Machu Picchu is one of the most treasured and iconic sights in the world. People from all over the world are crawling around the ancient Inca ruins at any given time.
Picking a ticket
Because of its popularity, Peru has enacted a series of restrictions on visiting (which are going to get a whole lot worse as of July 1, 2017). One of those restrictions is the number of visitors per day.
Though some people get lucky and can snag a ticket the day of, if you’re all the way in Aguas Calientes and tickets are sold out, you’re going to hate yourself. There is nothing you can do to get a ticket because they’re linked to your passport, which they check at the entrance.
As far as how you visit, there are a few options depending on how adventurous you are.
The basic Machu Picchu ticket costs 152 soles ($46) per day and gives you open access to the famed site. As of July 1, entrance will be limited to two timeslots: 6 am to noon, and noon to 5:30 pm. You will also be required to enter with a guide. If you’re not already part of a tour, a lot of tour guides will be at the entrance offering their services. A guided tour of Machu Picchu costs around 120-180 soles and takes about 2-4 hours. Though in our experience, you can usually make adjustments to a private tour so you can haggle the price or request a shorter tour.
If you’re doing it on your own, you’ll notice signs that point out some of the most important sights on the grounds. Some of them, like the Inca Bridge and the Sun Gate, are small hikes that take about 45 minutes to one hour. Both offer you really unique views of the grounds. This is especially true of the Sun Gate, which should be visited first thing in the morning because it offers a complete, unobstructed view of Machu Picchu which gets bathed in sunlight first thing in the morning.
The main Machu Picchu sites are structured to be a one way route. So the most efficient way to see it is to start at the top, make your way to the terraces, which is where a lot of the llamas hang out. There are currently 14 of them in the site. Then you can make your way down the main structures including the Sacred Square from which you can overlook the terraces off the side of the mountain that Incas used to farm.
The route will take you to the lower levels where you’ll see a couple of uniform homes and among other things, the Sacred Rock and the Temple of the Condor. The exit is on this lower level and they are very strict about not letting people up to the higher levels. So if you start at the bottom and want to see the top, you have to leave and re-enter.
As of July 1, 2017 re-entry is prohibited and visitors must be accompanied by a guide, which will ensure that you will see the place in the proper order. However, I talked to someone who works there and he said that those changes are still be relatively theoretical, because the bathrooms are outside the site. He seemed to think the number of re-entries will be reduced from the current two to one.
Machu Picchu and Huaynapicchu
Huaynapicchu is the mountain that you can see from all parts of Machu Picchu. The view that includes the mountain is arguably the most recognizable and iconic. Well, you can also climb this mountain.
For 200 soles ($61) your ticket will include access to Machu Picchu as well as a specific time slot to go up Huaynapicchu. They only have two timeslots in the morning, 7 to 8 am or 10 to 11 am, and only 400 visitors are allowed per day, 200 per timeslot.
The hike is exhausting and probably a little bit dangerous. The route goes up and down from an adjacent mountain into Huaynapicchu. Once you’re there, the climb becomes fairly difficult. The small stone steps curve up the side of the mountain, often with no guardrails and nothing stopping you from plummeting 8,000 feet to your death except your own careful maneuvering around the rocks.
There are some parts that have a steel rope against the rock wall that you can use to hold on to. When you get to the top, you have to slither over giant boulders before starting your descent. I think the descent is probably even more dangerous, and you have to either step sideways on some of the smaller, narrower stones or crab walk down on your butt.
One thing you’ll quickly learn about Machu Picchu is that everything takes 1.5 to twice as long as they tell you it will. The basic trek around Huaynapicchu is supposed to be 2 hours – one up, one down. Unless you’re extremely fit or an expert hiker, don’t count on that. Even if you’re fairly fit you have to contend with others going up and down on the mountain, sharing the same tiny steps. It took us a total of 3 hours.
The view all around is pretty spectacular and worthwhile if you avoid looking down during precarious parts and imagining your untimely death. Keep your wits about you. To be extra careful, you can always Spider-Man crawl on all fours to get to the top.
A lot of the path is in the shade of trees, so it’s not a bad hike to do even in the late morning when the sun is already fierce.
Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain
If you really love hiking up ridiculous mountains, you also have the option of getting a ticket that includes Machu Picchu Mountain. Like Huaynapicchu, this ticket is scheduled for two specific times of the day, one from 7 am to 8 am, and one from 9 am to 10 am. The peak closes by noon. This ticket is also 200 soles ($61), though it’s a little easier to obtain. For this one, 800 people are allowed per day, 400 at each timeslot.
This one is higher than Huaynapicchu, and I would argue that it has better views since it includes Huaynapicchu. Standing at 10,111 feet, you’ll quickly realize that Huaynapicchu is dwarfed below you. Unlike Huaynapicchu, the majority of the hike is in the sun on the edge of the mountain, making it a better option to do early in the morning. The steps for this one are much wider and less precarious, at least for the most part. Toward the top, the stone steps narrow and you’re once again on the side of a mountain with nothing to stop you from falling. In fact, this is where a German tourist died last year while posing for a photo.
Just because it’s less scary doesn’t mean it’s easier. This one has a recommended time of 3 hours. We took almost 4. It’s a much more straightforward pathway but it goes uphill nonstop the entire time. It’s basically a giant stone staircase. Some of the rocks are covered in dirt and other rocks making them a bit slippery. And the mountain has a fairly large bee population, especially near the top. I didn’t have any problems, but if you hear buzzing around your ear, it’s probably better to stay calm than flail about and risk falling. You should bring at least two or three bottles of water and some snacks to keep you going on this hike.
