- If taking the train, tickets sell out fast; book as far in advance as possible
- If you are in decent shape and not afraid of heights, hiking Huayna Picchu is a must! Book your Machu Picchu ticket to include the hike up; there are only 400 tickets per day so be sure to buy far in advance
- Aguas Calientes (the city and the base of Machu Picchu) is at 8,000 feet of elevation where as Cusco is at 11,000. Go straight to Machu Picchu to acclimate at the lower elevation and visit Cusco after. That way you will be able to enjoy the 11,000 foot city much more comfortably
- WEAR BUG SPRAY – I learned the hard way that Machu Picchu is home to nasty mini mosquitos that literally devour you. I got 50 bug bites on my legs just from lounging outside reading a book for an hour on my first night. They continued to itch for days 🙁
- Buy your bus ticket the night before; the last thing you want to do is wait in the slow line for a ticket as you see bus after bus depart up the mountain.
Continue reading for detailed advice on the following aspects of your Machu Picchu adventure:
Best to avoid the rainy season which occurs from October to April. That being said, you should always be prepared for rain (and crowds!), regardless of when you visit. We visited in late August/early September and had perfectly clear, warm weather. Most important time to plan? Far in advance!
In 2011, the Peruvian government began limiting the number of visitors that can come to Machu Picchu each day to 2,500. In addition, if you want to hike Huayna Picchu to get the birdseye view of the famous ruins, entrance to that hike is limited to 400 people per day; 200 can enter from 7-8am and 200 from 10-11am. Thus, similar to your train ticket, you need to check availability of entrance tickets far in advance. You can supposedly purchase your tickets directly here, however, I was unsuccessful at getting the website to work properly. Instead, I paid a premium and bought mine through a third party, Boleto Machu Picchu, and it all worked fine for me.
When considering which ticket to buy, I highly highly recommend including Huayna Picchu. If you are in decent shape you should have no trouble climbing it, you can take it as slow as you need to. To hike Huayna Picchu you have two options, 7am or 10am. Many guides will tell you to book the 10am so as to have a better chance of avoiding clouds. We did the 7am hike and had no issues with clouds, an advantage to the earlier hike is that it is MUCH cooler. Another potential advantage to the 10am hike is that you can explore the rest of the ruins early, before the crowds arrive. See view from Huayna Picchu below:
Aguas Calientes is located at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu resides, thus, in order to get to the ruins you either need to take a bus or endure an hour hike straight up hill. We chose the bus and highly recommend buying your bus ticket the night before. Tickets are $24 round trip for foreign adults; you can buy them from the ticket booth under the crooked foot bridge in the center of town. Note: the ticket booth only takes cash.
On the day of, be sure to get to the bus as early as possible. The first bus leaves at 5:30am but visitors are lined up well before then. We got to the bus stop at 5:35 and were on our way by 5:47. Not so bad….until we were greeted with the long line at the entrance. Given that the entrance to the Huayna Picchu hike is well across on the other side of the ruins, we got to the hike entrance right at 6:55 am. So yes, please leave early!
Unless you plan to spend time in Lima and Cusco on both ends of your Machu Picchu visit, you are going to have to endure a hellish journey in one direction. My general philosophy is to endure the most pain on the way to my destination, rather than while coming home, then I at least have the excitement of the journey to keep me going!
A trip from abroad to Machu Picchu will involve some variation of the following: plane to Lima, plane from Lima to Cusco, train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu). For our trip we did the entire journey at once, opting to take our time coming back with stops in both Cusco and Lima.
The majority of international flights arrive in Lima at night (9-11PM); flights to Cusco start as early as 4:50 am. Doesn’t that make for a nice layover? Once you arrive in Lima from outside of Peru you must go through immigration, collect your luggage and then go through customs. This process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on the traffic. It took us about 30-40 minutes. Once you have gotten through customs you can check your bag in at the ticket counter for your morning flight. Note that the airport configuration is a bit weird; you can’t walk straight to the check in counters but instead have to walk outside, up the sidewalk and then back inside again.
