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How to See Machu Picchu: A Guide to Facts, Tours, and History

How to See Machu Picchu: A Guide to Facts, Tours, and History

Sometime in the early 1990s, I was sitting at the breakfast table, slurping some Rice Krispies and peering over a black and white newspaper (color print wasn’t in use yet). At the bottom of a page of advertisements, there was a picture of a fascinating collection of ancient ruins sitting in the shadow of a dramatic peak. It captivated my attention.

The advert was for a UK charity promising that if you raised enough money for their work, you could join a trek to somewhere called Machu Picchu. At first, I didn’t believe this magical place existed on earth. It looked like something out of a dream, a far cry from the less-than-exotic sights I’d seen growing up in the north of England.

Who were the Incas? What is this mountain stronghold? Where is it located? And most importantly – how do I get to Machu Picchu? Peru shot right to the top of my bucket list, and I made a promise to go before I kicked it.

Fast forward a few decades and over 70 countries, and I still regard hiking the Inca trail as the best experience I’ve ever had traveling. I made lifelong friends. I was immersed in Peruvian culture.

Author Stuart Jameson Machu Picchu Travel
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

I almost met the girl of my dreams (but that would come later). Do it right, and it will more than live up to the hype. But doing it right isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

In this guide, I will tell you how to visit Machu Picchu, how to get the most out of your trip, and how to create memories that will last a lifetime. When I stood overlooking those iconic Inca ruins in the early morning sun, I knew I’d not let that little boy at the breakfast table down.

Machu Picchu History

Aerial view of Machu Picchu in Peru
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

One of the world’s best tourist destinations, Machu Picchu is an ancient citadel built by the Inca civilization in Peru. It’s perched high in the Peruvian Andes above the Urubamba River valley floor.

Once the capital of the Incan Empire in the 15th century, it was abandoned during the Spanish conquest of South America. Fifty miles northwest of Cusco, Machu Picchu remained hidden until July 24, 1911.

Known as the “Lost City of the Incas,” it was finally rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham. In the years that followed its clean-up and continuing restoration, Machu Picchu became Peru’s most popular tourist attraction.

Further down the Machu Picchu timeline it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983 and voted one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World in 2007. Today, Machu Picchu attracts around 1.5 million visitors annually, much to the detriment of the site itself. The Peruvian government has seen fit to introduce ticket caps to limit the foot traffic that causes erosion.

If you’re planning a trip to Machu Picchu, you should be well-prepared and up-to-date with the latest information. Check out our Peru Travel Guide, and read on for some top tips on how to visit Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu Packing List

Author Stuart Jameson Hiking in Machu Picchu
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Before you set off on your trip to this stunning Inca citadel, I highly recommend packing the right gear and equipment. But what you bring will largely depend on how you get there.

A full hike to Machu Picchu is going to be different from taking the train or bus on a day trip. Either way, your first essential item is good quality footwear like these Salomon X Ultra trail runners. Don’t do what I did and wear a pair of battered, soaking-wet tennis trainers.

I booked one of the alternative treks that included optional downhill mountain biking, zip-lining, and whitewater rafting. As you can see in the picture above, I traveled light.

Everything I needed for the trip was in that compact backpack. Regardless of how you intend to get to Machu Picchu mountain, a good travel backpack is another essential item.

Although it was some time ago now, my basic gender-neutral packing list included two to three pairs of hiking shorts or pants. Same with T-shirts, and enough underwear for the duration of the trip. A warm hoodie or sweater is required for the evenings.

I carried a shemagh scarf to help keep the sun off, but a sunhat is also highly advised. Sunglasses are a non-negotiable, as is sunblock. At these altitudes, you can burn like a forgotten T-bone on a barbeque.

Don’t forget a good travel camera, as Machu Picchu deserves more respect than just your phone. Choose a compact like this Sony Alpha a6000 if you’re hiking.

Packing cubes are helpful for staying organized. And although you don’t pack travel insurance, for this trip in the Peruvian Andes, I recommend Travel Insurance.com. Check out this article for more top travel tips and hacks before you set off.

