Machu Picchu is Peru’s most-visited site and, standing at either its foot or its summit, it’s easy to see why. Dating back as far as the mid-1400s, the ‘Lost City’ (as it’s sometimes referred to) is the mystifying pinnacle of ancient Incan culture. Continuing to baffle both historians and archeologists to this day, it’s still not known what the exact purpose of this mortar-free limestone citadel was. However, it is believed that after its erection in around 1450 it was abandoned just a century later, after the Spanish invasion of South America. Although the conquistadores lost no time in plundering the Incan capital Cusco, Machu Picchu was never discovered and remained a mystery until 1911, when Yale historian Hiram Bingham led an expedition to locate this now iconic landmark. Thanks to Bingham’s efforts, Machu Picchu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and was voted one of the new ‘7 Wonders Of The World’ via an online poll in 2007.
Perched atop a high plateau that’s located deep in the Amazonian jungle, the stunning views and mystique of the region make Machu Picchu an absolute must on many travellers’ bucket lists. But you already know why you want to go, right? The only question that remains is ‘How do I get the most out of my trip?’ Well, we’ve done our best to give you a roundup of the top tips about the region and some itinerary ideas for both intrepid travellers and those who prefer to journey in comfort and style.
One of the best ways to explore this region is by taking one of the many hiking trips outlined below. However, if you’re a little short on time or don’t fancy putting yourself through the physical demands of a multi-day trek then there are several trains and coaches that’ll drop you right at the base of the ancient city; this way, you can explore the ruins by day and be back in Cusco by night.
The closest airport is in Cusco, the once-capital of the Incan empire, which is now known for its archaeological remains and Spanish colonial architecture. From here you can get one of three trains (depending on your budget and the level of comfort you require) that will drop you in Aguas Calientes, the small pueblo village that rests at the foothills of Machu Picchu. It’s a 90-minute climb to the citadel from the village but if you would prefer then there are regular coaches that will drop you off right at the gates.
The Inca Trail is by far the most famous trek available throughout the region. Typically taking 4-5 days to complete, the full trek spans 26 miles of panoramic mountain scenery, lush cloud forests, subtropical jungle and, of course, a plethora of ancient Incan ruins and tunnels. If you’re a little short on time then there’s an option for The One Day Inca Trail; this is for travellers who want to see the two greatest hits of the hike but require a truncated version. The three-hour uphill trek leads you to the spectacular site of the Wiñay Wayna stone ruins. From here, hikers can choose to go on to Machu Picchu on the same day or camp overnight on the trail so as to be able to enter at dawn via the Sun Gate.
The Vilcabamba Traverse Route is a week-long walk covering over 60 mountainous miles and is not suitable for the faint of heart, lungs or legs. Starting in the town of Cachora, you’ll begin the trek with a two-day hike that crosses the mile-deep Apurimac River Canyon to the remote ruins of Choquequirao. From here you’ll make your way through the Cordillera Vilcabamba, which has remained unchanged throughout the centuries and is said to look much the same as when Hiram Bingham first explored the region. Be prepared to travel across the rivers, valleys and mountain ranges that encompass many of Peru’s diverse biozones, which include: dry scrub, cloud forests and grasslands.
The Lodge Trek is relatively new and perfect for those who want to experience the excitement and adventure of old-school Andean explorers by day but still want to snuggle into goose down and sip on cocktails at night. The trek closely resembles that of the popular Salkantay route, offering close-up views of the sacred apus (these spirits of the mountains can be solitary rocks or caves that protect the local people in the highlands) and their glaciers, but emphasizes comfort far more than the other tours available.
Horseback riding is another version of the Salkantay route and also a newcomer to the region. Those in search of a truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience can choose to make their pilgrimage to Machu Picchu on the back of a trusty steed. Like
The Lodge Trek, guests will enjoy the comfort and luxury of settling down at night in one of the many lodges nestled along this uncrowded route.
