The ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) in Peru's Sacred Valley is a bucket list trip for good reason. Since Yale University professor Haram Bingham shared his "discovery" with National Geographic in 1913, international travelers, tourists, and researchers have flocked to these ruins for their own picture and life-affirming adventure. In fact, 1.4 million people visited in 2016 alone. Many theories about Machu Picchu's construction and subsequent abandonment exist, but the true history remains a mystery. And that's part of the fun. But a successful trip will require some planning and insider knowledge, especially because new rules and regulations went into effect this July. Discover what you need to know and get prepared before you head to the famed Lost City.
1. You need a permit to enter.
You can’t just walk into Machu Picchu as you can some other UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Peru’s Ministry of Cultures requires every foreign visitor to present their passport and a permit at the entry gates. If you book through a travel company or visit as part of a tour, permits will usually be handled for you. You can also purchase them directly from the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura Cusco website. Click the calendar to see how many permits are left for any given day. There was a 2,500 daily tourist cap a few years ago, but the government is now saying they’ll be enforcing limits more strictly to reduce overcrowding. According to the new rules, any visitor needs to be accompanied by an official tour guide and group sizes cannot exceed 16 people. You could even be restricted to certain pathways rather the wandering the entire area freely. Ticket prices will not change, but there will be two entry times: 6 a.m. to noon and noon to 5:30 p.m. If you want more than six hours at the site, you’ll need to book two tickets.
2. There’s more than one "Inca Trail."
Though the Inca Trail is the most popular way to hike Machu Picchu, and it’s the only trek that ends right at the ruins, only 500 people are allowed to start each day. Luckily, there are multiple trails where you can follow ancient Incan footsteps. The four- to seven-day Salkantay trek through the Mollepata Valley is the most widely walked alternative route. It blazes through snow capped mountains, Amazonian jungle, and altitudes of 15,000 feet. The Lares trek cuts through several remote Sacred Valley villages, providing the opportunity to meet farmers and artisans in addition to visiting hot springs, stunning peaks, and llamas. The three-day Huchu Qosco trek through “Old Cusco” is a good alternative for those strapped for time, and the Chachicata walk through Ollantaytambo scenic surroundings is great for less experienced hikers. Each of these hikes will lead you through beautiful Andean terrain and ensure you work up a sweat before beholding the trip’s glorious reward: watching the peaks of Machu Picchu come into focus as the fog lifts.
Just be sure you pick a tour company that takes care of their porters and the environment. Despite laws to the contrary, you will likely see litter and men carrying over 50 pounds of weight making less than $15 a day. You don’t want to be part of the system responsible for either of those things — even if it saves you some money.
3. The altitude can be nauseating.
Much of the Andes is literally in the clouds and even the surrounding valley is much higher than most tourists are used to. Everyone reacts to elevation differently, but some of the worst effects include dizzying headaches, shortness of breath, and extreme nausea. The best thing you can do is take your time and allow frequent rests. You’ll also want to get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water before and during the trek. Some hikers rely on anti-nausea bands and medication. The local remedy is the coca leaf. You can chew the root, drink coca tea, or suck on coca candies. Since it’s so hard to predict your reaction to the altitude, it’s recommended that you spend time in Cusco before hitting the trail for Machu Picchu. One or two days should do the trick, letting your body acclimate to the reduced oxygen levels. You’ll want plenty of time in this cobblestoned city anyway. It’s small but filled with quaint squares, bustling markets, world-class restaurants, and even other Inca ruins.
4. It's still being uncovered.
Although the ruins are incredible, much of the Lost City is still underground. Some estimates predict that up to 60 percent of Machu Picchu remains to be seen, including foundation walls and elaborate drainage systems. When you visit, you’ll likely see archaeologists and anthropologists at work in the terraces near Machu Picchu’s entrance. These scientists, who work alongside the llamas that wander Machu Picchu’s grounds, are hoping that modern advances and continued excavation will reveal clues to the purpose of the site and what activities took place there.
5. You need another ticket to climb.
Even though the site itself is referred to as Machu Picchu, Machu Picchu is actually the mountain next to the famous Inca ruins. Both Machu and Huayna Picchu mountains are great vantage points for taking panoramic photos of the entire complex, but you’ll need separate tickets to climb them. You should book the tickets as an addition of your site pass. The best view and shortest hike (less than an hour to the top) is the extremely steep Huayna Picchu, which is the smaller mountain in the back of most classic Machu Picchu shots. You may have to crawl and use your hands at times so this is only for fit visitors confident in their climbing. Access is restricted to 400 hikers a day. Machu Picchu mountain is just opposite Huayna Picchu. It’s taller, less crowded, and a longer hike to the top, but it’s not as vertigo-inducing. Your ticket dictates a specific time range when you can begin either hike, so keep an eye on the clock.
6. There will be a line, even before sunrise.
If you aren’t interested in the extremely steep two hour hike to the top, you’ll have to take the 20-minute bus from Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Town. Tickets are $12 in either direction and you’ll need your passport to board. You’ll do best if you spend the night and hop on the first bus up the mountain. Unfortunately, everyone wants those sunrise shots, and there are hundreds of people making the journey everyday. Buses start at 5:30 a.m., but it’s best to get on line around 3 a.m. or 3:30 a.m. to be safe. Consider this your warning that though the ride is short, it’s very steep and curvy, so some riders may feel anxious.
There will also be a line at the entrance, but you’ll want to hit the bathroom before you join. While you’re allowed one exit and re-entry during your visit, it will take a bit of time to hike back and forth, and you won’t want your time cut short due to bad planning.
7. You can take a train.
There’s no way around it: The treks to Machu Picchu are challenging. If you aren’t much of a hiker or don’t want to dedicate so much of your trip to the mountains, there’s another option. PeruRail and Inca Rail offer several daily journeys to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo and Poroy near Cusco. You’ll get a flash view of the incredible Sacred Valley scenery, while saving time, money, and energy. The Expedition Train is the most basic service but it’s still perfectly comfortable. Vistadome Train is the middle-class train with large panoramic side and roof windows and even windows. The Belmond Hiram Bingham is the luxury option with bar and observation cars in addition to fine dining meals.
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