Spectacular, breath-taking, out-of-this-world – there are many superlatives that could describe visiting Machu Picchu. One thing that’s for sure is that this ‘lost’ Inca city high up in the Peruvian mountains is on many a traveller’s bucket list for a reason. Ever since its ruins were discovered in 1911, Machu Picchu – meaning ‘Old Mountain’ in Quechua – has fascinated people from across the world. Built in the 1400s as a royal estate, it was abandoned only a century later when the Spanish invaded this part of South America (though they never reached the site itself). Due to its inhospitable location on top of a mountain in the heart of the jungle, Machu Picchu remained undiscovered for more than 350 years until the American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon them. Since then, large parts of the former estate have been restored and the site has been opened to visitors, who come here en masse to admire this stunning piece of history of a gone, but not forgotten, civilisation.
Because Machu Picchu is a) a very popular tourist destination and b) situated remotely in a hard-to-reach part of the world, visiting it requires some advance planning. Luckily for you, I’ve made it easy by listing everything you need to know before climbing Machu Picchu in 10 points:
1. You can make your way to Machu Picchu by foot, bike, raft or train
Machu Picchu is situated in the South American jungle, far away from modern civilisation. The nearest city is Cusco, the marvellous former capital of the Inca empire. From here it’s an 8-hour drive – zig-zagging through the mountains – to Aguas Calientes, the tourist village at the foot of Machu Picchu. There’s also a luxury tourist train that runs between the outskirts of Cusco (Poroy) and Aguas Calientes.
But rather than taking the car, bus or train, hiking to Machu Picchu is the REAL deal. The iconic 4-day Inca Trail is one of the most scenic and enduring hikes in the world, during which you’ll pass several other archaeological Inca sites. It’s a unique experience that allows you to get a sense of the way the Inca used to live in these isolated surroundings. The trek can be tough and facilities along the route are basic. Moreover, the number of hikers allowed onto the Inca trail is limited, so booking your spot a couple of months in advance is a necessity (see below), especially during peak season from May to September. There are a number of other official trails, including the 5-day Salkantay Trek, which goes higher into the mountains. Most of these, however, also have a fixed number of permits.
If, like me, you haven’t managed to book a spot for the official trails in advance or you’re short on time, then don’t worry because there are other ways to get to Machu Picchu that are just as (if not more) thrilling. Perhaps the most fun alternative is to do a 3 or 4-day Jungle Trek, during which you will not just hike but also mountain bike, raft and zipline your way to Machu Picchu. I decided to go for this option and I can honestly say it was an incredible experience. If you’re in for some action whilst being surrounded by the most awe-inspiring natural sights, this is the way to go.
2. Plan WELL ahead (navigating your way through the maze of tour agencies)
Irregular pricing, a lack of detailed information, sudden cancellations – I’ve written about my struggles with South American tour operators previously. Unfortunately, if you’re planning to go to Machu Picchu there’s almost no way of avoiding them.
If you’d like to do the official Inca Trail you have to secure your spot well in advance. The number of hikers allowed onto the trail is currently capped at 200 a day (plus guides and porters) in order to protect the historic sites. As is usually the case in South America, trekking permits cannot be bought directly, only through travel agencies and tour operators. This means that you will have to navigate your way through the maze of (online) agencies and operators out there. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell which ones are better than others, not least because many agencies simply act as middle men that sell permits from not one but several trekking providers and then add a commission on top of it. It’s therefore best to book your Inca Trail spot via a local business that runs the treks directly. Trekking companies that have frequently and consistently received good online reviews include Peru Treks, Llama Path and SAS Travel. Average rates for the Inca Trail are around US$700 per person (including permit, accommodation and food) half of which is usually paid upfront in order to secure your spot. When booking your trek, always make sure to check the tour provider has a special Inca Trail license and never transfer any fees to an individual’s bank account.
If you’re going for the 3 or 4-day Jungle Trek, then you can usually book this a few days in advance in Cusco. There are dozens of agencies and tour operators in Cusco that offer the same or similar experience. Again, the trick is to select a good one. After some research in Cusco I decided to book a jungle tour to Machu Picchu through an agency that seemed professional and reliable. Once I embarked on my jungle endeavours, though, I found out that everyone in my group had booked through a different agency and paid a different fee – I turned out to be the person who had paid the most (typical). Moreover, I was rather abruptly transferred from one group to another at the end of the first day because I was the only one doing the shorter version 3-day of the trek. All in all, it made for a somewhat messy, but not less exciting experience. I did complain about the hiked-up price upon returning to Cusco and luckily the agency did offer me part of my money back. End good, all good.
3. Take some time to acclimatise
Machu Picchu is located at an elevation of 2,430 meters and the last thing you want is to make it all the way up there only to fall victim to altitude sickness – that’d be quite the anti-climax… So, before putting on your hiking boots it’s best to take it easy for at least a day or two, especially when flying in straight from Lima, Peru’s seaside capital. As I had already been travelling around the region for a while at similar altitudes, I didn’t experience any health issues, neither did any of the other people in my tour group. However, I did notice the effect altitude has on your body: I thought I was in good shape before getting here, but I soon found out that climbing steps at this altitude is not quite the same thing as doing so at home!
If you’re planning to chill out for a few days prior to your trek, Cusco (which is situated even higher than Machu Picchu) is the perfect place to do so. It not only allows you to acclimatise, but also to admire the city’s gorgeous architecture and to visit one of the many historic museums. It gives a great taste of what’s to come!
