How to Make the Most of Your Machu Picchu Experience

Avoiding the crowds and navigating new regulations at this famous citadel takes some advance planning. Here’s what you need to know.

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You’ve just hiked for five days across the Peruvian Andes. Your legs are aching, feet are sore, and in the blackness of the early morning it’s so, so cold. But when the alarm goes off at 4am, don’t roll over and go back to sleep. If you hit the snooze button even once, you risk missing out on the most magical part of your journey.

This Wonder of the World is truly a wonder. The site is open daily from 6am to 4pm, and even though visitors are capped at 2,500, there are always crowds. Except if you’re one of the first to enter.

This isn’t an easy feat. First, you’ll need your ticket in hand, bought in advance online or as part of your trekking package – you can’t get them at the entrance.

New Regulations for Visitors

Be aware that new rules have been put in place is an attempt to minimize the impact of tourism on the site. Visitors are now allowed entry in two half-day shifts, so be sure to purchase your ticket for the morning if you plan to go early.

Beginning in 2018, it may be mandatory to visit the ruins with a licensed guide. This can be arranged through a tour company or at the entrance (though you might get a higher-quality guide through the tour company).

Getting to Machu Picchu

The gateway to Machu Picchu is the town of Aguas Calientes. You can get here by trek or train – both are incredible.

Hiking to the Ruins

This is, without doubt, an incredible experience. You’ll visit crystalline glacial lakes and see the majestic Andes mountains in all their splendor – it’s a very special journey, and all treks are worth it.

The iconic Inca trail is the only one that ends at Inti Punku, the historic entry point to Machu Picchu, and has a 500-person-per-day limit (tours only) that books out months in advance. If you get up early enough on the last day of the hike, you can be at this gate by sunrise.

A popular and cheaper alternative is the Salkantay trail. Its scenery is equally spectacular but there are no permit limitations – experienced hikers can even go without guides as long as they’re prepped for the sub-zero nights.

Salkantay trek. Photo credit: iStock

Arriving by Train

Other than hiking, the only other way to get to Machu Picchu is by rail – there are no roads to the ruins. Trains depart from Poroy (about 20 minutes by taxi from Cusco) or Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.

The economically priced Vistadome and Expedition trains have panoramic windows and skylights to enjoy the beautiful landscapes on your three hour journey, or take the Belmond Hiram Bingham for a true luxury experience.

Going by train lets you avoid an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes, but that’s not recommended if you want to see Machu Picchu with no crowds.

Train through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. Photo credit: iStock

Beating the Crowds

So how to get in first? There’s a Belmond hotel just outside the ruins, and if you have the means to stay there you can guarantee first entry. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. Just be up at 4am so you’re first in line for the bus to the site’s gates. For the mega-fit, consider an extended morning sprint up the steep hill to the entrance. There are always a few runners who beat even the first bus up.

Hiking at the Ruins: Machu Picchu Mountain vs. Huayna Picchu

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about Huayna Picchu (“young mountain”), the famous, cone-shaped hill behind the ruins. It can be climbed in two to three hours. There are a handful of ruins on Huayna Picchu, most notably the Temple of the Moon, accessed by the Gran Caverna path.

Less well-known, but also a worthwhile climb, is Machu Picchu Mountain, southwest of the Machu Picchu citadel across from Huayna Picchu. It can be climbed in three to four hours.

If you want to do one of these hikes, make sure you’ve pre-purchased a ticket to Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu as part of your entry ticket. There are limits to the number of people who are allowed to do the treks each day.

You’ll need to start the treks early in the day (before 8am or 11am for Huayna Picchu, depending on your ticket, and before 10am for Machu Picchu Mountain). Both offer impressive views of Machu Picchu and the valley, but both are intense climbs. Which one to choose is personal: Huayna Picchu is better known and thus more crowded, but it’s a "shorter" climb. Machu Picchu Mountain has better views (it’s higher up) and fewer crowds, but no ruins and is a longer trek.

View from the top of Huayna Picchu. Photo credit: iStock

Want to know more about Peru? Check out our podcast. We chat about alternative treks to Machu Picchu, how Peru is the original home of surfing, and look at what vaccinations do you need when traveling to South America.

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