Picking one mountain
Unless you’re staying at Aguas Caliente for 3 or 4 days and you want to spread out your Machu Picchu exploration, I definitely recommend picking one. We spent two days there and did one mountain each day, with the afternoon to enjoy Machu Picchu itself. Here’s the thing, after you hike for 4 hours, it’s hard to feel excited and adventurous about Machu Picchu itself. And if you do push yourself like I did, you’ll end up hiking for around 6-8 hours each day and then your knees stop working. Much of Machu Picchu already involves a lot of climbing, so it’s better not to strain yourself.
If I had to recommend one, I would pick Huaynapicchu. The view is more unique and it’s shorter. And even though it’s more terrifying, it’s also more rewarding. I don’t really have anything against Machu Picchu Mountain. It was impressive and way higher than Huaynapicchu so you can even see snow capped mountains towering far off in the distance. However, the effort you exert is considerable. And the view is very similar to the one you can get from the Sun Gate, which takes half the time to walk up to and does not require a more expensive special ticket. I would even argue that the Sun Gate view is better because it offers a bit more definition than the higher view. Let’s be honest, the higher you go, the more the structures at the bottom look like different colored blobs. For me, bird’s eye views have a sweet spot.
If you’re particularly scared of heights though, Machu Picchu Mountain is probably less traumatizing. Though to be honest, neither is a great idea. But even phobic people did it while we were there and they survived.
Since it’s harder to get tickets to Huaynapicchu because of the 400 person daily limit, if that is your choice, you should book early. When you book on the official site you’ll be able to see how many tickets are remaining per day for any given date.
So once you have a good idea of what you want to do on your visit and you’ve booked the tickets in advance, now you have to figure out how to get there.
You’ll quickly realize that Machu Picchu is a pain to plan and actually really expensive to undertake. That’s because the only convenient way to get there is by train. And train companies know this so the price of the 3-3.5 hour train ride is ridiculous. Depending on the time you need to be there, you can choose Inca Rail or Peru Rail. These can range anywhere from $150 to $200. If you wait until the last minute, remaining seats may be over $100 one-way. And just like the awful time estimates up on Machu Picchu, the train ride will be announced as taking 1 hour and 40 minutes, but actually takes about an hour or two longer than that.
The trains also don’t leave straight from Cusco (where you’ll probably fly into), they leave from Poroy, which is about 20-30 minutes outside of Cusco. So you’ll need to find a way to get to the Poroy station either by private car or taxi.
And once your train arrives at Aguas Calientes, you’ll also have to pay for a 30 minute bus that takes you up to Machu Picchu. It costs $24 round trip. During certain times of the day, there are very long lines for the buses in and out of Machu Picchu. On the day we needed to be inside for Machu Picchu Mountain at 7 am, we were making the line by 5:30 am. It was already hundreds of people long. But there are at least 8 or 10 buses running constantly, so it only took 30 minutes before we boarded. We didn’t experience that long of a wait to leave Machu Picchu but I imagine there would be one at the end of the day when it closes. The last bus currently leaves at 5:30 pm.
Bus from Cusco
A much cheaper option is the bus. Tour companies in Cusco offer a round trip bus ride to Machu Picchu for 50 soles ($15) round trip. Sounds too good to be true? It is. The bus drops you off at the hydroelectric plant which is a 3 hour walk to Aguas Calientes. So this option is like a shorter version of the Inca hiking trail.
1. Supposedly disposable water bottles and outside food are not allowed inside. Everyone seems to ignore that rule and no one seems to enforce it. I imagine that the main part of Machu Picchu which is crawling with employees is where this would be a problem. But if your happy ass is 10,000 feet in the air on Machu Picchu Mountain, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t litter.
2. There is a pretty reliable bag check outside the entrance and from the looks of it, it doesn’t get too packed. We didn’t encounter a line to check the bags or pick them up either day. It costs 5 soles per bag.
3. Hiking is exhausting and the more you carry, the more exhausting it will be. So consolidate the most important things in one smaller bag and check the bigger one if you have one. Most people arrive or leave directly from there. We did both, and the bag check was a lifesaver.
4. The bathrooms are outside the entrance and there is nowhere to go inside. So plan accordingly. You’ll probably sweat so much that you won’t need a bathroom.
5. They also don’t sell anything, even water, inside. So bring plenty of fluids. Otherwise you’ll have to leave to at least use a vending machine and go back in. And it’s unclear how restricted that will be later this year.
6. Use sunblock. Whether you’re hiking up one of the mountains or not, much of Machu Picchu is outside in the hot sun. Wear a hat and put sunblock on your exposed skin.
7. Even though it may be cold in the morning, you should consider the fact that when the sun comes up and you start going up never ending flights of stairs, you’ll be forced to carry your jacket. So tough it out when it’s chilly and save yourself the trouble.
8. If you’re going to climb, acclimate first. Though Machu Picchu itself is at a lower altitude than Cusco, the two mountains, especially Machu Picchu Mountain are way up there. Your ears will pop, you’ll feel colder, and you may experience altitude sickness. Bring coca leaves or coca candy just in case. I had such a problem with the altitude the first couple of days that I took a Sorojchi pill every morning just to be safe. It has caffeine so it’ll help with that 4 am wake up, too.
9. The train to and from Aguas Calientes probably registers as a 3 on the Richter scale. Hold on to your drinks and whatever you do, don’t use the bathrooms.
10. Don’t forget your passport. You’ll need it to get into Machu Picchu and also as identification to get on the bus. And don’t forget to stamp it! The Machu Picchu stamp is outside the exit and is self-service so you can officially document your visit.