I’ll be honest—I thought Machu Picchu would be lame and overhyped. But it is downright amazing! And not just the city itself. The surrounding scenery is incredible, too, shooting the Inca city up to my number 1 thing to do in Peru.
The state that it is preserved in, the location on top of a mountain with unmatched views in all directions, the hours it takes to even get there, the fog that rolls in every once in a while—it all makes you feel like you’ve just stepped foot into a secret world. It makes you feel grateful and humble and totally stoked to be there!
Let me tell you how to travel to Machu Picchu, why you have to go on one of the short treks, and that you need to get updated information on how to enter (like here on NLoT), because the rules have changed considerably since the site reopened after covid in late 2020.
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The ancient city of Machu Picchu
Take note that you’ll come across the name Llaqta de Machu Picchu on the official website and in other sources. This means the actual ancient city of Machu Picchu. Not the mountains around it, not anything else, just the city.
But definitely do pay attention to the mountains around it, and I’ll recommend the day hike that we did so you can fully immerse yourself into the beautiful land of the Incas.
Ok, now on with the guide.
Tip: Go ahead and take a look at the best hotels in Cusco, find accommodation options in Ollantaytambo if you have an early morning train, or sleep over in Machu Picchu Pueblo if you’re aiming for a morning visit to the ruins.
You can visit Machu Picchu year-round and morning to afternoon. We are working on a whole post just about when to visit Machu Picchu, hold tight, coming soon!
Pick your season for visiting Machu Picchu
Temperature-wise it doesn’t really matter when you go to Machu Picchu because you’ll be getting around 20°C (68°F) year-round during the day, with slightly higher temps from December to February and lower temps from June to August, which is Peru’s dry season and technically wintertime.
Tip: We have a whole article about when it’s best to visit Machu Picchu: the best month and time of day. Check it out.
Overall, the weather is mild, but dress in layers whenever you go so you can adapt to whatever Mother Nature throws your way.
Nighttime temperatures can go down to freezing in the months of June to August, so take that into consideration especially if you’re planning on going on any of the overnight treks. I’m not saying they will, but it is not unheard of. Most of the time you’re looking at temps around 10 to 15°C (50 to 60°F).
What you do want to consider is the rain. We went in January, which is smack in the middle of the summer, aka the rainy season (which is from December to March). Besides getting drenched during a short downpour, we had no complaints about the weather. But that is what you should expect—short bouts of rain throughout the day and otherwise clearish skies. The clouds make for pretty dramatic photos!
The best season for taking a breathtaking photo
The months of April and May are considered the best for visiting Machu Picchu because you get less crowds than in the summer and the vegetation is lush and gorgeously green after being rained on during the three months prior. Alternatively, the months before rainy season are less crowded as well.
When I say less crowded, I’m thinking more the amounts of tourists trying to buy tickets for the same dates, since the actual lost city is sold out almost every day no matter the month. The crowds that you see at Machu Picchu are basically the same whenever you end up going.
June, and especially July and August are the most popular months of the year, during which you’ll need to plan well ahead of time when buying your tickets (and I mean months and months), especially if you are also planning on going on one of the hikes around Machu Picchu (more on those below). You are getting the best chances of clear skies and no rain.
Sunrise at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu’s daily hours of operation are 6am–5:30 pm and the ticketing system is a complicated one. You buy time-slotted entry tickets that mean you need to enter at a specific time and are allowed to stay 4 or 6 hours, depending on which ticket combo you select (see below for details).
The first time slots available for visiting Machu Picchu are at 6am, and that time is coveted for the chance to see the sun rise from the ancient city. It’s also the “most exciting” since you have to wake up in the dark and line up at 4:30 am to have a chance to fit into the first buses.
Beauty sleep is more important than being there first
Karin and I are adults that treasure their beauty sleep and have no interest in standing on a sidewalk for god knows how long during the wee hours of the day in order to be the first one there. You can get out of bed at a decent hour and still see the exact same thing, sans sunrise, and still be blown away. Plus, you’ll still have enough energy to get through dinner!
Remember that the mornings are also when you get the most fog, so just do yourself a favor and nab an afternoon slot. You can thank me later.
Also, remember that the capacity of Machu Picchu is limited to 2000 visitors a day (plus a few hundred more spots for those combining the city with a hike) and they’re being let in throughout the day and don’t get to spend more than 4 hours at the city, so you’ll never feel like the place is completely overrun. Not everyone is on the same circuit either (those on mountain hikes can’t even go into the upper city).
