It’s best to be fully prepared when visiting Peru's Machu Picchu. // © 2015 Valerie Chen
An engineering marvel built at the height of the Inca Empire in the 15th century, Machu Picchu is often at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. The spectacular citadel, tucked into the Andes Mountains, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
All of these lofty merits are not without reason, and witnessing Machu Picchu, its imposing archeological structure and its accompanying panoramas is a must when visiting Peru. Following are the tips I took into consideration during my trip in early August, as well as the things I wish I knew beforehand.
Buy Tickets Ahead of Time
Machu Picchu limits visitor numbers to 2,500 people per day, and entry tickets must be purchased ahead of time, either via Peru’s official government website, through a tour operator or in the city of Cusco. If a Machu Picchu visit will take place during high season (June through mid-September), it’s recommended to purchase tickets at least several weeks in advance.
Approximate prices for adult tickets are $43 for Machu Picchu only; $48 for Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain (Montana); $50 for Machu Picchu and entry to the Manuel Chavez Ballon Museum; and $51 for Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.
Only Bring the Essentials
Don’t underestimate how much you’ll be walking in those hiking shoes, especially if you plan on climbing Huyana Picchu and/or Machu Picchu Mountain. You won’t want to carry pointless weight.
Bring only applicable tickets, a passport (required upon entry), drinking water in a reusable bottle, sunscreen for liberal reapplication (sun rays are stronger at higher altitude), bug spray, a sun hat/baseball cap, hand wipes/hand sanitizer, sunglasses, lip balm, a camera (but no tripods are allowed) and a daypack.
Only a lightweight jacket — preferably one that is rainproof as weather can be erratic — is necessary. Though Machu Picchu may feel cold in the early morning, it gets considerably hotter and muggier once the sun rises. Additionally, if you plan on carrying trekking poles or walking sticks, they must have rubber tips in order to prevent damage to the site.
Bring some loose change (in the Peruvian nuevo sol) for using the restroom. Facilities with toilet paper are located outside of the entrance and cost 1 nuevo sol per person.
Wake Up Early, and Be Prepared to Wait
To reach Machu Picchu from the neighboring small town of Aguas Calientes, you can either attempt the hike up the mountain (almost two hours) or take a bus (about 30 minutes).
Consettur is the only bus company that operates the route, and the shuttle service begins at 5:30 a.m. A bus will depart every 15 minutes or so. Lines will begin forming long before 5:30 a.m., however, so the earlier you arrive at the bus station area, the shorter the wait and the sooner you’ll get to the ruins. Plus, you’ll savor those few bonus moments of tranquility before throngs of visitors come trickling in.
The line for the bus back to Aguas Calientes will be long as well, and can take up to two hours during high season.
Though open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., Machu Picchu is at its highest capacity between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
For the Truly Intrepid, Hike Huayna Picchu
To take in a beautiful birds-eye view at 1,180 feet above Machu Picchu, as well as revel in the gratifying triumph of undertaking the steep and at times, strenuous, hike to reach the peak, reserve an advance ticket for Huyana Picchu (also called Wayna Picchu).
Just 400 people are permitted to climb the elusive peak each day, and they are split into two groups of 200 each. The first group can enter between 7 and 8 a.m., and the second group between 10 and 11 a.m. Early-morning fog may obstruct the sight of Machu Picchu, so try for the 10 a.m. slot when clouds will have likely lifted.
It’s important to note that the approximately one-hour-long ascent and 45-minute descent of Huayna Picchu isn’t for everyone, including those who are not in good shape, have health issues or are afraid of heights. Most of the path is narrow, vertical and lined with misshapen rocks. Steel-cable railing is available to grab onto for support at intermittent sections. Fair warning to individuals wary of confined spaces: There is a portion where you must crawl through a small tunnel.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous and up for an additional physical challenge after reaching Huayna Picchu’s peak, take the optional path down to the Temple of the Moon. Also sheer and said to be somewhat difficult, the trek will last about 1.5 hours to reach the temple, followed by another two hours to return to Machu Picchu.
Huayna Picchu visitors must be age 12 or older, and must sign in and out as well as must show their ticket and passport upon entry.
See Machu Picchu From the Sun Gate
For another perspective of the ruins — and one involving a much easier trek than Huayna Picchu — hike up to the Sun Gate (also known as Intipunku) from Machu Picchu. The Sun Gate hike will take approximately three to four hours round-trip.
The Sun Gate is also where Inca Trail hikers enter Machu Picchu, ideally catching their first glimpse of the ruins at sunrise.
Participate in a Valuable Tour
Beyond question, seeing Machu Picchu is fantastic — with or without a tour guide. However, a knowledgeable local guide will provide insight into the history and archaeology of the ruins, thus making for a generally more enriching experience. My group’s guide, Jorge with Mountain Lodges of Peru, slowed us down to truly savor Machu Picchu and pointed out fascinating minutiae that may have been overlooked had we traveled independently.
Get the Machu Picchu Stamp
Before you leave, remember to stop and get the illustrious Machu Picchu stamp on your passport. The unmarked stand for obtaining the novelty stamp is situated near the entrance’s checkpoint area. It’s a sweet final note after a long day of exploring the renowned ruins.