Machu Picchu: a guide to visiting

You’re probably already familiar with the site of Machu Picchu, having seen a million photos like this:


But actually seeing the ruins in their real-life location, surrounded by jagged green peaks, is something you can’t fully appreciate until you’re there. The fifty bucks entrance fee is expensive, but if you’re at all interested in history or architecture it’s worth it.

To reach Machu Picchu you can either trek in along the Inca Trail or enter through the nearby town of Aguas Calientes.

If you want to travel independently, you must buy tickets in advance, which can be done online in Spanish (instructions on how to use it in English). The site is pretty straightforward to use and helpfully shows how many tickets are left of the 2,500 allocated for each day. In high season, you might want to buy them well in advance. And by the way, with a valid student card you get 50% off Machu Picchu entrance and other archaeological sites in Peru. However, you can only buy your tickets through an agent (not online) and be forewarned that in Cusco they would not accept our ISIC cards because we are over twenty five years of age!

Should you take the train to Aguas Calientes?

There are two train services: Inca Rail and Peru Rail.

I like trains. A lot. But I was not impressed by Inca Rail. It’s way over-priced (the cheapest ticket was $50 one way, starting in Ollantaytambo, and it is still cheaper than Peru Rail). The seats are comfy enough and you get one free drink, but honestly, on a journey of a mere hour and a half, you don’t need all that. I would have been much happier to forgo the luxury and pay less. Plus the carriage shook quite badly at some points, which for some reason made me a little motion sick.

Unless you have mobility or time issues, I would not recommend spending money on the train. Instead, trek along an alternative trail or take the ‘back door’ route.


Should you take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu?

It’s expensive, but it’s also a long slog uphill to Machu Picchu (also it’ll be in the dark if you’re going early). In my opinion, if you’re going to splurge at any point on your trip, this could be the time to do it. It costs around $10 one way but it allows you a bit more time in bed. Get to the bus stop by 5:30am to join the queue and get on one of the first buses of the day. On the way back it’s all downhill so you could save money by walking.

Should you go at dawn?

You’ll be told to go early to avoid the crowds. I was there, ready to enter when the site opens at 7am. Considering how many people were lining up, I didn’t think it could get much more crowded. But it did. And then some.

During the first couple of hours after opening, it’s possible to walk around the site and find spots with very few people, if not places where you’re entirely alone. Later in the day, the site operates on a one-way system and you get stuck behind big tour groups with surly guides and cameras clicking left, right and centre.

So yeah, it’s worth getting up early to avoid at least some of the crowds. (The end of the day is another time you might get some space to yourself).


Should you stay in Aguas Calientes?

If you’re going at dawn, you’ll have to. Other than this, there’s no reason to spend time in this tourist town. Unless of course you like 4-for-1 happy hours and over-priced restaurants that slap a ‘special tax’ on your bill at the end.


Should you climb Huayna Picchu or Cerro Machu Picchu?

If you enjoy hiking, then climbing one of these peaks is definitely worth it. Not only do you get spectacular views, but you also get to escape the crowds a little. You can’t climb both in the same day, so you have to make a choice (or pay entry for two days). For me, climbing Huayna Picchu was the best thing about the whole day. Just don’t go if you’re afraid of heights.

Since tickets to these two areas are limited, you need to buy them in advance (easily done online when you’re buying your Machu Picchu tickets). Make sure you plan at least a few days in the area to acclimate as the last thing you want is to get sick and not be able to use your non-refundable ticket.

If you don’t mind the hotter temperatures, I’d recommend taking the later time slot (10-11am) for entry to Huayna Picchu so that you have more time at the main site in the pre-crowds early morning. For Cerro Machu Picchu you can enter at any time.

Should you bring your backpack/tent/sleeping bag to Machu Picchu?

I wouldn’t expect any sane person to take camping equipment all the way up when there’s absolutely no possibility of you being able to camp there. And yet I did see people walking around with huge backpacks full of stuff. Do yourself a favour and leave your big bags at your hostel in Aguas Calientes. They should have free storage even after you check-out.

All you need to bring with you are your passport (they check it against data on your ticket), sun and/or rain protection, water and snacks or a packed lunch (unless you want to pay for over-priced food). It all fits in a daypack. That’s it.

Have you visited Machu Picchu? Do you have any advice or recommendations to add? Share your experiences below.

Check out more photos of our visit to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.