Practical guide for a great trip to Machu Picchu

Practical guide for a great trip to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the most important destinations in the entire American continent and, with the current restrictions on the number of visitors, it is not always easy to organize the trip. We visited Machu Picchu in 2005, so my experience is of little relevance right now.

Fortunately, we have a longtime friend who was recently in Machu Picchu and shares this type of survival manual. This is a guide to Machu Picchu with all the tips to plan your trip.

Machu Picchu from above

We don’t want to say that it’s hard to get to Machu Picchu but we think it can be considered a trip on the journey. There are several steps to take to get there and if it’s the first time, there are many questions that are asked. So we decided to write a practical guide with details on how to best organize the visit to the famous Inca site, making the most of the time available and being able to choose consciously among the different possible options.

During a trip to Peru one of the key stops is definitely Cusco. In addition to being a beautiful city, Cusco is the perfect base for a lot of excursions to discover the Inca civilization. One of these is undoubtedly the visit to the famous archaeological site of Machu Picchu.

There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco: by train, minivan, private car or with your legs with a trek of several days, as we did. Whatever means you choose, you have to take into account that you have to spend at least two days. In fact, you need to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes, the citadel located at the foot of Machu Picchu at 2040 meters above sea level also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, in to be the next day among the first to access the site.

For us, the visit of Machu Picchu (2430 mt above sea level) coincided with the fourth and final day of the Salkantay Trek.

Where is Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu, where is it? The city is located at an altitude of about 2500 meters, in the equatorial forest. Machu Picchu is now divided into two major sectors: the urban sector in the north and the agricultural sector in the south.

The area to the north is divided in turn by a high area, Hanan, and a low, Hurin, separated by a central square. The Hanan was used as the residence of the elite and the quality of the buildings highlights it; here in fact the natural rock was masterfully sculpted and a series of canals carried water directly from a spring to these residences.

In the Hurin, on the other hand, there are the housing districts of different social rank and today known by somewhat imaginative names such as the people’s quarter, the prisons, the intellectual quarter, the house of virgins.  The majority of the population is thought to live here and there were also several areas for the production of textiles and ceramics.

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In Machu Picchu there were not only palaces but also a series of temples: the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, the Temple of the Condor. At the highest point of the city rises the true fulcrum of the sacredness of Machu Picchu: the Intiwatana, or a monolithic altar with a central pillar used as a point for astronomical observations and as an altar.

Apart from the fact that these structures were built with unparalleled sophistication and are still in an excellent state of preservation, although many buildings were heavily renovated a few years after the discovery, the exceptionality of Machu Picchu is in the perfect union between the hand of man and the nature that surrounds the city.

The best time of the year to visit Machu Picchu

Your trip to Machu Picchu will be an experience of those that you make only once in a lifetime, and that is why for you it is essential that it is well organized in every detail, choosing above all the best time.

Machu Picchu, one of Peru’s most beautiful destinations, and one of the world’s new seven wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, the Lost City is accessible by foot or by train. So let’s look together what is the best time of the year to visit Machu Picchu. It will be such an exciting and rewarding experience.

Walking

The famous Inca Way, a challenging 4-day excursion and a truly unforgettable experience, is one of the ways to get to Machu Picchu. However, keep in mind that bookings for this particular type of excursion must be made months in advance. In fact, the Peruvian government allows the presence of only 500 tourists a day on the same path. Therefore, to fully enjoy this experience, you need to plan well (and well in advance) your trekking excursion and also know the climate of the Andes.

On the hike along the Inca Way, you’ll be dealing with an altitude of between 2,000 and 4,000 meters (between 6,500 and 13,000 feet), as the trail begins in the Andes and ends in the rainforest. This means that you will come across many different types of climate.

The first thing to know is that in the Andes there are basically two different seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. The best months to hike the Inca Way are the dry season, from April to October, which is generally considered the best time to hike in the Andes. However, be aware that during this period, although temperatures during the day reach 20 degrees C (68 degrees F), the nights are quite cold and the temperatures can get very cold and drop down to 0 degrees C (32 degrees F).

Hiking on the Inca Way during the rainy season can be really different. It would be better to avoid going to Machu Picchu along the Inca Way between January and February (when the Inca Way is usually closed due to rain and to carry out maintenance). November, December and March, however, are acceptable months to hike the Inca Way, although the trail can be slippery.

