Guide to visiting Machu Picchu: 28 things you need to know
Of all the top attractions in Peru to add to your bucket list, Machu Picchu is sitting pretty right there at the top—literally. With UNESCO World Heritage status and an almost 8,000-foot-high elevation, this ancient site serves up some of Peru’s most unforgettable views. Have your heart set on seeing it in person on one of our tours to Peru? Check out our Machu Picchu guide, which is full of 28 tips from expert staffers who have been there.
1. Machu Picchu is a gem in the Andes mountains
Are you asking yourself, “Where is Machu Picchu, anyways?” It’s situated smack dab in Peru’s Sacred Valley in the southern part of the country, about 50 miles from Cuzco. To be more specific, the ruins are found in the Cordillera de Vilcabamba mountain range (in the Andes!) between Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu—and yes, that mountainous locale is just as pretty as it sounds.
Machu Picchu fun fact: In the native Quechua language, “Machu Picchu” means “Old Peak,” and “Huayna Picchu” means “New Peak.”
2. The town of Aguas Calientes is the gateway to the site
While not an overwhelmingly historic town, Aguas Calientes is still a fun-to-explore spot that’s a must-visit for those going to Machu Picchu. Today, this town’s main purpose is to serve as a stopover for Machu Picchu-bound travelers, and is full of cozy hotels for those staying overnight. “This little town is a jumping-off point to get to Machu Picchu, so it has a few restaurants and shops that are cute to wander around,” said staffer Shannon.
3. It’s a scenic train ride away from Ollantaytambo
Getting to Machu Picchu is just as breathtaking as being there. On our Peru tours, you’ll kick back for a two-hour PeruRail train ride between the village of Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. “The train ride was one of my favorite parts of the trip,” said staffer Jamie. “We were surrounded by huge windows, and the mountain and river scenery was so beautiful.”
4. Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca citadel
Archaeological sites don’t get much more majestic than Machu Picchu in Peru. There’s still a lot of mystery surrounding these pre-Columbian ruins, but many historians bank on the fact that it served as a royal estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. Others think it was a religious site—the mountains were very sacred to the Inca people, after all.
One thing’s for sure: “With the Urubamba River and high mountain peaks surrounding it, it’s a natural fortress,” said staffer Courtney after her tour takeover of Peru. “So much of this site remains a mystery and to this day, nobody knows for sure how it was constructed.”
5. It was unknown to the scientific world until 1911
Only Peruvians living in the area knew about Machu Picchu’s existence until American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled across it in 1911, and shared it with the larger scientific world. “Everything was amazing,” said staffer Evan after his visit to Machu Picchu. “It’s crazy to think that something so historical and monumental was only found [by the larger scientific community] roughly 100 years ago.”
6. The complex is bigger than you may think
One of the most iconic photographs of Machu Picchu shows stone ruins surrounded by emerald-green mountains. But, that’s just one corner of this ancient complex, and with all the things to do in Machu Picchu, it would take a couple days to explore it all.
The site’s home to hundreds of different temples, houses, and other constructions, and over 3,000 steps linking the site’s multiple levels. If you want to see the most iconic spots, good news: Your local guide will know the highlights by heart, and can tell you all about everything from the famous Intihuatana stone to the Temple of the Sun.
7. You don’t need to walk through the whole site to visit
If mobility is a consideration for you, don’t necessarily count Machu Picchu out. “On my Grand Tour of Peru, there were a few travelers who didn’t feel totally comfortable following the entire path through Machu Picchu, but didn’t want to miss out,” said staffer Jamie. “It wasn’t a problem! Our Tour Director, Edwin, showed them an easier path that offered similarly amazing views without the same steep hike. Those travelers were ok with not seeing every corner of Machu Picchu, and were waiting for us on a bench overlooking the complex once we’d finished our guided tour.”
8. You’re required to have a guide to enter
Here’s how to visit Machu Picchu the best way: Link up with a local guide who can lead you through the site’s many levels, and point out all the historic gems. This is another detail our travel experts handle for you when you book our Machu Picchu tours—and the guides we’ve built relationships with are the best of the best.
“I wouldn’t have realized how special some of the ruins were without our Machu Picchu guide,” said staffer Jamie. “One of the most memorable things he showed us was the Roca Sagrada, which is one of the highlights of Machu Picchu. He demonstrated that if you stand just right, the outline of the rock perfectly matches the shape of the mountain looming behind it.”
9. The best time of year to visit Machu Picchu is in the bookend months of the dry season
While there’s really no bad time to cross a bucket list destination off your list, some months shine more than others. Here’s a helpful guide for visiting Machu Picchu so that you can get the most out of your experience:
- March through October are the driest months in the region, and this is the best time to visit Machu Picchu to enjoy all the views without all the drizzle.
- If you’d like an even more immersive experience during the dry season, steer clear of all the crowds in June, July, and August.
- Is hiking the Inca Trail during free time more your speed? Keep in mind that the trail closes for maintenance every February.