The Best Time to Visit Machu Picchu

Aerial view of Mountain Range in Machu Picchu
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Machu Picchu is open year-round. The rainy season in Peru runs from November to April, but travel to Machu Picchu during this time can be rewarding to the intrepid adventurer. This is largely because the trails are not as busy, and the conditions can provide a dramatic backdrop.

June to August is the most popular time, with fine weather throughout. However, crowds will be at their peak, tickets are harder to come by, and tours and accommodation can quickly sell out.

I would say the best time to visit Machu Picchu is during the shoulder seasons of April to May or September to October. The weather is good, the trails are quieter, and there’s plenty of space for everyone. But note that conditions can be subject to change at any time, and you should be well prepared no matter when you visit.

How to Get to Machu Picchu

Church of the Society of Jesus in Peru
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

There are several ways to get to ancient Machu Picchu. Some will say trips like this classic four-day Inca trail hike are the only pure method, but not everyone has the time, will, or fitness to undertake such a journey. But given that it is one of the best hiking trails in the world, not to mention the camaraderie and sense of achievement it instills, the full trek to Machu Picchu is the best possible experience.

Routes, timing, extra activities, and accommodations will vary depending on which company you book with. Whether you’re traveling by foot, train, or bus, most tours will begin in Cusco (pictured above). When I did the trek, I bartered a deal with a local tour guide on arrival.

These days, I would encourage you to book online and in advance to avoid disappointment. Below you’ll find a breakdown of the best ways to visit Machu Picchu.

Hiking to Machu Picchu

Hiking in Machu Picchu, Peru
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

The most rewarding way to reach Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca trail. There are multiple routes, but the “classic” trail runs for around 26 miles.

It reaches altitudes of nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and takes four to five days to complete. Official and unofficial Inca trail treks are available, but note that the former can be booked out months in advance.

My “unofficial” trek also included additional activities, very similar to this mountain biking and whitewater rafting Inca trek. But you can be as energetic or as relaxed as you like.

Note that on some days, the hike to Machu Picchu might last eight hours or more, with steep gradients in places. You must be physically capable of walking the Inca trail before you attempt it.

Accommodation is in the form of basic hostels in small towns and villages dotted along the Inca trail. Some tours provide tents for camping instead.

Note that you should be prepared to slum it, as these digs aren’t exactly considered the best seven-star hotels in the world. Food is traditional Peruvian fare, which is ample and filling.

If you’re a fan of camping, try this four-day Machu Picchu trek on the classic route. This two-night tour of the Sacred Valley offers a shorter Machu Picchu itinerary. For an alternative trail, the five-day Salkantay trek is the second most popular way to reach the mountain.

It also includes a trip to Humantay Lake and the Llaqtapata archaeological site. The Choquequirao trek also has a Machu Picchu extension option. This is a visit to Machu Picchu’s sister city, which is ideal for avoiding the crowds.

The town of Aguas Calientes will be your final overnight stay before exploring Machu Picchu the following day. If you’ve hiked this far, then you’ll want to rise at the crack of dawn to scale the last heights in near darkness, before witnessing one of the most beautiful spectacles on earth. And for me, seeing the sunrise over Machu Picchu was the most memorable travel experience of my life.

Train to Machu Picchu

Train in Peru
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

While there aren’t any train services directly to the door, Aguas Calientes has the closest train station to Machu Picchu. If you’re not doing a guided tour, train tickets can be purchased from San Pedro Station in Cusco. Trains also depart from stations in Poroy, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo.

These days there is a selection of carriages available to suit all budgets. You also have a choice of two service providers, Inca Rail and PeruRail.

Perhaps you’ll be traveling in a luxurious modern version of the PeruRail coach seen in the photo above. Apologies for the sunspot; whoever took the photo should have used our proven travel photography tips.

If you don’t want to get there on your own steam but still want the rail experience, you can book a guided day trip to Machu Picchu by train. That’s the best way to relax and enjoy the journey with two-way transfers. I returned to Cusco by train in the dark, and given the beauty of the rail route through the mountains, this was something of a regret. If I ever revisit, I’m 100% taking a day train with an entrance ticket included.

