The Ultimate Machu Picchu Travel Guide

Everything you need to visit Peru's crown jewels

Welcome To Machu Picchu

Peru’s best-known archeological site is shrouded in mystique. We’ve all seen postcard photos of the astounding ancient citadel, sprawled out on a dazzling green hilltop. It stirs imaginations and raises questions that even the expert tour guides can’t fully answer. Why did the Incas build such a lofty perch? Why was it abandoned? How did the Spanish miss such an important site during their colonisation of Peru? How was it finally discovered by the outside world?

While certain mysteries of Machu Picchu may never be solved, the veil has been lifted on travel to this super-site. What used to be an arduous several-day hiking journey can now be simplified to a several-hour train ride. No longer a privilege of seasoned adventurers, a visit to Machu Picchu has been democratized and put within reach. For kids, seniors, those with decreased mobility, and even first-time overseas travelers, the journey is more accommodating than ever. All are welcome!

Fast facts about Machu Picchu

  • The Incas began construction of Machu Picchu in the height of their empire, around 1430 AD.

  • Machu Picchu means “old mountain,” taking its name from a peak that hovers above it.

  • The citadel is linked not just to one “Inca Trail” but to a vast network of ancient Incan roads and canals.

  • Machu Picchu’s average altitude is 8,047 feet above sea level.

  • In the high season, from June until early September, up to 2500 people arrive daily to admire Machu Picchu from within.

Other archeological sites

Machu Picchu sits at the apex of an ancient empire, with dozens of other sites scattered around it. It’s worth visiting a few of the neighbouring ruins for a bigger picture of the Inca people’s former grandeur.

  • Moray. These enormous concentric circular terraces were used for farming. Each layer creates a slightly different microclimate as they descend deeper into the ground.

  • Maras salt mines. The salt mines of Maras have ancient roots but are anything but ruins -- they’re still in use today! Salt is harvested here the same way it has been for centuries.

  • Ollantaytambo. The royal estate of an Incan emperor is now a halfway point between Cusco and Machu Picchu, in the Sacred Valley.

  • Pisac. Pair this near-to-Cusco ruins site with a local market on Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday of each week.

  • The “Four Ruins” tour: This popular day trip from Cusco includes the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, the aqueducts of Tambo Machay, the military stronghold of Puka Pucarka, the religious site Q’inqu, and finally Coricancha in Cusco -- an impressive Inca temple-turned-Catholic-cathedral, once plated in gold.

Other activities

Balance your ancient history immersion with outdoor adventures or encounters with local communities. Here are a few favorite activities to complement a Machu Picchu visit:

  • Mountain biking. The dirt roads and terrain are right for exciting exploration around Cusco on the two wheels of a mountain bike. A popular route is to the ruins of Moray and through neighboring villages. Tracks are gentle; first-timers welcome.

  • Meet an Andean community. Get a taste of today’s Andean culture with a traditional weaving demonstration, a visit to a community-run “potato park” or a ceramics workshop with a local artist.

  • Horseback riding. Reach the ruins of Moray and the Maras salt flats by horseback. Several ranches in the Sacred Valley can arrange this for any level of horseback riding experience.

  • Rafting the Urubamba River. Take a full day to get drenched as you barrel down the Urubamba river near Cusco. Depending on season and section of the river, the level ranges from calm to Class III rapids. Note this is a dangerous activity; check your travel insurance covers rafting and be sure to check safety codes.

Machu Picchu tip

Unless archaeology is your thing, pick and choose additional ruins sites. “Ruins fatigue” is a real condition for travellers in Peru.

How a Typical Machu Picchu Trip Works

Getting to Machu Picchu

  • Arrival to Lima. Most international flights from the USA arrive in Lima late in the evening. The Costa del Sol airport hotel is a hassle-free choice to spend the night before an onward morning flight. Your travel agent will advise you on their recommended hotels.

