From packing bug spray to finding the best vistas, a Peru travel expert reveals insider’s secrets on how to get the most out of your Machu Picchu Peru tour.
When to Go
Machu Picchu is open year-round. The Inca Trail is closed every February for maintenance, but Machu Picchu itself is accessible daily, from 6:00am until 5:30pm.
The rainy season in the cloud forest is from typically November to March. Between December and February, you are guaranteed a very wet day at Machu Picchu, so be sure to bring rain gear. But even during the dry season, from June-September, sporadic rain showers are common. So bring a light rain jacket just in case.
June to August is the peak travel time, when many North Americans take their vacations, and hotels and entrance tickets can be booked well in advance. So if you plan to take your Machu Picchu Peru tour during these months, be sure to make your travel arrangements early.
How to Get There
There are 2 main options: take the train or the Inca Trail. After flying into Cusco from Lima, you can transfer directly to the train station and head through the Sacred Valley to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. The train ride takes about 4 hours each direction, and winds through beautiful scenery in the Urubamba River Valley. It is recommended that you spend the night in the Sacred Valley or Aguas Calientes before visiting Machu Picchu, so that you can get to Machu Picchu right when it opens the next morning.
There are 3 main types of trains: Expedition (formerly known as Backpacker), Vistadome, and Hiram Bingham. The Vistadome features wide windows and skylights that allow you to really appreciate the views of the Sacred Valley. The leather seats are comfortable and there is air-conditioning. The Expedition train is a more affordable option, while the Hiram Bingham is the luxury version.
Once in Aguas Calientes, you need to take the shuttle bus up the zig-zag Hiram Bingham Highway to the entrance to Machu Picchu. The shuttle takes about 20 minutes and leaves every half hour, beginning at 5:30am. You can purchase a ticket for the shuttle when you purchase your Machu Picchu entrance ticket.
You need to purchase your Machu Picchu Peru tour tickets in advance; there is no ticket booth at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Also, regulations on Machu Picchu tourism recently changed, and now tickets are limited to 2500 per day. During peak travel times (June-August), you should definitely consider purchasing your tickets well in advance. A Machu Picchu entrance ticket is valid for only 1 day (from 6:00 AM until 5:30 PM). Note that if you want to hike the Huaynu Picchu trail, you should purchase the ticket at the same time that you purchase your Machu Picchu ticket.
What to See
Huaynu Picchu: Many people who go on a Machu Picchu Peru Tour opt to pay the extra few dollars to hike Huaynu Picchu, the looming granite cliff that forms the backdrop to most photos of Machu Picchu. This trail winds through thick cloud forest vegetation and follows narrow staircases until it starts climbing steeply up Inca-built terraces and finally reaches the top, about 360 m (1181 ft) in elevation gain. The view from Huaynu Picchu is spectacular: you can see a panorama of green mountain peaks, separated by steep valleys, where the Urubamba River winds and bends through the cloud forest below. You can also see the whole city of Machu Picchu. This is the perfect spot to relax, pull out a book or journal, and just enjoy the beauty of your natural surroundings.
The trail take about 2 hours to complete, if you take your time. Note that tickets to enter the Huaynu Picchu trail must purchased in advance, and can’t be purchased at the trailhead. There are 2 times each day when hikers are allowed to enter the trail and you must return by 5:00pm. Note that the trail may be closed during the rainy season.
Machu Picchu Sanctuary Highlights:
Within the “city in the sky” of Machu Picchu, there are several highlights that you should seek out. Look for the Orchid Garden near the Sacred Plaza, the agricultural terraces, the Temple of the Three Windows, the Royal Inca Tomb, and the Watchman’s Hut, where you can take the obligatory holiday photo overlooking Machu Picchu and Huaynu Picchu beyond. You might also want to walk to the Inti Punku Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu that the Inca people took, and that now the Inca Trail trekkers use.
Off the Beaten Path
Those who opt to hike Huaynu Picchu can also hike to the Gran Caverna and the Templo de la Luna, located on a path that shoots off from the main Huaynu Picchu trail, and demarcated by only a small sign. Follow the trail for about 2 miles until the sounds of cicadas starts rising to a feverish pitch, and then the trail will break into a meadow, encircling an impressive cave carved out of a giant stone. This detour take about 1 extra hour to complete, as it involves continuous steps that can make the trek tiring.
There is no food or water available inside Machu Picchu. The nearest restaurant, the Tinkuy Restaurant Buffet, is located in the Sanctuary Lodge, near the entrance to Machu Picchu. A standard lunch there will put you out about $25 USD. The El Mirador snack bar sells sandwiches, bottled water, and snacks near the entrance to Machu Picchu. These also are pricey, and the place gets busy during lunchtime. It’s not technically permissable to bring food into the park, but you might want to consider purchasing a boxed lunch at a hotel or restaurant in Aguas Calientes.
