Machu Picchu Tours and Travel Guide
Machu Picchu Attractions & Landmarks Guide
The ruins of Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, occupy one of the most dramatic sites of any archaeological find in the world. Dating from the 15th century and perched high up in the Peruvian Andes at the end of the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu features the ruins of stone-walled Inca temples, tombs and palaces in a jungle setting. Steep mountains form an unforgettable backdrop. You can take a guided tour to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail or, for those interested in a less strenuous tour of Peru, get there by train.
Your first moment of seeing Machu Picchu can easily be a highlight of a lifetime of travel. Taking in the perilous peaks and the beautiful silvery stones that make up the legendary lost Incan outpost high in the Andes merits few equals in any other destination experience. For many, Machu Picchu is a rite of passage.
However, getting to that moment is a process that can either be just as epic or stressful and exhausting. Let Stride guide you towards the best Machu Picchu tours to ensure that your journey to one of the world’s most famous archaeological ruins is smooth and memorable.
Cusco, the Starting Point
The first port of call is Cusco. Cusco was the capital of the vast Incan empire and is replete with both ancient Incan temples and exquisite colonial churches. Boasting a dizzying mix of Catholic religious festivals, ancient Incan annual rituals, and popular music parades, Cusco’s calendar is always packed with exciting cultural experiences.
Cusco (or Cuzco) also has its fair share of four-star hotels as well as budget accommodations, and is nestled in a beautiful landscape making it the perfect location in which to pass the time.
At 11k feet above sea level, (while Machu Picchu is at a mere 8K), Cusco is a crucial stop for adjusting to the altitude. The last thing you want is to suffer from altitude sickness during your journey to Machu Picchu! Take it easy, drink lots of water, and let your body get used to the thin Andean air.
Staying in Cusco is also helpful for providing an initial context to your journey and the characters involved. It’s the perfect introduction to Peru, and the many forces that contributed to the culture and diversity here. Including the food, language, architecture, and art - Cusco is the gateway to another time. The present day locals live concurrent with their ancestors, keeping many traditions and customs alive. Cusco is where you prepare to enter a different world.
During your free time in Cusco, be sure to pick up any last minute essentials for your journey. Depending on the time of year, it could be quite chilly, and even more so once you reach the ruins. The sun is often shrouded in mist and fog before 10am at Machu Picchu, and though you’ll be scrambling up and down ancient stairways as you explore, it will still be damp. Luckily Cusco is full of shops where you can purchase the famous alpaca wool hats, gloves, or ponchos.
On the outskirts of the city, Sacsayhuaman stands strong as the former fortress defending the Incan imperial capital and is the perfect destination for your first glimpse at the impressively large and exquisitely carved stones that make Incan architecture so famous. Returning to the city, one can appreciate some of the most beautiful colonial architecture in all of South America. Some churches, like Qoricancha, are built on top of and incorporated within Incan ruins. The cathedral, Santa Catalina monastery, San Blas, and countless other colonial gems complete the beauty of a town where religious art is so beautiful, it inspired an entire Cusquena artistic school and movement.
Cusco even has a modern side. Going with a good tour operator can help ensure you see the most recent additions to Cusco’s ever-changing heritage: museums dedicate to chocolate and Pisco, resorts, spas, and even a vibrant nightlife.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco. If you’re taking the train (of which there are three choices, all different budget levels) it leaves right from Poroy Station, about 20 minutes from downtown Cusco. This service is regular between May and December, but may be irregular during off season months when mudslides or heavy rain cause safety concerns.
If you are planning to reach Machu Picchu on one of the three main treks, you’ll take a bus or shuttle from Cusco to your starting point. On your way, you’ll pass through the Sacred Valley, location of Ollantaytambo, where you might stop for a night depending on your tour itinerary.
Getting to Machu Picchu is Half the Experience
Machu Picchu is much more than just Machu Picchu. A journey to the sacred Incan fortress is reached by first traveling through the Sacred Valley. On the way to Machu Picchu, you will pass Pisaq, where Incan terraces cascade gracefully down from the ancient trading post. Later, you will find yourself passing the fascinating, and beautiful, salt mines of Maras or entering the sacred, but eerie, endless concentric circles of Moray.
