Machu Picchu is a cultural wonder and an adventure seeker’s dream, but it is not a place you want to visit unprepared. To help make your trip planning easier, I’ve compiled a list of the 17 things you need to know before visiting Machu Picchu.
Enjoy (and pet a llama for me)!
1. Mind the altitude
The good news: Machu Picchu is located 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, altitude sickness typically occurs at 8,000 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level, so Machu Picchu falls just under the minimum threshold for the risk zone.
The bad news: Cusco, the nearest big city and airport to Machu Picchu, is located 11,152 feet (3,399 meters) above sea level. That’s way up there in the risk zone. If you’re passing through Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu, set aside at least a day to acclimate to the altitude before exploring the ruins.
Another option is to stay in lower-altitude towns first. For example, I stayed near Ollantaytambo (2,792 feet above sea level) in Peru’s Sacred Valley for a few days before taking the train to Machu Picchu. I didn’t experience any shortness of breath or altitude issues at the ruins, and it’s only a 90-minute train ride from Ollantaytambo to the town of Aguas Calientes, aka the gateway to Machu Picchu.
2. Machu Picchu is open every day of the year, including holidays
You read that right! Machu Picchu works harder than all of us. 365 days, baby.
3. The best time to visit is April-October
While Machu Picchu is open year-round, I recommend visiting April-October, which is dry season in Peru.
Some people like to visit during the rainy season (November-March) because there’s less people, prices are cheaper, and the weather is warmer. There are definite upsides to visiting Machu Picchu off-season but keep in mind that you will also encounter a ton of mud due to the rain. This is especially an issue if you’re planning to do one of the overnight treks. The Inca Trail is closed altogether in February, when the heaviest rains descend.
For reference, I visited in late May. The weather was gorgeous and, although there were crowds, they weren’t as bad as I expected.
4. Buy tickets in advance
One thing you definitely need to know before visiting Machu Picchu: you can’t buy tickets at the site itself. You must book them in advance. If you’re traveling during high season (June to September), I recommend booking them online as soon as possible, since tickets do sell out.
If that’s not an option, you can also buy tickets at the Ministerio de Cultura in Cusco, the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre in Aguas Calientes, or any major city with a Banco de Nacion. If you are using the Banco de Nacio option, make sure to reserve online at the Ministry of Culture website first. You can then pay in person at the bank (this may require a basic knowledge of Spanish to explain what you want to do).
5. There are four types of entrance tickets
OPTION 1: Machu Picchu only. Includes a tour of the Inca City. $45 USD
OPTION 2: Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu. Includes the Inca City and Huayna Picchu. $62 USD.
OPTION 3: Machu Picchu + Mountain. Includes Inca City and the Machu Picchu mountain. $62 USD.
OPTION 4: Machu Picchu + Museum. Includes Inca City and Machu Picchu Museum.
For more information on the different types of tickets, including admissions schedules and FAQs, check out the this Ticket Macchu Picchu guide.
6. Visiting Machu Picchu in the morning vs the afternoon
Entry to Machu Picchu is divided into the morning shift (6am-12pm) and afternoon shift (12-5:30pm). More tourists visit in the morning, so you’ll run into less people in the afternoon. Unless it’s raining, you’ll also have great light for taking photos in the afternoon.
If you visit in the morning, you might catch a magical sunrise. That being said, Machu Picchu is located in a rainforest and there’s a high chance of morning fog. The fog is usually gone by noon but if you choose the morning shift you run the risk of not seeing anything at all because the view is obscured by mist.
I visited in the afternoon and loved it (though it was extremely hot), but choose the option that makes the most sense for you.
7. Take the bus from Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu. Once you’re there, you can take a shuttle bus up to the ruins. This is the easiest way to get to Machu Picchu from town. The buses depart every 5-10 minutes between 5:30am and 3:30pm, and it costs $24 USD for an adult foreigner (non-national). You can buy the tickets once you arrive; no need to buy them in advance. However, the lines can be long so schedule accordingly. The actual bus ride lasts 30-40 minutes and you’ll see some breathtaking mountain views on your way up.
If you want to get a workout in, you can hike to Macchu Picchu from town. It takes about two hours by foot, but note that it is a steep hike from Aguas Calientes so be prepared!
8. There are multiple treks to Machu Picchu (not just the Inca Trail)
If you really want to go hardcore, you can do a multi-day hike to Machu Picchu. The most famous trail is the Inca Trail, which is the only one that arrives directly at the famous Sun Gate (Inti Punku). However, given its popularity, it can also be the most crowded. The classic Inca Trail experience generally takes 4 days, 3 nights; the short version takes 2 days, 1 night.
