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Every year, millions of people visit the imposing and mysterious Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru. But getting to the massive agricultural terraces, intricate stone constructions, and epic hilltop views of this UNESCO World Heritage site isn’t cheap, and it involves some trickier-than-usual logistics. Here’s how to expertly navigate your way to Peru’s most famous destination, plus our top tips for enjoying your visits to the nearby cities of Cusco and Aguas Calientes on your way.
Reasons to Visit
Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most dreamed-about destinations. Mystery is at the center of Machu Picchu’s appeal, as the city holds many secrets about the ancient Incan Empire. Knowledge-seekers will find plenty of interesting tidbits to mull over about the city’s archaeological significance and the various scientific and religious practices of the Incans who built the magnificent site.
Alongside this adventure through time, a trip to Machu Picchu offers an opportunity to experience Peruvian culture and gastronomy. If you stay a while, you can even make trips to many of the country’s other historical wonders, like the perplexing and enormous images etched into the hills of the Nazca Valley, the origins of which are not entirely understood. Throw in a few dishes of tangy ceviche, a rainbow-striped mountain, a desert oasis that looks more like a painting than a real place, and many pisco sours to wash it all down, and you’ve got a fantastic trip in one of the world’s most naturally beautiful countries.
Best Time to Visit
Machu Picchu is open year-round. October through April is the official rainy season, but it can rain at any time. And while peak season is July and August, you should always expect crowds. Sundays can be the most crowded, because that’s when people who live in the Cusco province are allowed into the site for free, in addition to the daily visitor limit.
Morning? Afternoon? There is no perfect time to visit Machu Picchu. These days, the site is crowded at all hours and the weather is unpredictable. However, during the rainy season, the mornings are most likely to be foggy. Depending on your disposition, fog ruins the view or adds a patina of mystery to it. Afternoons can be slightly less crowded as day-trippers return to the train station for their trip back to Cusco.
How to Get Acclimated to the Altitude
The last thing you need on your day in Machu Picchu is a case of altitude sickness. Wherever you’re coming from is probably much, much lower than Cusco (over 11,000 feet) or Machu Picchu (just shy of 8,000 feet). Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination, so you can adjust gradually and avoid common symptoms like nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
Unless you’ve booked a trip to Machu Picchu that requires an overnight stay in Cusco, we recommend immediately taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town nearest Machu Picchu. Spend a night or two getting used to the relatively low elevation of Aguas Calientes, at about 6,700 feet, then explore Machu Picchu before returning to Cusco. You can also spend time elsewhere in the Sacred Valley, which, by nature, is lower in elevation than the surrounding mountains. Avoid alcohol and physical exertion while acclimatizing and drink as much water or coca tea as you can stand to help your body slowly adjust to the thinner air.
How to Get There
If Machu Picchu is your goal, you will have to fly into the capital of Lima and then catch a connecting flight to Cusco. From there, the easiest way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to take the train to Aguas Calientes, a scenic 3.5-hour trip each way along tracks that run right along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley, with dramatic canyon walls on either side. However, note that the so-called Cusco train station is actually in the nearby town of Poroy. It’s a cheap taxi ride, but give yourself at least an hour to get from central Cusco to the train station. Traffic in Cusco can be brutal and seemingly never-ending road work makes things even more congested.
Taking the Train
There are three train companies to choose from: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham train. The Hiram Bingham service is on a gorgeous train gleaming with brass and polished wood and includes a white tablecloth meal with wine during your journey. It’s also much more expensive than Inca Rail or Peru Rail, both of which offer comfortable passage on different types of trains — including ones designed with panoramic windows for an additional fee. Whichever train you choose, book as far in advance as possible. Tickets sell out weeks ahead in some months.
If train tickets from Cusco are sold out, all is not lost. Try to buy another train ticket to Aguas Calientes that departs from the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or vice versa. Taxis and minivans between Ollantaytambo and Cusco (just over an hour each way) are plentiful. If you have the time, plan an overnight in Ollantaytambo to check out the town, which still features many Incan-built streets and buildings, as well as the archaeological site of the same name. Arrive as early as possible at the site to enjoy the sunrise light and beat the tour buses.
You can also stay overnight in Urubamba, a 20-minute drive from Ollantaytambo, which has a bevy of luxury and boutique hotels such as Tambo del Inka, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa; Sol y Luna, Relais & Châteaux; and Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel & Wellness.
How to Get Tickets
Even when you buy your ticket in advance, guides are required at Machu Picchu, whether you’re on an organized tour or traveling independently. Hire one outside the gates, or make a booking in Aguas Calientes.
