There is a lot of information about Machu Picchu Peru and how to go about getting there. I have been there several times and experienced first-hand what you need to know. I last visited in April 2016. I will generally take you through the journey and provide you the opportunity to obtain all the details - details worth having. Please read on!
When is the best time to visit Machu Picchu?
Its location in the Andean foothills means that Machu Picchu may receive rain at any time of year but the wet season between November and April brings the most rainfall making the stones of the ruins slippery to walk on with the possibility of mud slides. This time of year also means fog and thick clouds are more likely to obscure views across the site and out towards the surrounding mountain ranges. January and February tend to be the wettest months. Between May and October the temperatures are pleasant with little rainfall and generally clear, bright days, perfect for panoramic views of Machu Picchu. The peak tourist season is July and August when the weather is at its best and many countries around the world are on school holidays, which means high numbers of visitors. If you prefer to avoid the worst of the crowds and the worst of the bad weather then the shoulder months of April and November are a good time to visit.
Machu Picchu is open from 6:30 AM to 5 PM and busiest between 11 AM and 3 PM when day trippers arrive from Cusco. Reaching the complex first thing in the morning means you can catch the sunrise and share the experience with the Inca Trail trekkers that would have just arrived after a 3 day hike. Towards the last few hours of the day the crowds do thin out and those left prefer a more leisurely walk around the site so this is a nice time to visit. Early morning and late afternoon are also the best time for photography with softer lighting conditions.
First and foremost you will want to purchase your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu and your train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes via PERURAIL or INCA RAIL over the internet so you are sure you have accessibility to the ruins on the day(s) you want. The number of entrance tickets to Machu Picchu are limited per day so purchase them as far in advance as possible and purchase your train tickets accordingly. I have only used PERURAIL and found their least expensive service to be comfortable and adequate. You will want to print your entrance tickets and your train reservations and bring them with you to Peru. You will then have to get to Cusco, Peru. By airline is the preferred method.
Cusco is a clean well-policed community with very friendly people. This is a place you can take your wife and kids without too many worries. There are pickpockets and those who will liberate your belongings if left unattended, but you are unlikely to get held up at gunpoint at an intersection or on the street. Practically every major intersection has a female police officer directing traffic. Yes, female and many on motorcycles too. There are many good hotels with affordable prices. Trip Advisor is one of several good website's to use to find a hotel. Most hotel staff will speak English and of course Spanish. If you use a taxi, be sure it is a taxi recommended or even summoned by the hotel staff. Cusco is at an elevation of 11,200 ft (3,400 m) so if you have altitude issues you will want to be ready to address them. It's not a bad idea to stay in Cusco at least one night to acclimate yourself to the altitude. This is a good time to tour the city on foot. Go to Plaza de Armas and see the old churches. While at Plaza de Armas you will want to take your train ticket reservations to whichever train service you have chosen and actually get your train tickets. PERURAIL and INCA RAIL both have offices at Plaza de Armas. They also have offices at the airport, however, the one time I tried I waited in line for some time to find out their computer system was down and they could not do anything. With both train services, there are several levels of accommodation available at varying prices. While walking around the city, try the local cuisine - do a little shopping.
Take a taxi up to Cristo Blanco and visit the ruins at Sacsayhuaman. There is a fee to get into the ruins but it is one of the few Inca ruins you can visit without hiking half way up a mountain to see. Walk and marvel at the Inca trail that goes right through Sacsayhuaman. Sacsayhuaman is one of several places in the world where you can see megalithic stones fitted together so precisely that the joints are near perfect. There is no charge to visit Cristo Blanco but there is a charge to visit Sacsayhuaman.
The 3 pictures to the right are the view of Cusco from an old church plaza on the way to Cristo Blanco at the top of the hill North of Cusco.
You will then need to get from Cusco to the city of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is some 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Cusco. That is about a 1 to 4 hour journey depending on what mode of transportation you choose and how often you stop to take in the wonders of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. There are many means by which to get there. You can go by bus, taxi, tour bus, or train. You can even walk the Inca trail if you are so inclined. All along the way there are ruins and vistas that are worth seeing. However, in the case of ruins, you will probably be happy to view them from afar because in all cases there will be a fee to enter and it will be quite the hike to get up to them. The altitude, steep climb, and time tends to be a deterrent from actually exploring many of them.
