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Top Tips for Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu

By Samantha Scott
March 14, 2016

Machu Picchu is one of the most popular attractions in the world, flocked to year after year by thousands of eager tourists. Peru has rigorously maintained their archaeological treasure, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, to ensure its pristine appearance. The amount of people allowed in is heavily regulated, as is the number allowed on the Inca Trail (500 a day - 200 of which are hikers and 300 of which are porters and guides). 

In the early twentieth century, explorer Hiram Bingham was searching for the famed Lost City of the Incas. What he found was Machu Picchu, and the world of exploration and archaeology was forever changed. After his discovery in 1911, tourism continued to build, and today, Machu Picchu welcomes close to 1 million travelers every year. Its draw lies in its mystery.

To this day, the site’s main purpose is still not definitively understood. Burial ground? Temple? Ritualistic site? Final escape settlement from Spanish conquistadors? The theories abound, and when you visit, you may even come up with some of your own. 

While visiting Machu Picchu is on many travelers’ bucket lists, it can be very confusing how to turn the dream trip into a reality. We’ve pooled our knowledge, consulted our Peru Destination Experts, and cross referenced multiple sources to bring you this comprehensive guide for planning your Machu Picchu trip. 

There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu but which one is right for you? Read on to discover:

Machu Picchu

- Top Machu Picchu travel planning tips

- The different ways to access Machu Picchu

- What trekking route is right for you

- Some of our favorite Machu Picchu itineraries

Inca Hike

Before You Go:

1. You want to book your trip to Machu Picchu as early as possible. As mentioned, if you’re planning to hike the 4 day Inca Trail route, slots are limited, allowing only 500 permits a day on the trail, and these slots fill up fast.

We suggest booking your permit at least 4 or 5 months prior to your trip. Permits are available year round, but they do sell out so make sure you plan ahead. No Inca Trail permits are granted for February, when route maintenance occurs.

There are alternatives trekking routes, which follow less traveled trails. See below for details.

2. The best time to visit Machu Picchu is in the months of April/May and September/October, avoiding the heavy crowds in the months of June, July, and August.

3. You need a pass to get into the site. Buy this well in advance of your trip. However the easiest way to ensure your entrance into the site when you want is to book a Machu Picchu guided tour.

4. You can fly direct into Cusco or Lima. Lima will mean an extra leg of your journey, including an internal flight in Peru. Most tours to Machu Picchu go through Cusco first, so if you can, try to book a direct flight straight to Cusco.

5. If you are planning to take the PeruRail train from Cusco, book these tickets well in advance. See more information below.

Machu Picchu

6. If you are planning to hike the Inca Trail, or an alternate route, make sure you get in shape! As you get closer to your departure date, try going to your closest mountain range to get in some altitude training. The best training for any Machu Picchu trek will consist of long hikes with a weighted pack, ideally over hilly terrain.

Once you arrive in Peru, consider spending at least a few days in Cusco before you head to Aguas Calientes. At 3000 ft higher than Machu Picchu, you will be in good shape if you stay there first to acclimate. Most Inca Trail tours include time in Cusco before beginning the hike, for this very reason.

7. If you are worried about altitude sickness, be sure to consult your doctor about medication that will help you adjust.

8. Do not wait until one week before your trip to break in your shiny new hiking boots. They should be comfortable and well worn by the time you strike out on the Inca Trail (or your trek of choice).

9. It’s very important to note that as of 2014 you are not permitted to enter the site at Machu Picchu without a guide. If you’re doing one of the hikes, guides and porters are essential for helping carry your gear, including food, and setting up camp at proper locations.

10. Even if you’re not hiking, a guide is great for providing a local perspective on the site, as well as historical information. Machu Picchu is fairly devoid of placards, maps, and tourist information - a guide will help you make the most of the experience!

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Getting from Cusco to Aguas Calientes:

peru rail

so_ram via Flickr

1. Aguas Calientes is 5 miles from the Machu Picchu gate. By bus, it will take about 20 minutes to get from the town to the Sun Gate. (23 to be exact, according to Google Maps. Without traffic. Lookout for llamas!).

2. Part of the confusion that comes with planning a trip to Machu Picchu can be the terminology. It took this author a frustrating few hours of research before realizing that Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu were so close to each other, that they are often used synonymously. For example you will very often see travel guides refer to “the train to Machu Picchu” when they actually mean the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes.

