There’s always a risk that the world’s most iconic destinations won’t quite live up to the hype. But I can assure you that Machu Picchu is every bit as spine-tingly as you might imagine.
The sheer size of Peru’s ancient Incan citadel is enough to knock the breath right out of you (the altitude has a funny way of doing that too…) And once you start ambling along those giant stone terraces, there’s no doubt that you’re experiencing one of the greatest wonders of the world.
One of the most popular ways to experience Machu Picchu is on a multi-day Inca Trail hike – but it also makes the perfect day trip destination, for those short on time. However, planning ahead is more important than ever as new rules and restrictions are being put in place to protect the ancient site.
Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to help you with your planning…
Step 1: Decide where to stay
There are several options to choose from, when deciding where to base yourself for a day trip to Machu Picchu:
Aguas Calientes: The closest and most convenient option is the tiny town of Aguas Calientes (or “Machu Picchu Pueblo”), which serves as the final train stop and gateway to Machu Picchu itself. From here, it’s just a 25 minute shuttle bus up the mountain to the entrance of the site. This is a good option for those who want to visit the ruins at sunrise, or are really short on time. The downside? The town itself is underwhelming and there’s very little else to see or do here.
Cusco: Many tourists make the return trip to Machu Picchu from the beautiful city of Cusco, which takes about 4 hours each way by bus and train. It is technically doable in a day but bear in mind you’ll be in transit for longer than you’ll be exploring the actual site.
Ollantaytambo or Urubamba: Set within Peru’s famous Sacred Valley region, Ollantaytambo and Urubamba are both charming little towns to explore in their own right and are conveniently located less than 90 minutes by train from Aguas Calientes, making them the perfect base to explore Machu Picchu.
We stayed in Ollantaytambo, which has its own train station with regular daily departures to Machu Picchu. I fell head over heels in love with the town and would recommend adding on a full day to your itinerary to explore its quaint cobblestone streets, colourful markets and impressive archaeological ruins.
Step 2: Decide whether you want to do a day hike
The Inca Trail isn’t the only way to add a bit of challenge and adrenaline to your Machu Picchu experience. There are a number of day hikes to choose from, in addition to exploring the ancient ruins.
You’ll need to make a decision about whether you want to book on to one of these day hikes at the point of ticket purchase, as places fill up months in advance. Alternatively, you can skip the hikes and just explore the main citadel with your standard ticket (see Step 3).
There are two main hiking options to choose from – both are self-guided trails and require a good level of fitness and acclimatisation to the altitude.
Huayna Picchu (or Waynapicchu) – This is the mountain that you see towering behind Machu Picchu in any classic shot. It’s a steep climb up and not ideal if you’re spooked by heights, as there are more drop-offs than there are hand-rails (search for Huayna Picchu on YouTube and you’ll soon get my drift…) However, the views from the top are meant to be out of this world.
The whole hike takes about 2 hours and there are two time-slots to choose from: starting between 7-8am or 10:30-11:30am.
Huayna Picchu is the most popular of the two hikes and tickets sell out several months in advance, so book early to guarantee your place.
Machu Picchu Mountain – Machu Picchu Mountain is the higher of the two peaks at 3000m and provides incredible panoramic views of the entire region. It’s a longer, challenging hike, taking around 3.5 – 4 hours mostly up giant Incan stone steps. Again, there are two time-slots to choose from: starting between 7-8am or 9-10am.
We opted for Machu Picchu Mountain, as we’d heard it was less busy than Huayna Picchu, and this turned out to be one of the highlights of our South America trip (even though our legs paid for it for days!)
Brace yourself for all kinds of weather. We hiked up in torrential rain and cloud (not a great combo with slippery Incan steps!) but then – like magic – the clouds dispersed when we reached the summit, revealing the “Lost City” down below.
Whichever hike you choose, I’d recommend doing it before visiting the main citadel, so that you don’t run out of time. By starting out earlier, this also gives you a better chance of decent weather by the time you reach the citadel, as the mist and drizzle generally clears up by late morning.
Step 3: Pre-book your tickets online
Since 2017, Peru’s tourist authorities have limited the daily number of visitors to Machu Picchu to safeguard the ancient site. This means that all day visitors must now book a specific time-slot for their visit (every hour, on the hour between 06:00-14:00) and can only spend a maximum of 4 hours at the ruins.
Top tip – if you opt for one of the day hikes with your ticket, your time-slot starts from the end of your hike, which means you get longer to explore.
Tickets can be purchased from the Ministerio de Cultura website and standard adult tickets cost 152 PEN, as of December 2018. Be warned – the website only seems to like Visa cards!
Re-entry to the site is strictly prohibited these days, so use the toilets and grab some food before you enter. Guided tours around the citadel are also now mandatory and can be booked at the entrance, on arrival.
Step 4: Pre-book your travel
There are no roads to Machu Picchu, so train travel is the only real option. Alternatively, if you’re staying in Ollantaytambo and feeling particularly adventurous, you can pick up the last leg of the Inca Trail and hike the final 18 miles to Aguas Calientes.
There are two main rail companies serving Machu Picchu – IncaRail and PeruRail. There’s not much difference between the two, but both offer a range of different services – from trains with panoramic windows to fully-inclusive lunch and drinks experiences. It’s a very scenic ride through mountains and jungle, as you near Machu Picchu.
Although “Machu Picchu” is listed as a destination on both rail company websites, the train will actually take you to Aguas Calientes, which is the final stop serving Machu Picchu.
From here, you must book on to one of the shuttle buses, which run every 15 minutes and take about 20-25 minutes to reach the entrance of Machu Picchu. You can purchase bus tickets at the office in Aguas Calientes (right next to the train station).
Step 5: Start prepping for your trip!
Once you’re all booked, it’s time to start prepping for your trip. Here are a few final things to keep in mind:
• You MUST bring your passport with you, along with your tickets, or you won’t be allowed to enter the site.
• The weather is unpredictable at Machu Picchu, especially during rainy season (between November and late March), so bring waterproof gear and be prepared to strip off throughout the day!
• The altitude can take its toll, especially if you’re hiking, so come prepared with altitude sickness tablets. It’s also recommended that you acclimatise beforehand by spending a couple of days in Cusco or Ollantaytambo before venturing on to Machu Picchu.
• There are countless great photo opportunities (everywhere you look is ridiculously stunning!) but the main one to be aware of is the “House of the Guardians”, which offers up the iconic Machu Picchu view. This is located in the main citadel, about 25 minutes from the entrance – you don’t need to do either of the day hikes or the Inca Trail to experience this viewpoint.