What You Should Know About Visiting Machu Picchu

Sprawling across a craggy, 7,000-foot-high hilltop in the midst of the Andes, the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu mystify and intrigue travelers and historians alike. A trip to the remote Peruvian site is a must-do for tourists in Peru, and while some visitors join organized tours prior to their departure, many others venture to the site as independent travelers. If you're planning your own trip to the iconic site, read our top tips to make the most of your visit.

1. Where to Stay

Aguas Calientes
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Unless you've planned to hike the Inca Trail to the site, the only way to reach the Machu Picchu ruins is by bus from the town of Aguas Calientes (often referred to simply as Machu Picchu). This tiny hub is decidedly charmless, built with the express purpose of ferrying tourists up to Macchu Picchu, however it is the most convenient location to base yourself when visiting the ruins.

It's also possible to take the train from the city of Cusco or the town of Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and visit the ruins in a day trip, though this option can leave some tourists feeling their time in the ruins was rushed.

We recommend staying in Aguas Calientes so you can take your time exploring the ruins rather than having to run to catch a return train.

Regardless of where you choose to stay, each of the 3 towns serves as popular hubs for tourists seeking to visit Machu Picchu. Travelers will find a variety of accommodations in each town, ranging from budget hostels to luxury hotels.

2. How to Get There

Machu Picchu Train
The Image Bank / Getty Images
If you're feeling fit and eager to take on the challenge, the 4-day/3-night Inca Trail hike to the ruins is by far the most memorable way to reach Machu Picchu. Of course, it is also the most challenging way to visit the site. Be aware that it is prohibited to hike independently along the Inca Trail and you must travel with a sanctioned group or tour agency. Book your hiking trip well in advance of your travels to Peru, as these tours sell out months in advance.

For travelers who prefer a less arduous route to the ruins, your best option is to take a train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.

Three train operators run trips to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu): Perurail, Inca Rail and the Machu Picchu Train. The most popular trains are via Perurail which offers 3 levels of service -- the Backpacker, the upscale Vistadome and the ultra-luxe Hiram Bingham train.

Once you've arrived in Aguas Calientes, specially sanctioned buses run regularly (every 15 to 20 minutes) to the ruins. The bus stop is a 5-minute walk from the train station.

3. Tours to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Valerie Conners
The ruins are a fascinating place, and while it's entirely possible to enjoy visiting them on your own, you'll have a much grander experience by taking a tour of the site. You can organize a group tour through one of the many agencies in Cusco or Ollantaytambo, or ask your hotel to set up a tour for your party with a private guide.

There are also a number of guides waiting outside the entrance to Machu Picchu and it is possible to set up a group or private tour with one of them upon your arrival to the ruins. If you do so, speak to a few of the guides to get a sense of their level of knowledge of the site and proficiency in English. Also, know that it is common to bargain with these guides for a fair price, typically around $50 USD for a 2-hour tour.

Keep in mind that much of the history and purpose of Machu Picchu remains a mystery to historians, and quality guides will be sure to make that clear, rather than selling you definitive (and potentially false) information.

4. Tickets to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Valerie Conners
Tickets are necessary to enter the site of the ruins. Buy your tickets as far in advance as possible, as a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit the site each day and they do sell out during peak season.

5. What to Do and What to See at Machu Picchu

Llama at Machu Picchu
Valerie Conners
The sprawling ruins are best explored with a guide, so you can be sure to see and learn about some of the site's more fascinating highlights, including the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Three Windows, Temple of the Condor, the Sun Gate and the Intihuatana rock.

Many travelers plan to hike Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, the peak overlooking the ruins, which often appears in the backdrop of photos of Machu Picchu.

6. When to Go

Inca Trail
Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images
Weather in Machu Picchu tends to be damp and often foggy. Peak season begins in late May and lasts through August, with July and August being the driest months. January and February are the rainiest months in this subtropical region. Expect brief showers during your visit, regardless of time of year.

The ruins can be unpleasantly crowded with travelers visiting on a day tour from Cusco or Ollantaytambo, particularly during peak season. These tours generally crowd the ruins between 10 am and 2 pm. If you're staying in Aguas Calientes, you'll have the option to arrive well before the influx of tourists and stay well after they depart, allowing you to enjoy some quiet time exploring the ruins.

7. What to Do Around Machu Picchu

The Sacred Valley surrounding Machu Picchu is home to a number of fascinating ruins, small towns and sights. Plan a Sacred Valley day tour from Cusco or Ollantaytambo and be sure it includes stops at the Pisac traditional market and Pisac ruins; the Ollantaytambo village and Inca ruins; the Moray ruins and the Salineras salt mines.
Huayna Picchu
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