Finally, a Sacred Valley tour is not complete without visiting Ollantaytambo, a beautiful town in its own right, with a beautiful colonial core and a dramatic fortress climbing up on every mountain above the quaint alleys below.
There are many ways you can get to Machu Picchu. One of the most popular routes is still the Inca Trail, which, while difficult, is manageable for most able bodied and relatively fit travelers. The trail takes 4 to 5 days to complete and you’ll be surrounded by spectacular scenery and history, brought to life by your guide the entire way.
If you’re planning to hike the Inca Trail, be sure you purchase your permit into the park well ahead of time. They sell out extremely fast, and a limited number of people (500) are permitted on the trail per day. This includes porters and guides. Six months in advance is a good bet to ensure yourself a spot. It is also worth noting that you cannot hike the trail without a guide. Most large tour companies offer a Machu Picchu trek, so you have a lot of choice. Use Stride’s filtering tools to find the right tour size for you.
However, travelers are beginning to discover the other ways you can hike to Machu Picchu, which include the Lares Trek and Salkantay Trek. The Lares Treks is comparable, difficulty wise to the Inca Trail, but Salkantay is quite a bit more challenging, both in length and type.
If you’re not hiking, you will take one of three rail journeys from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. There are different price points, but if you’re willing to splurge, the Belmond Hiram Bingham train is well worth the price. Drift through the Sacred Valley in luxury, while gazing out at the historic landscape through large viewing windows.
Aguas Calientes is the main hub for travelers going to Machu Picchu, about 15 minutes away from the site by bus. It is a good idea to stay in Aguas Calientes for a few days. Let yourself relax and not worry about seeing all of Machu Picchu in one fell swoop.
Use one day to catch the first bus after waiting in line at 4am to see the sunrise, but use your second day to go later. If you have time, don’t pass up a visit to the hot springs (Aguas Calientes literally translates to “hot water”).
Arriving at Machu Picchu
Unless you took the Incan trail the whole way there, you will have your chance to warm up in the hot springs of Agua Calientes in preparation for your exciting day, or days, in Machu Picchu.
Arriving early, you can catch the ancient mist disappearing to reveal the beautiful stones that make up one of the world’s most dramatic set of ruins. With your tour guide, you will learn about many of the secrets in those stones: an ancient sun dial, a temple designed to resemble a condor, and the temple of the sun, which boasts perhaps the most impressive ancient stonework in the Western Hemisphere.
After your guided tour, you may opt to go for a hike. Popular options include the sun gate, which is actually the end point of the Incan trail, or climbing up Huayna Picchu, a tough climb that is rewarded with its own set of ruins that tower over Machu Picchu and provide new captivating angles to photograph the fortress below.
For those desiring to focus on the ruins themselves, simply meandering its ancient streets will provide hours of captivating discoveries and mysterious wonders found in the meticulously cut stones that surround you.
More Than Just a Destination
A trip to Machu Picchu is never just a trip to Machu Picchu. Rather, it is a journey that can and should include colonial towns, religious art, ancient ruins, Andean treks, and breathtaking vistas. Traveling along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the more daunting but rewarding experiences in all of travel, so it is best to plan well to ensure a fulfilling trip. See our comprehensive Machu Picchu planning tips guide for help getting started!
Things to Know Before You Go
How to Get to Machu Picchu
You can get to Machu Picchu in many different ways. If you choose to visit via the Inca Trail, you must reserve these tours far in advance. The Inca Trail only allows tickets for 500 people per day on the trail, including porters and guides. This leaves 200 spots open for trekkers! So be sure to reserve your tour at least 6 months prior to departure.
You might also choose to tour Machu Picchu via the two other main treks: Lares or Salkantay. These take a day or two longer than the Inca Trail, but tend to be less crowded.