Once your bag is checked you need to decide how to spend the next 6-7 hours. To make matters even more interesting, the Lima airport gates are open only for international flights in the evening and only open up to domestic flights at 2:30AM. That means you have two options for this lovely layover:
1. Pass the time in the airport – As I mentioned earlier, you will not be able to enter the gates or go through security so your only option in the airport is to hang out in the food court area with your carry-on luggage. Restaurants and food stalls are open 24 hours and the court is guarded by security personnel.
2. Book a room in the airport hotel – The Costa del Sol Hotel, a Wyndhm property, is attached to the airport. The advertised nightly rate is $350 for the most basic room, we asked for the “short term rate” and got a room for 4.5 hours (from 11PM to 3:30AM) for $195. The room is VERY basic, good for literally just a place to sleep that doesn’t involve a plastic food court seat. There is no way I would have paid that price five years ago but given my current economic situation, I would have paid almost anything if it meant I got even 3 hours of actual sleep.
Once you’ve made it to your plane to Cusco the rewards will start pouring in! The 4:50 AM flight offered beautiful views of the sun rising over the Andes; hope for a seat on the left side of the plane. As you come in for a landing it is clear just how high the city of Cusco is; it feels like you descend for only a couple of minutes and then you are there! The Cusco airport is tiny and your bags should be out in no time.
To get to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu from Cusco you can either take a train or embark on the 4-day Inca Trail. If you choose to do the trail you will need to do it with a tour group or guide that will likely lead you from Cusco directly. If you decide to take the train (what we chose) you will have three classes of Peru Rail service to choose from:
- Expedition (~$65 each way) – Not all seats have great views, food and drinks for purchase.
- Vistadome (~$80 each way) – Mid-range, all seats assigned and have great views; snack and non-alcoholic beverages included
- Bingham (~$400 each way) – High-end train run by the Orient Express includes a full meal service, entertainment, high-end alcohol and a private lounge area at the train station with cocktails and passed Hors d’Oeurvres.
You also have the option of two itineraries:
- Cusco’s Poroy station – a 20 minute car ride from the Cusco airport and ~3.5 hour train ride.
- Ollantaytambo station – a 1.5 hour car ride from Cusco airport and ~1.5 hour train ride. If the Poroy tickets have sold out, this is a perfectly fine option. Located in the Sacred Valley, you can even plan to stay in the area for a night or two before heading to Aguas Calientes as there are many ruins and hikes to explore here.
We chose to take the Vistadome from Poroy station and were very happy with our choice. The Vistodome features tall side windows and roof windows for maximum viewing pleasure.
Each ticket also includes a large “snack” of local foods.
No matter which option you chose, the scenery will not disappoint.
If you have the means, there is only one option in my mind of where you should stay in Aguas Calientes and that is the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. At $500+ per night the rooms are a splurge for sure, but the eco-resort transports you to a rainforest far away from the touristic stress of Aguas Calientes. See my full review of the hotel here.
Our room even came with its own private pond filled with water from the natural hot springs.
Aguas Calientes is a city built on tourism, there are dozens of places to eat, but only very few are worth your money or precious stomach space.
If you are lucky enough to stay at the Inkaterra, where dinner is included and therefore only have time for one meal in town, you absolutely must eat at the Treehouse. The Treehouse uses traditional Peruvian ingredients and highlights them in crazy tasty artistic ways. We ate there twice during our visit. The restaurant also offers cooking classes, if we had more time I would have enjoyed checking them out.
Another traveler favorite with an eclectic vibe is Indio Feliz. The food was good, portions were HUGE and the ambiance was one of a kind. Unless you are starving, I’d opt for the a la carte, rather than the set menu. A must try is the avocado and papaya appetizer.
What tips do you have for new travelers to Machu Picchu??