Are you thinking about visiting Machu Picchu? You’re not alone. The site draws as many as 5,000 people a day in high season, and was deemed one of the new world wonders.
It’s possible to see Machu Picchu and the surrounding area in less than a week. If I did it in 5 days, you can too. Granted, if you want to hike the Inca Trail, you’ll need that time alone just for your camping expedition. But you can get the full experience of the site without roughing it for days beforehand just to get there, and here’s how.
Getting to Aguas Calientes
The first thing you need to do is get to Aguas Calientes, the town right at the base of Machu Picchu. While it is possible to make this a same-day excursion, you’ll want to spend the night so you can get up before the sun rises and beat the crowds to take the bus up the mountain. If you think you’re an early bird at 5am here, you’re wrong. Everyone lines up early in hopes of catching that sunrise shot!
The PeruRail gets you to Aguas Calientes the quickest. Many times, travel agencies buy the rail tickets in advance and in bulk, so don’t fret if when you go to book your dates are sold out. There will be plenty of opportunity to negotiate limited packages with agencies if necessary. I ended up going through Machu Picchu Viajes Peru just for this leg of my trip and they were reasonably priced and easy to communicate with.
It takes about 3 1/2 hours to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the most popular starting point for people who fly into Cusco from Lima. It is rumored there will be another airport in the Sacred Valley soon, near Chincero. For now, however, Cusco remains the airport of choice for access to the ruins.
Once in Aguas Calientes, spend the rest of your day relaxing. You can visit the natural hot springs that give the city its name and sip on Pisco Sours to pass the time. Then get some rest–you’re going to need it.
Best Views of Machu Picchu
Take the bus to ascend the mountain (you can hike it, but it’ll take a while) and line up by 5am at the latest. There is only one loading area at the end of the main road in Aguas Calientes so the line extends all the way up for at least a half mile. Thankfully, the buses run pretty fast once they start and are waiting to board immediately, one after the other.
You can arrange your day at Machu Picchu in a variety of ways. I chose to do the Huayna Picchu hike at 8am, so I went straight there after snapping a few pictures. I found the hike to be the best part of my Machu Picchu experience and would highly recommend it. Only 200 people are allowed in twice per day so you must book in advance. You have to sign a guide book before entering and when leaving, so they know you made it out alive. DUN DUN DUN!
The view from the top was phenomenal, and while the hike was grueling, it was well worth the effort. I made friends along the way who also reveled in conquering the mountain and were happy to aid in taking some pretty killer celebratory photographs.
If you’re not able to get Huayna Picchu tickets, there is also Machu Picchu mountain that may have tickets available. If you do choose to hike Huayna Picchu though, you won’t regret it. When the fog clears and you see the ruins from above, it’s absolutely magical.
Know Before You Go
After hiking Huayna Picchu, I signed up for a guided tour of the ruins, which was very informative. There are a ton of guides on site right as you’re going in so even if you didn’t book in advance you will have no problem finding someone to walk around with you, and it really helps to have someone explain what you’re looking at.
While you can go in and out, and many do to dine in the hotel right outside the premises for lunch, be aware that you only have three entries per ticket, and there are no restrooms within the ruins so you have to exit, and pay to use the facilities. Time your day out accordingly.
You can also get the famous visiting Machu Picchu passport stamp at a table right by the entrance, don’t leave without it!
Be aware that food is technically not permitted within the ruins. I personally might have passed out had I not had a small sandwich to sustain me through the morning hike, and my philosophy is generally that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, just make sure not to be blatant about your munching and you should be fine. Also, please don’t litter. This is a beautiful place and it deserves to stay that way.
You can choose to go on a number of trails around the ruins, the most popular being the hike to reach the Sun Gate. From the entrance it takes about 2 hours to get there, so allocate 4 hours total to this trek.
Can you see Machu Picchu in one day? Absolutely! I spent 5 hours total at the site and was exhausted. If you have the energy to do so, you could spend days exploring and soaking up every ounce of culture and mysticism this site has to offer. But for the budget conscious traveler on the go? 1 day is just enough.
New Restrictions at Machu Picchu
**This post was recently edited to include new information**
Starting July 2017, anyone visiting Machu Picchu has limited access, both in both time and numbers. The Peruvian government now only allows 3,600 visitors to enter between 6 a.m. to noon and an additional nearly 2,700 people to explore during the afternoon. With this in mind, maximizing your time becomes that much more important. The afternoon is likely your better option if you’re averse to large crowds and want a more relaxed experience.
Unfortunately, another change is that guests can no longer roam free about the ruins. They will need to be accompanied by a guide. I don’t think of this as a bad thing–personally I felt my guide added to the experience and provided much needed context to otherwise indistinguishable Incan buildings and monuments.
For those of you who are scared about how this will affect your experience, don’t fret. I walked around the ruins for about an hour and a half after my Huayna Picchu hike, taking pictures and learning about the Incan culture with a guide. By 1pm I was ready to call it a day. I went back down the mountain, had a delicious lunch in Aguas Calientes and boarded the train back to Cusco.
Click here to learn more about how to make the most of Machu Picchu’s rule changes.
Machu Picchu can be seen in a morning. If you feel much too restricted by a half-day, however, then purchase entry for two consecutive days to ensure you get the most of your experience.
Till next time, safe travels!
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