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There’s lots of information about touring Machu Picchu available online, but very little of it offers up what you really need to know to get the most out of a visit to these magnificent Incan ruins. This is by design–tour operators and guides want you to hand over your wallet with your worries.
While a tour is best for a multi-day Inca Trail hike, it’s easy to see Machu Picchu on your own. You won’t even miss out on much info. Very little is actually known of Machu Picchu’s history, so guides tend to embellish with invented details.
In high season, book your tickets and train from Ollantaytambo to the base town of Aguas Calientes in advance. Be sure to bring multiple currencies to Aguas Calientes; bus tickets are sold in U.S. dollars, while site tickets require Peruvian soles.
Then plan your time at Machu Picchu with these four essential tips that I only learned from experience.
Don’t Acclimatize in Cusco
Almost everyone makes the mistake of starting their Machu Picchu trip by acclimatizing to the altitude in Cusco. This leads to needless headache- and fatigue-filled days in the hilly UNESCO World Heritage city. People don’t realize that Machu Picchu is 7,972 feet above sea level, far lower than Cusco’s 11,150 feet, which means that it makes more sense to adjust to the altitude first in a location slightly closer to sea level.
After flying into Cusco, immediately take the bus or train down into the Sacred Valley towns of Urubamba (9,420 feet) or Ollantaytambo (9,160 feet). You’re in the altitude sickness zone, which begins at 8,000 feet, but not severely. Spend a few relaxing days here, walking slowly, eating lightly, avoiding alcohol, and drinking lots of water. You’ll have a spring in your step when you arrive in charmless Aguas Calientes (6,700 feet) and go up to the Incan ruins.
Cover Your Ankles
Tiny no-see-ums fly around Machu Picchu and, particularly, Aguas Calientes. They love to bite the ankles of unsuspecting tourists. You likely won’t notice the biting as it happens. But about a third of victims have an allergic reaction that causes itchy red welts and painful swelling that can last for days. Some say the insects are immune to bug spray, so best to wear long trousers. Climbing Machu Picchu’s 3,000+ steps at altitude is tough enough without the added discomfort later on.
To See or Not To See the Sunrise
The sun rises at about 5:30 a.m. in the Sacred Valley, but doesn’t show itself to mountain-surrounded Machu Picchu until around 7:00. But don’t get too excited about sleeping in. If you’re keen to see the sunrise, spend the night in Aguas Calientes. You’ll need to be in the long lineup there for the 25-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu by 5:15 at the latest, joining the trekkers who’ve purchased 8:00 a.m. tickets to climb pyramid-shaped Huayna Picchu.
But remember that sunrise is often not that spectacular because Machu Picchu is in the cloud forest. The weather can change from sunny to mysteriously misty to full-on rain in seconds.
There are no bathrooms within the Machu Picchu complex itself. You’ll need to manage your liquid intake carefully, while keeping in mind that dehydration significantly contributes to the headaches associated with high altitude. Officially, only reusable water bottles are allowed within Machu Picchu, but if you’re discreet with your plastic bottle you’ll be fine.
When you get off the bus from Aguas Calientes, immediately find the bathroom. You’ll need a one sol coin (30¢ US) for entry and, especially later in the day, your own tissues. Then get into line to show your ticket and passport to enter Machu Picchu. Time any return visits to the toilets carefully. There are no food sales within Machu Picchu, so the bathrooms are busy again at lunchtime with those who didn’t bring a packed lunch.
-Words and photo by Johanna Read