There are 7 wonders of the world, and the Machu Picchu is one if them. It was built in the 14th Century and has been on people’s bucket lists since its discovery in 1911. It is the most preserved Citadel of the Inca Empire and the most familiar icon of the Inca civilisation. In order to have the best experience visiting the Machu Picchu, a lot of planning is required. There are lots of areas to explore within the whole Machu Picchu region, and lots of rules as well.
The Machu Picchu is located in Peru, near the city of Cusco.
The Machu Picchu is located in the Cusco region of Peru, 80km from the city of Cusco. You can visit the Citadel by two ways, the Inca trail which will end at the Machu Picchu, or you can stay at the town of Aguas Calientes which is at the base of the citadel and was created as a tourist town after the Machu Picchu’s discovery.
The region around the Machu Picchu citadel has a lot of activities which can all be accessed by basing yourself in the town of Aguas Calientes.
How do you get there?
First you will have to get to the Peruvian city of Cusco. Most people will have to connect through the capital city of Lima first. Both these cities have airports, with Lima’s Airport, Jorge Chavez International being bigger and better served by international carriers than the smaller Alejandro Velasco Astete International in Cusco.
The Machu Picchu citadel is quite isolated, but not as complicated to reach due to the high amounts of tourists it has been getting for the last few decades.
Once you reach Cusco, you will have to make your way to one of the train stations that will take you to the Machu Picchu ruins. The two main stations are Ollantaytambo Staion and Poroy station.
IMPORTANT: The Machu Picchu area can ONLY be reached by train if you are not doing the Inca trail. This is where there is a slight complication. The train line is operated by a few different private companies and is NOT connected to the Cusco Airport. Train tickets MUST be purchased well in advance, as they fill up weeks before. There are two main areas where you can take the train.
The Machhu Picchu can only be accessed by train or the Inca trail which ends at the Machu Picchu.
This is the closest station to the airport, but NOT the one I recommend you to take. It is located 16km away and a 30 drive from Cusco Airport. There are very few times for departure and arrival to and from the Machu Picchu with the trains from this station for some reason.
This is the one to take that will give you the first true feel of the Inca Empire on your journey to the Machu Picchu. It is 75km away from the Cusco Airport and will take you about a 1 hour and 30 minute drive to reach the train station. There are many reasonably priced taxis available on the spot, or if you prefer having a private driver waiting for you, that will cost a bit more. On the drive from Cusco Airport to Ollantaytambo Station, the views of the mountain range are spectacular. There are many photo spots on the way which you should definitely stop at.
Ollantaytambo is a village located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The village has lots to offer and is definitely worth a visit.
Urubamba is one of the towns which you will pass as you head for Ollantaytambo Station from Cusco Airport.
The special thing about this is you get to visit Ollantaytambo, which is a village located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and it is here that your ultimate experience will start. You can choose to explore Ollantaytambo on your trip to the Machu Picchu or on your way back, depending on how your times are. More about this later.
The Ollantaytambo Station is located in the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s and is the most popular gateway to the Machu Picchu.
How do you get tickets?
IMPORTANT: As you plan the days for your entire trip, before you book any flights, first you will need to make sure that they are still tickets for the Machu Picchu available for the days you want. It’s very important to understand that the Machu Picchu Citadel is not the only ticket you may want to buy. There are two mountains around the citadel which require tickets as well. The Huayna Picchu and the Machu Picchu Mountain. More details about these later.
Limited supply: Entrance tickets to the Machu Picchu Citadel are limited to 2500 a day, 800 a day for the Machu Picchu Mountain and 400 a day for the Huayna Picchu Mountain. These tickets sometimes sell out months in advance in the dry season and this is how you get them:
You have to buy them online from the Official website. For the time being it’s still a bit of an old website, although I hope that will change in the near future. Once you book and pay for all the tickets you want, they will send you a confirmation email, although the tickets are not issued in advance. The reason for this is they allow for cancellations and changes until a point, and when the tickets are issued, it won’t be possible to change them after that. Also, if you book and pay and there are no spaces available, they will send you an email immediately to let you know so you can change your dates before you book your flights.
What time of the year do you go?