- Just remember that Machu Picchu is located at a high elevation relatively close to the Amazon, so while the dry season is drier, you still want to come prepared for rain.
10. Only 2,500 visitors are allowed in each day
Thousands of wanderlust-filled travelers have Machu Picchu on their bucket list, so the Peruvian government’s put entry rules in place to help protect this UNESCO-listed wonder. The 2,500 allotted daily tickets aren’t casually handed out at the last minute, and visitors need to book and print them well in advance.
Those 2,500 ticketed visitors can’t all show up at the same time, either. Each ticket will have a printed entry time on it—from 6am to 2pm—and those tickets only allow visitors a 4-hour time slot to visit Machu Picchu. So, if your ticket says 6am, prepare to be at the entry gate at that time, and to be done exploring by 10am.
Our travel experts plan all this for you when you travel to Peru with us. Not only will we reserve your tickets, but your Tour Director will have them in hand upon arrival. So you don’t need to worry about not getting in once the site is at its daily max number of visitors.
11. An early visit makes for the best views (and fewer crowds)
One of the best things to do in Machu Picchu is simply look around in awe and take it all in—those views are out of this world. And, while you’re sure to be stunned no matter which time you visit Machu Picchu, we get you to the gate bright and early on our tours. Going to Machu Picchu in the early morning means shorter lines and less visitors to share the site with, so you can have an even more impactful, just-for-you experience.
Have a free day on tour to visit Machu Picchu on your own? Our top tip is to be there first thing to see the sun come up. “Accessing Machu Picchu in the early morning to see the sun rise is the ultimate experience and should not be missed,” said staffer Anne. No wonder early morning is the best time to visit Machu Picchu!
12. You need to have your printed ticket in hand
No need to worry about finding a printer on our Machu Picchu tours—your Tour Director will have you covered. But, be sure to put that printed ticket somewhere safe once your Tour Director hands it to you, because you will not be allowed in if you don’t have the printed copy in your hand once you reach the entrance. (That’s right, digital copies just don’t cut it!)
See the best views of Machu Picchu on our tours
13. You’ll also need your passport to enter—and can get it stamped at the exit!
Your ticket for Machu Picchu will have your name and passport number on it, so you’ll also need your passport during your visit. The bus driver up to Machu Picchu will check that both match as you board, the the guards at the entrance of Machu Picchu will check again.
Machu Picchu fun fact: “Don’t forget to have your passport stamped at the exit gate for a truly unique Machu Picchu souvenir,” said staffer Maggie.
14. There are only three ways to get up to Machu Picchu
Wondering how to visit Machu Picchu? Whether you’re on a guided Peru tour or are traveling through Peru on your own, there are a few ways to get to the site:
- Our guided Peru tours include a 20-minute bus ride up to Machu Picchu from the town of Aguas Calientes, so you can kick back while you take in the mountain scenery.
- If you have a free day and want to skip the bus ride, there’s a hiking trail near the Machu Picchu Museum in Aguas Calientes. This uphill pedestrian path follows a moderate trail with stone steps, and takes about an hour and a half.
- Many independent travelers choose to embark on a four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which starts in the city of Chillca. Is this hike on your own bucket list? Our experts can help you make it happen by designing a Customized Tour for you!
15. Prepare to wait in line for the bus up and back
Machu Picchu is one of the most famous attractions in Peru, and thousands of people flock there each day. The fact that only a certain number of tickets are granted for specific entry times helps, but you should still be prepared to wait in line as you board the bus from Aguas Calientes for the 20-minute ride up (and back).
“The line was fairly long, but moved very quickly,” said staffer Jamie. “Plus, earlier departures are less busy, and our experts arrange early ticket times for this very reason. The earlier wake-up call is more than worth it for this bucket list experience!”
16. There are no bathrooms throughout the site beyond the entrance gate
What this ancient fortress offers in history and in views, it lacks in plumbing. But, don’t let that stop you from seeing this unforgettable spot! Just prepare yourself by using the restroom outside the gates before you enter the site. It costs two soles (about 50 cents), and since you won’t find another restroom inside, it’s best to make a quick stop before going in.
17. You’ll need to follow a one-way path as you explore
A world-famous site like Machu Picchu gets a lot of visitors, and that means there are rules to the way you can explore this ancient wonder. The winding path through Machu Picchu takes you past all the unforgettable highlights—but it’s a one way, and there’s no retracing your steps for a second peek at something you’ve already walked by. So, enjoy every moment of this bucket list experience at your own pace.
18. You can’t reenter using the same ticket once you exit
“In order to protect the habitat and this amazing world wonder, once you go through you cannot turn around and go back in,” said staffer Steph. “They are trying to preserve the land by limiting the amount of traffic going in and out. So take your time going through and don’t rush!”
19. You’ll want to stay protected from the sun (and a few pesky sand flies)
The high elevation of Machu Picchu coupled with the open-air hike means one thing: The sun will be strong. Plus, you’ll be surrounded by tropical forest in the Andes, so being prepared to spar with a few flies and mosquitos is expected. But don’t worry—a hat and light layers are just the ticket.