The mornings are also the most prone to fog. If you do get fog, especially on that first viewpoint over the whole city, hang out for a bit, it usually rolls out as fast as it came in.
Our top tips for Machu Picchu:
Machu Picchu is perched up on the tippy top of a mountain, so not exactly easy to reach. Not even the closest town, Machu Picchu Pueblo (also called Aguas Calientes), is serviced by a road of any kind.
So how do you get to Machu Picchu? You can’t drive there, that’s for sure! To get to Machu Picchu, you will have to take a combination of train and bus, or walk. A lot. Like a lot a lot.
Let’s break it down:
Save your energy for walking at Machu Picchu
Let’s get the walking out of the way because though I like my hikes, I know how to pick my battles. You can walk the 28 kms along the train tracks from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo, which will take you the better part of the day.
Read up on this option if you’re thinking about it, especially about the guards turning people away because, duh, tourists walking on the train tracks isn’t exactly what they want. Something about safety.
After that the pedestrians still have a 2-hour steep walk up the mountain, but that’s just insane—do yourself a favor and pay the USD 12 for the 20-minute bus ride (one way) and don’t exhaust yourself walking on the narrow road dodging the buses!
Of course, there are also the multi-day treks on the Inca Trail or other less crowded routes, but we didn’t consider those since we likey treks, but we no likey sleeping in tents.
The comfortable way to get to Machu Picchu
Now I can tell you about the relatively comfortable, non-daredevil way to get to Machu Picchu.
Simply put, the way to get to Machu Picchu is this: You take the train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly Aguas Calientes), and then a bus up from Machu Picchu Pueblo to the Machu Picchu Inca city. Walk around up there like an Inca, and then do the same thing backwards to get away. Not the walking around, it isn’t necessary to walk backwards.
The majority of visitors will come from Cuzco (because it has an airport), but the real trip to Machu Picchu starts in a town called Ollantaytambo. We drove there from Cuzco, but you can take a slow and expensive train, a silly-cheap bus (to be avoided unless… actually, there’s never a good reason to take the bus), or a taxi (USD 40). Driving the route takes about an hour.
Tip: There is ample parking available by the Ollyantaytambo train station for s/15 per day.
Ollantaytambo’s where you’ll alight your extortionate train for the 1,5 hour trip to Machu Picchu Pueblo. Honestly the train ride in itself could pass for a tourist attraction, so think of the crazy price not as an annoying extra charge, but as the price for one of the most fantastic train rides you’ll probably take in your entire life. It’s much easier to spend USD 120 for it that way.
There are two train companies to choose from: Peru Rail and Inca Rail. I think they are interchangeable, just choose the one whose departure time suits you best. I don’t think it’s necessary to pay extra for any fancier options—and you know I’m always the first to opt for comfort. Here I felt that the basic tourist class was just as good as any (aka just as basic), since the views are what matter and those are the same for everyone.
The windows of the trains are huge and even continue up on the roof so you really get a chance to take in those views.
Get to the train station 30 minutes beforehand, because covid. Check-in was quick, but check the train company’s website for safety measures before you go. We had to sign an affidavit saying we aren’t experiencing any covid symptoms, and you have to wear either one face mask of KN95/FFFP2 quality or two shittier ones over each other.
Ollyantaytambo train station
Your passport will also be checked (and will be multiple times before you get to Machu Picchu, so don’t forget it!).
We took a Peru Rail train and enjoyed our trip beer in hand, eyeballs falling out of our heads the whole way, staring at the almost 5500 m (18,000 foot) mountains. You will be guided through what you are seeing out the windows the whole way through the speakers in the train, so in this case, the journey really is the destination. Or at least the first destination.
Tip: Consider staying the night in Machu Picchu Pueblo. It’s a tourist town so it has all the amenities and some of the restaurants are pretty awesome. Book a hotel in Machu Picchu Pueblo. It gets overrun by tourists during the morning to afternoon, but after the tourist groups leave, you are left with a pretty town in stunning location.
Notice the road up the side of the mountain. That’s what you’ll be driving up in the bus. Car sickness, anyone?
In Ollantaytambo, your next task is to secure bus tickets to the top of the mountain.
It’s only a 20-minute ride, but you’ll be either glued to your window enjoying the views or hoping you won’t die when the bus falls over the edge of the terrifyingly narrow roads. Be ready for lots of sharp bends. I did feel safe—our driver wasn’t going crazy fast and some of the seatbelts even worked!
The train stops conveniently in town, so once you leave the small train station you just take a short walk through the market, walk over the bridge and that’s where the buses depart from.
