely still arrive in enough time to enjoy the early morning glow.
A short walk around the corner from the main archaeological site gives you a view of the Inca Bridge, which was a secret entrance to the site, and you’ll also get a different perspective of Machu Picchu and the river below. The ancient bridge is a stunning display of architecture perched on a steep rock face. Though visitors are no longer allowed to cross the bridge, it’s fascinating to imagine how the bridge was built into the steep and exposed hillside. This side trail is one that does not require an additional permit.
Top Things to Do In Cusco
A trip to Machu Picchu is not only about the archaeological site. The city of Cusco, located 3 ½ hours by train from the archaeological ruins, was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century until the 16th century Spanish conquest. It’s the starting point for trips to Machu Picchu, and also a wonderful outdoors and cultural destination in itself and a launching point for day trips throughout the Sacred Valley. There’s a wide range of hotel options from budget backpacker hostels to five-star resorts, all within walking distance of the town center and dining options highlighting international fare and local Andean cuisine.
Plaza de Armas
One can easily spend a day wandering around the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco. Public gardens, a large fountain or the steps to the Cathedral offer a nice place to sit and people-watch for hours. It’s not only a great place to relax, but it’s also the main tourist center for booking guided trips in and around Cusco. A number of artisan shops selling local goods line the plaza and many restaurants have outdoor balcony seating.
Plaza San Blas
Spend a day walking through the narrow streets around Plaza San Blas. The area is just a ten-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, or a short cab ride away, and is known for its artisan crafts. The hillside area also has wonderful cafes and views of the city.
The small village located in the Sacred Valley just outside of Cusco is one of the most important Inca ruins outside of Machu Picchu. A large market a few days a week is a big draw for tourists visiting from Cusco and is a fun and lively place to visit for the day while acclimating to the altitude.
Perhaps the best activity for adventure seekers, downhill mountain biking in Cusco is world-class. Singletrack trails traverse the hills just outside of the city. Guided mountain bike tours are the best option for riding in Cusco. Even though it’s more expensive, choose a tour company that uses private transportation rather than local buses to maximize riding time. (Public transport can be crowded and unreliable.) Novice mountain bikers can opt to ride dirt roads throughout the Sacred Valley.
Rainbow Mountain Hike
Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain, has quickly become one of the top sights for day trips out of Cusco. The photogenic volcanic mountain displays an array of brightly colored stripes. Beware that the trail is over-crowded and the colorful mountain is not nearly as bright as Instagram may have you believe.
Visiting Machu Picchu
There are a number of ways to get to Machu Picchu and each is just as wonderful as the next. Whether you prefer a leisurely day hike, a mountainous multi-day trek, or a scenic train ride to get to the historic sanctuary, there is an adventure for everyone getting to Machu Picchu. Once you arrive, you’ll have at least a half-day of exploring the archaeological site ahead of you.
How to Get to Machu Picchu
1. Fly into Lima, Peru
Lima is Peru’s capital city and the first arrival point in the country for most international travelers. If time permits, it’s worth spending a few extra days in the city before or after a trip to Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Lima is one of South America’s largest cities and a bustling metropolis with plenty of art, history and culture that make it a destination in itself. Most travelers who stay in Lima head to the upscale beach towns, Miraflores or Barranco, which are known for cuisine and art galleries. While on the coast, be sure to try the traditional Peruvian ceviche.
2. Travel to Cusco by Bus or Plane
Flying or busing are the two most common ways to get to Cusco from Lima. Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport (CUZ) is the nearest airport to Machu Picchu.
Long distance buses are the most economical way to reach Cusco from Lima, but are slow and not recommended unless budget is non-negotiable. Instead, consider flying into Cusco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport (CUZ) for the greatest convenience and to maximize your travel time.
Seven airlines fly to Cusco from Jorge Chaves International Airport (LIM) in Lima. LATAM Airlines has many flight options and international partner airlines, though the regional airline LC Peru typically offers the best rates to and from Cusco from Lima. Note that because of the high-altitude weather patterns at the Cusco airport, morning flights are most reliable.