There are no bathrooms inside the grounds of Machu Picchu, only at the entrance.
Get there early! Seeing Machu Picchu is an awesome experience, and you don’t want to cut short your time visiting this amazing city in the sky. It is highly recommended that you spend the night in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu, the night before you visit Machu Picchu. That way, you can wake up early and get to the entrance to Machu Picchu right when it opens. You’ll be one of the first to enter and will be able to do the Huaynu Picchu hike or explore the grounds before the fog burns off and the crowds gather.
Don’t forget your passport; you need it to enter the park.
Cusco is a high elevation city (at 13000 feet), and many travelers experience altitude sickness on the first day or two of their stay. For altitude sickness, just take it easy the first day in Cusco, drink lots of water and/or coca tea. You can buy coca tea in grocery stores in Lima and Cusco. It tastes similar to mint tea. Many 4* & 5* Cusco hotels offer oxygen machines by request. Another alternative is to transfer to the Sacred Valley, which is at a lower elevation and is only about 2 hours from Cusco. There are several wonderful 4* & 5* Sacred Valley hotels to choose from. Machu Picchu (at 2,430 meters, or 7,970 ft) and the Sacred Valley are lower in elevation than Cusco and altitude sickness in these locales is not as common of an issue.
There is only 1 ATM machine in Aguas Calientes, and none at Machu Picchu. So bring some cash with you when you depart from Cusco!
Where to Stay
Often travelers to Machu Picchu want to stay in the Sanctuary Lodge, which is unique because it is located near the entrance to Machu Picchu. But there are several excellent alternatives located in Aguas Calientes. For 5* clients, there is nothing better than the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo. Set off from the rest of the town, this hotel property feels like a sanctuary in itself. There are orchid gardens, a wildlife rescue center, and walking trails surrounding luxurious bungalows and a beautiful outdoor pool. The 5* service at Inkaterra includes a bountiful breakfast buffet, a welcome drink upon arrival, and plenty of amenities like plush robes and slippers.
The Hatuchay Tower is an upper 3* Machu Picchu hotel option, located on the banks of the Urubamba River. Amenities include satellite TV, an elevator with panoramic views, 24 hour room service, internet access, and a restaurant.
Read more about our recommended Machu Picchu Hotels.
Sacred Valley Hotels are also an excellent option, especially for those who have a bit more time to spare during their Machu Picchu Peru tour.
What to Pack
Note that on the train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu, the train restricts each passenger’s baggage to 5 kg (11 lbs). Most hotels in Cusco and the Sacred Valley provide complimentary luggage storage when you book at least one hotel night, so you can leave most of your belongings in storage and retrieve them on your return trip to Cusco. Take only what you need for the Machu Picchu portion of your Peru tour.
How to Prepare for Your Trip
If you’re the bookish type who likes to read all about the places their traveling to, look no further than Mark Adams’s Turn Right at Machu Picchu. This recently-published book is a well-written account of one American’s journey to Machu Picchu and his personal quest to understand Machu Picchu, the Inca Empire, and the modern-day obsession with traveling to Peru. Another great book is Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Machu Picchu, a poet’s take on the mystery of the Incas.
To prepare for the physical demands of your Machu Picchu Peru tour, keep in mind that millions of people visit Machu Picchu each year, and do so with varying degrees of physical ability. Your Machu Picchu tour guide can gear your tour to go at your own pace. Be aware that Machu Picchu does involve a lot of walking, often on uneven and steep staircases. The Huaynu Picchu hike is not for the faint of heart, but it does not require strenuous exercise and you can go at your own pace. If you have any questions about your physical ability to visit Machu Picchu, contact our travel consultants and we can address your concerns.
Booking Your Trip
You will need to budget for a round-trip train ticket Cusco-Machu Picchu, the shuttle bus ticket to/from Aguas Calientes-Machu Picchu, plus the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. And if you want to hike Huaynu Picchu, budget for that entrance ticket as well. In addition, you’ll need to consider transfers to/from your hotel in Cusco and the Cusco train station, as well as the Cusco airport. All of these tickets, transfers, and entrance fees can be easily arranged through a travel consultant. Our team of travel consultants are experts in Machu Picchu travel and can customize a Machu Picchu Peru tour to suit your needs perfectly. We can also arrange hotels, additional tours in the Sacred Valley and Cusco, and recommend great restaurants.