The official bus ticket agency, Consettur, is in the adjacent alley. Buy your bus tickets there, the price is USD 24 round trip. Cash and credit cards are accepted, though paying with a card results in a 5% surcharge. You may or may not encounter lines, so calculate at least 30 minutes for buying bus tickets just in case.
This map shows the “Estacion Machu Picchu” (train station) and the Consettur bus ticket office across the river
Once again, you’ll need your passport to buy your tickets.
You don’t get a time slot and buses generally just wait until they are full and then leave, so you want to get to the bus stop at least 20 minutes beforehand to make sure you get on one in time for your time slotted Machu Picchu entrance. Buses start climbing up the hill at 5.30 am; the last ones depart at 3 pm.
If your goal is to be one of the first ones inside and you have a ticket with the 6 am time slot, you better get your behind to the bus stop at 4:30 am. The line for the first buses gets insanely long.
Tickets to Machu Picchu must be bought in advance. They are not sold on the spot. When buying your ticket online, you will choose a time slot during which you have to enter the ruins (and trek, if you choose a combo ticket).
Buy your tickets online in advance
Only buy your tickets on the official website. Anywhere else is just adding a middleman, which means a higher price for the same thing. Note that the official website is only in Spanish (at least the ticket-buying section), but is pretty straightforward if you know what you’re looking for.
You can’t change or cancel your ticket after you buy it, so double-check everything before you pay and note your reservation number for those stressful minutes before you get an email confirmation.
Tip: Before you buy your tickets, take a good look at the “how to get there” section of this article. Since the logistics are multi-step, you want to think before you click (on the “buy” button) so you don't get stuck in Machu Picchu Pueblo for five hours or something like that.
Get your tickets in advance to meet this alpaca
Get your tickets a month in advance if traveling in high season (June–August), a couple of weeks in advance at other times of the year—this is if you’re planning on seeing just the Inca city of Machu Picchu and nothing else.
If you’re hoping to do some of the trekking (which we highly recommend!), make that 3 months in advance, and as much as 6 months prior to your trip if you’re traveling during the peak season of June to August. Unlike the tickets for the city, there are only 2–3 time slots per day for the treks to the surrounding mountains, with a capacity of just a couple of hundred people daily.
Double your budget—the transportation costs aren’t small
Tickets cost s/152 or USD 40 for adults, s/70 or USD 18 for children up to 17 years old for the city-only ticket and for the city+Huchuypicchu ticket. The other combinations are city+Machu Picchu Mountain and city+Wanynapicchu, and those cost s/200 or USD 53 per adult and s/118 or USD 30 for kids.
But wait! This is the cost just to enter the site, but to get an idea of the full price of a Machu Picchu visit, you need to add on transportation costs. They aren’t small—the train and bus rides will double your Machu Picchu expenses per person.
You see, when you are one of only two train companies that usher tourists to one of the world’s most iconic sites, you can juice those tourist suckers! So add USD 120 for the round-trip train ride, and USD 24 for the bus up the mountain to your Machu Picchu budget.
More on the logistics of getting up that darned mountain in the next section.
When you choose your Machu Picchu tickets, you select a time slot for you visit. It’s no longer “morning” or “afternoon”, it’s an exact 1-hour slot during which you must enter, otherwise no bueno. They are strict about it, so make sure you get there in time.
Have your passport with you as it will be checked at the entrance.
There are four ticket options available based on what you want to see. If you go to just the ruins, you can choose from four circuits. If you combine your visit with the hikes, you unfortunately can’t choose and will only be let onto the less comprehensive circuits.
For some people, this may be a reason to buy another ticket just for the ruins. Those photos you see all over the internet are mostly from circuit 1, which you won’t be able to get on with a combination ticket.
If I were to do it all over again, I’d get the combination ticket for Huayna Picchu for one day and then a circuit 1 ticket for the next. There is so much you don’t get to see on the combination ticket routes.
These are the options:
There are four circuits to choose from
If you plan on only visiting the lost city of Machu Picchu without hiking up any of the surrounding mountains, you choose the first option on the ticketing website. When you enter the site, you’ll need to choose one of four circuits and stick to it. The most comprehensive is route 2.
All circuits are one-way and you need to keep moving forward. There is no going back, so make sure you’ve enjoyed every ounce of Inca history during every stop, because once you move on, you can’t decide you want to take five more selfies at that temple you just passed through.
You’ll have 4 hours max inside the ruins. After that, you need to leave.