In the dry season! The last thing you will want is for all your days to be washed out. The dry season is from May to August. This is Winter in South America, which can get a bit chilly, especially in Cusco which is a city of high altitude.
IMPORTANT: The Machu Picchu is located in a mountain range and therefore will always have unpredictable weather. I took my trip in the peak of the dry season and still had lots of rain.
The dry season will also have the most amounts of tourists. There won’t actually be a time where you can avoid the crowds since it has become so popular in recent times.
What is there to do in the area?
Aguas Calientes town
This is the small town at the base of the Machu Picchu Citadel. It was only created after the discovery of the Machu Picchu for the convenience of anyone wanting to visit it. Most people visiting the Machu Picchu will base themselves at Aguas Calientes, except those doing the Inca trail, which enters the Machu Picchu from a separate entrance behind the Citadel at the end of the Inca trail. Aguas Calientes is fairly small and quite isolated, and the only way to reach it is through train. There used to be helicopters before until the Peruvian Government implemented a no-fly zone over the whole Machu Picchu area. The town is fairly well equipped with lots of different restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, hostels etc. Once you reach via train, everything is walking distance within the town, including the bus counter which you can use to take you to the entrance of the Machu Picchu Citadel.
Aguas Calientes Town is located at the base of the Machu Picchu and where you can base yourself while touring the whole area.
How the bus works
There is only one bus stop in the entire town, and all buses only leave to and from the Machu Picchu Citadel entrance to this stop in Aguas Calientes town. The bus tickets can be purchased from a counter directly opposite where the buses leave. Tickets can be purchased for one way or return trips on the day or a day before. You do not need to pre-book tickets as there are plenty buses.
Once you pay, they will require your passport and issue you a paper ticket which you just show to the bus driver on entrance. Buses start operating at 5:30am, and are very frequent the whole day until they cease operations at 5:30pm.
IMPORTANT: People start queuing from as early as 3am in the morning, which is the extremely silly. The bottom line is, no matter what time you get there, the Machu Picchu Citadel only opens at 6am, and there will be queues everyday guaranteed. Even if you are first in line, there will be people behind you waiting outside the entrance until 6am. So it’s as simple as this. Join the queue just before 5am as the buses start operating. The line at that point will be with around 200 to 300 people, but within minutes the queue’s drop as each bus loads completely full, and the buses are very frequent.
The queue for the bus can have up to hundreds of people, but it moves very rapidly once the buses start operating.
The bus journey to the entrance of the citadel will take around 20 minutes and the buses are all quite new and pleasant. The whole system although very busy, is quite well organised and you shouldn’t have any major issues. There are staff present to help tourists.
The Machu Picchu Citadel
The main event and the utter highlight for 100% of people coming all the way here!
The Machu Picchu Citadel.
The story of the Machu Picchu dates back to the 14th Century when it was created by the ancient Inca empire. The exact purpose of the Citadel is not known for sure, but there are some interesting theories. Some believe that is was a royal estate for the Inca ruler and his family, some believe it was a sacred religious place that was visited for rituals and some believe that it was a secret Inca hideout. What makes it so special is that it’s the only of it’s kind remaining in the world today. When the Spanish conquered Peru, they destroyed most of the Peruvian buildings as well. Since the Machu Picchu was so isolated and high in the mountains, it was never discovered by the Spanish, and therefore remained fairly intact.
Although the Machu Picchu had been renovated after it’s discovery in 1911, it still has the excellent ancient look and feel to it.
In the 16th Century, the Machu Picchu was abandoned. Although the reason will never be known for sure, it was either because of the difficulty and costs of constructing and maintaining the Citadel at it’s isolated point, or because of the huge smallpox outbreak at the time which could have wiped out lots of the population.
The Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. an American explorer and historian who set out to look for it. He was pointed in the direction of the Citadel by locals, and when he stumbled upon the ruins, quite a bit was destroyed by mother nature over time as it lay abandoned for so many years. Although lots have been rebuilt today to give people a true indication of how it existed all those years ago, it still has and keeps its original ancient look and feel.
The Machu Picchu citadel with Huayna Picchu in the background.
