9 mistakes travelers make when visiting Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of the wonders of the world -- and tourists are visiting the spectacular Inca citadel in increasing numbers. But a trip to see this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site nestled deep within the Andes mountains can be complicated, thanks in part to ever-changing rules and regulations provoked on by the steady rise in tourism.
With so much to keep in mind, many visitors will make at least one mistake (or two) during their first trip to Machu Picchu. Here's how to avoid the most common mishaps and blunders.
Buying last-minute tickets
You may occasionally get lucky during low season, but tickets to Machu Picchu can sell out weeks (or even months) in advance during peak season. Tickets are limited to 2,500 per day and, as of changes initiated in early 2019, they are sold for specific entry times at nine hourly slots from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Your ticket expires one hour after your assigned entry time, so arrive early. And, if you plan to hike the popular Huayna Picchu, one of two main trails within Machu Picchu, tickets are limited to 400 per day, so it's essential to book in advance.
If you decide to leave your Machu Picchu tickets to fate and purchase at the last minute, just know you can't buy tickets at the entrance gate. You must buy them online, through a tour company, ticket reseller or at the Ministry of Culture offices in Cusco or Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu pueblo).
Tickets are available three months in advance on the official Peruvian Ministry of Culture website. Currently, adult prices for an entrance ticket are 152 soles (about $45) or 200 soles (about $60) for an entrance ticket plus entrance to the Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain trails. There are special ticket prices for children and for students with a valid ID. Remember, it's mandatory to enter Machu Picchu with a guide -- you can find one through a tour agency online, through your hotel in Aguas Calientes or Cusco, or even at the entrance to the site.
You'll need to include your passport info when purchasing your ticket -- and make sure to enter the data correctly or you could later be denied entrance. Once you purchase your ticket online and get the reservation code, you can enter the code in the check-in section, which will bring up your ticket to print and save.
When purchasing, consider an afternoon visit. Although the mornings are popular, especially to see the sunrise, the fog often clears later in the day. There are also new incentives for travelers who enter in the afternoon, such as free access to the onsite museum. If you choose to book your Machu Picchu experience through a tour or travel agency, you'll pay more but won't have to deal with buying the tickets on your own and figuring out a guide and transportation.
Not arranging transportation or a hotel
There are a number of ways to get to Machu Picchu, and it can be hard to decide how to get there. If you prefer to organize the trip on your own, start by purchasing your Machu Picchu entrance ticket and then build your travel plans around the date and time you'll be entering. If you want to do a group trek or organized tour, consult an agency that can help you organize and plan.
If you want to hike, know that only 500 permits are allowed per day on the Inca Trail -- this includes guides, porters and trekking staff. If you really want to do this route, plan in advance. Consider alternative treks that include Macchu Picchu, like the Lares, Inca Jungle or the Salkantay treks, if the Inca Trail is sold out on your dates or if you simply want to try something less popular.
Travelers who would rather take the train to reach Machu Picchu will depart from either Cusco or Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. It's best to purchase your entry ticket for Machu Picchu first and then build your travel around that time slot. Spend one or two nights in Aguas Calientes, or you can even take a really early train to Aguas Calientes and head back to Cusco the same evening after seeing Machu Picchu. Tickets are available on PeruRail and IncaRail.
For travelers on tight a budget, there's a seven-hour minibus from Cusco that drops you off at the start of the Hidroelectrica. Then, you can take an easy, scenic three-hour trek along the river to Aguas Calientes following the train tracks. The road is flat, but remember, you'll be carrying your luggage with you, so pack light.
When booking accommodations in Aguas Calientes, it's important to remember that Aguas Calientes is a transient tourist town that's limited when it comes to hotel standards. Book in advance and read plenty of reviews — even if your tour operator books for you — making sure whatever they've chosen will be satisfactory.
Showing up late for the bus
Once you're in Aguas Calientes, there are two ways to reach the Machu Picchu entrance gate: A strenuous 1.5- to 2-hour steep uphill walk, or a 30-minute bus ride. Anyone who has mobility issues or who is planning on also hiking Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain may want to take the bus to conserve energy. Depending on your entry time and whether it's peak season or not, bus waits can range from just a few minutes minutes to two whole hours. During my trip in July, we were told to line up at 3:30 a.m. to make it up in time for our 6 a.m. entry time -- and there was already a very long line when I arrived. Speak to your guide or to front desk staff at your hotel about when they suggest lining up for the bus based on your entry time and visiting season. And remember, your ticket is only valid for one hour after your assigned time, so don't be late.
You can buy bus tickets at the stand in Aguas Calientes the day of or before your visit to Macchu Picchu (don't forget your passport) or online here. Prices are $24 round-trip when purchased in person, but if you purchase online through a reseller, expect to pay more. Buses drive up to Machu Picchu from 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and head back down from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Forgetting your passport
You will need to show your passport and a printout of your ticket to enter Machu Picchu. This is non-negotiable and you will be denied entry if you don't have your passport and a valid ticket, or if the passport information on your ticket doesn't match your actual passport. If your passport expired between the day you booked your trip and the trip itself, bring both the old and new ones with you.
Not using the bathroom
There are no bathrooms inside Machu Picchu, so use the bathroom at the gate before you enter. Bathroom entrance costs 2 soles (about 60 cents).
Wearing the wrong clothing
Although conditions can vary with the weather and the season, Machu Picchu is notorious for tiny mosquito-like insects that feed on the ankles of unsuspecting tourists. Knowing this, I wore leggings, but the bugs still found the inch of skin exposed between my socks and leggings and I ended up with several nasty red bites that didn't go away for almost a month.
Wear comfortable pants and socks, and don't leave your ankles or legs exposed. Although these mosquito monsters tend to prefer the lower body, if you're sensitive to insect bites, it may be best to cover your arms, too.
The weather can also change quickly and be quite severe in the mountains, so pack a raincoat, put on sunblock and wear layers, especially if you plan to hike. Of course, wearing comfortable sneakers, hiking boots or closed-toed shoes is a must. Avoid heels, sandals or flip-flops, especially if you're hiking Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.
Packing the wrong items
Don't bring the following items into Machu Picchu:
- Plastic water bottles. This rule may not always be strictly enforced, but always bring a reusable water bottle, as Machu Picchu aims to be entirely plastic-free.
- Large umbrellas.
- Obtrusive selfie sticks.
- Food. While they won't search your pockets for an apple or a granola bar, if you do take any food in, make sure to take all your garbage back out and leave the site pristine. Or, bring your food in containers that you can take out with you.
- Backpacks over 20 liters or larger than 40 x 35 x 20 centimeters. You can check these into lockers before entering at the front entrance.
- Professional camera or video equipment without a permit.
Breaking the rules
This should probably go without saying, but the entry rules also ban yelling or making a loud scene; climbing or spraying graffiti on the walls; eating; littering; running; and snapping nude photos. This is an ancient, sacred monument (and a religious sanctuary for some), so it's incredibly important to show respect. And yeah, if you're caught nude (it's honestly not worth doing it for the 'gram), you will be handed over to Peruvian authorities and likely given a large fine -- or worse.
Stressing about the altitude
You may deal with altitude sickness in a number of destinations around Peru such as Cusco (11,150 feet), Colca Canyon (11,500 feet) or Lake Titicaca (12,510), but you probably won't have a problem at Machu Picchu (7,972 feet) -- unless you spend a long time at the top of Machu Picchu Mountain (about 10,000 feet) or Huayna Picchu. If you do hike to the top of these mountains, drink plenty of water and rest when needed.