Secluded on a peak in the Andes mountains, the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu is a structural masterpiece worthy of its shining reputation. The massive ruins and terraced mountainsides are instantly recognizable. Their story still a mystery, but that only increases the appeal of this UNESCO World Heritage Site to visitors from all over the world. There are a few things to know before arranging your reservations to this Peruvian landmark. From transportation restrictions to reliable travel hacks, knowledge will get you far on this long journey.
A Machu Picchu excursion embodies the notion of the journey being just as much fun as the destination. You'll first fly into the city of Cusco, and from there travel to Aguas Calientes to access the ruins. You can't drive there, but you can take a train from Poroy for a moderate price and be there in four hours. A cheaper option is to board a Colectivo, a small minibus, to take you to the smaller archaeological town of Ollantaytambo. Spend some time at the ruins before getting on the train to Aguas Calientes. More experienced travelers may wish to hike the Inca Trail over a few days to a week. This trek through mountainous terrain and cloud forests channels ancient Incan life in the most authentic way.
Once you're in Aguas Calientes, you still have to arrange transportation to the mountaintop city. By this time, you should have already purchased your tickets online. Admission into the ruins is limited to a few thousand people per day, and some ticket packages sell out months in advance. It's best to find your tickets in a time slot that suits your needs, then plan your travel to Machu Picchu around that schedule. Buses routinely leave the bus stop in Aguas Calientes for the entrance to Machu Picchu starting at 5 a.m. If you book an early tour, stay in town overnight and be in line by 4 a.m. for a seat on the first bus. You can also opt to hike the two-hour trail to the top. Search online for advance tickets, and try buying all at once for a worry-free experience.
The weather in Machu Picchu plays a big part in your experience of the city. Tourists can expect dense fog and light showers year-round, but landslides and heavy rains are more likely in the summer. If you plan on hiking to Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, make sure your trails aren't rained out or closed off for safety concerns. When the weather is warmer, dress in layers to change with the fluctuating temperatures. The morning fog is a regular visitor to this lush mountain city. At times, it can obscure your view of the ruins and surrounding terraces. Visitors can arrange for entrance during the noon timeslot. The crowds will be at their largest, but the fog will be gone. You also benefit from the late afternoon sunlight and thinning crowds.
It's hard to know what to expect when visiting an ancient city in the middle of a rainforest. Common sense will get you far in this rugged terrain, but a few savvy tips can save you from making the most basic traveler mistakes. First and foremost, always carry your passport on your person. Not only will it ensure you don't lose it, but your passport also serves as your primary identification when traveling and entering national parks. Just outside the entrance to the ruins, you can have it stamped with a Machu Picchu seal before going inside.
It's a good idea to wear both sunscreen and insect repellant, or long sleeves and pants. If it's raining, carry a poncho instead of an umbrella. Tripods and selfie sticks are banned, as is outside food, so eat a good breakfast and only bring a reusable bottle for water.
A trip Machu Picchu wouldn't be complete without pictures to share with your friends and family. Don't let unexpected situations distract you from framing that perfect shot or video. The walkways and trails on site can be quite narrow in places, and foot traffic is regulated to prevent bottlenecks. You'll come to several one-way paths as you wander the site, so once you move on from a particular ruin or viewpoint, you may not be able to return. When you see the perfect photo opportunity, take it before the mist rolls in, or the next wave of tourists passes through. If you find yourself staring at a sea of clouds, be patient, and they'll likely move along in minutes.
Machu Picchu's steep staircases and long hikes aren't the only things to consider when physically preparing yourself for the journey. At over 11,000 feet above sea level, traveling to Cusco comes with the chance of developing altitude sickness. This uncomfortable ailment settles in about 10-12 hours after arrival and can take a day or two for symptoms to subside. You may want to stay in Cusco to allow yourself time to acclimate to the high altitude. Another option is to leave the city as soon as your flight arrives and head straight for Aguas Calientes. At just under 7,000 feet, the small pueblo's elevation is much easier on the body. Starting your trip at Machu Picchu and finishing in Cusco decrease your chances of developing altitude sickness.
These days, the only full-time residents of Machu Picchu are the llamas and their fluffy cousins, the alpacas. These curious, gentle creatures were essential to the Incans' survival, and meeting a herd of these adorable animals is another perk of this unbelievable trip. If you happen upon a llama or alpaca, don't be too shy to get a closer look. They're known to photobomb eager tourists' snapshots, and some will even pause for a selfie. For a more immersive experience, look into an alpaca tour. These camping trips follow the Inca trail through cloud forests and alpine meadows, and into the Sacred Valley. Here, you'll meet herds of these furry, friendly beings in a quiet wilderness.
Since its construction in the 15th century, Machu Picchu has survived nasty weather, recurring earthquakes, and even the Spanish conquest. Currently, the biggest threat to the Incan stronghold is human activity. The Peruvian government has enforced stricter regulations on tourism to minimize damage to the site, but you can do your part to further their efforts. Respect one-way paths to keep from creating traffic and bumping into the structures. Other than reusable water bottles, don't hide outside food and drinks in your backpack despite what audacious vloggers might say. Waste management is already a challenge for this small village; the less trash you create, the easier it is for Peru to keep the landmark clean. Even better, take whatever trash you can with you when leaving Aguas Calientes.
People have entered Machu Picchu unescorted for years despite a rule requiring visitors to hire a tour guide. It's cheaper, and you can linger among the ruins at your own pace. There are benefits to hiring a guide for the day, however. Once you add them up, you may decide the experience is worth the investment. Make arrangements in advance of your journey, and your guide will meet you at the bus stop and hold your place in line. You'll also see more certified tour operators waiting near the entrance to Machu Picchu. Usually, the guides are locals with extensive knowledge of the land, its history, and its culture. Contracting their services is a purposeful way of supporting the community and preserving its heritage. Don't forget to tip your sherpas as well.
After a couple of days in Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, you'll have no problem acclimating to Cusco's soaring altitude. Set aside at least one full day to walk the cobblestoned streets and relish its relaxed atmosphere. The Plaza de Armas, once the historic center of the Incan Empire, is a mix of Andean splendor and colonial baroque style. Qorikancha was the most important temple to the Incans, but Spanish conquistadores destroyed as much as they could and used stones from the nearby Sacsayhuamán to build over the ruins. Not much of the temple remains, but the existing structure is a testament to the fusion of Andean and Spanish architecture.