Touring the Machu Picchu
Guides are available in very large numbers just outside the entrance of the Citadel. The Peruvian Government announced plans to make guides mandatory for all visitors, although from my understanding that hasn’t come into force as yet.
There are a few different paths throughout the citadel. Although they cross each other a few times, the paths are in a one-way direction that will eventually lead to the exit.
Depends on how enthusiastic you are and how much time you have, I would strongly suggest visiting the Citadel at least twice (over two separate days). There’s many reasons why I suggest this. If you go all the way there and it rains on one of the days, it wont be as great of an experience. Also, you can take a guide through on one of the days, and you can roam freely through the citadel yourself on your second visit to get a different experience. Lastly, entrances to the other two mountains require a combination ticket, so you can easily visit the Machu Picchu on two separate days combined with each of the other mountains. More about this later.
The Machu Picchu times operate as follows:
There are two slots per day of which you can choose any. The morning shift is from 6am to 12pm. The afternoon shift is from 12pm to 5:30pm.
When you look at pictures of the Machu Picchu, you will notice a steep mountain just above and behind the main citadel. This is the Huayna Picchu Mountain (Sometimes referred to as Wayna Picchu)
The Huayna Picchu has it’s nickname as the “Stairs of death” 😉
IMPORTANT: This is a separate mountain and requires a separate ticket and has it’s own entrance area. This ticket is limited to only 400 visitors a day, and is sold out weeks in advance. The ticket can only be purchased with a combination ticket with the Machu Picchu Citadel as well. There are only two slots of entrances of which the 400 tickets are spread out. The first time slot is from 7am to 8am and the second slot is from 10am to 11am. So as soon as you enter you will have to do this first, after which you can tour the Machu Picchu citadel.
The reason for the limit is because of the trail being so steep and narrow. It is difficult to overtake in many areas and people who trek slowly can hold up the trail.
The Huayna Picchu Mountain is the steep mountain that is located next to the Machu Picchu Citadel.
The trail does not require any equipment or technical climbing ability, although it will be a good advantage if you do have some basic climbing skills. There are many exposed edges with sheer cliffs. The path is very clear and well marked throughout with hand rails for majority of the steep stairs.
It will take roughly an hour and a half to reach the top and about an hour to get back to the bottom which is at the Machu Picchu citadel.
Whether you are scared of heights or don’t even hike as frequently, I would strongly suggest you visit Huayna Picchu. It is an ABSOLUTE must. You do require moderate fitness, but if you take it slowly you should have no issues. It would be a crime to come all the way here and miss this.
There are many exposed cliffs and a heavily steep stairway throughout the Huayna Picchu trail.
The Temple of the Moon (The Grand Cavern)
This is a stone Temple that is carved out of rock and is on the same trail as Huayna Picchu. If you do finish Huayna Picchu early, it will be good to try this.
The Machu Picchu Mountain
The highest point in the whole area is not the Machu Picchu citadel or Huayna Picchu. It is the Machu Picchu Mountain, which is 3082m above sea level. All three of these mountains have their entrances at the citadel gate, although just like Huayna Picchu, the Machu Picchu Mountain has it’s own tickets and entry times. the ticket limit per day for this is 800.
Half-way up the Machu Picchu Mountain. You will see the Machu Picchu citadel in the distance, with Huayna Picchu just above it. The mountain on the right is called Phutuq K’usi . It is currently closed to visitors.
The Machu Picchu Mountain does not have any technical climbing at all. It is a fairly easy hiking trail which is clearly marked and paved with steps all the way up. It will take you about two hours to reach the summit and about an hour and a half to come back down.
Tickets for the Machu Picchu Mountain, just like Huayna Picchu have to be purchased as a combination with the Machu Picchu citadel. They also get sold out weeks in advance and have two time slots as follows: Slot 1 entrance from 7am to 8am and slot 2 from 9am to 10am.
The Sun Gate
The sun gate is where the Inca trail enters the Machu Picchu. The classic four day Inca trail ends here, and is the back entrance to the Machu Picchu which can only be accessed by permit holders of the Inca trail.
For those that are touring the citadel, you can of course follow the signs from the front of the citadel and walk to the Sungate, which has a nice view of the mountains next to the Machu Picchu.
