Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most breath taking sights in the world. Situated about 2,430 meters (7,972 ft) above sea level, the former Incan citadel is on the bucket lists of tourists around the globe. Machu Picchu is one of the main tourist destinations for those traveling through Peru. Unfortunately the ‘lost city’ has also become known for getting overcrowded.
The Peruvian government is combating overtourism and has taken lots of measures at Machu Picchu. Timed and limited entry is the most important measure taken. Buying tickets isn’t as easy and straightforward as other tourist destinations. Other measures taken are limiting the areas in Machu Picchu you can walk through while almost completely restricting access to the area around Machu Picchu. For example by only allowing a small number of hikers on Huayna Picchu (Wayna Picchu), the cone shaped mountain you see on almost all photos of the Incan citadel.
Essential to know before you visit Machu Picchu
You cannot buy tickets at the entrance of Machu Picchu or in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. The easiest, safest and best way to ensure your access to Machu Picchu is by purchasing tickets on the official government website. Unfortunately, the usability and English functionalities of the website are far from great. An alternative to the government website is GetYourGuide. You can buy Machu Picchu tickets from certified sellers.
Buying tickets for Wayna Picchu is even more challenging than the regular tickets. These tickets can also be purchased on GetYourGuide. We made a special blog that explains you how to buy tickets for Machu Picchu. The most important tip that we have is to buy your tickets well in advance because the Peruvian government only allows a limited number of visitors each hour.
How to visit Machu Picchu?
There are three ways of ‘doing Machu Picchu’. You can track the Inca trail, do a one day trip from Cusco or add an overnight stay at Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes itself is a tourist village. The entire economy in the town is based on tourists visiting Machu Picchu and is by itself not the most rewarding destination to visit.
Tracking the Inca trail
We never did it. The Inca trail is a four day hike that ends in Machu Picchu. There are many blogs and videos that describe how it is to do the ‘most famous hike in South America’. Lonely Planet has an extensive description of what it is and how to do it. You can find that description here.
Day trip from Cusco by train
The most common way to travel Machu Picchu is to travel via Cusco. The ancient Incan city is a worthy destination by itself. The city is situated at an altitude of 3,400 meters (11,150 ft) and can be reached by road or air. Cusco’s airport is serviced by multiple different airlines including price fighters like SKY Airlines. Out of experience: double check your flight times often as there might be unannounced last minute schedule changes. The altitude could cause some health problems which can be avoided by slowly traveling to Cusco over road. By not hopping on a plane you will slowly adapt to the altitude and will not have problems. Having said that, you might not suffer from altitude sickness if you fly. Most important: take it easy once you arrive.
From Cusco you can take the train to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town that sits at the entrance of Machu Picchu. There are two competing train companies: Inca rail and Peru rail. Both train companies offer tickets in multiple categories and corresponding price classes. You can either leave from Cusco’s city center or decide to board the train from a train station, called Poroy, just outside of town. The second option is cheaper. Poroy can be reached by bus, tickets are sold by the train companies as well.
Booking early pays off. Tickets in the cheaper categories sell out quickly while dynamic pricing will help the train companies in maximizing their revenue. Both train companies have similar trains and categories. The more expensive categories have more windows and food service on board. Cheaper categories are more basic while the most expensive train, the Hirham Bingham train, gives you live entertainment, gourmet food and nice wines.
A day trip is possible by taking an early morning train to Aguas Calientes and a late afternoon return. Each stretch takes about four hours. Plan 2 to 3 hours to climb Macchu Picchu. A day trip is therefore doable if you plan it smartly. A multi day trip is definitely more relaxing. Also, the train ride itself is absolutely worth it. Daylight is essential to seeing all the beauty the area has to offer.
Multi day trip from Cusco
The best Machu Picchu experience is a morning hike on Wayna Picchu. You will avoid crowds in Machu Picchu while hiking to one of the best view points in the world. To do this you have to buy the right tickets and be at the entrance at 06:00 AM. That is well before the first trains from Cusco will start arriving in town.
The biggest benefit of an early morning Machu Picchu visit is that you will beat the crazy crowds. Later in the morning or during the afternoon massive crowds will start swarming all over the Incan ruins. If you want to experience Machu Picchu and beat the selfie taking masses you have to be there early. The only way of doing that is to stay in Aguas Calientes the night before your visit. There are plenty of hotels to choose from. We would recommend taking a hotel before your visit to Machu Picchu and taking the train back to Cusco early afternoon as Aguas Calientes itself has little to offer.
Bus tickets to Machu Picchu
If you are in Aguas Calientes there are two ways to get to the entrance of Machu Picchu. The first one, hiking the mountain, is the most economic and probably most fulfilling way. You can walk about twenty minutes to the foot of the mountain before a challenging but fun hike up the mountain starts. It is free, safe and fun but will take you some time. You have to be in good health to do this climb!
Most tourists go by bus. Bus tickets are sold in Aguas Calientes and are based on the entrance time of your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. You need your passport as well as your entrance ticket to buy a return bus ticket which costs about 24 USD (November 2019). Your bus will leave around 30 minutes before you are allowed to enter Machu Picchu. It is recommended to show up at the bus station even earlier as you might have to stand in line. Especially in the early morning it is a race to the top. All in a race to get to Machu Picchu without the crowds.
When you board your bus, local officials will put a stamp on your bus ticket. This stamp seems to indicate an official return time. Please note that this time is not enforced. You can also buy single tickets in the valley and on top of the mountain if you are not sure how long you will stay.
Best time to visit Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu has become an all year destination. There will be tourists throughout the year. In general the high season are the busy (northern hemisphere) summer months as most European countries as well as the United States have school holidays (June to August). Absolute low season are the northern hemisphere winter months (December to February) but it can be rainy. Between high and low season (March to May & September to November) are the best months to visit if you want to avoid crowds. Please note that weather can be unpredictable during these months.