The most popular alternative trek is the Salkantay Trail, which is the only one that can be combined with the Classic Inca Trail if you book early. It provides stunning views of Mount Salkantay and typically takes 5 days to complete.
Other alternative trails include the Lares trek (which wounds through several local villages and is great for those who want a taste of authentic Andean culture), the Inca Jungle Trail (for adventurers), the Choquequirao Trek, the Vilcabamba Trail (the quietest option but also a very tough one), and the Huchuy Qosqo trek (the shortest option).
Kimkim Travel has an excellent guide on the different treks to Machu Picchu.
9. Bring your passport (and get it stamped)!
This is very important: BRING YOUR PASSPORT and make sure it is the same passport you used to buy your entry ticket. A common mistake travelers make is renewing their passport after they buy their ticket and when they show up, it doesn’t match the document on the ticket.
The passport requirement is mandatory for all foreigners. If you do not bring your original passport (no photocopies), you will be denied entry. No ifs, ands, or buts. Also make sure to bring a physical printout of your ticket because they will also check for that.
Once you leave Machu Picchu, you can get a Machu Picchu passport stamp near the exit. This is a souvenir stamp and you do it yourself, but it’s still pretty cool.
10. You won’t be allowed to enter if you’re not accompanied by an official tour guide
You can hire an official tour guide at the entrance or through a tourism agency. How much you rely on your guide once you enter the ruins depends on your travel style. We had a super sweet tour guide that gave us an overview of Machu Picchu’s history and showed us the best vantage points for photos, but she was pretty hands-off per our request. We spent most of our time exploring Machu Picchu on our own.
However, others stick closely to their guides for the entire circuit. Again, this is up to you and how you prefer to travel. You just have to have a guide in order to enter the ruins.
11. There are no restrooms inside Machu Picchu’s gates
There is one restroom located outside the main gates to Machu Picchu, which charges 2 Peruvian soles per person. There are no restrooms inside the complex so make sure to use the facilities before you start your tour.
If nature calls while you’re inside Machu Picchu and you leave to use the restroom, you will not be allowed to re-enter with the same ticket. One workaround is to buy two entry tickets for different entry times, which will give you a break in between your visits. Just remember #4: you can’t buy tickets at the gate. You must book them in advance.
12. You can’t bring food (and there are no places to buy food inside)
If there are no restrooms inside Machu Picchu, you can bet there are no restaurants or food vendors. Not only that, you’re not even allowed to bring your own food. You can, however, bring snacks as long as you keep the wrappers. Water must be contained in a reusable water bottle; no plastic water bottles or other single-use plastics (bags, straws, etc.) are allowed.
This is because the Peruvian government doesn’t want people discarding their trash all over the ancient ruins which, let’s face it, is sadly a thing people do.
13. Rangers are everywhere (and they are strict)
Machu Picchu has a lot of rules and a lot of rangers to enforce those rules. They are particularly strict about people stepping over the green ropes surrounding the complex because, you know, they don’t want people to die. If they see you break the rules they can and will kick you out without another thought.
14. You can pet the llamas
One of my goals was to pet a llama at Machu Picchu and yes, I was lucky enough to do so! You are allowed to pet the llamas, which roam freely throughout the ruins.
Llamas are friendly, docile animals who are used to tourists, but if they feel threatened in any way, they will spit at you. Their spit is not pleasant. Consider yourself warned.
15. You can’t backtrack
Effective January 1, 2019, all the paths leading through Machu Picchu are one way, meaning you must follow the set circuit and you cannot backtrack.
16. Tripods, selfie sticks, and drones are prohibited
Sorry photo enthusiasts, you will have to rely on your own two hands to capture Machu Picchu’s magnificence on camera. Plan accordingly.
17. You don’t need hiking boots inside the ruins; you do need sunscreen
You don’t really “hike” the ruins; you climb stairs. However, the paths are made of large, uneven stones, so while you don’t need hiking boots per se I recommend wearing sturdy, closed-toe shoes with great support. No sandals or flip-flops!
For reference, I wore my go-to Adidas Campus sneakers and had no issues.
Also make sure to pack plenty of sunscreen because the sun is intense (remember how high the elevation is) and you’ll want to reapply throughout your stay. I applied a layer of sunscreen right after I entered Machu Picchu but stupidly didn’t reapply and ended up with a slight sunburn.
There you have it! The 17 things you need to know before visiting Machu Picchu. I know how stressful trip planning can be so I hope this post answered your questions/eased some of your concerns.
Comment below if you have any additional questions.
As always, happy travels!