So you want to visit Machu Picchu. After all, it’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Let me guess: You want to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu? You want to stand in front of the ruins and take an amazing photo with no one else on the mountain behind you? And, you’d like to reach the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu by way of the traditional Incan trail. You’re worried about how much that might cost. OR, you really hate hiking and you just want to see Machu Picchu without trekking for miles, for the love of God. Is all of this possible?
Well, sort of and maybe.
What You Should Know Before You Visit Machu Picchu
1) You do not have to hike the Inca Trail or spend 1,000 USD to see Machu Picchu.
Hiking the traditional Incan trail is surely an amazing experience and you should do it if it’s on your bucket list. But, it also costs an arm and a leg, is saturated with other tourists, will take four days to finish, and should be booked a year in advance to ensure a space. Never fear, you do have other options!
Take a train to Aguas Calientes located at the base of MP. From Aguass Calientes, you can:
- Catch a bus up to MP and back ($24 roundtrip).
- Hike up to MP, which may take about an hour and a half (free).
We opted to “save our money and gain an experience” by hiking to the main entrance. Unfortunately, this also expended a lot of our energy. In such a high altitude, hiking was brutal even though we were active and in shape. Hiking up to the Machu Picchu entrance was awesome and rewarding, but I’d definitely take the bus next time.
2) You need to prepare for potential altitude sickness.
Machu Picchu is 8,040 feet (2,450 meters) above sea level. To prevent ailment (think: minor headaches and lethargy, to severe nausea and urgent diarrhea) you want to acclimate to high altitude BEFORE taking on Machu Picchu. This means, if you fly into Cusco (which is even higher than MP) rest there for 2-3 days before doing anything strenuous like hiking.
Lima doesn’t work the same way it because it’s located at sea level. If you don’t stay in Cusco (it was my favorite!) you can stay in the Sacred Valley such as Ollantaytambo (9,160′ / 2,292 m) before progressing to higher altitudes.
- To avoid altitude sickness: Drink lots and lots of water and consume a good amount of anise and/or coca tea. While you are in Machu Picchu or Cusco, suck on spit-dampened coca leaves between your cheek and teeth. This is what the locals do, and it eases the symptoms. Read about my experience with altitude sickness in Cusco here
3) You should bring food, lots of water, and a strong bladder.
There is a restaurant that sells food and bottled water right outside of the Machu Picchu entrance, but it’s overpriced. The bathroom is located just outside as well, so be sure to use it before you first enter MP. It will cost you 1 sol to use the bathroom, so be sure to have change on you.
To use the bathroom during your adventure, you’ll need to exit Machu Picchu completely, then wait in line to reenter MP. It will take longer if you do this before 2pm when the entry lines are still busy.
Note: It is prohibited to bring food into Machu Picchu, so please respect the land and at the very least, do not litter. It is also prohibited to use MP as your personal toilet. Just don’t.
4) You need to wear pants.
You’re probably like “Of course I’m going to wear pants. Duh, silly tip. Next bullet point.” But, there’s some of you that will try to wear shorts. You’re the shorts-all-year-round kind of person, and I get it. But when you visit Machu Picchu, you need your legs covered. Mosquitos won’t find you if your legs are properly covered. In shorts your shins, calves, and knees will be covered in giant itchy red welts within the first hour of stepping foot on the Machu Picchu grounds even if you put on bug repellant.
5) With the above said, you should bring bug repellant.
And don’t go for the natural stuff, it won’t work where you’re going!
6) You should also bring a poncho or rain jacket and sunscreen.
Just in case. It could rain on Machu Picchu during any time of the year. We got lucky and it did not rain during our visit, but the clouds did roll in by afternoon, and we had to cross our fingers. The the sun is less filtered at higher altitudes, so don’t skip sunscreen even if the weather is overcast.
7) It may be difficult to get that perfect sunrise view.
Depending on the time of year you go, sunrise can happen between 5:30am or 6:30am. The gates do not open until 6:00am, so if you go in November like we did, you’ll have already missed the sunrise. Also, early mornings are often misty and foggy, especially during the rainy season (November – April). If you’d like to see the sunrise in Machu Picchu artificially, here’s a pretty cool time lapse video.
8) You can get your passport stamped at a separate table near the entrance of Machu Picchu.
I assumed that when my passport and entry ticket were checked at the MP gate, a stamp would be offered. The entrance attendee did no such thing. Disappointed, I met up with my travel partner. “I guess they don’t stamp passports anymore.” Turns out, I was wrong.
To have your passport stamped at MP, you have to go to a separate table after the initial entry. Moral of the story: Don’t let this novel opportunity pass you by. Get your passport stamped at Machu Picchu…. for me.
9) You must be accompanied by a licensed Machu Picchu guide to enter the park (sort of).
