by Nilina Mason- Campbell
Machu Picchu is an illustrious and mythical mountain, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. Whether you’re making the trip to Peru specifically to visit the ancient city or it’s part of a list of nearby destinations related to the surrounding Sacred Valley, there’s are some things to know before you make the trek:
1. Cusco is the closest big city
While Lima stands as Peru’s official capital, Cusco is the closest big city to Machu Picchu. There are several direct flights each day between Lima and Cusco and it also is reachable by bus. If you’re planning to trek to Machu Picchu, definitely arrive in Cusco at least a day prior. You can purchase related entry and rail tickets at offices in the city or simply drink in its cobblestone charm. While Lima reads as a big city, Cusco is undeniably Peruvian, with a large indigenous population and distinctive architecture that showcases both the Inca and Spanish Colonial periods.
2. Vans, trains and buses
From Cusco, you’ll need to get to Ollantaytambo, a small town, major hub of the Inca Trail. It’s roughly two hours away by van or bus to reach Ollantaytambo, and vans leave Cusco regularly beginning around 6am, departing as soon as they’re full with passengers who want to go onwards. Any hotel in Cusco can point you towards the street they depart from. From Ollantaytambo, you’re able to catch a train that will get you to Aguas Calientes, the last town before Machu Picchu begins.
3. You need to book in advance
While access to Machu Picchu has always been relatively limited since its rediscovery in 1911 simply due to transportation and its remote location, the Peruvian government instituted a ticketing system in 2011 to prevent overcrowding. Tickets are capped at a total of 2500 guests each day to Machu Picchu proper and because of this, it is recommended you book entrance tickets in advance. For specialty hikes there’s even less access: the cap is 200 per day and timed. You can book tickets online, at banks across Peru and at certain offices in Cusco and Aguas Calientes. Trains fill up too, so it’s recommended to book rail tickets in advance too.
4. There are essentially 3 different hikes you can take
While Machu Picchu is the main attraction, there are different hikes, mountains and viewpoints available to trek. There’s entrance to the main citadel which allows you to explore the various buildings, chambers and platforms across the iconic grounds. Whenever you see photos of Machu Picchu, that’s what you’ll be exploring on your own with the most common admission ticket. The other options include Huayna Picchu which provides an entirely different view and much steeper hikes. There are two Huayna Picchu hikes per day, each limited to 200 people per trek and timed departures at 7am and 10am. From the citadel, you see the main mountain. On the Huayna Picchu hike, you’re climbing it. There’s also the Mountain Machu Picchu hike which takes 2-3 hours and provides extreme aerial views of the citadel below.
5. Take the bus up to save time
Once you get to Aguas Calientes, you can reach Machu Picchu by foot, or you can shell out $25 for a bus ride that will take you to the river bank where you’ll get out and cross a bridge on foot, then transfer to another bus that will drive up the mountain and drop you off at the entry gate. Saving time and footwork might seem like a cheat, but trust that there’s plenty more hiking to do up and around Machu Picchu once you’re officially inside and you’ll be happy you saved your legs the workout while you climb the cobblestone steps around the ancient Incan outpost.
6. Be prepared to spend a pretty penny
Lodging costs in Cusco are likely to be the cheapest of your expenses. Between the train, Machu Picchu entry ticket, vans between Cusco and Ollantaytambo and the bus to reach the Machu Picchu entry, you’ll be set back around $300. That’s the cost merely to arrive and enter for your one-day self-guided experience which can seem steep. It is, but to behold Machu Picchu in person is unlike anything else and for me, felt very much worthwhile in the present and in hindsight.
7. Those are alpacas, not llamas!
Alpacas are a hallmark of Peruvian culture and life. If you visit other locations along the Inca Trail, you’re likely to see them accompanying locals and adorned with brightly colored accessories. At the actual Machu Picchu site, they stand in the grass in the company of Machu Picchu’s stone structures and pathways, eating grass and being generally aloof to tourists. Pro tip: they love bananas; both the fruit and the peel! The train you take is likely to offer you some to snack on during your ride, but save it for making new friends once you’re at Machu Picchu!
8. Be aware of the seasons
The seasons determine much about the hike, such a whether it will be rainy or cloudy, whether there will be unrelenting sunshine or high temperatures. While seasons are flipped south of the equator, just because it’s winter in North America, doesn’t mean it will feel like summer in Machu Picchu. That has lot to do with Peru’s northern location and the mountain region and high altitudes in which Machu Picchu exists. In fact, even if the sun is out and shining brilliantly in Ollantaytambo, there could be a downpour in Aguas Calientes by the end of your train trip. January, February and March has a high likelihood of rain and flooding to surrounding areas, so thats something to keep in mind when planning your Machu Picchu ascent. It’s also a lot likelier to be able to book entry tickets same day or at least day week, whereas July and August are a lot more busy and a lot more full, but it’s also a lot easier to count on the weather being nice.
For more information on Machu Picchu
Follow Nilina Mason-Campbell on Twitter: @NineInchNilina