  • Flight to Cusco. Numerous flights on Peru’s major airlines (Avianca, LAN, and Star Peru) offer the one-hour flight from Lima to Cusco anytime from early morning through late afternoon.  

  • Acclimation in the Sacred Valley. Cusco is the highest-altitude point of the Machu Picchu circuit, so it’s best to head directly into the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu Pueblo (Machu Picchu Town, formerly called Aguas Calientes), rather than spending your first day and night in Cusco on arrival.

  • Train to Machu Picchu Town. The easiest and by far the most popular way of reaching Machu Picchu Town is by train. Choose from PeruRail’s mid-range Vistadome or luxury Hiram Bingham, departing either from Cusco (3.5 hours) or Ollantaytambo (2 hours). Book your train tickets in advance, as they tend to sell out during the high season.

  • Bus to the Citadel. The train will arrive to Machu Picchu Town, five miles below the Machu Picchu entrance. Shuttle buses run every 30 minutes up and down the hairpin-curved road.

Where to stay

  • Sacred Valley. Spend a night halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley, for acclimation and a sample of rural Andean culture. Hotels are springing up in and around the towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. You’ll find everything from five star luxury resorts to simple lodges and guest houses.

  • Machu Picchu Town. Decidedly lacking in character of its own, Machu Picchu Town serves as a base for the closest lodging to Machu Picchu itself (except for the expensive Sanctuary Lodge, adjacent to the citadel entrance). Here, hotel options abound. It’s recommended to stay a night at Machu Picchu Town -- single day trips to Machu Picchu tend to feel too rushed.

  • Cusco. A gem of a colonial city set at the staggering altitude of over 11,000 feet. Worth exploring for at least a day and a night, although save this for after Machu Picchu to help with acclimation. Cusco hosts a huge variety of lodging. It’s good to book ahead during the high season’s Inti Raymi festival, when the entire city books up in advance.

Visitor regulations

As Machu Picchu grows in its renown as a destination, a permit system has been enforced in order to keep the sheer volume of travellers in check. Permits to the following sites are required, and can be found at http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ (Note, however, that the site’s language options are limited and the online payment portal is notoriously spotty). You can also pay directly at the office at Machu Picchu Town, or have permits arranged through a reputable tour operator.

  • Inca Trail permits. The classic four-day Inca Trail route is strictly regulated by a permit system. The limit is 500 people per day, including guides and porters, and permits sell out months in advance. Any variation of this route (even the one-day “Km 104 hike”, which overlaps with the last stretch of the Inca Trail), requires a permit. The Inca Trail is closed for conservation work every February.

  • Machu Picchu permits. Entrance to the citadel itself is capped at 2,500 per day. While this limit is rarely reached, it’s better to reserve in advance -- especially during the peak season and festivals.

  • Huayna Picchu permits. For a short but steep hike to the top of the peak hovering behind Machu Picchu (called Huayna Picchu), reserve in advance. This permit is added to the entrance ticket, and is capped at two waves of 200 people per wave. Less popular is the hike up Machu Picchu Mountain, which is also permit-regulated and can also be added to the entrance ticket.

  • Rules for visiting. As a protected area, certain rules apply to Machu Picchu visits. It is prohibited to bring food, sound systems, or pets into the citadel. Hiking poles must have rubber covering metal tips, in order to protect the stonework. The gates open at 6am and close at 5pm each day.

“Sunrise” at Machu Picchu?

Catching the sunrise at Machu Picchu sounds like a mystical moment in the making. Indeed, travellers rise at wee hours in order to catch the first shuttles to Machu Picchu and be inside the gates as daylight breaks. The reality can sometimes be less than mind-blowing:

  • If you are taking a shuttle from Machu Picchu Town, be prepared to rise early and wait in line for one of the first shuttles.
  • Heavy fog and clouds often obscure the sun’s first rays.
  • Because the landscape is mountainous, the sun’s light appears long before the sun itself. This makes for less photogenic sunrises.
  • On the other hand a big advantage is simply being on-site before the daytime crowds arrive, giving you a blissful hour or two to enjoy the ruins in all their majestic serenity.

