No trip to Peru seems complete without a visit to one of the new 7 wonders of the world. Machu Picchu treats wanderlust at the core and it’s no surprise that it is high on everyone’s bucket list. Located 2500m up in the Andes, Machu Picchu has famously been dubbed the “Lost City of the Incas”. Well it’s certainly not lost anymore as hundreds of thousands of people visit this sacred site every year. There are many things to know before hiking Peru, some that I certainly wish I knew before going so I will do my best to offer my advice.
This post is a guide for planning a trip to Machu Picchu. For my actual experience visiting Machu Picchu and climbing Montana Picchu, click here.
Brief History of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by American explorer and scholar, Hiram Bingham. He was shown the way by local farmers and was not even looking for it at the time.
Machu Picchu was one of the summer getaway destinations for the Incan rulers at the height of their power in the 15th century. When the Spanish Conquistadors invaded, and subsequently destroyed Incan civilization, Machu Picchu was abandoned. Unbeknownst to the Spanish, it laid undiscovered for hundreds of years until Mr. Bingham came along. Nowadays, there is the luxury Hiram Bingham train that takes big spending tourists from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
It is a UNESCO world heritage site, a Peruvian historical sanctuary, and is of incredible historical significance to its people.
Booking Machu Picchu Tickets
This is VERY important. Unlike most other ancient city attractions where you can rock up and buy tickets at any time, the Peruvian Government has restricted the number of tourists per day to 2500. It used to be higher, but for the sake of preserving this wonderful ancient site, the Government has taken initiative to limit the number of tourists. During the dry season, also the South American winter (May-Nov), you can expect the tourism to be at its peak and tickets to be sold out.
If you’re going to be in Peru and Cusco for awhile and are flexible, it’s perhaps okay to book a tour in Cusco to Machu Picchu as you’ll have ample time.
If you’re planning on being in Cusco for only a few days and have specifically planned to visit Machu Picchu a certain day, you must book tickets ahead of time. They do not sell tickets at the entrance to Machu picchu and you WILL be turned away at the entrance without a ticket.
Similarly, if you’ve arrived in Cusco, and your planned date to Machu Picchu is the following day but you have no tickets, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but there is a good chance you are out of luck.
Always use the official Peru Tourism website
So with that out of the way, the place to book tickets is on the Official Government Tourism Page for Machu Picchu. This is not intuitive as when you google “Book machu picchu tickets”, the first result is ticketmachupicchu.com which brings you to an official-ish looking website that is actually a booking agency that sells tickets for 2x the price of the official government page. The webpage is not easy to navigate, but when completed, make sure to absolutely print a copy of the ticket and bring this along with you on the trip.
As of 09/2016, the official rates are:
- Machu Picchu tickets – 128 soles
- Machu Picchu + Montana – 142 soles
- Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu – 152 soles
How to Get to Machu Picchu
I must say that of all the lost cities I’ve done, Machu Picchu is by far the most difficult and expensive to reach. Of course, none of these problems would exist if you booked a tour that took care of everything but that’s not my style.
There are essentially three ways of reaching Machu Picchu:
- The 4 day Inca trail hike
- Flying/Bus into Cusco and taking the train to Aguas Caliente
- Flight/Bus to Cusco, taxi/bus to Ollantaytambo, train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente
Most people elect to fly into Cusco either from Lima or an international origin and take the train from Cusco. Note that the train is the only way to get to Machu Picchu. There is no way to get to Machu Picchu by car as there are no roads.
Poroy is the nearest train station to Cusco and the first trains leave for Machu Picchu around 4am with the train ride taking 3 hours.
Ollantaytambo, a small town in the Sacred valley, is half way between Cusco and Machu Picchu and also has a train station. Ollantaytambo can be reached by taxi or train from Cusco (about 1 hr).
Aguas Caliente, is a town that sits at the base of Machu Picchu and all trains end here for Machu Picchu visitors. There are no roads leading into Aguas Caliente and hence why a train is mandatory.
From Aguas Caliente, one can either take the bus (how they got these buses here I’m not sure) which is a cool $24 roundtrip, or climb the 200 stairs to reach the entrance of Machu Picchu. Got it? If not, I’ve created a Google Maps below to help visualize.
IncaRail vs PeruRail
There are two train companies in Cusco that take you to Machu Picchu, PeruRail and IncaRail. Both run at similar times, and both trains take the same route to Machu Picchu. For those trying to decide between the two, PeruRail is a foreign investor backed train company that profits off tourism and probably does not give much back to the Peruvian people. IncaRail is the locally run train company, that while not as nice, is slightly cheaper. Both trains are expensive. I was shocked to find out the train prices when I came to book them, that at first I thought the prices had to be in Soles.
We booked a roundtrip train ticket on PeruRail (Incarail office was closed when we went there at 8pm the night before) from Ollantaytambo (which is cheaper than leaving from Cusco) to Aguas Caliente, departing at 5am and returning at 6pm for roughly $145 per person. It’s advisable to book these tickets beforehand, but we had no problems going to the train station the night before to book tickets. These were the cheaper tickets as they had premium class tickets for twice the price.
So in total, we paid:
- Machu Picchu entrance tickets – 142 soles (~$40)
- Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente roundtrip Train Ticket – $145
- Bus ticket from Aguas Caliente to Machu Picchu- $24
- Total – $210
That is a hell of a price to pay to visit ruins, especially after I paid $20 to enter Angkor Wat and $70 to enter Petra. In fact, the PeruRail and IncaRail trains are the most expensive trains in the world by distance.