Drive to Machu Picchu

Tourist entering Machu Picchu Round-Trip Bus
Willka Travel / GetYourGuide

If you’re looking for a more effortless experience for visiting Machu Picchu, it is possible to drive most of the way there. There is a road that pulls up just before the main gate, where bus and car tours will disembark.

Having exhausted myself on the early morning climb to Machu Picchu, I must admit the travel snob in me despised the tourists stepping off the comfort of a coach. But to each, their own, and gatekeeping a visit to the historic Inca empire shouldn’t be a thing.

Once you reach Aguas Calientes, you can book a round-trip bus ticket to Machu Picchu. From Cusco, two-day car transfers are also available, which conveniently take the hassle out of getting to Aguas Calientes in the first place. If you’re short on time, one-day excursions combine train and bus travel to Machu Picchu and back to your hotel in Cusco.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes in Peru
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Translated as “hot waters,” Aguas Calientes is otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. It is little more than a feeder town for visiting Machu Picchu. Like Siem Reap with Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it has grown to service tourists flocking to see the main attraction.

Here you’ll find Peruvian restaurants, hotels, and overpriced souvenir shops. I did purchase a comedy alpaca T-shirt, which unfortunately doesn’t fit anymore. For eats, don’t miss the charming Indio Feliz, serving Franco-Peruvian cuisine amidst fun, fairytale decor.

Aside from its proximity to the wonder to which it owes its existence, Aguas Calientes is famous for its hot springs. Other attractions include Manco Capac Square (pictured), Mandor Falls and Botanical Gardens, and the Manuel Chávez Ballón Site Museum. Often called the Machu Picchu Museum, it focuses on the ancient civilization with artifacts found at the Inca city.

Machu Picchu is within walking distance from Aguas Calientes, but it’s not an easy trek and should only be attempted by people with a modicum of fitness. Note that you can’t purchase entry tickets at the gate, and you need to book online or in Cusco before you go.

Once more for the people at the back. If you arrive at the gates of Machu Picchu and you don’t have a pre-booked ticket, you won’t be allowed in.

For accommodation, Taypikala Machupicchu is the best hotel in Aguas Calientes. But the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is the only hotel next to the site itself. This is a pricey but luxurious five-star experience right at the main entrance. Keep reading for more places to stay near Machu Picchu.

How to Explore Machu Picchu

Hikers Going to Machu Picchu Citadel
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Once through the hallowed gates, one of the world’s most impressive sites awaits you. There’s a good chance you’ll have a spiritual experience when the sun hits Machu Picchu ruins for the first time.

For my bragging rights, I was one of the first through the door, and for a brief moment, I had the entire complex to myself. As such, I highly recommend you get there as early as possible before the tourist numbers threaten to spoil your photos.

If you’re on a guided tour, your guide will show you around the key sights. For others left to their own devices, I believe you can purchase self-guided maps at the main gate. But with or without a guide, how long does it take to explore Machu Picchu?

You can walk around the complex as slowly or as fast as you like. If you just want to tick it off the bucket list with a few pictures, you can be done in 20 minutes.

If you’re a history buff, then the entire day can fly by before you’re told it’s time to leave. I would recommend you stay for a minimum of two to three hours at least. Either way, you should not miss the following points of interest during your trip to Machu Picchu.

The Temple of the Sun

Temple of the Sun of Machu Picchu Aerial View
Johnnykiehr/ Shutterstock

Sacred sites are plentiful in the Sacred Valley, and one of the most significant is the Temple of the Sun. Built to worship that big ball of fire in the sky, it’s the only circular construction in Machu Picchu.

During the summer solstice, the sun’s rays come in through the temple’s window, aligning with the tip of the boulder and a mountain peak nearby. Inca engineering at its finest. Note that you’re not allowed inside the temple itself, and you’ll have to be contented with snapping a photo from a distance.

The Temple of the Condor

Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu
Diane Johnson/Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock

The Incas believed that three animals represented the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. A condor, a puma, and a snake, respectively.

Even today, these animals are still revered in Peruvian culture. The Temple of the Condor is a significant and striking location at Machu Picchu, dedicated to the largest flying bird in the world.

