Saturday, June 12

The Complete Guide to Visiting Machu Picchu in Peru


Any trip to Peru isn’t complete without visiting Machu Picchu. It attracts archaeologists, photographers and adventurers, as well as travellers who are eager to tick it off their bucket list. 

The altitude of Machu Picchu is 2 430 m (7,972 feet) – making it pretty impressive (acute mountain altitude sickness can occur).

If you’re planning on visiting Machu Picchu in Peru – here’s everything that you’ll need to know.

Hiking the Inca Jungle Trail To Machu Picchu

How to get to Machu Picchu in Peru

Visiting Machu Picchu isn’t cheap (though you can do Machu Picchu on a budget). As of 2021,

With the train ticket to Machu Picchu Pueblo, also formerly known as Aguas Calientes at US$98 return and a night’s accommodation it easily adds up to over US$200. Visitors to Machu Picchu typically leave from Cusco (read all about things to do in Cusco).

From there, a visitor has the following options to reach Machu Picchu:

On foot

Hiking the Inca Trail is an alternative to get in and a great way to arrive as you first see the city through the Sun Gate (instead of arriving from beneath on the bus). Both the four-day and two-day hikes are controlled by the government. Travelers should be fit enough to walk for days and sleep in tents.

A hiker can also follow the train tracks all the way to Machu Picchu. There is only one track leading out of the Machu Picchu train station in Cusco, so it’s quite simple. It takes about four days, and you only have to pay the entrance fee. Recent regulations require reservations and the hiring of a professional tour guide to accompany you on the hike.

You can also take the less popular Inca Jungle Trail.

Walking Along the Railroad Tracks

While this route is technically illegal, the law is not enforced except at the Inca Trail checkpoint of Kilometer 82. If you wish to get to Machu Picchu by this route, leave from Ollantaytambo early in the morning, at about 5 – 5:30 AM. You will likely have to make arrangements beforehand for a taxi to bring you to Km. 82, as there are not many taxis in service at this time. Once you get to Kilometer 82, begin walking on the tracks away from Ollantaytambo.

The trip is approximately 30 kilometers, but because the ground is flat it goes fairly quickly. You can count on getting into Aguas Calientes sometime after lunch and before dinner. It is then recommended to get a hostel and see the ruins the following day. This method of travel, it should be stressed, is technically illegal, but for a budget traveller looking for an adventure, this is the best choice.

Train to Machu Picchu

The most common way is to take the PeruRail train to Machu Picchu in the morning, explore the ruins for a few hours and return to Cusco in the afternoon, though it can be a bit rushed. The train terminates at Puente Ruinas station, where buses take tourists up the mountain to Machu Picchu. The Machu Picchu station is located at Aguas Calientes; this is not the station used by tourists on a day trip.

You can book Vistadome Train round-trip ticket here.

Note: PeruRail’s Backpacker train is segregationist in the literal sense. Tourists ride in a posh car, and Peruvians ride in another car farther back, often standing room only.

Bus to Machu Picchu

From Machu Picchu pueblo Aguas Calientes a traveler can take one of the frequent buses to the ruins (US$12 each way). The bus operates from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and the ride takes about 35 – 40 minutes.

It is also possible to walk the distance, about 2 hours (8 km). This route is mainly stairs, and follows the bus route up. It is a strenuous and long hike but is very rewarding, recommended to start around 4 a.m. to make it to the top before sunrise.

You can also travel the “back way” independently from Cusco by taking a bus to Santa Maria, colectivo to Santa Teresa, and proceeding to the hydroelectric train station by foot or van and on to Aguas Calientes by foot or train. Note that hiking the tracks is technically prohibited. Do your research before choosing this route.

An experience of visiting Machu Picchu by train

Many will take the challenging Inca Trail to reach this New 7 Wonder of the World, but Lisa Rollinson discovered that even those who take the easier route will still be overwhelmed by this legendary site…  

“I had dreamed of visiting the ancient ruins since I could remember. I had heard tales, seen pictures and read books, but finally it was my time to visit this man-made wonder. 

We arrived in Aguas Calientes by train in the early afternoon. This little town is Machu Picchu’s jumping on or off point, for people who have completed their Inca Trail trek or those who are sightseeing by train. A river runs though the village and there are restaurants and souvenir shops lining the main street. You could immediately sense the excitement amongst people who were returning from the sacred ruins, and I couldn’t wait to enjoy the moment myself! 

We joined the queue of locals and visitors who were waiting to board the buses, that 25 minutes later would have us disembarking at one of the most fascinating places on our planet. 