To control overtourism at Machu Picchu, the Peruvian government has set up a ticketing system, split up into five different circuits. Tickets must be purchased in advance and cost approximately $42 for adults and $20 for students and minors. When you book online, you will be able to see exactly how many tickets are available for that day. On the day of your visit, you will choose between one of the five circuits. The stricter controls help to protect the site from the effects of too many visitors. Before you book, carefully look at the circuits and see which landmarks they include.
You’ll need a separate ticket to climb Huayna Picchu (Circuit 4 + Wayna Picchu Mountain). The view looking down on the Incan ruins is a highlight for many but be aware that some sections of this strenuous trail are very narrow and steep. You’ll have the choice of starting your climb between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Go at 10 a.m.; there’s a better chance any clouds will have lifted by then.
You can also climb to the peak of Machu Picchu, but this too requires a separate ticket (Macchupicchu Mountain + Circuit 3) and good knees. The trail is almost entirely stairs. You’ll have the choice of starting your climb between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Although it was open in the past, you will also need a separate ticket to make the short walk to the Inca Bridge (Circuit 1 or 2 + Inka Bridge). It’s less than an hour round trip along a mostly flat trail to check out a precarious trail, now closed, which the Incas built along a rock face. The newest route, as of 2021, to Huchyu Picchu (Circuit 4 + Huchuypicchu Mountain) is also available with a separate ticket. It’s shorter and easier than the other mountain hikes and you’ll get a unique perspective of the ancient city.
The Inca Trail and Other Treks
The other way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to walk as part of an organized multiday Machu Picchu trek along the Inca Trail, a section of one of the hundreds of Incan roads built as the empire expanded. It might sound intimidating, but thousands of people make this trek every year. Dozens of tour operators offer Inca Trail hikes to Machu Picchu, with varying durations and levels of comfort (though all require camping). Note that the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu is closed for the entire month of February every year for maintenance.
For a different kind of Peru experience, some tour operators combine a visit to the iconic site with other activities or less-trodden routes to equally impressive sights in the Peruvian highlands. For example, the Inca Jungle Tour combines hiking, biking, rafting, and zip-lining on your way to Machu Picchu, and luxury tour operator andBeyond offers several Machu Picchu itineraries.
You can also drive (most of the way) to Machu Picchu from Cusco to the town of Hydroelectrica (there’s a hydroelectric plant there). From there it’s a three-hour hike up to Aguas Calientes and then on to Machu Picchu. Many tour companies in Cusco offer this route as a one- or two-day trip using private vans. Some of the most popular alternative routes include Salkantay Mountain, the second city of Choquequirao, and the Lares region.
For those who prefer a less crowded experience or want to see and experience other aspects of Peru on their way to Machu Picchu, there are many hiking alternatives: the second most popular way to hike to Machu Picchu is around massive Salkantay Mountain, one of the most imposing peaks in the Peruvian Andes at 20,569 feet. Many tour companies offer Salkantay Treks, but Apus Peru, an established and well-regarded Cusco tour company with a focus on sustainable and responsible tourism, offers an express trek, which shaves a day off the normal itinerary for those who want to push their physical limits on their way to Machu Picchu.
Travelers interested in archaeology should consider the Choquequirao trek with a Machu Picchu extension. This itinerary includes spectacular (but very tough) hiking in the steep Apurimac Canyon and exploration of the Choquequirao archaeological site before arriving in Aguas Calientes and then exploring Machu Picchu.
The Lares Adventure from Mountain Lodges of Peru offers a great combination of Andean hiking and cultural encounters within Quechua communities before arriving in Aguas Calientes to explore the citadel. Other tour companies offer treks through the Lares region, but only this itinerary includes luxury accommodations in their own lodges and full service along the way.
Best Hotels and Resorts
Unfortunately, there are no ancient Incan hotels you can stay in when you arrive at Machu Picchu, and even those who arrive by the Inca Trail usually do so with camping tents. The closest you can get is the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, which gives you easy access to the site, but you’ll be far away from the dining and shopping of Aguas Calientes — either a strenuous 90-minute climb down the mountain or a harrowing 30-minute drive.
Where to Stay in Aguas Calientes
For a luxury stay in Aguas Calientes, you have two main options: the elegant Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, located near the train station, and design-forward Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, a boutique property near the foot of Machu Picchu Mountain. But there are dozens of mid-range options, too, plus super-affordable hostels for backpackers like Nativus Hostel, which also has private rooms.
Where to Stay in Cusco
Cusco has more than its share of large, full-service hotels including Inkaterra La Casona, an 11-suite hotel in a 16th-century mansion; Belmond Hotel Monasterio in a former Jesuit seminary; the museum-like JW Marriott El Convento Cusco; and the stately Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel. If a contemporary boutique is more your style, try El Mercado or Atiq Boutique Hotel.