Vista and ruins scenery while traveling through the Sacred Valley of the Incas on the way to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is a small quaint town with a lot of color and history. It lies in the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Southern Sierra region of Peru at an altitude of 9,160 ft (2,792 m). This is where the Incas retreated after the Spanish took Cusco.
Much of the town is laid out in the same way as it was in Inca times. It is not modern by any means. It appears to be newer stone structures built atop very old stone foundations. You will want to spend at least one night here - possibly two. Again, Trip Advisor is one of several good website's to use to find a hostel. Mid-priced rooms will be small and primitive but clean and comfortable. Forget having a TV or screaming-fast internet in your room - it isn't going to happen. Just be thankful for hot water or a private bathroom. But, you should get a free breakfast at the upper end hostels and the ones where I have stayed had have been adequate. Be sure to check when you book your room to be sure about breakfast, private bath, and hot water. It is a short walk to the center of town from just about anywhere and there is food, shopping, and many sights to see. There is a strong police presence and I have met groups of women (2 or more) who felt safe walking from their hostel to one of the upstairs restaurants near the center of town to have a snack and a beer or two after dark. This is very much a tourist town where you will meet people from all over the world. Many of the walkways to and from the hostels are lit at night. This is where you might want to try eating llama or alpaca but almost all of the restaurants serve pizza - Peruvian style. There are several ruins all around the city that can be visited for a small admission fee but walking up to them can be exhausting. There are motorized rickshaws that will take you from one end of town to the other for a small fare. The train station is a downhill walk from the city center and can be easily navigated in 15 to 20 minutes. However, you may want to take one of the rickshaws from the train station back to your hostel as at this altitude the uphill walk is a bit tough. The center picture on the right is the road that dead ends into the train station.
From Ollantaytambo you must take a 2+ hour train ride to Aguas Calientes. It is a very scenic ride through steep mountain passes where glaciers are visible on several neighbouring mountains.
Aguas Calientes is at an elevation of 6,693 ft (2040 m). It is the seat of the Machupicchu District. Machupicchu lies at the Willkanuta River. It is the closest access point to the historical site of Machu Picchu which is 6 kilometers (3.7 mi) away or about a 1.5 hours walk up a steep mountainside with stone steps. You have to deal with the dust from the buses roaring by every few minutes on a road that switches back and forth all the way to the top, but yes, you can walk. In the city there are many hotels and restaurants for tourists, as well as natural hot baths which gave the town its colloquial Spanish name. The baths were destroyed by floods several years ago, but have been rebuilt.
Once at the Aguas Calientes train station you will walk through the souvenir shopping area, over the bridge, and down to the bus terminal.
Just follow the crowd that got off of the train or ask anyone for directions along the way.
There is a small ticket booth where you will purchase tickets to take the bus up to the entrance to the Citadel of Machu Picchu. They are open daily. No prior reservation is required. The rate will be around $24 for an adult, children are less. This will get you up to the entrance of Machu Picchu and back to Aguas Calientes after your visit. Everyone purchasing a ticket will need to provide their passport.
Hotel accommodations are available in Aguas Calientes but dragging you luggage to and from Aguas Calientes via the train is not worth it unless you plan to spend a few days in Aguas Calientes. You can easily arrive in Aguas Calientes in the morning, see Machu Picchu, eat, and shop all in one day - returning to Ollantaytambo via the train in the evening.
Well, you have finally arrived at the purpose of your trip to visit the Citadel of Machu Picchu. The bus will drop you off right at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Note: umbrellas are not allowed inside Machu Picchu. Wear a hat and have a poncho available incase it rains. The elevation of Machu Picchu is 7,972 ft (2430 m). Walking up the steep pathways can be difficult and slippery when wet. Go slow and be alert. Falling down one of these steep rock stairways could be a real problem. Take short breaks along the way to catch your breath and rest your muscles.
Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti from about 1438 to 1472. Often mistakenly referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas", it is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization. They think the Incas abandoned the citadel around the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was apparently not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of how they originally appeared. You can see stones stacked in the left side of the picture above. These are stones periodically brought to the site by truck and are then used in the reconstruction effort. By 1976, thirty percent of Machu Picchu had been restored and restoration continues today.
