11 Things to Know Before You Go To Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of the most significant legacies of the Inca civilization — and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Even though this UNESCO World Heritage site's location atop a mountain isn't easily accessible, thousands of visitors trek out to see it daily. There are several things you should know before visiting, especially because of the new rules and regulations that went into effect on July 1, 2017. If my recent trip was any indication, it seems like many of these aren't being enforced yet, though it's still a good idea to understand what they are and be prepared. Keep these 11 tips in mind to make the most of your Machu Picchu adventure.
1. Buy Your Tickets in Advance
Don't even consider trying to purchase tickets the day of at the gate. Tours typically recommend you plan your trip at least six months in advance and in some cases, the Inca Trail hike that culminates at Machu Picchu fills up almost a year out, especially during high season. If you're lucky, it may be possible to get your ticket weeks or even days ahead of time during low season, but in order to avoid disappointment and to make sure you enter the site on your desired day, it's best to plan as far ahead as possible. If you plan to do any of the treks to places with limited entrances, such as nearby Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, booking early is essential.
2. You Can Pay Extra to Hike the Famous Mountains
If you're hoping to hike the mountains surrounding the ruins, you can pay extra when purchasing your ticket — you'll also be assigned a specific time range when you can begin your hike. Those hoping to hike Huayna Picchu should plan to buy their entrance tickets at least three months ahead of time and for Machu Picchu Mountain, three to four weeks before you go. If you want to do a small trek that's included in the price of your ticket, consider the hikes to the Sun Gate or the Inca Bridge, which are family friendly.
Huayna Picchu offers a shorter hike of about one to two hours with very steep drop-offs and you may have to use your hands or crawl around the rocks in spots where there aren't guardrails. It's a popular trek, too, so that means it's also more crowded. If you suffer from vertigo or are afraid of heights, do not do this hike. Machu Picchu Mountain is a longer hike of about two to four hours up steep stone steps. There are a few drop-offs but it's not quite as vertigo-inducing a trek as Huayna Picchu — this mountain is much higher and the hike is longer though. Note that both hikes are extremely steep and not appropriate for anyone with mobility issues. Though challenging, each offers incredible views of the ruins and surrounding mountains. Be extremely careful, too, as rescues here are very difficult due to the remote location of the ruins.
3. The Altitude Isn't Actually That Bad
Machu Picchu is 2,430 meters (7,972 feet) above sea level, which is much lower than the city of Cusco — 3,400 meters or 11,152 feet — so it's likely you won't suffer from altitude sickness if you've already spent time acclimatizing in Cusco first. But if you plan to hike Machu Picchu Mountain, know that the altitude at the top is more than 3,000 meters (~9,842 feet) and Huayna Picchu is about 2,700 meters (~8,858 feet) tall, so you may feel it, especially if you're being active. If you're concerned about altitude, take it slow and drink plenty of water. Sipping coca tea, chewing coca leaves or taking a soroche pill — available at local Peruvian pharmacies — can also help you deal with the symptoms, which include shortness of breath and lethargy. Consult your doctor ahead of time with any concerns regarding altitude.
4. Visit Machu Picchu in the Morning
Thanks to the new regulations, you can now only enter Machu Picchu from 6:00am to 12:00pm or from 12:00pm to 5:30pm depending on the time slot you choose when you buy your ticket. If you've purchased the morning entrance, it is highly unlikely they will kick you out at noon — I ended up staying from 6:30am to almost 4:00pm with my morning entrance ticket and didn't see a single person kicked out or even approached by a guard. Of course, this could change in the future, though the site will need to implement a feasible system to herd thousands of people out at their end time, so it may be a while before this rule is enforced.