Hiking And Trekking To Machu Picchu

Peru’s trails and trekking options put it on the map for hikers from all over the globe. In and around Machu Picchu, possibilities abound for first-time or hesitant hikers all the way to confident and experienced trekkers. Stretch your legs with one of these scenic strolls:

Easy: hike to the Sun Gate from inside Machu Picchu

The Sun Gate, also known as “Inti Punku” is a high point where the Inca Trail reaches the entrance to the Machu Picchu citadel. Even if you are not hiking the Inca Trail and don’t have a permit, you can walk to this dramatic juncture from inside Machu Picchu.

From the Caretaker’s Hut, follow the “Inti Punku” signage. Expect to spend 30-45 minutes on the gradual incline along a stone pathway, and half that time to walk back down. This is a popular spot to try to catch the “sunrise”.

Easy: hike to the Inca Drawbridge

Another short and free option from within the Machu Picchu citadel, also doable for any age group or fitness level. Follow the well-marked path from the Caretaker’s Hut, where you sign in with your passport number. From there, the 20-30 minute walk on a dirt and stone pathway leads to an ancient drawbridge (no longer in use).

Moderate: ascent to Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu is the peak that towers above Machu Picchu in the classic photos. Hiking to the top of it is steep but rewarding -- you’ll reach a panoramic bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu. This hike is so in-demand that a permit system limits volume to 400 hikers split between two waves each day (7-8am and 10-11am). Reach a lofty 8,835 feet of altitude at the summit.

Steep switchback-style stairs lead to a new level of terraces, tunnels, and altars. Due to the steepness, this hike is demanding. It requires a good level of fitness and possibly the use of both hands and feet at some points. Allow at least two hours for the full hike to the top and back.

Moderate: ascent of Machu Picchu Mountain

This hike gets overshadowed by the more popular Huayna Picchu ascent, but offers similar challenges and rewards. The ascent to Machu Picchu Mountain is around twice that of Huayna Picchu, reaching a staggering altitude of 10,111 feet. The trail covers more distance than Huayna Picchu and the grade starts out gently but becomes similarly steep toward the end.

Like Huayna Picchu, this trail’s growing popularity has mandated a permit system that limits volume to 400 hikers per day. However, this under-the-radar hike is less likely to be sold out than its rival. Well worth the additional time and effort to reach the top!

Moderate: full-day Km 104 Hike to Machu Picchu (Royal Inca Trail)

For those who are up for a challenge, but prefer day hikes over multi-day trekking, the Km 104 hike is a great one-day sample of the Inca Trail. For this hike, you’ll take the train stop called “Km 104”, then proceed on foot to Machu Picchu. This 10 km uphill walk usually takes hikers between five and eight hours to complete.

Highlights of the hike are a visit to the steeply terraced ruins of Winay Wayna, and arrival to the Sun Gate, where you’ll see the ruins of Machu Picchu cresting below you. After Winay Wayna, the trail merges with the last 3km of the classic four-day Inca Trail, so you will need to secure Inca Trail permits for this hike. Plan early -- Inca Trail permits tend to sell out months in advance! Beginning 2016, permits for this trail are scheduled to become separate from the Inca Trail, making permits easier to come by.

Difficult: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

For diehard hiking enthusiasts, a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu is the ultimate way to reach the famous ruins site. The classic Inca Trail involves four days of trekking and three nights of tent camping, supported by a team of guides and porters. Not for the faint of heart, this trail covers three high-mountain passes reaching altitudes of nearly 14,000 feet.

As permits sell out far in advance, a number of worthy alternative trekking routes have been developed. Although they may not lead directly to Machu Picchu’s doorstep as only the Inca Trail does, the treks are satisfying and likely to be less crowded. Operators organize alternates like the Salkantay and Lares trek with tent camping, and there are also lodge-to-lodge trekking options.

