South America

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.

Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

1. Where to Stay

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.
The Image Bank / Getty Images

2. How to Get There

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.
Valerie Conners

3. Tours to Machu Picchu

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.

About the Author

Valerie Conners is a freelance writer and editor who has worked for media outlets such as the Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and Frommer's Travel Guides.

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