Los Jardines de Mandor
If you follow the train track past Aguas Calientes, it will lead you to a forest with a hiking trail called Los Jardines de Mandor. Although it’s not exactly spectacular, if you have an extra 2 hours it’s definitely worth checking it out.
Los Jardines de Mandor has a short trail that’s located in a forest.
The hike has an entrance gate with a small entrance fee of which you can then spend as much time as you want within the trail. The trail leads to a small waterfall and you can then walk back. Although it will take you about an hour to do the trail, it can only be accessed by walking from Aguas Calientes which will take you about 30 minutes to get to the starting point. So I would say it will take you 2 hours in total for everything, or 3 hours if you take your time. There are many exotic birds and insects on this trail.
The path leads to a waterfall. Although it’s not spectacular, the forest path that leads to it is a good experience and has lots of exotic birds.
On the way to or from Huayna Picchu, is the little mountain called Huchuy Picchu. You have to have an entrance ticket for Huayna Picchu to do this as its located a short 15 minute trek off the Huayna Picchu trail. The beauty of this is that most people spend time on Huayna Picchu and the Grand cavern so it’s fairly empty. We had the summit to ourselves for about half an hour. The summit is also panoramic with views of all the peaks in the area.
The Huchuy Picchu peak is located on the Huayna Picchu trail, and is a short 15 minute to its summit.
One way or another, you will have to pass through Cusco City on your way to or from the Machu Picchu area. Cusco is a fairly small city located at a high altitude. Since Cusco is a very old city, is has lots of culture and heritage. It would be good to stop for the day or a maximum of one night as I personally feel that you rather spend more time in the Machu Picchu area.
There are minibus taxis called “collectivo” that offer public transport to and from Cusco and Ollantaytambo station. They wait for the trains to stop and there are plenty of them which will leave you at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, which is centrally located where you can walk around and get a feel of the city for yourself. Cusco has an altitude of 3399m, which is quite high, so you may feel effects of altitude sickness if you are arriving from a city of low altitude (Most major cities in the world are at low altitude)
Once you are in Cusco, taxis are the best way to travel. I was astonished at how cheap the fares were. They do not use a meter so you will have to negotiage a price before leaving. Hagle hard! And in Spanish 😉 They do not speak English.
Cusco City is located an an alititude of 3399m above sea level, which is extremely high for a city.
What to do in Cuso City?
The Plaza de Armas is located at the centre of the whole city and has many old buildings and churches. There are many restaurants that are walking distance from this area as well. Overlooking the whole city is a statue of Jesus, which is located at a place called Cristo Blanco.
The view from the statue of Jesus in Cusco.
While we were walking around we came across a lady with a llama, who kindly let us play with her animal and take a few pictures in exchange for some local currency 😉
If you haven’t seen a llama before, it will definitely leave you stunned for a few minutes.
So how do you space out everything? How long do you need for everything?
It all depends on how adventurous you are, and what you define as a great experience, although I would strongly recommend the following:
1 day for visiting the Citadel (With a guide) and Los Jardines de Mandor after that.
1 day for visiting the Citadel (Without a guide) combined with Huayna Picchu Mountain.
1 day for visiting the Citadel (Without a guide) combined with the Machu Picchu Mountain.
1 day to visit the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s on your way to Ollantaytambo.
1 or 2 days to visit Cusco City.
If you can spend more time, Peru has some great tourist attractions throughout the country, including the capital city of Lima, of which I plan to experience in the near future.
Is it safe to visit the Machu Picchu?
The short answer is: YES.
Aguas Calientes is a tourist town that did not exist until the Machu Picchu was discovered. So basically there are only two groups of people there, Tourists and locals that are there working or selling stuff. Not once did I ever feel unsafe in the whole Machu Picchu area in the day or night.
The other areas like Cusco and Lima require the standard precautions as you would take when you visit any other city.
The Machu Picchu is one of the world’s best tourist attractions. It is a must for every single person at least once in their lives. With so much to offer in the whole region, so much of beautiful scenery and history, it is VERY important that you don’t just visit the citadel only like how most people do, but rather visit the whole region properly, as it is guaranteed to give you an experience of a lifetime.