As of July 2017, Machu Picchu visitors are supposed to be accompanied by a licensed tour guide to enter the park. This rule has not been enforced as of October 2017, because there are not enough guides to fill the requirement. So for now, you may still be able to getaway with no guide. The new regulations also state that you may re-enter Machu Picchu without a guide, but only if you show your ticket and remember the name of your tour guide. This also goes for next-day trips to Machu Picchu, but remember to have your previous day’s ticket.
If you’d like to book a tour guide, you can do so on the spot. Look for the gaggle of Peruvian tour guides at the Machu Picchu entrance. They’re the ones wearing qualification IDs around their necks, making cheerful eye contact and offering assistance.
Tips for Hiring a Guide:
- Talk to a few guides to make sure you find someone who speaks English well.
- Account for 2.5 – 3 hours of guided tour time. You will be free to explore on your own when the tour is over.
- Prices: $50 for 1-2 people or $25/person for a group of 3 or more. (Pricing is subject to change and may vary based on group size.)
- The group limit is 16 people.
- You should tip at the end if your guide does an especially great job. Tips are not, however, required.
My travel partner and I did not hire a tour guide because we went before July 2017 and we like to be free birds when we travel. However, I wish I’d learned more about Machu Picchu’s history. I’d be happy to have a guide next time.
10) You can’t trust the photos you’ve seen of Machu Picchu on the internet.
Machu Picchu will be swarming with tourists like mosquitos to your exposed, repellant-less legs. You’ve seen the iconic Machu Picchu shot with nothing but a single human subject and the ancient ruins themselves as a backdrop. I’m sorry to say, but it’s a lie.
There are a couple of spots where someone can stand before the ruins without getting anyone else in the shot, but know that there are crowds of people behind and below that subject.
If you’re looking for spiritual and intimate, it likely will not be found at Machu Picchu. MP is a touristy spot, so you may need to lower your expectations to incorporate that reality. It’s still breath taking in beauty, just don’t expect serenity.
11) You must not miss your entry time if you buy tickets to hike Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.
My travel partner and I purchased our MP entry tickets with an additional hike up Machu Picchu Mountain (recommended for the view, and can sellout months in advance). We chose the entry time of 7:00- 8:00. Unfortunately, we were so distracted by the MP llamas near the entrance of MP that we didn’t show up for our hike until 9:00am. Eh, no big deal. WRONG. We were not let through. Time slots are strict.
So if you purchase tickets to hike either of these mountains, do not let the
sirens llamas lure you in. Go directly to your hike’s entrance. The llamas will be there later.
12) You can hang out with llamas!
Who ever first drove these guys up the mountain and planted them on the wide grassy steps of MP is a genius (or incredibly cruel to llamas). These guys/gals are great for photo ops and general lackadaisical activity. We rolled around in the grass together, took selfies, made llama noises at other people, and distracted my travel partner and I from getting to our Machu Picchu Mountain hike on time (see above)…The stuff of true friendship!
13) You’ll think the Incan Bridge is cool, but it’s not Indiana Jones cool.
When I saw that there was an ancient Incan bridge within Machu Picchu, I got so excited! My mind conjured the idea of a wide and windy ravine connected by a bridge of decaying wooden slats and rope. One false move, and through the slats you’d fall, electrics eels swimming at the bottom of the gorge ready to attack.
I’m joking about the eels, but I really thought we’d have the opportunity to walk across a rickety rope bridge. In reality, the Incan bridge is made of rock and a couple of logs stacked alongside a cliff, and is super tiny. It’s completely closed off by a giant metal gate, so there’s no crossing this bridge. You probably wouldn’t want to anyway – the vertical drop is crazy!
Positives: the views during the hike are quite nice, and there are less people in the area. The hike takes about 45-minute roundtrip, and you will have to sign in and out so they know that you did not accidentally fall into the river below.
14) You don’t need extra time to hang out in Aguas Calientes.
The tiny town at the base of MP is run over with touristy restaurants and the same “buy 2 get 2” drink deal everywhere. Souvenirs, food, drink, and snacks are relatively expensive, and they don’t have an authentic Peruvian town feel by any means. You should stay there one night for your early visit to Machu Picchu, then catch a train back to Cusco or Ollantaytambo to spend your time more wisely.
I may have bursted a few bubbles, but don’t let any of it take away from the true awesomeness that is Machu Picchu. The Incan ruins date back to 1450 and were discovered in 1911 by American professor Hiram Bingham. That’s only just over 100 years ago! Some people might still be alive today who existed when Machu Picchu was first discovered. I mean, how mind blowing is that? You’re going to love visiting Machu PIcchu.
Have I missed anything? Do you have any thoughts on what you should know before you visit Machu Picchu?