“My tip would be to wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt to avoid bug bites,” said staffer Amanda. “But, sunscreen and bug spray aren’t permitted in Machu Picchu, so you’ll also want to apply before you go. You’ll be asked to stop if someone catches you using those products while there.”
20. Packing layers is the way to go
“It’s very cold in the mornings, since you’ll be transferring from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu around 6am,” said staffer Steph. “Once the sun comes out it gets a little warm, so be prepared to want to take some layers off once you get inside.”
21. Sturdy footwear is a must
“There is a TON of walking and there really aren’t places to rest,” said staffer Shannon. “The site is one-way, so you can’t really opt out halfway through; you just have to keep going. And of course, it’s not flat, there are hills and stairs and all sorts of things that can trip you up. I highly recommend a good pair of closed-toe walking shoes.”
Find our helpful tips on how to choose the right hiking shoes →
22. Be prepared for wind & rain
“Since Machu Picchu is surrounded by a tropical mountain forest, my recommendations when visiting the Inca citadel is to wear sturdy sneakers,” said staffer Claudia. “The ruins can be very slippery when wet! And pack a waterproof poncho in case it rains.”
Another way to stay prepared for any weather conditions while visiting Machu Picchu in Peru? “Pack a windbreaker,” said staffer Nicole. “We experienced a variety of weather throughout the day while we were there in February.”
23. Stay hydrated (but remember that disposable bottles & containers aren’t allowed)
A fairly moderate walk over uneven ground at a high elevation means one thing: “BRING WATER, more than you think you’ll need!” said staffer Maggie. “There’s nowhere to buy it once inside the gates.”
But, leave all the plastic water bottles and food containers at the door—only reusable containers are allowed into Machu Picchu. This is an ancient World Heritage site, after all, and this rule helps the Peruvian government keep it spic and span while sharing it with the world (even though it’s not always strictly enforced).
Check out our Eco-friendly travel essentials for your next trip →
24. Llamas, condors—Machu Picchu has its fair share of wildlife!
Another Machu Picchu fun fact is that there are domesticated llamas and alpacas roaming around the ruins. You can even pet them as you walk through. “We saw lots of alpacas up close crossing our path,” said staffer Nicole. “There are also over 400 species of birds who inhabit the local area. Binoculars might be a good idea for any avid birdwatchers!”
Speaking of birds… “When we were at the site, a massive condor flew overhead,” said staffer Greta. “According to our guide, condors were sacred to the Incas as the ‘connector’ between the people of earth, and the gods. As the bird soared over Machu Picchu, I felt that tingly sense of wonder that only comes from those extra-special moments.”
25. You’ll have the option to visit Machu Picchu more than once on many of our Peru tours
Machu Picchu is a staggering stop on all of our Peru tours, and you even have the option to add a Machu Picchu Return Visit: Sun Gate Hike excursion on most trips. Our best advice for those who want to hike a bit more through this world wonder? Add it! “Hiking up to the Sun Gate takes about one hour each way and offers SPECTACULAR and different views of Machu Picchu,” said staffer Maggie.
26. You can hike the surrounding mountains during free time (with a ticket, of course)
If you want to go beyond the main sites of Machu Picchu, taking on the surrounding mountains is another bucket list experience. “Check out your hikes early,” said staffer Jim. “There are a lot of different hikes around the summit; some require you to sign up in advance, and they have a varying degree of difficulty.”
Staffer Lindsay did just that during her free time in Peru. “For spectacular views of Machu Picchu from above, the hike to the top of Huayna Picchu—the towering, emerald peak that’s visible in those iconic shots of the ruins—is a must,” she said. “Only a few hundred hikers are permitted to make the trek each day, but if you can get on the list and feel up for a steep, heart-pounding hike, it’s so worthwhile.”
Speaking of hiking… “Pack tissues,” said staffer Anne. “It’s high elevation so even a moderate trail walk can give you a nose bleed.”
27. Locals from Cusco get in free on Sundays
“It happened to be a Sunday when I set off on our Machu Picchu Return Visit: Sun Gate Hike excursion, and the site was noticeably more crowded than it had been the day before,” said staffer Jamie. “It was still just as beautiful, and it was special to share this experience with local Cusqueños. But, if you plan on going back, it’s good to keep this in mind so you’re prepared.”
28. Everything you learn on your Peru tour will make you appreciate Machu Picchu that much more
“En route to Machu Picchu, the visit to Chinchero village is a humbling experience in great artistry, culture, tradition, and simple living,” said staffer Ani. “The way the tour guides describe Pachamama (mother earth) paints such a beautiful, traditional image on the canvas of the sacred valley and Machu Picchu.”
“Star gazing with a tour guide is a complimentary attraction at a lot of resorts in the Sacred Valley,” Ani added. “It was a complimentary experience offered at the Inka Terra resort we stayed at.”
Do you have your own helpful tips that we didn’t include in our guide to visiting Machu Picchu? We’d love to hear them! Head to our Facebook page to share with our travel community.