The temple depicts a condor carved out of rock, with its beak and feathers represented by the stone formation on the floor. But if you want to see some real-life condors, don’t miss a trip to Colca Canyon when in Peru. These enormous birds are best viewed in their natural habitat by taking a day trip from Arequipa.

The Terraced Steps

Terraced Steps  in Machu Picchu
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

One of Machu Picchu’s most striking and recognizable features is the terraced steps. Another fascinating feat of Inca workmanship, they were used as agricultural platforms to supply the city with food.

It is estimated that there are over 12 acres of terraces in Machu Picchu, all built with a gentle gradient to help drain water. Storage warehouses also remain intact, although the steps are no longer in use for cultivating crops.

The Temple of the Three Windows

Temple of the Three Windows in Macchu Pichu
Dylan / Adobe Stock

One of the first things you’ll notice about this Machu Picchu landmark is the precision of the carved stones. Thought to be a location where the Incas worshipped the gods of the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, the temple’s three windows are trapezoidal. Visit at the right time, and you can take a stunning photograph of light and shadow.

Climb Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu in Peru
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Most visitors to one of the best ancient ruins in the world will be happy staying on Machu Picchu mountain. After all, it’s from here that those coveted money-shot photographs of the famous archaeological complex are snapped. But if you’re feeling a little more daring, then it is possible to climb Huayna Picchu mountain and see the stronghold from a different perspective.

Huayna means “young” in the Quechua language, and you’ll need to at least feel youthful if you want to ascend to the top. Only 400 people are allowed access to the trail every day, which is steep and not for the faint of heart.

That counted me out, then. But those who brave its so-called “stairs of death” will be justly rewarded with an alternative view of Machu Picchu, as well as a visit to the Temple of the Moon.

Go here for a ticket that grants you entrance to Huayna Picchu, and you must book in advance to guarantee membership to this more exclusive club.

The Sun Gate

Stones steps leading to Sun Gate, Machu Picchu, Peru
BBA Photography / Shutterstock

Otherwise known as Inti Punku, the Sun Gate was the original entrance to Machu Picchu. But it’s not part of the main complex, and takes around 90 minutes to hike from the ruins. If you’re on the original Inca trail, you will likely enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate.

For everyone else (like myself), it’s an optional trek if you have the energy. And with a background of snow-capped mountains, views from the top are spectacular.

The Inca Bridge

Aerial view of Inca Bridge
PixieMe / Adobe Stock

The Inca bridge isn’t a bridge at all but rather a stone path carved into the rock face. It was built to serve as a secret entrance to Machu Picchu for the Inca army. Note that like the Sun Gate, the bridge is not part of the main complex and is a short hike away.

Don’t confuse this Inca Bridge for the Q’eswachaka rope bridge. Also known as the last bridge of the Incas, this is a hand-woven crossing that spans 118 feet over the Apurimac River and hangs 60 feet in the air. Harness your inner Indiana Jones and take a day trip to the Q’eswachaka rope bridge, and cross it if you dare.

Machu Picchu Llamas

Author Stuart Jameson with a Llama in Machu Picchu
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

A sort of unofficial Machu Picchu attraction, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with some of the more furry locals when you visit this historic sanctuary (pictured on the right in the photo above). Llamas roam freely around the mountain, and they’re remarkably photogenic.

This one didn’t seem to mind that I was wearing a T-shirt related to his camelid cousins. Alpacas are not as common at Machu Picchu, but you might still see their funny faces wandering about. Remember to always treat all animals with respect, and llamas will spit if antagonized.

Where to Stay When Visiting Machu Picchu

Hotel Taypikala Machupicchu building exterior
Hotel Taypikala Machupicchu / Booking.com

As you might expect from one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, there is an abundance of accommodation options to suit every budget. And being a well-visited country, Peru doesn’t disappoint.

If you’re touring Machu Picchu on a multi-day guided tour, you should have all your accommodation sorted for you. But if you’re traveling to the Cusco region unassisted, here are some of the best places to stay when visiting Machu Picchu.

Budget

Since traveling in South America is one of the best things any self-respecting backpacker can do, there are an overwhelming number of hostels and budget accommodation options throughout Peru. I stayed at the infamous Wild Rover Hostel in Cusco, but if you’re looking for something a little quieter, try Rafita’s House for a cozy apartment rental.

