It seems like a good time to revisit this post – days before the rules change for all visitors to Machu Picchu. I’ve posted an explainer from the Guardian here:
The new rules attempt to spread visits throughout the day by limiting the number of hours an individual can spend on the site. There’ll be a morning period and an afternoon period and you’ll need to hire an official guide. In my opinion that won’t diminish the impact of the visit – and will improve the visitor experience especially during the busy season. But read on for my advice. (MT – June 29, 2017)
Experiencing Machu Picchu is as much about the journey as it is finally seeing it. But the journey is a tourism product – whether travellers like to admit it or not.
Most visitors see the site only once. I could never understand why, after traveling so far, you wouldn’t want to go back for a second visit…spend a few days near by…learn more about its history and the people who still live in the area.
But during my month in Cusco I learned that many people would come to Peru for little more than a week, arrive via Lima, fly in to Cusco and make the trip to Machu Picchu and back in less than 24 hours. They’d spend a day or two acclimatizing to Cusco, catch a bus tour at 4 a.m. to Ollentaytambo, 6 a.m. train to Aguas Calientes, 7:30 a.m. bus up to Machu Picchu, trudge around for three or four hours, then head back to Cusco for dinner the same day. After spending all that money to get to South America, I wondered, why not spend at least an extra day?
The simple answer: To save time and money. Also, it means you don’t have to drag luggage with you. And hundreds of tour agencies make it easy to do it that way. I just don’t think it’s the best way.
If you’re into hiking, you can choose a three or four-day trek. But you’ll still only see Machu Picchu once before you catch the train to Cusco.
We knew in advance that we had the time. And the extra money was small compared to the overall cost of getting to the region in the first place. (As of March 2017 it’s about $US50/day for the entrance fee to MP; $US24 for the bus trip from Aguas Calientes to top and return; $US25.)
We booked all our tickets and travel and hotels independently with the advice of our travel agent in Halifax, David Moore of Merit Travel. This is the main Peruvian government website for Machu Picchu: http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe You can take Peru Rail from Poroy, a half hour cab ride from Cusco, or for a lot less than the train, take a 2 hour cab ride to Ollentaytambo where you can catch Inca Rail to Aguas Calientes. That’s a gorgeous 2 hour train ride along the rushing waters in the deep Urubamba Valley.
So here are our “do’s and don’ts” for Machu Picchu – with a few “maybe’s” thrown in.
1. Visit on two separate days. You never know if it’ll be pouring rain or completely foggy. At least you double your chances of getting half decent weather.
2. Go during a shoulder season – but make it the shoulder of a shoulder season! Late summer/early fall in South America means the rainy season is almost over – aim for April. The most popular time is May/June/July/August: cool and clear but it coincides with summer holidays for North Americans and Europeans. It’s very crowded.
3. HIRE A GUIDE! If you’re not part of an organized tour, ask at your hotel if they can book one for you. That way you get to meet him or her in advance, set a time to leave from the hotel together and beat some of the crowds. Otherwise, you will be required to hire one at the gates according new rules coming into effect on July 1st. The guides are extremely helpful because there’s almost no signage and few maps. They’ve been to Machu Picchu Guide school. They tell you what they don’t know and they help get you around the site as they explain the names and purpose of each of the buildings and monuments you visit. Unfortunately, I expect you’ll have to pay again for a second visit. We paid $US 60 in total for a guide for 3 people. It still seems reasonable to me.
4. Stay ONLY ONE NIGHT in Aguas Calientes. It is a purpose-built rip-off resort. You can arrive mid-morning at Machu Picchu on the first day – visit the mountain in the afternoon, stay the night in Aguas Calientes, make an early trip back up the mountain the next morning and catch an afternoon train back to Ollentaytambo.
5. Visit the hot springs at Aguas Calientes. The water is murky but it’s clean. There’s no sulphur smell and the warm water is relaxing and good for aching muscles. Besides you’re not there to drink it!
6. Check TripAdvisor for good places to eat at Aguas Calientes. Ask if there are mandatory service charges. Often the menu prices look reasonable until management tacks on 15 or 20 percent for service – which is often poor.
7. Have a couple hundred US dollars in cash handy. Some guides and other tourist operators prefer it.
8. Get your passport stamped at Machu Picchu. The stamp and ink pad are at a little kiosk just outside the washroom facilities.
9. Make sure you have small change – 1 sol – to use the washrooms. They don’t take plastic!
10. Spend at least one night at Ollentaytambo. It’s amazingly unspoiled considering that it’s the last real town on the way to Aguas Calientes. AND people still live in the old Inca village – there are no cars in that part of town and it’s dominated by several impressive Inca ruins that stand watch over the Sacred Valley.
- Don’t forget a hat, sunscreen and rain poncho.
- Don’t wear sandals. (Unless you live in them. The ground is very rough.)
- Don’t forget water and snacks.
- Don’t stay more than one night at Aguas Calientes. Two at the most.
- Don’t forget camera batteries (and camera cards.) Especially if you’re only going up once.
- Hike up the mountain to Machu Picchu. A series of steps link the switchback used by buses to go up to the site. The road gate is unlocked at 4 a.m. and depending how fit you are it can take 90 minutes-plus to get to the top. Most people do it so they can be there for sunrise and ahead of the first morning bus. The thing about sunrise is that most mornings, Machu Picchu is enveloped in clouds and mist. It’s beautiful enough without the sun. And because the ruins are surrounded by mountains, the sun is pretty high by the time it appears.
- Go late: The bulk of the crowds are gone by 3 although this will change with the new rules. The site closes at 5:30.
- Go in and out: Your ticket allows you several re-entries in one visit. That’s to aid business at the cafeteria just outside the gates, but there are no washrooms on the site, so you may have to answer nature calls anyway.
- Try to read a good book about Machu Picchu before you get there. (More than a travel guide.) Or check out this website for background and suggested reading: https://howtoperu.com/why-was-machu-picchu-built/