The road snaked its way through the mountains and, as the bus rounded a corner, I had my first glimpse of the ancient Inca ruins. I realised I was holding my breath, taken aback by the size of the site.  

The most astonishing thing is the mountain-side location of the ruins. The amount of work that must have gone into clearing the land is inspiring, but the gradient they are built on is simply unfathomable. 

Our guide explained how the stones used in the construction were both local and brought in from elsewhere. It took around 90 years for the Incas to build the sanctuary and some even say that parts were never finished.  

We had plenty of time to wander at our leisure, take it all in and imagine what it must have been like when the Spanish invaded the region. It was during this time that the Incas were thought to have burned Machu Picchu and hidden themselves deeper in the mountains. 

Machu Picchu was a small community, a place of refuge, built in the most improbable landscape. ‘Incredible’ just doesn’t describe it. Even when you see it for yourself it’s hard to comprehend the scale of Machu Picchu. It will keep you wondering why the Incas decided to build on a mountainside, in the middle of nowhere. There is simply nothing that compares in our modern world!”

Hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru
Hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru

Highlights and things to see at the Machu Picchu, Peru

Take the time to walk around the site; there are many places to see and explore when visiting Machu Picchu. Although it is not necessary, taking a guided tour does provide a deeper insight into the ancient city, its uses, and information on the geography of it.

Also, be sure to wake up early to miss the thousands of people that visit the site each day, or stay till closing time. The first buses start running at 5:40AM, which will give you an hour or two in the pleasant light of dawn but before the full force of the sun begins hammering the mountainside. (If you plan to stay past 10AM, sunblock is requisite.)

Temple of the Sun

Near the summit of the main city, the stonework on the temple is incredible. Look closely and you will see that there are a variety of stone walls throughout the city. Most are rough stones held together with mud, the common stone walls found throughout the world. But many buildings or parts of buildings are done with the more distinctive and impressive closely-fit stonework. The temple is the absolute pinnacle of this technology. Observe it from the side, descending the stone staircase in the main plaza.

Intihuatana – Temple of the Three Windows – Main Temple – Condor

The tour guides will try to tell you that this was a temple, but look closely: between the wings of the condor is a chamber with grooves cut in the stone to secure manacles, a walkway behind where a torturer may walk to whip the prisoner’s backs, and a scary looking pit to let the blood of prisoners drain. Clearly the condor was a symbol of cruel justice, but a santized version is told for the benefit of middle-aged tourists and their children.

The following sights involve some legwork:

Sun Gate

Walk back up the Inca trail away from the site and up the hill to the Sun Gate (or Inti Punku); from here you can see back down each valley offering excellent views. It’s a gentle walk (probably 45 mins tops round trip) and well worth it. If you stay in Aguas Callientes, it is possible to get here early enough to catch the sunrise from here. 

Waynapicchu (Huayna Picchu)

Walk up Waynapicchu (in Spanish Huayna Picchu); this is the “second” hill seen in the many photos. Its a steep but short walk offering very impressive views over the site. Well worth the effort!

Waynapicchu also has ruins atop its peak. As of November 2006, visitors are no longer accepted after 1 p.m. to start the trail, and all visitors must be out by 4:00p.m.

Only 400 visitors are allowed to enter this trail each day. Buses begin leaving for Machu Picchu at 5:30. A line forms early at the checkpoint to the trail. At 7:00 A.M. 400 ticket numbers are issued and the first of batch of 200 hikers is slowly released. The second group of 200 can start any time between 10:00 and 11:00 A.M.. On busy tourist days, the limit will be reached by 7 or 8 A.M..

It is recommended that you go straight here first thing. You will be required to sign in; remember your number (or the time you signed in) so that you can find yourself in the book to sign out again. The climb is steep and at times exposed, and takes about 1 hour each way. Some portions are slippery and steel cables (a via ferrata) provide some support. Decent footwear is important. There is an extremely narrow passage near the summit (a cave).

The view of the city is fantastic as it rises out of the clouds. You can even see all the way to the sun gate. 

At the top is a mini Machu Pichu, with houses, terraces, and some HUGE drop offs where you can get some amazing photos. 

This really is the last epic moment of the Inca Trail and the bit that fewest people get to see. So get past the crowds and hurry towards the mountain, sign the book, pass through the gate and get up to the top.

Take some time to lie on your back and take in the fact that you are on the very top of the Incas world. 

Two cautionary notes: The hike is somewhat strenuous and not advised for visitors who are elderly, pregnant or have heart/lung conditions. Also, the steep stairs and cliffs you must walk along at the summit can be terrifying for those who are afraid of heights.