Mid-Range

With huge windows and mountain views, Hotel Taypikala Machupicchu (pictured) is a terrific mid-range option in Aguas Calientes. The Jaya Machu Picchu Boutique Hotel is also worth a look, a stone’s throw from the hot springs. In Cusco, Hotel Hacienda Cusco Centro Historico offers four-star service at three-star prices.

Luxury

The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is on another level when it comes to luxury accommodation. As we gathered to enter Machu Picchu for the first time, the difference between the faces of my Inca trail group and the faces stepping out of the spa hotel was like chalk and cheese. If you want to visit Machu Picchu in style, this Belmond Hotel is almost certainly the way to do it.

Extra Tips For Visiting Machu Picchu

Author Stuart Jameson Machu Picchu Trip
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

There are countless websites and articles written about tips for visiting Machu Picchu, Peru. I won’t labor the point, but here are some of my top recommendations to get the most out of your trip.

Bring your passport: To be granted access to Machu Picchu, you need to bring the passport you used when you booked your tour/ticket.

I remember some unfortunate souls getting turned away at the door because they forgot. Get yourself one of these hidden money and passport holders and carry it with you at all times.

You don’t necessarily need to book in advance: Depending on the time of year you want to go, it is possible to turn up in Cusco and book a trip to Machu Picchu the next day.

But to avoid disappointment – particularly in the high season of June through August – it is still advisable that you book early. I managed to get a tour from Cusco as a walk-in, but I visited in May 2012, and tourist numbers and travel trends are significantly different today.

Take time to adjust to the altitude: Altitude sickness occurs when the body ascends too rapidly. It manifests in the form of mild to moderate nausea and dizziness, but it can be fatal in rare cases.

Take your time, stay hydrated, and get plenty of rest. To combat the effects, the locals drink coca tea or chew coca leaves (yes, those ones). When in Rome…

Immerse yourself in the culture: When visiting Machu Picchu and Peru in general, there are so many molly-coddling tour options it can be easy to turn inwards.

Don’t do that. Eat the food. Drink the drinks. Chat with the locals.

Throw away the guidebook. A visit to the markets in Cusco is a great place to start.

And while you’re at it, learn a bit of Spanish before you go. Even just the please and thankyous will go a long way.

Take only pictures; leave only footprints: Chipping off a piece of Machu Picchu is not cool and is also very illegal.

Buy a genuine souvenir and support the local economy. And don’t litter. I can’t believe this still needs to be said.

Don’t do a silly jumping photo: Alright, so I might be an old curmudgeon about this by yucking someone’s yum, but don’t do a jumping photo at Machu Picchu.

Why? Because it significantly erodes the ancient stones. Sure, one might be harmless, but times that by millions, and you can understand why Peruvian authorities want to limit tourist numbers.

Obey the signs: Machu Picchu is a sacred site that should be preserved for future generations to enjoy. To keep erosion to a minimum, there are certain places you’re not allowed to go. Stick to the designated paths and obey the signs.

Get covered: When you’re traveling through Peru, I highly recommend a good travel insurance policy. Safety Wing is one of our favorites, but you can also check out this list of the best travel insurance providers for South America.

FAQ

What is so significant about Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu is an iconic UNESCO World Heritage site nestled in the Peruvian mountains. While most Inca cities were destroyed during the Spanish conquest, Machu Picchu remained hidden and survived almost intact. It is a stunning example of Inca ingenuity and workmanship, and one of the most beautiful ancient sites in the world.

How do I get to Machu Picchu?

There are multiple routes to the ancient city of Machu Picchu in Peru. Many visitors will fly into the Peruvian Capital of Lima.

From there, you can make your way to Cusco. From Cusco, you can hike the Inca trail through the sacred valley or go by road or rail to Aguas Calientes.

How much does it cost to visit Machu Picchu?

How much you pay to visit depends on how you get there, if you take a tour, and the accommodation you book. But to enter the site itself, Machu Picchu tickets cost between $35-$60.

For my trip back in 2012, I think I spent around $1000 for a week. That included the tour, food, additional accommodation, souvenirs, a spa day, and a celebratory beer or five.

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