When you’re in Machu Picchu, there’s a casual cafe and bar with a lovely deck just outside the entrance gates, but the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge’s buffet lunch is your only sit-down-restaurant option. It’s very good, if pricey. You can always pack your own lunch to eat when you get to Machu Picchu, though, and look forward to a celebratory meal when you make it back to Aguas Calientes or Cusco.
Where to Eat and Drink in Aguas Calientes
As a whole, Aguas Calientes isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of Peruvian cuisine. But walk down Av. Pachacutec and you’ll find low-key eateries and bars, some serving a selection of Peru’s growing crop of craft beers. There are also high-end restaurants inside the two luxury hotels, Inkaterra and Sumaq, which are open to non-guests. More low-key traveler favorites include Restaurante Indio Feliz, serving up French-Peruvian dishes, and Mapacho Craft Beer Restaurant, where you can pair local specialties with craft beer from all over the country.
Where to Eat and Drink in Cusco
Significantly larger than Aguas Calientes, Cusco is one place where you should have no problem finding great restaurants. Cicciolina is a classic tapas bar that feels like a local hangout, serving international and Andean dishes out of an open kitchen. Kion, from the growing Cusco Restaurants group, is a stylish place to enjoy Cantonese cuisine. The decor is Chinese vintage, the flavors are subtle, and the atmosphere is festive.
Chicha is the first restaurant in Cusco from Peruvian superstar chef Gaston Acurio of Astrid & Gastón fame. Located on the second floor of a Colonial building, the restaurant offers haute Andean cuisine (alpaca carpaccio, quinoa with duck) in an airy and well-lit space. After dinner, you can head to Cholos pub near the main plaza, which keeps around a dozen different Peruvian craft beers on tap. Peruvian owner Rodrigo Cardenas is passionate and knowledgeable about all of them.
Best Things to Do in Machu Picchu
When you arrive at the citadel, you’ll have to follow the route outlined on your ticket so you may want to study up on some of the city’s most exciting sites before you decide. Among the most important are the Sacred Stone, an astronomical clock that corresponds with the spring and autumnal equinoxes, and the Temple of the Sun, which is a great example of the Incans’ impressive masonry skills.
During your visit, make sure you have some spare cash (small bills and coins) in your pocket because you will need them to access the only bathroom at the site entrance. You will also need your passport to get into Machu Picchu, which means that to use the bathroom or grab food you should have your passport ready. Hang onto your ticket because you’ll need it to get back in. It may seem like a hassle, but you’ll be glad you have it on you because just outside the entrance gates, there’s a barely marked station where you can get the novelty Machu Picchu stamp in your passport.
On your way to Machu Picchu, you’ll also find several interesting attractions in Aguas Calientes and Cusco.
Things to Do in Aguas Calientes
The town takes its name from the thermal springs, which are open to the public for a small fee. You’ll also find plenty of souvenir shops at the major market near the train station. While Machu Picchu is the main attraction, of course, you can also visit the Mariposario de Machupicchu butterfly sanctuary.
Things to Do in Cusco
Cusco’s pre-Columbian buildings have given this city UNESCO World Heritage status, and its cobblestoned streets, great hotels, museums, nearby archaeological sites, and relaxed atmosphere make it worth spending at least a couple of days here.
Cusco is filled with historic sites both from the Incan and colonial times: don’t miss the impressive Coricancha (also spelled Koricancha or Qorikancha), an Incan temple-turned-Spanish church; the Sacsayhuaman Incan ruins; and the Cusco Cathedral. Wander through the streets of the hip San Blas neighborhood, people-watch on the Plazas de Armas, and shop at the San Pedro Market.
Travelers in wheelchairs can access the Peruvian world wonder with the help of tour companies like Wheel the World, which designed the first-ever wheelchair-accessible tour of Machu Picchu. You can contact the company to learn more about their services and their custom wheelchairs that are specially made to travel over the many steps and uneven terrain of the ancient city.
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Whether you’re planning a multiday trek or a quick in-and-out day trip, you should be prepared to dress for mountain conditions. Bring water and a rain jacket, even if it looks like a beautiful sunny day. Speaking of the sun, remember that the ozone layer over Peru is compromised, and that, combined with the elevation, makes the sun extremely strong here, so wear a hat and use plenty of high SPF sunscreen. Keep insect repellant handy as well.
Don’t bring drones, umbrellas, walking sticks, or trekking poles since they’re all prohibited at Machu Picchu. Travelers who require sticks or poles for mobility can bring them in but only with protective rubber tips over the ends.