From Ollantaytambo, it is a 35km train ride and at a cool ~$70 one way, that is $2 per km. A small price to pay as many would say to see Machu Picchu, but just be prepared for it.
Planning for Altitude sickness
Machu Picchu is roughly 2500m (8000 ft) high. They say altitude sickness starts around this level for many people. Cusco on the other hand is at 3400m (11,000ft) and this is likely where most people will start their trip. I don’t want to say altitude sickness pills are a requirement because everyone is different but they should be a serious consideration. Most people have never been to this altitude, especially for days on end.
I did not take any pills thinking I am some sort of immune beast to the effects of altitude sickness. I flew into Cusco from Lima, a city at sea level and going from sea level to 3400m hit me like a bag of bricks. Immediately after landing, I started feeling off. Within an hour, the headaches started. It was the feeling of being drunk but I had control of my motor functions. It’s a hard feeling to describe but it is neither pleasant nor quickly passed. Our plan was to hike Machu Picchu the next day as well and I could feel my body deteriorating.
Stay in Ollantaytambo to avoid altitude sickness
Thankfully, we did not stay in Cusco the first few nights. Instead, we booked our accommodations in Ollantaytambo as it is in the Sacred Valley, also 600m lower in altitude. The advantages to staying in the Sacred Valley are it is closer to Machu Picchu (so we would not have to take the 3 hour train ride in the morning), and the altitude is lower, thereby helping idiots like me who did not take any medication to adjust to the extreme height.
It worked. As soon as our taxi arrived in Ollantaytambo, I could feel my headache going away and with a proper nights rest, I was fine to hike Machu Picchu the next day. Had I stay in Cusco that first night, I’m not sure if I would have made it.
For those that did not take medication and are staying in Cusco initially, drink and chew cocoa leaves like there’s no tomorrow. That stuff really does help and it is available EVERYWHERE. If that doesn’t help, there are numerous pharmacies in the city with prescription strength medication.
What to pack to Machu Picchu?
For the day trippers to Machu Picchu, packing well is important for a good trip. I didn’t pack well for this hike and paid the ultimate price (massive amounts of sand flies). Nevertheless, Machu picchu is not a strenuous hike unless you are planning on climbing one of the two mountains (Montana Picchu or Huayna Picchu).
Some people come in here with oversized backpacks which I think is overkill. The iconic viewpoint where you see all those famous pictures is in fact about 10 minutes walking from the entrance. Walking through the ruins themselves might as well be walking through an outdoor museum. Nevertheless, there are NO vendors in the ruins selling refreshments or food. You MUST bring everything with you including water and snacks for lunch (if you plan to stay the whole day).
Machu Picchu can be chilly in the morning but almost always, the clouds clear throughout the day and once the sun comes through, it can be hot. I made sure to pack shorts and a t-shirt as hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain would have been miserable otherwise.
On my hike up Machu Picchu Mountain, I saw numerous people in misery as they climbed the mountain in jeans and a sweater. There aren’t many mosquitoes in Machu Picchu but there is an abundance of sand flies. If you plan on going with shorts, do not make the idiotic mistake of not wearing bugspray like me, otherwise suffer the consequences.
Sunscreen is a must. It did not feel overly hot but the altitude amplifies the strength of the sun and my arms were burnt within hours.
Do I need a guide or not?
At the entrance, especially in the mornings, there are many guides for hire. All the guides here are fully certified so there’s no worries about being cheated. Rates are all negotiatable and it seemed that the going rate as of 09/16 was 150-200 soles, which of course can be bargained down. Tours last about 2-3 hours.
I’d highly recommend a guide at some point. There is so much history here but there is nothing in the park displaying it. The trick here is to get a guide in the afternoon. Most tourists will be on their way out and guides will be more keen for business. It shouldn’t be difficult to bargain down the price to 100 or even 50 soles.
Hiking Montaña Picchu or Huayna Picchu
In addition to visiting the ruins of Machu Picchu, the more adventurous visitors can choose to climb the mountains surrounding the ruins. When you book your tickets, you have the choice to choose between a standard MP ticket, a MP+Montana Picchu combo, or a MP+Huayna Picchu combo.
Those staying in Aguas Caliente and plan on spending at least two days at Machu Picchu can visitMontaña Picchu on one day, and Huayna Picchu the next. I’ve heard of people doing both in a day, but that seems a bit crazy considering how difficult these hikes can be.
Huayna Picchu is the mountain that is clearly visible in all the pictures of Machu picchu. There are only 200 tickets sold per day so be sure to book these well in advance as they sell out quickly.
Montaña Picchu, or Machu Picchu Mountain (Montaña is mountain in Spanish), is the mountain directly behind the iconic viewpoint of the ruins. More tickets are sold for Montaña. There are two time slots available, at 7am and 9am. We arrived around 8:30am for our hike and the ruins were still completely covered by clouds. By the time we were at the top 1 hour later, it was just starting to clear. Had we had come earlier at 7, we may have just stared into clouds for a few hours. The Montaña closes at noon.
We met a couple that did both hikes, and they preferred Montaña Picchu over Huayna Picchu. Most people also say that Montaña Picchu is the more difficult hike and I can believe it as you’re climbing almost 800m to the top of this thing. The views are absolutely stunning however and it is totally worth it.
Where do people take that famous photo of Machu Picchu?
The iconic “viewpoint” of Machu Picchu where you see the thousands of pictures of people standing in front of the ruins is actually located 10 minutes from the entrance of the Park. There are a few stairs to climb but nothing difficult for even the least physically able. So if you are not feeling well, are not fit to hike up Montana Picchu, or injured, know that you can still get your iconic Machu Picchu photo with little to no effort.
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