Once in Machu Picchu
Take A Guided Tour Although you can explore Machu Picchu solo, it’s highly advisable to take a guided tour; most organized hikes include this feature already, however, if you’re arriving by coach then there are many guides available at the entrance. They will be able to impart a lot of local knowledge, folklore and history that you might otherwise have missed whilst exploring the ruins. Some guides are a little more qualified than others and you should look out for one wearing an official ID from DIRCETUR. To avoid disappointment, agree on a fixed price beforehand and clarify whether this fee is per person or group; you should also discuss the length of the tour and the maximum group size.
Hike Wayna Picchu Limited to just 400 people per day (the first 200 let in at 7 a.m. and then another 200 at 10 a.m.), hiking the small, steep mountain at the back of the Machu Picchu ruins is well worth the trip. However, with its limited access you will want to book well in advance to avoid missing out (seriously, think months ahead). The 45-90 minute climb takes you up a steep and challenging footpath that leads through a short section of an Inca tunnel. Your ticket purchase will also include entrance to the ceremonial Inca Moon Temple.
Intipunku (Sun Gate): What was once the main entrance into the citadel of Machu Picchu is now the final stop on the famous Inca trail. For most people, this is the final shot at the end of the day; however, if you ask your guide to take you straight there and then work your way backwards through the ruins, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of the crowds.
Aguas Calientes was named after the thermal springs that are located on its grounds. They’re open to the public (entrance is $10 USD) and are the perfect place for weary hikers to unwind and relax after a day of exploring.
Where To Stay
If you’ve decided to hike then obviously you’ll be camping or lodging somewhere along your chosen path; however, if you’re arriving by train or coach then you’ll want to look for accommodation in Aguas Calientes. Although you can do Machu Picchu in one day from Cusco, it isn’t recommended; if you have the time, overnighting in Aguas Calientes is far more preferable as it means that you can set off in the early morning to start exploring the citadel and avoid a lot of the midday crowds.
High-end The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is a sustainability-focused high-end resort on the outskirts of Aguas Calientes. Surrounded by lush tropical rainforests that are full of colorful birds, the hotel is happy to organize additional bird-watching tours as well as visits to the citadel of Machu Picchu (rooms from around $600-1000 USD/night).
Mid-range For something a little more affordable, you can check out El Mapi. Another branch of the Inkaterra brand, this property is imbued with more of a laid back, casual vibe and is located in the ‘downtown’ area of the village (rooms from around $220/night).
Cheap & Cheerful Supertramp Hostel is adorned in colorful and creative murals and is a fun and friendly place to rest your head. Early risers won’t have to miss out on breakfast either as you can find a simple meal of eggs with coffee or tea available from 4.30 a.m. (8-10 bed mixed dorms available from around $15 USD).
Get Amongst It If you want to spend the night at the gates of Machu Picchu then the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is your only option. Located just a nine-minute walk from Machu Picchu’s Temple Of The Three Windows, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is the ideal place to begin your adventure (Rooms start from $650 USD).
Where To Eat
Not being renowned for its culinary prowess, it’s unlikely that you’ll be blown away by anything in Aguas Calientes. That being said, if you take a little stroll down Av. Pachacutec you’ll find a smattering of decent, reasonably priced restaurants that’ll fill you up after a hard day’s hike.
If you’re really craving the ‘foodie’ experience then check out Qunuq Restaurant, located in the Sumaq Hotel. Offering a fusion of traditional Peruvian ingredients with an unmistakable European flair, you’ll find such innovative and idiosyncratic dishes as ravioli stuffed with aji de gallina and alpaca carpaccio.
Book everything well in advance. From hotels and guided hikes to restaurants and train fares, places book up months in advance so make sure that you plan your trip thoroughly before you arrive.
Skip the Sun Gate at sunrise – too cloudy. Although a romantic marketing gimmick, the topography of the Andean mountains means that early mornings are usually covered in fog; go a little later to be able to take in the view.
Visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid peak tourist times. Generally before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m., you’ll have a little more room to breathe.
November, April, May and June are the best times to visit as they’re just out of peak season and tend not to be too rainy.
Must Do The Hiram Bingham train, named after the historian who re-discovered ‘The Lost City’, is an Orient Express enterprise and is hands down the BEST way to get to and from Cusco. The quaint and beautifully ornate train boasts a white tablecloth restaurant serving high-end cuisine and offers pisco sours and live music for entertainment throughout the night.
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