3. Before booking your train journey you can decide if you want to plan for accommodation in Aguas Calientes or if you’re looking to make Machu Picchu a day trip. Staying a day or two in Aguas Calientes is highly recommended. It takes the stress out of seeing everything in one day and affords you the opportunity to also hike Huayna Picchu peak (it's a grueling hike, so be sure to also take advantage of the hot springs Aguas Calientes is named for before departing back to Cusco).

4. From Cusco, there are three PeruRail trains to choose from, at various price points. The Hiram Bingham (named for the explorer credited for discovering Machu Picchu) is an extension of the Orient Express, and the most expensive.

The journey is a beautiful one, so you might find that springing for the price to enjoy the views in comfort will be worth it.

The other two trains are the Expedition and Vistadome are not bad choices either though, especially if you’re traveling on a budget.

5. Should you miss out on tickets, don’t despair. Another popular route is going through the town of Ollantaytambo, which is a short distance from Aguas Calientes, and an archaeological wonder in its own right.

Buses or taxis from Cusco are readily available and easy to find. Your journey will cost $40 (USD) on average. From Ollantaytambo, you have the option to do an abridged version of the Inca Trail, which many travelers choose.

Or you can take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and then take the short bus ride to Machu Picchu.

Once You’re There:

Machu Picchu

1. If you’re not planning to hike the Inca Trail, you still have the option to hike a grueling 90 minutes to the ruins from Aguas Calientes. If that sounds unappealing, there is a bus available, which is the most popular mode of transport.

2. If taking the bus, be prepared to a) wait in line and b) line up early if you want to avoid the bulk of the crowds. Buses run frequently and the first one leaves at 5:30am. Stride Destination Expert, Brian Gillis, notes that the peak crowd time is generally between 10am and 3pm.

3. There is another option, if you’re willing to pay. If you stay at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, you will have the advantage of being right outside the gates in the morning - meaning you will be the first in. But this experiene comes with a hefty price tag! Many travelers note that the fog is extremely heavy in the morning, usually not lifting until well after 8am. Given this, it may not be worth it to be the first in the gates.

4. You cannot bring food inside the gates so make sure to eat beforehand! There are options for food right outside the gates, though the prices are fairly hiked up. To avoid this, buy some snacks the day before to eat on your way up. You are permitted to bring water into the sit, and dehydration is common at high altitudes, so be sure to bring plenty.

5. Dress in layers. It will be chilly in the morning, and as you walk around exploring you will get warm. But it commonly rains as well, so having a poncho or light rain gear with you is highly recommended.

6. Bring your passport and ticket. If you need to exit the gate for food or to use the restroom, you will need to show your ticket and passport to re-enter the site.

7. Bring some coins with you for the restroom.

8. The Huayna Picchu hike is an hour or so of very steep uphill climbing near the main Machu Picchu site, but well worth it for spectacular views. If you want to add this activity into your Machu Picchu visit, be sure to plan in advance.

Like the Inca Trail, there are a limited number of permits available per day for Huayna Picchu (400 - 200 per time slot). Most guides suggest doing the 10am option rather than the 7am - if you choose 7am be forewarned that the promised views may be obstructed by dense fog.

Trekking to Machu Picchu: 3 Major Routes

Inca Trail

A major misconception is that there is only one trail to Machu Picchu. In reality, there are many trekking routes to get to Machu Picchu. 

Different tour companies and guides will offer treks along different routes. Only a select few require a permit, including the main Inca Trail (which only allows 500 people per day, including guides and porters). 

The three most popular routes are The Inca Trail, the Lares Trek, and Salkantay Trek:

Inca map

1. The main Inca Trail is 26 miles and takes 4 to 5 days to complete. The hike leaves from Cusco, and several guided tour companies lead treks, accompanied by local guides and porters. (Some tour companies suggest hiring your own porter in addition - an option highly recommended by top travel blogger "Alex in Wanderland").Lares Trek

2. The Lares Trek is 21 miles and does not require a permit. This is one of the more moderate treks to Machu Picchu. You will wind your way through the snow-capped Andes, pass through local villages, and take in many ecological wonders along the way.

Salkantay trek

3. Salkantay is 37 miles, and does not require a permit. It is a much more challenging hike, with multiple tour companies categorizing it as “challenging” and “difficult.” Usually taking 5 to 6 days, it was included as one of the top 25 treks in the world by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine. 