5. There Are No Bathrooms Beyond the Main Entrance
You'll find a small snack bar, restaurant and bathroom just outside the gate at Machu Picchu before you enter the site — which costs one sol, or about 30 cents to use — but that's all folks. You are allowed one exit and re-entry during your visit, which you can use to go to the bathroom or buy snacks, but make sure you're back inside before noon if you have the morning entrance ticket and plan to stay longer than your allotted time. If you try to come back in on a morning ticket after 12:00pm, you may not be allowed to re-enter.
6. Bring Your Passport With You — and Get It Stamped
This one is simple: Don't forget your passport since you'll need to present it with your ticket to enter. To commemorate your visit, you can also get a special Machu Picchu stamp in your passport — look for a small desk just past the entrance or ask a staff member where to find it once you get in.
7. You Shouldn't Enter Without a Guide, but...
I saw many people entering the site without guides — the staff didn't check to see if I had one either. If you don't hire a guide and have any issues entering, know that there are many licensed guides walking around offering their services near the entrance gate, so you can hire one on the spot.
8. Wear Pants, Not Shorts
The biting insects in Machu Picchu are merciless. Call them whatever you want — sandflies, mosquitoes or chiggers — but whatever they are, their bites itch for weeks and sometimes regular repellent doesn't deter them. Wearing pants and long sleeves, even if the weather is warm, is the best way to avoid these itchy red welts. During my visit, I saw people wearing shorts and showing off some of the worst bites I've ever seen — giant, swollen, red patches covering their exposed skin. The two-inch space between my leggings and ankle socks was exposed and I got about nine bites there that lasted for almost three weeks even though I used repellent. Using one with a high concentration of DEET can help and the locals here swear by rubbing shampoo on their legs and not washing it off, which apparently creates a "second skin," that blocks bugs from biting.
9. Bring These Five Things — but Not a Large Backpack
Be sure to bring sunblock and bug spray — or shampoo, if you want to give the local anti-mosquito method a try. It's also a good idea to wear comfortable walking shoes, a raincoat and several layers of clothing, as it can be very chilly in the morning, very hot at midday and very rainy at any time. Having a small or regular-size backpack is allowed, but one rule they were enforcing involved large backpacks. If your bag is larger than 40 cm x 35 cm x 20 cm (15.7 inches x 13.7 inches x 7.9 inches) it won't be allowed in and you'll have to pay to store it in the lockers before you can enter the site.
10. You Can Still Bring in Water Bottles
When I was there, the staff wasn't looking inside backpacks, so an easy way around the rule against bringing in plastic water bottles and snacks is to hide them there. During my visit, I noticed people openly carrying huge water bottles inside and no one batted an eye — it was obvious the staff was not enforcing this particular rule in any way. If you want to play by the rules, reusable water bottles are allowed, so take one of those instead. And no matter what, take any trash or wrappers with you.
11. Take the Bus From Aguas Calientes
You can walk up to Machu Picchu, but it will take one to two hours and it's extremely steep. The bus ride to the top takes about 20 minutes and you can purchase your tickets in Aguas Calientes at the bus stand the night before. Tickets are $12 per direction and you'll need to show your passport to purchase them, no exceptions.
If you decide to take the bus, plan to line up about three hours before your allocated entrance time. It may seem crazy, but hundreds of people are lining up to take these beginning at 5:30am, so if you line up at 5:30am, you won't make it up to the ruins until 8:30am or 9:00am. To get there for sunrise around 6:00am, you should arrive by 3:30am to wait in line. If you get carsick, consider taking motion-sickness pills, as the ride is short but somewhat harrowing, with several switchbacks and curves.
The wait to get back down can be almost as long as going up. When I left Machu Picchu at 3:45pm, I had to wait in line until about 5:15pm to take the bus back down. I could have walked down, but my legs were still shaking after hiking Machu Picchu Mountain and I couldn't fathom the thought of walking down more stone steps. If you are leaving Aguas Calientes the same day, try to book an evening train so you have as much time as possible to explore the ruins, and to wait for the bus to take you back to town.
Have you ever been to Machu Picchu? Tell us about your experience, below.
All images by the author.