Family-Friendly Machu Picchu

Foreign visits to Peru exceeded four million in 2015. Peruvians are happy to note a growing diversity in the tourism their country attracts, including the arrival of families with kids. In fact, about 10% of visitors are traveling with families – a number that continues to grow. But looking at the typical photos of Machu Picchu, perched on a high rugged peak, travelers with children may be concerned about whether it is really a good destination for families.

Says Victoria Westmacott, a family travel blogger, “The wonderful thing with Incan sites is that they are all fun for children to explore.”

With Peru’s many mysterious chambers and short tunnels, there is no shortage of fuel for young imaginations. “It’s so hard to choose the best part or even best parts, as every sight, every meal and every experience was a highlight for us,” gushes Westmacott. “The circular terraces at Moray had my son spellbound and both children loved hugging the alpacas and llamas!”

Nowadays, it is possible to visit this world wonder and enjoy whatever level of comfort you prefer. And, with the right planning, children can enjoy this enigmatic site just as much as their parents. If you’ve been holding off visiting this ancient citadel of the Incas, concerned that it’s not child-friendly, now is the time to go. Although it is easier than ever to travel to Machu Picchu these days, there are some considerations that families should keep in mind.

What to keep in mind …

What to do about it …

Altitude Sickness

Cusco is the highest point of the journey, located at 11,152 feet above sea level. Even residents of mile-high Denver, CO can feel the effects. It’s impossible to predict how a person will react to altitude, no matter their age or health. Even if you go directly to Machu Picchu, at 7,292 feet above sea level, that too can cause illness. Typical symptoms include headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and nausea.

Take it slow

The most important thing is to give yourself time to adjust. It’s best not to plan any outings on the first day. Stay hydrated and drink the coca tea that will surely be offered in your hotel. Eat light meals and stay away from alcoholic beverages at first. There is medication that you can get prescribed before traveling to Peru, but be aware that it can make some people feel worse.

Eating Issues

There is a large variety of restaurants to choose from in Cusco, and the list is growing all the time. That said, as you get into smaller areas, and even at Machu Picchu, there aren’t as many options. Water is also a concern as, although much of the water in Cusco is chlorinated, elsewhere there can be bacteria and parasites present.

Play it safe

If you eat in the better tourist-oriented restaurants, you will usually be okay. Only drink bottled water, use it to brush your teeth, and keep your mouth closed when showering. Most people do not need to follow these last two suggestions but it’s best to play it safe, especially with little stomachs. As children can be very picky about food, it’s recommended to bring their favorite snack items from home, which will help keep them happy and make them feel more comfortable.

Accessibility

Even in Cusco, and definitely everywhere else, strollers are more of a hindrance than a help. Sidewalks and roads are often made of stones. Within the archaeological sites, there are few smooth pathways. Instead, there are typically many (many!) stone steps, some of which can be a bit precarious.

Pace yourselves

It’s best to have backpack-style carriers for children who are too young to be able to handle the terrain on their own. You may also want to plan only half-day tours so that when the kids get tired, little legs can get a rest.

Attention Spans

The reality is that small children don’t typically get as excited about historical venues as adults. Most Inca sites (and Machu Picchu is no exception) feature a lot of stone walls and buildings. While adults can marvel at the architectural engineering, kids may just see a bunch of rocks after a while. Impatience and “ruins fatigue” will set in.

Mix it up each day

Spend more than a day at the main site so that you don’t have to see it all at once. Take advantage of the many grassy areas to let the kids run around and play. Be sure to let any tour guides you are using know what is of interest to your family. It can be confusing and tricky when they have people of varying ages to speak to at the same time. If you let them know what your expectations are, you can help them direct their explanations better.

Where to stay

In Machu Picchu Town, Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel is hands-down the best choice for families. This beautiful five-star accommodation feels more like a jungle retreat than a hotel, and features a large expanse of nature trails that everyone will enjoy. Some are specifically geared toward children. However, as a luxury hotel, it is not in everyone’s budget. Another good choice is Casa Andina, which is one of the few that offers the option of adjoining rooms.