If hard core trekking in altitude is not your cup of tea, never fear! Machu Picchu is also accessible via the train from Cusco. This is a great option for older traveler and families with young kids. The train is fitted with large viewing windows, and you can take in the other historic sites of Peru along the way as you approach Aguas Calientes.
Machu Picchu is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, so on your tour of the famous ruins, it’s important to stay on marked paths, and respect the ruins. Travel on a tour to learn about the Incan history of Peru, and the archaeological history of the site itself.
The Best Time to Tour Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is open for tours all year round. The Inca Trail is also open all year, except for February, when the trail is closed for maintenance. You need to first determine if you want to tour Machu Picchu in the Dry Season (April - September) or the Rainy Season (October - March).
January and February are generally thought to be the worst months to tour Machu Picchu. You will likely experience a lot of rain, which means you’ll also encounter a lot of mud and the stone pathways will be very slippery. You also won’t be able see Machu Picchu at sunrise, which many travelers strive for. The cloud cover will be very heavy, usually not clearing until 9am when the sun is already up. On the flipside, this is the lowest point of the year for crowds, so if you want to see Machu Picchu without many other tourists around, choose a time during the rainy off season.
Between April and September, you’re likely to have less crowds at the end of the dry season. May, June, July, and August are the busiest months. This is when Northern Hemisphere travelers plan their summer vacations, and many people around the world get out of school.
Machu Picchu: Altitude and Altitude Sickness
Machu Picchu sits at a staggering 7,970 feet above sea level, in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. Because of this, there is a risk of getting altitude sickness, although it is rare.
The symptoms of altitude sickness include lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. If any of this happens, descend until you begin to feel better. You should remain hydrated, and avoid smoking or drinking alcohol.
If you have had altitude sickness before, look into potentially taking a preventative medication, like Diamox, or drinking coca leaf tea as a natural remedy.
Machu Picchu Facts
- Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the world.
- The name “Machu Picchu” means “Old Mountain”
- It was built in the middle of the 15th century (1450s).
- The buildings on site are remarkable for two reasons: the massive stones were cut to fit exactly together without mortar or cement, and moved up the steep mountainside by hand.
- It is widely believed that Machu Picchu was built as a royal residence for the Incan king Pachacuti.
- The city was abandoned and forgotten until 1911, when it was rediscovered by an American archaeologist named Hiram Bingham.
- After Bingham’s discovery, he transported dozens of artifacts, including mummies, silver, and pottery, back to Yale University for study. The entire collection was only completely returned in 2012.
- Machu Picchu can be subject to earthquakes. The Incas not only knew this, but built their buildings tilting inwards to help enforce them.
- Despite archaeological evidence, group called the New Age Andean Cosmologists believe that aliens built Machu Picchu.
- Nobody knows why Machu Picchu was abandoned, although some believe it may have been because of an outbreak of smallpox.
- Machu Picchu was a site of human and animal sacrifice, as was common in Incan culture.
What to Wear & Machu Picchu Weather
Machu Picchu has a rainy season between November and March. At this time, the surrounding villages are prone to mudslides and flooding.
However, because of its proximity to the Amazon Jungle, there is always a possibility of rain when visiting Machu Picchu. The warmest months to visit Machu Picchu are between May and October, where temperatures can reach up to 80 degrees. However, we still recommend wearing closed-toe, athletic shoes or hiking boots in case it rains (the pathways can become very slippery if wet).
If you are staying overnight or camping along the various treks to the Lost City, make sure you bring especially warm clothing -- because of the altitude, temperatures tend to plummet at night.
Machu Picchu and Over Tourism
One growing problem for Machu Picchu is over tourism. The city, which was virtually unvisited 100 years ago, now sees thousands of tourists each day. This crowds the thin, snaking roads that lead to the site, and has come with other problems. With tourists overwhelming the number of guards, some visitors have taking to marking or stealing stones from the city.
In response to these issues, the Peruvian government has begun to rope off certain attractions, and limit the number of visitors allowed on the grounds at once. Another solution to the problem that is being considered is that guided tours will be mandated.
With all this being said, now is a better time to visit Machu Picchu than ever!
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