4. Pack cleverly
So, you’ve made it to Cusco, your trek is booked – now it’s time to hit the road! But what to take with you? Well, this depends on the kind of tour you have booked. The same rule applies to all treks, though: only bring hand luggage. Anything bigger and you will struggle to carry it with you. Larger sized luggage can usually be safely stored for a few days in your hotel or hostel in Cusco.
If you’re doing the official Inca Trail you will camp in tents (or cabins) and will hence need a sleeping bag and mat. Some tour operators provide sleeping mats but you will almost certainly need to bring your own sleeping bag, or you can rent one in Cusco. If your trek includes a porter, you’re lucky because they will help you carry your stuff. If not, then you’re a true diehard!
If you do the Jungle Trek, you will stay in shared rooms in home stays and small family B&Bs so you won’t need to bring a sleeping bag. Do bring your swimming outfit though as chances are you will be thrown out of your raft into the river on the first day.
Temperatures and weather conditions can vary a lot in this part of South America – it can go from windy and cold to hot and wet within a few hours. This makes it even trickier to pack everything you need for 3-4 days into one small backpack. The key: layers! Make sure you wear or bring as many thin layers of clothing as possible so you can easily dress up or down depending on the weather. Because it can get quite wet (I got soaked), a rain poncho and light clothes that dry easily are also useful.
Other than that, all you need is sunscreen, a (reusable) water bottle, passport (you can get it stamped at the entrance of Machu Picchu), your camera, charger and LOTS of memory cards.
5. Oh and bring insect repellent
Yep, you will, in all likelihood, be eaten alive by mosquitos if you wear shorts and forget to bring insect repellent, like I experienced. Especially the last stretch of the trails, which follows the railway tracks to Aguas Calientes along the wild, swirling Urubamba river, is full of nasty and hungry mosquitos. You’ve been warned…
6. There’s a shuttle bus for the final stretch up the mountain (but the hike is more fun)
Almost everyone visiting Machu Picchu will pass through Aguas Calientes, the tourist town down in the valley. Many will even stay the night here either before or after visiting the site. If you’re not doing one of the official trails there are 2 ways to reach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. It’s either a 20-minute ride with a shuttle bus (boring…), or a 1.5-hour steep hike by foot (exciting!). OK, I admit, the hike is tough BUT totally worth it given the incredible views. The choice is yours…
7. Rise and shine: beat the crowds and watch sunrise from Machu Picchu
With more than a million visitors a year, you certainly won’t be alone at Machu Picchu. If you want to experience Machu Picchu at its quietest, head there early in the morning (before those lazy bastards that decided to take the shuttle bus arrive). And although it will still be fairly busy, making your way up to Machu Picchu at dawn is an experience in its own right. There’s nothing like watching the sun rise through the misty mountains!
The gates to the former citadel open at 6am and if you decide to hike your way up in time for sunrise you will need to get up at 4am to be at the foot of the mountain at 4:30am. As mentioned previously, from there it’s a 1.5-hour steep walk to the entrance of the ruins. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views over the valley AND with a (still) serene Machu Picchu.
N.B.: Tickets to Machu Picchu are usually included in your tour package. But if you decide to go at it alone you can buy them in Aguas Calientes or online, bearing in mind there’s a limit of 2,500 entrees a day. Moreover, since new regulations were introduced in 2017 you can only visit the ruins either in the morning or in the afternoon. So, when buying your tour or ticket, do make sure to double check your entrance time slot.
8. Don’t let the clouds get in the way of that perfect picture
The weather on Machu Picchu can be unpredictable. In the early mornings the mountain is often covered in a layer of fog. But don’t despair if that’s the case when you reach the summit and are about to get your camera out: as the temperature gradually rises the clouds tend to disappear eventually. In fact, the clouds often come and go and their constant game usually makes for a fascinating sight. Good news is, wait long enough and you’ll eventually get that perfect sunny Instagram shot.
9. See things from a different perspective by climbing Huayna Picchu
Wandering around the ruins of Machu Picchu and admiring the remains up close (I recommend joining one of the free guided tours) truly is a fascinating experience. However, probably even more impressive is admiring them from a distance. From Huayna Picchu, the peak just behind Machu Picchu that appears in the background of most tourist pictures, you’ll have the most incredible views of the ruins and their surroundings. From afar, climbing Huayna Picchu – meaning ‘Young Mountain’ in Quechua – may seem like something for advanced rock climbers but in reality it’s just a moderate 1-hour steep hike (or so I’ve heard), starting from Machu Picchu itself. Do bear in mind though that Huayna Picchu can only be climbed in the morning and requires a special combination ticket, which tends to sell out at least a week in advance.
10. Hike to the Sun Gate for breath-taking panoramas
If, like me, you are not able to climb Huayna Picchu, then don’t worry: there’s an alternative that I believe is nearly (if not just) as good. On the other side of Machu Picchu lies the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku, which once formed the main entrance to the citadel. It is still the gateway to Machu Picchu for Inca Trail hikers today. Starting near the site’s current tourist entrance, the moderate and paved hike to the Sun Gate is free and takes up to 45 minutes. Because it’s a bit off the beaten track it’s not a busy route and you’ll be rewarded with awe-inspiring panoramic views of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu and the valley – a sight that you will have to share with only a handful of others who make it up here. If you’d ask me, this is a perfect culmination (literally!) of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to this marvellous place on earth.