One of the Seven Wonders of the World and a top item on bucket lists, Machu Picchu pulls in tourists from all over the world. This piece of history sits between two peaks and acts as the gateway between the Andes mountains and the Amazo. Machu Picchu was built as an Incan citadel in the mid-15th century. Although it was known to locals, it remained unknown to the rest of the world until 1911.
Machu Picchu is so worth visiting!!! Pictures can never do justice to how large the ruins are and the beauty of the surrounding mountains. People often talk about famous tourist destinations being a letdown. Machu Picchu is even more amazing than you imagine. I hope to see it again one day.
You need to get your tickets waaaaay ahead of time! They only sell a certain amount of tickets for each day to help preserve this UNESCO site. The tickets are non-transferrable as they have your name and passport number on them. DO NOT forget your ticket and be sure to bring your passport with you, as they check both at the trailhead. Plus, you can get an extra passport stamp at the top! You can purchase your tickets here and change the site to English. This blog helps explain the process.
There did seem to be options to buy tickets in Cusco and Aguas Calientes, but you’d be gambling to wait that long.
Your tickets can be for 6:00am-12:00pm or 12:00pm-6:00pm, and while can hike/bus up earlier than your time, you will not be able to enter the site until your designated time. Those are just time frames, so you don’t have to be there at the beginning of your slot.
In our opinion, the earlier you get there the better because the site is much larger than it seems in the pictures. We were one of the earliest groups to enter and we woke up at 3:50am to begin our hiking journey. There will be a long line at the ticket checkpoint at the trailhead, so factor that into your timetable. We spent about four hours exploring Machu Picchu itself and that seemed sufficient. However, since we did a side hike (more on that below), we used the entire time frame (and a little extra...).
When you buy your ticket, you can also purchase access to Wayna Picchu (sometimes Huayna Picchu) or Montaña Machu Picchu (the mountain, not the ruins). The availability for these tickets is even more limited, so purchase tickets even earlier if these interest you. There are two time slots for each mountain (both in the morning). You’ll explore the ruins first and then need to be at the designated spot for your ticket at or a little after your time slot begins. After you hike the mountain you chose, you can return to the ruins to tour. Note that there’s no check to make sure the early group left. So if you come down from your hike and it’s past 12, don’t worry. You can still take your time to explore anything you didn’t get a chance to see earlier.
We added on the Wayna Picchu Mountain hike to our ticket and came to realize that it was not for the faint of heart. For reference, Wayna Picchu is the mountain you see in the background of all the pictures of Machu Picchu and is even steeper and narrower than it looks.
At some points there are ropes for you to hold on to/pull yourself up, but that's not always the case. There are no protective measures in place to prevent you from falling off the side of the mountain. In hindsight, I am so glad that we included the hike. The view from the top was incredible and our sense of accomplishment was pretty great after it was over, but full disclosure: I (Emily) had a full-fledged panic attack on the way up. So enter at your own risk. The view at the top is quite amazing though:
Getting to the Top
There are two ways to reach the citadel of Machu Picchu: hiking or taking the bus. Both have their pros and cons, and I'll lay them out for you below.
Option 1: There are a couple of different hikes you can participate in, depending on your adventure level. The first one is a four-day trail hike of approximately 25 miles. It may not seem like much, but between the altitude and rocky terrain, even skilled hikers can find it challenging. It's also extremely remote. So if you have an accident, you're up a creek. You travel with a pack and camp along the way, so if that doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy, keep reading.
Option 2: The second kind of hike is the one that we did—much shorter and can be done in 1-2 hours depending on your athletic ability. This hike is 1.75 km (approx. 1.1 mi) of steep stairs from the bottom to the top. Note that these stairs are the original which were built by the Inca who I've concluded were much more fit than the average person today. Additionally, these steps were a defensive measure to keep people out. So don't expect many switchbacks or handrails.
While we’re both in decent shape, it was a strenuous hike for us. While the altitude of Machu Picchu isn’t extremely high (~8,000 ft.), it’s an adjustment for us coming from close to sea level.
We stayed at the base of Machu Picchu in a town called Aguas Calientes (click here for more information) and walked a mile or so to the base of the mountain where tickets are checked*. We honestly weren't too sure we were headed in the right direction, but we followed the crowd and sure enough, ended up in the right location to start our hike. To help you out, put in "Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon" into your GPS, and you'll see the trailhead not far from there.
Your other option to get from the base of the mountain to the top is via bus. I'd really only recommend this for those who are unable to do the physical labor of hiking, because you will miss out on all of the beautiful views you catch on the trail, plus you will stand in the bus line for HOURS. Depending on the time of day, I've seen the line stretch through a good portion of the town of Aguas Calientes. The buses run approximately every 10 minutes. Since we did not travel via bus, we don't have much information to share. However, the Machu Picchu ticket site has a FAQ bus page that may help you out.
Taken on the hike up
Once you begin your journey up the mountain to Machu Picchu, there will not be any places for you to purchase food (there are drink vendors outside the gate of the city), therefore you need to pack your own...discretely. There are signs that say no food permitted is inside, so pack items you can eat without drawing too much attention. It's really unreasonable to not permit people who are walking and hiking for hours to have a source of sustenance. However, please don't make a mess.
Lodging & Accommodations
You can go through Machu Picchu by yourself without a tour guide.
You can also pay for group tours and private tours to help you navigate through Machu Picchu. We found a group tour through our hostel in Aguas Calientes for a fair price, but there are many options out there and in many different languages. Most groups meet at or near the entrance of the site, and carry some kind of flag to help you find them. We started off with a tour group, but we decided along the way that they were moving through the site too fast for our taste (we wanted to savor and enjoy our time there a bit longer), so we let them move on without us. Come to find out later, some of the information that was shared during our tour was not completely accurate, so we were okay with having moved on.
You could also book a private tour guide through our concierge at our hotel in Cusco. This was more expensive, but I think would have provided a better experience.
There are also guides for hire outside the gate. They have to own a Ministerio de Cultura tour guide badge to get into the ruins, so they all have some level of experience. You could hire them for yourself or potentially go in with our tourists for a group tour. If pursuing this option, make sure you chat with them ahead of time to get a feel for their English ability.
Walking through Macchu Picchu is a one way trip and the officials will get on to you for going backwards. So take your time going through the citadel, because you may not be able to get back to a spot you liked earlier.