Some of Our Favorite Machu Picchu Tour Itineraries:

Machu Picchu In the Shadow of Machu Picchu - G Adventures

This 10 day trip allows you the choice to either take the scenic train route or hike the classic Inca Trail. Your journey also includes guided tours of the surrounding area, including a jungle excursion!

Machu Picchu Classic Peru - Intrepid Travel

This 9 day tour takes you from Lima through some of Peru's main sights. You will visit Cusco and Ollantaytambo, on your way to Machu Picchu. You'll also have a chance to visit mysterious Lake Titicaca with it's intriguing floating islands. A combination of free time with a wide range of tours and activities makes this the perfect trip for independent travelers.

Machu Picchu High Inca Trail - Exodus

This 14 day tour takes you along the challenging but rewarding Salkantay Trek. You’ll reach Machu Picchu at day 11, and have a full two days to explore. You’ll head back to Cusco at a leisurely pace, passing through Ollantaytambo and The Sacred Valley.

Peru Family Tour with Kuoda Peru Family Tour - Kuoda Travel

8 days exploring Machu Picchu and the attractions along the way. This tour is a fun and educational, perfect for young families. The pace is easy - you'll take the train to Machu Picchu and have a full day to explore the ruins at your leisure. 

Photographing Machu Picchu: The Iconic Shot

machu picchu

Mark Goble via Flickr

Everyone wants it. It looks great on a dating profile. It’s definitely brag worthy for Facebook. And Instagram was practically MADE for the iconic Machu Picchu shot. While the crowds are inevitable, the good thing is there isn’t just one spot to get it. Machu Picchu’s ruins are quite large, and there are several elevated spots you can climb up to snap away.

Tying it All Together

Machu Picchu

1. Things you need to do well in advance: Book Machu Picchu tickets, Inca Trail permits, Huayna Picchu tickets, PeruRail tickets to/from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. If you book a guided tour, much of this will be taken care of.

2. Things you can do in country: Find a local guide, extra hiking gear, bus transportation from Aguas Calientes, basic accommodation in Aguas Calientes (for a more luxury experience, book in advance).

3. What to bring with you to Machu Picchu: Passport, coins, water, sunscreen, layers - especially rain gear, comfortable shoes, camera!

Machu Picchu


If you’d rather not stress about the logistics required for a Machu Picchu adventure, choose from over 200 guided Machu Picchu tours on Stride.

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20442 Views    6 Comments
Comments
By Jared Alster
March 15, 2016 at 10:47 AM
I haven't been yet but at least now I know how to get there!
Reply
By Gavin Delany
March 16, 2016 at 1:16 PM
I've been to Machu Picchu and boy I wish I had this guide available to me when I was planning. That was over 10 years ago. Glad this comprehensive practical guide with actual bookable trips finally exists!
Reply
By Iain Slater
March 20, 2016 at 1:26 AM
I hiked the classic Inca Trail with my friend at the end of 2015. It was such an awe inspiring experience and this guide would have been great prep.

We booked the 7 day trip through G Adventures. They took care of most things, you get three good meals per day and the porters carry your tent and 6kg of personal belongings. You can hire sleeping bags, sleeping mats and walking poles from them. We needed money to buy snacks along the way and give tips to porters and guides at the end of the trip. The group bonding and beautiful landscapes are totally worth it - for us we definitely enjoyed the journey more than the destination.

Due to the steepness and altitude, a good level of fitness will make this journey more enjoyable. There is plenty of time to do each part of the hike so you can take it at your own pace.

I made a video which I think gives a feel of the classic Inca trail journey:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyYxJ87cYko
Reply
By Emily Montgomery
April 8, 2016 at 5:09 PM
This is a fantastic guide! I did the Inca Trail in 2012 during my semester studying abroad in Cusco. If my trip hadn't been planned by our study abroad organization I would have been lost-- so definitely read, consider, and cherish the details and recommendations here! I would just add: if you do the trek, it's a lot of fun to get on a guided trip with other people. Amazing way to meet interesting people from all over the world! Also, take the time to get to know your guide and the porters. They are fun, incredibly knowledgeable and compassionate people with a wealth of information about the natural world and history of the area. Enjoy!!
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By Alwoodlands Hotel Oorty
August 25, 2016 at 11:57 PM
Nice article about trip my advice is The best months to visit Machu Picchu are the months of May and June are the mildest months.
Reply
By William Escalante
December 5, 2016 at 6:41 AM
Salkantay Trail is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.
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