From the Cusco airport, cabs are readily available to take travelers to Plaza de Armas in the historic district where most travelers stay before heading to Machu Picchu. Cab fares are considerably higher leaving the airport than returning; even if your Spanish is fluent, negotiation seems to be futile. There is a wide range of accommodations near the plaza, from hostels to luxury hotels and just about everything in between. Many hotels will offer luggage storage if you make a reservation before and after your trip to Machu Picchu. The plaza is also the center for shopping and restaurants. Note that prices drop substantially for just about anything you want to purchase the farther away from the plaza you go.
3. Trek or Train to Machu Picchu
From Cusco, travelers can take bus, cab or private transportation to the start of their route. Train travelers depart from Poroy or Ollantaytambo. Day and multi-night trekkers start from various points in the Sacred Valley depending on their route and the length of days on the trail.
Private guided treks can be organized to accommodate your group’s preference, or solo travelers and small groups can join a scheduled tour. The Inca Trail is the most popular route to hike to Machu Picchu, however there are plenty of other trails with challenging mountainous terrain and stunning scenery for those who prefer a less traveled trail. Those who are limited on time, or want a more leisurely trip, can take a scenic train ride to and from Machu Picchu from Cusco.
4. Stay in Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is the closest city to Machu Picchu. It has the feel of a California boomtown, but with less character and higher prices than one would hope. All treks, day hikes and trains arrive in Aguas Calientes, so most will need to stay in the town the night before their entrance ticket to the Machu Picchu historic sanctuary. Most travelers spend as little time in the town as possible and depart on a train the afternoon following their Machu Picchu visit. Even so, everything a visitor needs can be found in the small town. There is a wide range of restaurants and accommodations. Buses to the Machu Picchu entrance gates are located in the center of town and within walking distance to all hotels. A trail also accesses the entrance gates for those who are up for the one-hour trek. The train station is centrally located.
Hiking into Machu Picchu
Though hiking the Inca Trail is the most well-known way to hike to Machu Picchu, there are other less traveled trails that offer different but equally wonderful experiences. While guides and permits are only required for the Inca Trail, local knowledge is valuable as maps, route information and trail signs are scarce.
Guided or semi-guided trips with luggage transportation, which you can book in advance of your trip, or from a number of operators in Cusco, accommodate a variety of fitness levels with longer and shorter, single-day or multi-night treks. The latter can be customized for 3-, 4- or 5- nights depending on the trail and where you start and finish. All of the following trails are scenic with a range of climate zones, and travel over high mountain passes.
Top Machu Picchu Treks:
- Inca Trail: The highly traveled and popular Inca Trail requires an official guide and a permit, which often sells out more than six months in advance. The route follows along ancient Inca roads, and is the only trail that enters the archaeological site through the Sun Gate, which is one of the reasons it is so desirable. Guided tours enter the trail at various points, so groups can customize the length and difficulty of the trek according to their skill level and preference.
- The Salkantay Trek: The more strenuous and longer Salkantay Trek is a rugged mountain trail that crosses a high mountain pass and descends to the Urubamba River valley through a diverse range of microclimates. The route has become a well-known and challenging way to hike to Machu Picchu.
- The Lares Trek: With the Inca Trail requiring reservations so far in advance, and the Salkantay Trek becoming increasingly more popular, the Lares Trek is a popular alternate route to get to Machu Picchu. The trail traverses through the Sacred Valley, over scenic mountain passes, through Andean mountain villages and to natural hot springs. It is a much less crowded trail and will offer more solitude in nature, though trekkers will still need to take transportation from the end of the route to Aguas Calientes to enter the historic site.
Taking the Train
Rather than hiking to Machu Picchu, those who prefer taking the train will have a scenic ride along the river. This is the best option for those who want a more leisurely trip, or are limited on time. There are two rail lines (Inca Rail and Peru Rail) that have similar service and rates, and with plenty of scheduled times. The most popular and budget friendly departures are from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, which can be reached from Cusco by cab (expensive) or collectivo (budget-friendly mini-van buses).
