How to travel to Machu Picchu
Don’t get lost when you visit the Lost City of the Incas.
Every year, millions of people visit the imposing and mysterious Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru. But getting to the massive agricultural terraces, intricate stone constructions, and epic hilltop views of this UNESCO World Heritage site isn’t cheap, and it involves some trickier-than-usual logistics. Here’s how to expertly navigate your way to Peru’s most famous destination.
When to go to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is open year-round. October through April is the official rainy season, but it can rain at any time. And while peak season is July and August, you should always expect crowds. Sundays can be the most crowded, because that’s when people who live in the Cusco province are allowed into the site for free, in addition to the daily quota of 2,500 paying visitors. As of December 2020, however, that daily quota has been reduced to just 1,116 tourists per day due to the coronavirus pandemic; 75 visitors will be allowed entry into the site per hour.
How to get acclimated
Wherever you’re coming from is probably much, much lower than Cusco (11,000 feet) or Machu Picchu (just shy of 8,000 feet). Unless you’ve booked a trip to Machu Picchu that requires an overnight stay in Cusco, we recommend immediately taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town nearest Machu Picchu. Spend a night or two getting used to the relatively low elevation of Aguas Calientes, at about 6,700 feet, then explore Machu Picchu before returning to Cusco. You can also spend time elsewhere in the Sacred Valley, which, by nature, is lower in elevation than the surrounding mountains. This will help minimize the unpleasant or even dangerous effects of altitude sickness, which commonly include headache, fatigue, and nausea. Avoid alcohol and physical exertion while acclimatizing and drink as much water or coca tea as you can stand to help your body slowly adjust to the thinner air.
Getting from Cusco to Machu Picchu
The easiest way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to take the train to Aguas Calientes. It’s a scenic 3.5-hour trip each way along tracks that run right along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley, with dramatic canyon walls on either side.
some train tips:
- The so-called Cusco train station is actually in the nearby town of Poroy. It’s a cheap taxi ride, but give yourself at least an hour to get from central Cusco to the train station. Traffic in Cusco can be brutal and seemingly never-ending road work makes things even more congested
- There are three train companies to choose from: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham train. The Hiram Bingham service is on a gorgeous train gleaming with brass and polished wood and includes a white tablecloth meal with wine during your journey. It’s also much more expensive than Inca Rail or Peru Rail, both of which offer comfortable passage on different types of trains — including ones designed with panoramic windows for an additional fee.
- Whichever train you choose, book as far in advance as possible. Tickets sell out weeks ahead in some months.
- If train tickets from Cusco are sold out, all is not lost. Try to buy a ticket to Aguas Calientes that departs from the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or vice versa. Taxis and mini vans between Ollantaytambo and Cusco (just over an hour each way) are plentiful. If you have the time, plan an overnight in Ollantaytambo to check out the town, which still features many Incan-built streets and buildings, as well as the archaeological site of the same name. Arrive as early as possible to the site to enjoy sunrise light and beat the tour buses.
Machu Picchu: tips for visiting
- Entrance tickets: If you’re traveling independently, you can buy individual Machu Picchu entrance tickets here, though you should note that you’ll be required to hire a local guide before entering the site. (There will be plenty waiting at the gates to Machu Picchu.) If you book a tour package through an operator or a hotel, entrance tickets should be included. As of 2019, all entry tickets are timed, allowing entrance on the hour, and you’re allowed to stay at the site for up to four hours.
- Bring: Water and a rain jacket, even if it looks like a beautiful sunny day. And speaking of sun, remember that the ozone layer over Peru is compromised. That, combined with the elevation, makes the sun extremely strong here, so wear a hat and use plenty of high SPF sunscreen. Bring insect repellent as well. And keep some one soles coins in your pocket. You’ll need them to access the lone bathroom at the entrance to the site. To use the bathroom or grab food, you’ll have to exit the gates, so bring your passport and hang onto your ticket. You’ll need to show both to re-enter the citadel.
- Don’t bring: Drones, umbrellas, or walking sticks or trekking poles since they’re all prohibited at Machu Picchu. Travelers who require sticks or poles for mobility can bring them in but only with protective rubber tips over the ends.
Where to eat and drink in Cusco
- Cicciolina is a classic which feels very much like a local hangout, serving international and Andean dishes out of an open kitchen. At the tapas bar, you can order from both the tapas and dining room menus.
- Kion, from the growing Cusco Restaurants group, is a stylish place to enjoy Cantonese cuisine. The décor is Chinese vintage, flavors are subtle and the atmosphere is festive.
- Chicha is the first restaurant in Cusco from Peruvian superstar chef Gaston Acurio of Astrid y Gaston fame. Located on the second floor of a Colonial building, the restaurant offers haute Andean cuisine (alpaca carpaccio, quinoa with duck) in an airy, bright, and well-lit space.
What to do in Cusco
Cusco is filled with historic sites both from the Incan and colonial times: don’t miss the impressive Coricancha (also spelled Koricancha or Qorikancha), an Incan temple–turned–Spanish church; the Sacsayhuaman Incan ruins; and the Cusco Cathedral. Wander through the streets of the hip San Blas neighborhood, people-watch on the Plazas de Armas, and shop the San Pedro Market.