The view from Huayna Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background
The hike to and from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain takes 3 hours total. It isn’t as steep or dangerous as Huayna Picchu, but still offers amazing views (and is still steep!). Some might argue that the views are the best out of all the hikes!
This hike is moderately difficult. Most of the terrain is dirt paths and many Inca stone steps, which can become slippery when it rains.
It’s a mountain that almost never gets photographed because it is the spot from which you take those famous photographs, the ones with Machu Picchu in the forefront and Huaynapicchu towering above it in the back.
You start on circuit 1 or 2, but once you descend the mountain, you can’t continue on these routes, instead having to go through the short route 3.
You get 6 hours total for your visit.
The view from Huayna Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background
Note that Huchuy Picchu used to be open for everyone coming to Machu Picchu, but that is no longer the case. You need this combination ticket in order to be allowed on the hike.
Huchuy is the easiest of the hikes and is only 1 km (0.6 miles) long. It’s that little guy next to the big mountain (called Huaynu or Waynu) standing guard above Machu Picchu city in all the famous photos. In Quechua, the name Huchuy literally means “Little Mountain”.
You’ll be traveling on many stone steps built by the Incas, and the views are nice but obviously not that incredible compared to the ones from Huaynu or even Machu Picchu Mountain.
You will walk on circuit 4 before and after the hike.
The steps to the top of Huayna Mountain
The most spectacular of all the available hikes is the one to the top of Huayna Mountain, the famous. On the website it is called Waynapicchu. This is the one we took and if you have the physical capability and aren’t especially scared of heights, I highly recommend it!
Getting to the 2700 m (9000 ft) summit is not for the faint of heart. Most of the way you’ll be walking up steep stone steps, so steep that at the top section you’ll be on all fours basically climbing like you would a ladder.
The fantastic view from the top of Huayna Mountain
There are cables to hold on to, but the drop-off to the side is nuts in some points. Beware that some areas are very narrow. Santa Claus wouldn’t fit, if you know what I mean.
It takes a little over an hour one way, but it is one heck of a climb; expect to need to take breaks. Once you make it to the top, you’ll be 360 meters (1,200 feet) above Machu Picchu city, which is pretty fantastic. The views are epic!
If you decide to do this wonder of a hike, you’ll be restricted to circuit 4 in Machu Picchu city and have 6 hours total for your visit.
Listen to that alpaca!
You're recommended to hire a guide to get into the site. According to the new regulations, everyone should have a guide; the keyword here is should. When you open the official website you get a popup message saying a guide is recommended, but it does not say mandatory. Interpret this as you like. When we visited in the beginning of 2022, they were not enforcing the guide rule. Whatever you choose to do, know that you do not need a guide to any of the mountain hikes, just the city.
Plus, it’s not a bad thing, since you will understand what you are looking at so much better if there is someone explaining it to you. There are no information panels at Machu Picchu.
A guide will cost you s/200-300 for two people and the guided tour takes about 2.5 hours. If you decide to visit Machu Picchu on more than one day, you don’t need to hire a guide again. Just show your ticket and write down your guide’s name from the previous day. (You will need more than one ticket, re-entry used to be allowed but it isn’t anymore.)
You can find your guide either in Machu Picchu Pueblo or at the entrance to the actual ruins. When you’re waiting for your bus, you may be told by some of the guides that you have to hire them there because there aren’t any available at the top, but alas, there are tons of them at the entrance.
Avoid an extra 25 minutes with a complete stranger by waiting to choose your guide until after your bus ride.
Tourists in the ancient city
There are two types of guides. I nicknamed the first type “radio” because they don’t actually speak any English, instead just reciting the information they have learned (in English). The second type can speak a little bit of English, which is nice if you want to ask questions about what you’re looking at inside. When hoping to get the second type, try asking them to tell you a little about themselves. You’ll weed out the radios pretty quickly.
That said, know that in order to become a Machu Picchu guide they had to study very hard, so whichever person you choose has deserved their right to do this job.
We definitely enjoyed our Machu Picchu visit!
Here are some tips to make your Machu Picchu trip the most amazing experience:
The Machu Picchu experience is a memorable one, that’s for sure. Since you’ll likely be flying into Lima for your Peru trip, take a look at our guide to the top things to do in Lima before you go. We also have articles on visiting the fantastic Paracas National Reserve and a separate post on the boat trip to Islas Ballestas. You can combine those two into one multiday stay.
Or how about taking a look at some of the best hikes in Chile or our top tips for traveling to Mexico? South America has so much to explore and we’ll definitely be back to provide you with the best guides for even more locations.
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