There is a train station closer to Cusco, in Poroy, which is still a 25-minute cab ride away, though rates are much higher and schedules are more limited. One-way fares are available for those who hike to Machu Picchu and return via train.
Solo vs. Group Travel
The good thing about going to a well-traveled tourist site is that the system for visitors is well organized. Machu Picchu is an international destination and travelers can find just about everything they need or want.
Travel in Peru is relatively safe and easy. Hostels and hotels in Cusco, and the surrounding area, have great options for solo travelers. It’s also easy to join a small group with an English-speaking guide if desired when booking online in advance.
Solo trekking to Machu Picchu is not recommended. Trails are not well marked and mountain weather can vary. Guided group hiking trips to Machu Picchu vary greatly depending on the outfitter. Budget trips booked in Cusco tend to have larger groups, which can take away from the nature experience. Those traveling to Peru with their own group can opt for a private trip booked before arriving with one of many reputable outfitters found online. Cost will depend on the size of the group.
REI also offers a variety of trips to Machu Picchu for those looking for a curated experience with top guides in the area.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit Machu Picchu
The best time to travel to Machu Picchu is between June and August. Early morning and late afternoon are the least busy times of the day. If you plan to walk the Inca Trail, you may need to book a permit up to a year in advance.
Machu Picchu is open year-round. With its tropic latitude, Peru’s seasons are rainy (October to April) and dry (May to September). The months from June to August tend to be the most popular time of year to visit and offer the most reliable weather. The busy summer months typically require permits three to six months in advance and possibly one year out if you plan to walk the Inca trail.
While crowds are present year-round, early morning and late afternoon are the least busy times of the day. The citadel opens at 6am and the first buses leave Aguas Calientes at 5:30am. The site closes at 6pm.
Machu Picchu Permits
If you aren’t traveling with a tour operator who will be handling your entrance tickets and permits, be sure to book your own well in advance. Current regulations (which are subject to change) divide ticket entries into two groups: morning (8am to 12pm) and afternoon (12pm to 5:30pm) to regulate crowds. All visitors are also now required to enter with a certified Machu Picchu guide.
Reservations can be made directly online or your tour operator will handle them. You’ll need a valid passport and credit card to book. Changes can be made once without a fee depending on availability. Anyone who wishes to climb Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu will need to purchase an additional entrance ticket with scheduled time. Though you may be able to get Machu Picchu entrance tickets a few weeks or a few months in advance, the mountain hikes and Inca Trail permits book much further out.
How to Prepare for Your Machu Picchu Visit
Getting in Shape: The trails in the Sacred Valley and at Machu Picchu are rugged, mountainous, and at high altitudes. Even the fittest travelers will want to be in hiking shape for their Machu Picchu trek. Make sure to have good hiking shoes or boots that are broken in and sturdy enough for rough trails. Focus on basic aerobic fitness when preparing for your trip and keep in mind that because of the high altitudes you should not plan on walking as far in one day as you normally would. Though most people are mentally prepared for the uphill climbs, Machu Picchu is at much lower elevation than the mountain passes, which means there is a substantial amount of downhill hiking.
Altitude Acclimation: Situated at 11,150 feet in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco is an extremely high-altitude city and extra precautions are recommended for travelers who arrive from lower elevations. Soroche (altitude sickness) is common. Even though you’ll be excited to hit the trails once you land in Cusco, plan a few days to get acclimated and rest from travel. There’s plenty to do wandering the city while you get acclimated.
If you have difficulty with the altitude, the best recourse is to immediately go down in elevation and stay in Ollantaytambo (9,160 feet). Regardless of where you decide to stay, keep hydrated and limit alcohol. Soroche medication can be purchased over the counter, and locals recommend drinking coca tea (mate de coca) to relieve symptoms.