Train

Visit Machu Picchu by train
Visit Machu Picchu by train

If you decide to reach Machu Picchu by train, the planning will be totally different. Because trains depart from Ollantaytambo, Urubamba and Poroy (and reach the village of Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes), you can reach Machu Picchu all year round. However, keep in mind that train travel will also need to be arranged in advance due to the limited number of people per day who can access Machu Picchu (2,500).

How many tourists visit Machu Picchu annually?

The ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, Peru, is certainly one of the places not to be missed. Its famous Inca Trail allows visitors to reach the summit through Andean landscapes and rainforests, a unique and memorable experience.

Unfortunately abusive tour operators and an excess of tourists have damaged the routes, produced accumulations of waste and uncontrolled campsites. The site is known to exceed the maximum limit recommended by UNESCO of 2,500 visitors per day.

In 2005, the Peruvian government placed a seasonal limit on the number of how many tourists which visit machu picchu are allowed to walk the path. Furthermore, every February the route is closed to allow cleaning and maintenance operations. Tourists have adapted by booking in advance and tour companies must comply with the regulations to maintain the permits assigned.

Despite this, visitors continue to invade Machu Picchu, mainly arriving by road, although last year the authorities introduced a new system that provides for the purchase of a ticket with access permission, in an attempt to check the numbers.

How does the day for visiting Machu Picchu take place?

On the morning of the fourth day, the alarm clock beats all records by sounding at 2.50. No, it’s not a typo, we actually woke up at three minus ten. That day, however, the alarm clock does not weigh us at all, the adrenaline is a thousand.

Here the group, which until then had traveled together, splits in half: those who decide to reach the entrance of the site on foot with a walk of about an hour (starting at 4.30 from Aguas Calientes), who instead like us opts to take the bus that in about twenty minutes to its destination. We do not recommend the first option except for a purely cheap talk as the bus tickets cost 24 euros a year apiece, as you face the trail at night and it is quite challenging, it takes a plentiful hour to make all the steps that cut the bends of the road that runs through the bus.

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The first coaches leave the centre of Aguas Calientes at 5.30am but you need to line up as soon as possible to secure a seat on the first coaches and thus reach the famous site with the first visitors of the day. At 3.30am we were in line and managed to be exactly the first of the second coach. Well, yes, someone got up before us.

We had bought the bus tickets the night before but wanting the ticket office, which is right in front of the bus stop, opens at 5.00 in the morning. After a while they also start to open the dining activities around, so that you can have breakfast or buy packed lunch for the day. Needless to say, you can’t leave the line in any way, so you have to be at least two.

A lot of visitors of Machu Picchu

At 5.30 o’clock, the first buses depart, which do not start charging people, heading for Machu Picchu. At six minus ten we reach the top, where we rejoin the whole group. Those who have tackled the footpath arrive at the top completely sweaty. There are those who even take off their shirts while standing bare-chested, while we are tight in our duvets, under a scarf and a cap.

At 6 a.m., the gates are opened. Captained by our mythical guide Ramiro, after a few minutes we are inside the site, immersed in the morning fog of Macchu Picchu. When we enter it starts to sunrise, unfortunately there is a very dense fog that does not allow us to see over a few meters.

We try to keep calm by concentrating all my positive energies so that the fog rises and allows us to enjoy the view that we have before us. The site is not immediately seen as soon as you pass the entrance turnstiles but after about ten minutes of walking. Ramiro begins to guide us through the ruins.

Positive thoughts are soon rewarded: after a very short time the fog disappears completely leaving room for an incredibly clear sky. The guided tour lasts about two hours, after which, greeted Ramiro, we continue to discover Machu Picchu on their own, wandering around and losing ourselves among the ruins full of enthusiasm.

From July 2017 it is mandatory the presence of an official guide to visit the site. If you reach Machu Picchu alone don’t worry because at the entrance to the site there are plenty of guides ready to accompany you through the ruins, the rates are almost all similar.

Where and how to buy Machu Picchu tickets?

It is possible to buy the access ticket at the Cusco visitor centre before going to the archaeological site, or directly online on the official website of the Ministry of Culture of Peru, by visa credit card. Don’t forget to print the ticket to present it at the entrance in paper format. Be wary of any other local site or agency, so you will avoid paying unnecessary commissions.