Because of the steepness of the area, most visitors will take the flat or even down hill route from the entrance to the center of the citadel. I recommend making a left turn and marching up the steps as far as you can go after entering the ruins. This will give you an awesome perspective of the ruins and the rest of your day can be spent traveling down hill into the center of the citadel. This also gets you away from the crowd and provides you with some great photo opportunities without having a crowd of people in front and in back of you.
If you take this route you will end up at the walkway to the Sun Gate (left). This is a 45 minute hike to the Sun Gate and 30 minutes back but is worth seeing the Sun Gate (right) if you have the time and energy to do so.
If you go to see the Sun Gate - great - if not - that's OK too. You will be near the top of the ruins and will have a great panoramic view of the citadel. You can then begin working your way down to the center of the citadel.
I highly recommend you traverse your way to the Temple area located to the left of center of the citadel. Here you will find the Main Temple, Temple of the Three Windows, House of the High Priest, and the Temple of the Moon. This is all in one area and worth seeing. As you can see in the pictures, the stone construction in this area differs from all of the other rock structures at the site. Very large multi-ton stones have been fitted precisely together. You also see similar stone work in the old foundations of Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. I cannot explain these obvious anomalies. I don't think anyone else can either.
From here you can traverse toward the exit without having to travel too far back up hill.
A note about tours and guides. These people derive their living from selling package tours where you are taken to various places of interest by way of a bus - often a crowded bus. You go where they take you and the price is often expensive. If you like this sort of thing, there are many tours available that can be purchased online. All over Cusco you will find tour businesses where tours of varying degrees can be booked. Your taxi driver from the airport will be happy to accommodate you and sell you one of several package deals. These range from tours of Cusco to tours of the Sacred Valley and transportation to Ollantaytambo. Any hotel in Cusco will be able to direct you to several outlets for guided tours. However, I find these tours to be more annoying than helpful. You can see the things you should see and spend the amount of time where you want to spend your time for a lot less money. I prefer to see the sights I want to see at my own pace as opposed to leaving it up to some tour. I think there is a better way and I explain this in detail in the guide to Machu Picchu below.
Now that you are done with seeing Machu Picchu, you will take the bus back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes. If you planned your time correctly, you will have some time to rest, relax, have some lunch, check out the sights, and do some shopping before your train leaves to take you back to Ollantaytambo. The food at all of the cafes adjacent to the river is really quite good and at a fair price. I have eaten at several and have yet to be disappointed.
Do not be alarmed by the black hairless dogs you will see roaming the streets. You will see them in both Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo. They are the national dog of Peru and fairly common throughout Peru.
You will arrive in Ollantaytambo in the late afternoon or after dark so you will want to spend another night and return to Cusco the following day.
It is quite the journey and there are many ways to experience it. Everything from walking via a guided tour that takes a week or more to using a tour guide agency to trying to figure it out yourself to doing it the way I suggest are all available. I am writing this for the individuals who want to see everything, want to know what to stop for, and want to know what to avoid. I tell you where to get tickets and how flexible - or not - they are. I provide you with names and phone numbers of people who will actually help you get there comfortably, safely, and economically. The good news is that they are not part of some tourist agency designed to liberate you of your money. I refer you to a trustworthy taxi and awesome yet reasonable hotel accommodations. I have created a web page just for you. You can refer to it when you are in country. My experiences will save you not only money but headache and pain while traveling to Machu Picchu. You can purchase that information for $5 by selecting this button
When you select the "Guide to Machu Picchu Peru $5" button you will be taken to a shopping cart where you will fill out your billing information. When that information has been submitted and approved, you will receive an email providing you with a link - so make sure you provide your correct email address. You will then copy and paste the link you receive in the email into any web browser to access the additional information. Once you have been sent the link to the information there is no way for us to deny you access to the information, therefore, transactions are NOT refundable.
Good journey my friend!
More adventures from Frank and Mark:
Ay Caramba Colombia - Emeralds - Cartagena - Bogota - Chivor - Coscuez - Muzo
Cambodia - Zircon and The Tempels of Angkor Wat
South America - Bolivia - La Paz - Tiwanaku - Puma Punku - Brazil - Belo Horizonte - Ouro Preto - Colombia - Emeralds - Peru - Cusco - Ollantaytambo - Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu