I had the amazing privilege of visiting Machu Picchu during my long-term stay in Peru this summer. The “Lost City of the Incas” was a said to be an estate for the Incan emperor Pachacuti and was later discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Today, it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage site, New Seven Wonder of the World, and an item on many people’s bucket lists. If it’s on yours and you’re planning a visit, here are a few things to consider.
There are Many Options for Purchasing Tickets
The best advice for booking your Machu Picchu visit is to reserve early but know that you have many options for how you’d like to go about it. If you have time, I recommend booking a multi-day excursion. I chose the 4-day Inca Jungle Trek with American Inca Trail and had a blast doing activities like mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and an 8-hour trek along the Inca Trail for around $300. I weighed the cost of one day in Machu Picchu (~$250 bare bones) with the cost of 4-days of accommodation, food, and adventure. It’s up to how many days you have in Peru and if you’re up for the challenge of hostel hopping and cold showers but the reward of meeting like-minded, thrill seekers.
If you’re short on time (and don’t mind adjusting to altitude on the fly), you can manage the trip in a single day. This article by the Thrifty Nomad’s does a great job of laying out the pricing options.
Yes, a Tour Guide is Required
The Peruvian Ministry of Culture instituted a new law this year stating that from July 1, 2017 and onward, visitors to Machu Picchu must be accompanied by an official guide. The regulations are still unclear and not closely followed. My group had more than 16 members (another regulation) and the guide did not accompany us after we received the official tour of the site. I also remember seeing people without guides and even listening in on our guided tour and had a friend confirm that she was able to enter without one. Either way, keep in mind this rule and be prepared to justify your entry if you choose to forego a tour.
Riding the Bus? Queue Early
The first bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu departs at 5:30 am and takes you from the city to the entrance for $24 roundtrip. As lining up for any event, make sure you queue early! A friend and I arrived at about 3:30 am to find a line down the street. You do have the option to walk from your lodging in AC to the MP entrance, but keep in mind the climb is of moderate difficulty, about an 1 hour and 30 minutes, and about 390 meters of switchbacks along the bus route – perfect for getting your steps in. The walk down is a much easier journey.
You Can (Practically) Spend The Entire Day There
Note that there are two official entrance times to Machu Picchu, one in the morning from 6 am to noon and one in the afternoon from noon to 5:30 pm. You can purchase a ticket for either of these time slots, depending on when you’d like to enter the site. You can technically spend all day there from 6 am – 5:30 pm… The catch? You can only enter twice. This means you can exit once to use the bathroom (1 sol), eat (prohibited inside the grounds), or get your passport stamped, but you can only re-enter once more. It’s a tough feat to spend all day without the necessities but can be accomplished if you exit before the end of the morning time slot and re-enter before noon. You could also buy two tickets for different timeslots to see the mountain at different times of the day.
Follow the Brick Road
There are so many people shuffling in and out of the site each day, so regulations are in place to maintain an even flow of foot traffic from the entrance to exit through two different circuits. The routes are marked by ropes and signs that point arrows towards the exit. Now, this was the most confusing and frustrating part of the experience because without knowing the lay of the land, you can venture too far towards the exit and the authorities will not let you turn back (going against the flow of the marked paths), essentially forcing you to exit as you reach the gate. And boom, there’s your one time to exit. Keep tabs on where you are on the site and before committing to a path, ensure that it’s where you want to go or that you can turn back.
One more thing about the altitude – it’s high! No, it’s not higher than Cusco (11,154 ft.) where you will likely fly into but it’s a lot higher than Lima (5,080 ft.) where you may have a brief layover. Altitude sickness affects people differently and may result in headaches, nausea, and dizziness but will certainly result in shortness of breath, especially while climbing stairs. I suggest spending a few days in Cusco to get acclimatized and letting the potential sickness pass. If your goal is to touch down in Cusco and hit the ground running, try taking a tour of the Sacred Valley where sites like Pisaq or Urubamba (9,514 ft.) will take you much lower and get you ready for your route to Machu Picchu (7,874 ft.). For additional tips on how to skirt altitude sickness, visit Best of Peru Travel.
Purchase Huayna Picchu
Your tour company may actually tell you about Huayna Picchu to upsell the extra $20 for the permit but they won’t tell you about what the mountain is and the difficulty (read: challenge) of climbing it. Huayna Picchu means “young mountain” (Machu Picchu meaning “old mountain”) and it is the tall peak you see in the center of standard images of Machu Picchu. Let me be clear, the hike is a challenge. It’s an increase in altitude of about 1,180 ft. above Machu Picchu and the path is a pure hour of climbing uphill on stairs, hugging corners, and crawling on all fours (yes, hands and knees!). The short trail will take you about 2 hours roundtrip and the long trail about 4 hours. If you’re afraid of heights or have vertigo, this is not for you. However, if you’re adventurous and love to climb mountains, you’ll be proud to say that you were 1 of 400 on any given day to complete the journey.
Fight the Bite
Don’t forget to bring mosquito spray! I didn’t expect this to be a concern at all until a friend who visited a month before warned me by sporting (err, scratching) her speckled ankles, forearms, and back. It was a fair warning. If you’re not from South America, Peruvian mosquitos are likely different than what you’re used to. They resemble small black flies and instead of stinging, they bite. And those bites leave marks. And those marks leave scars. I’m still getting over them a month later…
Enjoy the View
While you’re up there, don’t forget to take it all in! Once your tour guide finishes giving you the spill, you have time to explore the site on your own terms. Take loads of pictures and videos, bask in the afternoon sun, and soak in the entire experience.
Have you visited Machu Picchu? What tips do you have for seamless travel planning?
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