Montaa Machu Picchu

Once inside Machu Picchu you can reach the summit of the two mountains located exactly at the opposite ends of the site: Montaa Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. We had opted for the latter by communicating it already at the time of booking the Salkantay Trek, as it is necessary to buy an additional ticket at the standard entrance.

Machu Picchu allows entry to 2,500 people a day in two shifts, from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 12:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., while for Huayna there are only 400 daily admissions exclusively in the morning and are divided into two time slots: with entry from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

There are 800 entrances for Montaa Machu Picchu and there is only one shift, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

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How to buy machu picchu tickets? In high season, from May to September, it is not difficult for admission tickets to run out well in advance, while during the low tourist season, from October to April, there is hardly any such risk.

The maximum visit time allowed for those who only opt for the citadel of Machu Picchu is 4 hours, while those who visit Machu Picchu and Montaa Machu Picchu will have 7 hours, while those who visit Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu will have to do everything in 6 hours.

Travellers who have the entry ticket booked for the morning shift and should enter between 10am and 12pm can make the visit normally, for up to 4 hours from the time of entry.

What to choose between Montasa Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu?

Huayna Picchu is the best known destination and therefore the most requested by visitors. However, Machu Picchu Mountain, at 3000 metres above sea level, is a viable alternative.

In addition, the latter requires a longer walk (about 3 hours a/r) than Huayna Picchu, but much easier. The climb to Huayna Picchu, in fact, while taking almost an hour less, provides a much more strenuous path, with a final stretch highly discouraged to those suffering from vertigo as you climb steps along the steep mountain helped by a rope welding to the rock.

After climbing Huayna though, we are convinced that the effort is then rewarded with interest: enjoying a sandwich sitting on the terraces admiring Macchu Picchu from above and from a different perspective is one of the most beautiful snapshots of the whole trip. 

View of the citadel from atop Huayna Picchu: the central peak is Montaa, the zigzag road leading to Aguas Calientes.

What to visit besides the citadel of Machu Picchu?

With the same entrance ticket you can reach the Inca Bridge, an ancient bridge that is located inside the site and can be reached in about half an hour’s walk.

With a longer walk you can reach the Sun Gate or Puerta del Sol: if you decide to reach Machu Picchu by inca Trail on the last day you will access the site by passing right through this door, getting excited to see in the distance for the first time the majesty of Machu Picchu and the zigzag road that travel the buses that take tourists from Aguas Calientes to the gates of the archaeological site.

If you are wondering where the classic photo with Machu Picchu behind you is, I’ll tell you right away: it’s the House of the Guardian, located at the highest point of the site. From here the view of the citadel leaves you breathless, it is exactly the moment when you are convinced that you have realized a dream.

The Guardian House, Machu Picchu

The Guardian House in Machu Picchu

You can go out and re-enter the site only 2 times in a day, each time you have to show your paper ticket and passport again. It is essential to take this into account as the bathrooms and restaurants are located outside the site. The bathroom costs 1 PEN and the bar, as you can imagine, is not cheap at all, so maybe you could need some Nifty Options Tips. For this icon to bring you snacks, water and packed lunch as we did, you will also avoid long queues and unnecessary waste of time.

By what means to return to Cusco?

Once you’ve finished your visit to Machu Picchu you need to line up to catch the coach that will take you back to Aguas Calientes in about twenty minutes. We did about an hour’s queue, arm yourself with patience.

Arriving at Aguas Calientes we went back to the hotel where we had slept the previous night to retrieve the backpacks we had left in storage. After stalling in the hotel lobby, at 6pm we took the train to Ollantaytambo and then from there a private minivan to Cusco.

You can buy train tickets directly from the Peruvian railway website Peru Rail. The train makes two stops: Ollantaytambo station (1 hour and 50 minutes to/from Machu Picchu) and Poroy station (3 hours and 50 minutes to/from Macchu Picchu) about a 20-minute taxi ride from Cusco. Plus there are several classes of train that can be purchased, from the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham to the economy, but still very nice, Expedicion.

Peru is an incredible country that has a lot to offer, especially landscaped, but we think only the visit of Machu Picchu is worth the whole trip. The emotions of that day we keep jealously in my heart, every now and then about nostalgic photos and almost hard to believe that we have managed to realize such a great dream.

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