I’ve often heard that the key to happiness is low or no expectations. With Machu Picchu, low/no expectations is impossible. Whenever people in the United States heard about our trip, one of their first questions was always, “Are you going to Machu Picchu?” For pre-trip me, a Machu Picchu trek fell into my top three must-do experiences in South America, along with the Uyuni Salt Flats tour in Bolivia and Torres del Paine National Park (Patagonia) in Southern Chile.
Although we had a great time, our experience did not live up to my astronomical expectations. But with a few tweaks it definitely could have. If I were to do Machu Picchu all over again, here’s how I would do it.
Learn from our mistakes and keep reading to learn how I would recommend visiting this incredible place!
Notes Before We Begin
- You can either trek to Machu Picchu (via the Inca Trail or Salkantay), or you can take a bus or train (5-6 hours vs 3 hours) from Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a small town featuring Incan ruins on the surrounding mountains, and it’s about 1 hour drive from Cusco.
- While the Inca Trail must be done with a guide, the Salkantay Trek may be done with or without a guide.
- Machu Picchu entrance tickets are purchased in advance for a certain time slot. I recommend purchasing one with the earliest entrance time possible (6AM). You will have the site to yourself and few other people as the large tour groups do not arrive until around 10AM. Tickets may be bought online on the Peru Government’s website for ~$45USD or may be purchased by your tour company.
- All visitors to Machu Picchu must be accompanied by a guide. Your tour company will provide one, but if you choose to go without a tour company, you can hire a guide at the main entrance.
- Guides are only allowed on-site for a maximum 2.5 hours; but, depending on how you structure your visit, you could spend 4-5 hours on-site.
- Machu Picchu has two entrances called Control Check Points. You must have your passport on you (not a copy) to pass through a Control Check Point:
- Control Check Point #1: The first controls access to the hike up to the ruins – it is not the entrance to the ruins itself. The hike is short, but very steep and can take about an hour. If you prefer, you can skip the hike and take a bus from the town of Aguas Calientes to Control Check Point #2, bypassing Control Check Point #1. The bus takes about 30min and people start lining up an hour before expected departure. People start lining up ~4:30AM to take the first bus, which leaves around 5:15AM for a 6AM entrance time.
- Control Check Point #2: The second is the actual entrance into Machu Picchu. Be sure to use the bathroom nearby (2 soles per person) before going in as their are no bathrooms on-site. This is also where you can hire a guide.
- Aguas Calientes is the town closest to Machu Picchu, and it is where most, if not all, people stay the night before their visit. From Aguas Calientes, it’s a 10-15 minute walk to Control Check Point #1. You can catch the bus to go straight to Control Check Point #2.
How To Do Machu Picchu
Okay, so here’s how to do Machu Picchu:
- Purchase an entrance ticket for 6AM in advance.
- Take train from Ollantaytambo (or bus if you want to save some money) to the town of Aguas Calientes. Stay the night in Aguas Calientes and wake up at ~4AM to be first in line at the Control Check Point #1.
- Enter the site at 6AM and ask your guide to see the Sun Gate and Inca Bridge first. In these areas, people are free to roam.
- Do the loop around the village (the actual ruins). This is a one-way path that will drop you off at the Control Check Point #2 where you must exit.
- Walk back to Aguas Calientes and take an afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo. You can either stay the night here and hike the ruins or head back to Cusco.
How To Avoid Disappointment
It’s important to do your homework in advance to spend as much time on-site as possible to avoid disappointment.
- There are two mountains that surround Machu Picchu, both require a separate entrance ticket:
- Huayna Picchu is the smaller of the two mountains. It’s the mountain that you typically see in the background of Machu Picchu pictures. You must purchase your entrance ticket far in advance. The start of this hike is half-way through the ruins. It looks like a moderately easy hike and worth doing if you are able to plan ahead.
- Machu Picchu Mountain is the taller mountain of the two mountains and can be booked last minute. We were purchased this from our tour company, thinking it was Huayna Picchu. But be warned: I DO NOT RECOMMEND HIKING THIS MOUNTAIN. It is not Huayna Picchu, but an extremely steep ascent that contains no ruins. The path is mostly steps, very narrow and very steep. You will get to the top exhausted, while thinking to yourself, “This wasn’t worth it.” Not really the thoughts you want going through your head on your special day at Machu Picchu. At the end of the day, the point of visiting is to experience the site up close, not from over a thousand feet away from the top of a mountain.
- Do not expect to learn much from your tour guide. Machu Picchu was similar to many ancient sites we’ve visited in Peru – absolutely gorgeous views, no information whatsoever. Make sure to do your homework before you visit, like reading the Wikipedia page or watching this free, super interesting documentary by National Geographic called Machu Picchu Decoded on Youtube.
- The best time to go is between May and September, which is Peru’s dry season. October and November are transition months between the dry and wet season, so you are more likely to see rain. We went in early November and got lucky! If you’ve only got a week (hey, US workforce), go during the dry season and book in advance. If you’re backpacking and have a more flexible schedule go during shoulder season (October/November) and book last minute. Prices are significantly cheaper if you book in person in Cusco.
What We Did
We hiked the Salkantay Trek over 5 days with a guided tour. In addition, we hiked up the stairs to Machu Picchu and also hiked Machu Picchu Mountain. It ended up being 65 miles of hiking up and down hills at an average of 2 miles over sea level. The views were gorgeous for sure, but by the time we got to Machu Picchu (after having hiked Machu Picchu Mountain), we were exhausted!
If I were to do it all again, I would skip the Salkantay Trek and the extra hike up Machu Picchu Mountain and take the train or bus to Aguas Calientes instead!
If feel like you must do the Salkantay Trek, definitely pass on Machu Picchu Mountain!
The total cost for 1 traveler for the 5 day / 4 night Salktankay Trek including entrance into Machu Picchu and transportation to and from Cusco:
- Salkantay Trek + Tips: $220USD
- Machu Picchu Mountain cost adder: $15USD
- Thermal Pools visit cost adder: $8USD
- Alcohol: $48USD
- Water+Snacks: $25USD
- Toilet (remember bathrooms aren’t free in South America!): $3USD
Total Cost for one traveler: ~$320USD
There you have it, our tips on how to do a Machu Picchu trek! From us to you, happy traveling!