Seek out larger lodges in the Sacred Valley, which will be better equipped and have more distractions for the young ones.

When to go

Rainy season showers can put a dampener on outdoor time. Try to plan your trip for between May and September to have the least chance of getting wet. On the other hand, rainy season means fewer crowds, lower prices and easier availability -- you’ll need to balance your own preferences and requirements.

Kids’ choices

The chocolate museum

As you will probably be spending some time in Cusco, you’ll want to visit the Choco Museo, where kids can learn how to make their own candy. This doubles as a fun lesson on the roots of of the cacao plant and how it gets transformed into the world’s favourite confection.

The alpaca farm

On the way to Pisac from Cusco, stop off at Awanacancha. For adults, there is a store with high quality alpaca items. But the real reason to go is the exhibit that explains how to tell the difference between the four camelids native to Peru. Kids always love being able to feed the llamas and alpacas.

Machu Picchu For Older Travellers

While it’s true that Machu Picchu isn’t the easiest destination in the world for senior travellers, plenty of visitors with as many as 80 years on the planet successfully tour this ancient Inca site each year. Even well into retirement, lifelong travellers are making their Machu Picchu dream trip happen.

As Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, now over 70 years old, said: “I don’t think I shall ever stop traveling. It keeps me up to the mark both mentally and physically and the interaction with the rest of the world and the people I meet makes me feel that there is much more that unites us all, than divides us.”

Lifestyle writer Suzanne Gerber describes her visit to Machu Picchu as a 60-something. “Four decades I had dreamed of this day. Eleven-year-old me, 32-year-old me, 45-year-old me, as well as my present self stood together on the citadel and surveyed the magnificence of this ghostly place. It was more beautiful, more evocative, more humbling than I could have imagined. For maybe the third time in my life, I was speechless.”

Although older travelers need not fear visiting Machu Picchu, there are some considerations should be kept in mind to ensure that you have the best experience possible.

What to keep in mind …

What to do about it …

Altitude Sickness

It’s important to realize that altitude sickness can affect anyone, no matter what their age or health. Cusco, the Inca empire’s capital city, is located at 11,152 feet above sea level, and you will have to pass through this city to get to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is actually  lower than Cusco but still 7,292 feet high, so you can get sick even if you go straight there. Typical symptoms include headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and nausea.

Take your time

Most importantly, take your time and don’t try to do this trip in just a couple of days. Before spending a night in Cusco, either go straight to Machu Picchu or stop off in the Sacred Valley and spend a night or two there on your way. At 9,524 feet and with an inviting climate, the Sacred Valley’s Urubamba is a great place to acclimate and catch your breath. Also, help yourself to plenty of the local coca tea, served everywhere. Eat small, light meals, and take the first day easy.

Medical issues

While older travelers are taking advantage of their relatively good health in order to travel, those who have already been affected by lung or heart disease should be especially careful.

Find support

Travelers age 60+ should get a doctor’s approval before visiting the Andes region. Also, be sure that your travel agency is aware of any health conditions so that your guide can be on the lookout.

Tummy troubles

Although Cusco has been attracting more and more fine dining establishments, the rest of the surrounding area has not yet been so fortunate. Water is also generally untreated outside of Cusco, meaning that there can be bacteria or parasites present in it.

Play it safe

If you eat in the higher-class tourist oriented restaurants, or at your hotel, you are less likely to become ill. To be safe, it’s best not only to drink bottled water but also to use it to brush your teeth. Also, try not to open your mouth as you’re showering.

Mobility

This is one area where even Machu Picchu (in addition to the greater Cusco region falls) a bit short of the mark. In most cases, the areas within the site are only accessible by ancient stone steps, some of which are quite steep and uneven. Guardrails, by and large, do not exist.