Waynapicchu (Huayna Picchu)
Waynapicchu (Huayna Picchu)

Moon Temple and Great Cave

If you have some time at hand, or long for a sparkle of solitude, you can also walk to the Moon Temple (Templo de la Luna) and the Great Cave (Gran Caverne). It’s a long walk and adventurous hike involving several ladders. Some may find that the sites aren’t really rewarding, but unexpected wildlife can be seen (wild spectacled bears have been reported).

This hike is also quite interesting because partway through you leave behind the mountain terrain and enter a more conventional forest. The caves can be reached either by hiking down the trail from the peak of Waynapicchu (which includes some semi-harrowing but fun near-vertical descents) or by the split from the main Waynapicchu trail (look for the sign that says Gran Carvern).

Remember that it is much easier to descend from Waynapicchu than to ascend from these temples. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks for this long hike. The hike from the summit to the caves and back to the checkpoint takes about two more hours.

Food at Machu Picchu

It’s officially not allowed to bring food into the archeological site. But if you’re planning to stay the whole day, bring some snacks or sandwiches and plenty of water (just be sure not to litter). Your ticket will tell you that you cannot bring food or water bottles into the site, although many people do take them anyway.

Buying them at the site is expensive, and plastic bottles are not offered (glass only). Purchase food and plenty of water and bring it with you. The concession stand near the entrance of the site is pitiful in its offerings and gets very busy at lunchtime. Once in the site, it’s not possible to buy food or drinks. There is a cafeteria near the site, where the locals who work there eat. Ask one of them and if you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded with a cheap, filling, and unique alternative to the expensive tourist snack-stand.

  • Tinkuy Buffet Restaurant, Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, +51 84 21 1039/38. 11:30AM-3:00PM. Casual lunch buffet with nice picture windows. Expensive: About $33 for buffet lunch, approximately four times that of area restaurants.
  • Tampu Restaurant Bar (Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge guests only). 5:30AM-9:00AM, Noon-3:00PM, 6:30PM-9:30PM. Expensive, but it’s at the ruins site.

Better food choices can be found by taking one of the regular buses to Aguas Calientes (the small town on the train stop to Cuzco) where there are numerous restaurants. These restaurants are not up to the standards of those in Cuzco or Lima, but are generally satisfactory. They tend to be moderately high priced. Some guidebooks report an unusually high incidence of food poisoning in the area, possibly attributable to the fairly common power outages (with loss of refrigeration). Cooked pizza and bottled beer or soft drinks are safe bets, salads and Pisco sours (made with raw egg whites) are best avoided here. 

Accommodation at Machu Picchu

Rather than returning from the ruins the same day, a traveller can stay overnight near the ruins. There are many hotels at nearby Aguas Calientes, but only one hotel at Machu Picchu itself.

Machu Picchu is not a regular town, but a protected sanctuary where new construction is not allowed. That is why all of the places to sleep, with a single exception, are in nearby Aguas Calientes. This lively town offers a wide assortment of lodging options with choices that range from no-frills hostels for backpackers, to very sophisticated hotels. It is recommended to do a thorough hotel research before committing.

The only hotel in Machu Picchu is the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. Guests of this hotel can visit the ruins with the same schedule of travellers who spend a night in Aguas Calientes, but can enjoy the magnificent isolation of the sanctuary. The hotel also allows guests to cut out all transfer times from the citadel to their accommodation, allowing for a longer, more relaxing time at Machu Picchu.

How much does visiting Machu Picchu cost?

There are three types of tickets for visiting Machu Picchu. All include admission to the famous Inca archaeological site. However, they also offer access to huge mountains as well as interesting museums to learn more about the Inca City.

  • Machu Picchu Solo (includes access to Inca city of Machu Picchu): $45 USD (152 Soles) for adults and $21 USD (70 Soles) for children (<18 years)
  • Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu (includes access to Inca city of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu Mountain): $62 USD (200 Soles) for adults and $35 USD (118 Soles) for children (<18 years)
  • Machu Picchu + Mountain (includes access to Inca city of Machu Picchu and Machhu Picchu Mountain): $62 USD (200 Soles) for adults and $35 USD (118 Soles) for children (<18 years)

NB! Note that tickets are not sold at Machu Picchu itself, you need to get your ticket before arrival. Book your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu Lost Citadel here.

When is the best time to visit Machu Picchu?

The dry winter months of June and July are peak season in Machu Picchu and prices rise accordingly (and Inca Trail reservations are scarce for last-minute planners).

Tourists flock to the sun-soaked coastal regions during the summer months of December and January.

The best bargains can be found during the fringe months of April and May or September and October.

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