Don’t rush

Build in plenty of time into your schedule so that you never have the feeling that you need to rush. Crowds are thinner in the mornings and afternoons. Consider spending two days at the site so you aren’t trying to do it all in one day. Bring walking sticks, making sure that they are rubber tipped.

Where to stay

In Aguas Calientes, two luxury hotels offer unparalleled service and will ensure that your every need is met: Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and Sumaq. If they are outside your budget, a good option to consider is Casa Andina. Although it has a bit more of a business feel than a vacation accommodation, it is relatively new and quite comfortable.

When to go

As most of the walkways are stone, it’s best to avoid the rainy season when they can become more slippery. The months between May and September are generally dry. In particular, May and September are ideal as there is little chance of rain but the climate is not yet too cold. June, July, and August, while dry, are also the coldest (and busiest!) months of the year.

Insurance Tip

It’s particularly wise for seniors to purchase travel insurance before making their trip. Illness or accidents can happen to anyone, but having to worry about the financial impact of them will further mar your vacation. Also, be sure that your travel agency has any necessary emergency contact information.

Restaurant Tip

In Aguas Calientes, in addition to the hotel restaurants such as those in Inkaterra and Sumaq, consider dining in Indio Feliz, El Incontri de Pueblo Viejo, and Treehouse as places that have high quality food and are unlikely to cause digestive issues.



Staying Healthy At Machu Picchu

Peru has taken great strides in ensuring a safe and secure experience for its travelers. But, as with any international travel, it’s important to exercise caution in an unknown environment.

Tips for staying safe and healthy in Peru:

  • Be aware of the dangers and annoyances specific to Peru (altitude, food poisoning, rocky terrains).

  • Organize your travels through a reputable operator that works with the best guides.

  • Keep the following resources directory on hand, just in case.

If you’re traveling on an organized tour, your travel agent will assist you with any of the following.

Insurance essentials

A comprehensive travel insurance policy is a no-brainer whatever your destination of choice. There’s nothing intrinsically risky to Machu Picchu (or the Galapagos) but disruption, delays and cancellations do happen and insurance prevents minor inconvenience turning into a ruined vacation. Don’t assume your credit card or healthcare policies covers travel - double check before you leave and don’t leave home without comprehensive cover. You’ve been warned!

Medical Doctor - Dr. Eduardo Luna

+51 984 761 277

A great resource in Cusco is Dr. Luna who speaks fluent English and is actually the doctor recommended by the American Embassy. He has a top of the line private office and is happy to go to your hotel if necessary. He’s a good person to start with and ask for recommendations if a clinic or hospital is necessary.

Private Clinic in Aguas Calientes - Clinica Medical Cusco

Calle Wiracocha 100

http://www.clinicamedicalcusco...

+51 084 621 039

+51 967 90 90 94; +51 987 57 70 80 (Emergencies)

Private Clinic in Cusco - Clinica Pardo

Av. de la Cultura 710

Plaza Tupac Amaru

http://www.clinicapardo-cusco....

+51 084 256 976

+51 974 213 645; +51 989 431 050 (24 hours)

Hospital - Hospital Regional de Cusco

Av. de la Cultura s/n

Wanchaq, Cusco

http://www.hospitalregionalcus...

+51 084 226 511

+51 084 231 131 (24 hours)

National Police - Policia Nacional

Plaza Tupac Amaru

+51 084 246 088

Tourist Police - POLTUR

Plaza Tupac Amaru

+51 084 235 123

American Consulate - Cusco

Avenida Pardo 845, Cusco, Peru

http://lima.usembassy.gov/serv...

Monday - Friday, 8:00 AM - 2:00 PM

Phone: +51 084 231 474

+51 984 621 369 (Emergencies ONLY)

American Consulate - Lima (Main Office)

Avenida La Encalada Cuadra 17 s/n

Surco, Lima 33, Peru

http://lima.usembassy.gov/inde...

Monday - Friday, 7:30 AM - 5:00 PM

Telephone: +51 016 182 000



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