RealWorld Guide to Machu Picchu
Clinging to the mountain-tops, high in the Andes, surrounded by lush forests and steep cliffs, the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu is truly one of the wonders of the world. Whether you choose to trek the Inca Trail here, or just take the train trip along the picturesque Urubamba valley, the view as you gaze down from the Sun Gate onto this lost city perched in the mysterious cloud forest is sure to be one of the highlights of your holiday.
Where to Stay at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu Pueblo (often known as Aguas Calientes) is the town at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain, and exists primarily to allow people to spend the night near Machu Picchu after their tour without having to go all the way back to the Sacred Valley or Cusco. This means there are hotels absolutely everywhere and travellers really are spoilt for choice and there are several decent 3-star hotels which we use as the standard options for our Machu Picchu holidays.
If you're looking for some luxury after your Machu Picchu tour, there’s no doubt that the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel is the best - it’s like its own tiny village, with casitas and villas available, and all rooms above standard class have their own fireplaces for relaxing after a long day of exploring Machu Picchu.
The only hotel outside the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo and adjacent to Machu Picchu itself is the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel. Although it’s not actually within the site (a common misconception not helped by the hotel's own website!) it is just outside the entrance and so ideally located for those who want to get up at the crack of dawn and watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. However, given the choice, we’d really suggest going for the Inkaterra instead – the extra distance from the site is more than repaid in the quality and character of the accommodation.
Visiting Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is the centrepiece of most people’s Peru holidays and so it’s important to make the most of your time here. If you trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu then you’ll arrive at sunrise and so you’ll have the full day to explore the sight, but if you arrive by train, you won’t start your tour of Machu Picchu until around 11am. The last train back to Cusco is at 6pm, so we’d really recommend staying over so that you have the full day here at Machu Picchu.
The Machu Picchu Site
You will have a guide who will advise you of the time of your guided tour of Machu Picchu and where to meet after you have checked in to your hotel. The entrance fee and bus ticket up to Machu Picchu are included on your first day and your guide will have these ready for you. You will need your passport with you to enter the site, so don’t forget it! The entrance ticket to Machu Picchu is valid all day and you can enter the site as many times as you want to so keep the stub when you go through the gate. If you think you might decide to go back to the site on another day you will need to purchase a second ticket in advance as they are not available at the site or in Machu Picchu town. Just ask us to organise this for you before you go.
Once you enter the site your guide will give you a tour which will last about 1-2 hours and they will also be able to give you tips on where else within the site to explore later on. When it’s time to leave, you should be at the train station at least twenty minutes before your departure time and your luggage will be waiting for you there – check with your hotel whether it is to be collected before or after the ticket barrier.
Huayna Picchu, the peak that towers high above Machu Picchu, requires a separate entrance ticket. Visitors are limited to 400 per day, and there are only two entry times daily, at 07:00 and 10:00. The climb takes about an hour and as it’s quite steep, it’s not recommended for people in poor physical condition. If you’re up to it though, the views of Machu Picchu are spectacular and something most visitors don’t get to experience as part of a standard tour.
Also on Huayna Picchu, you can visit the Temple of the Moon, which is understood to be much older than Machu Picchu itself and to have originally contained several mummies. Not many people explore this far and so it's a great chance to have some of the site to yourself.
Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge
The Sun Gate (Inti Punku in Quechua) is the original entrance to Machu Picchu, and is the final point of the Inca Trail. If you have time at Machu Picchu you can actually walk back up the last stage of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate to get that fantastic view of Machu Picchu - and convince people that you did trek the Inca Trail, honest... Another short walk you can do within the site is to hike up to the Inca Bridge - part of a second Inca Trail heading west out of Machu Picchu where a deliberate gap could be bridged with two tree trunks, leaving it otherwise impassable.
Aguas Calientes in Machu Picchu Pueblo
Down at the bottom of the mountain, the hot springs that gave the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo its original name are certainly worth a visit, especially good for easing those aching feet after tours of Machu Picchu. They operate like a swimming pool and the entrance is just 5 soles: well worth it for the healing effects of the thermal springs!
There is a decent sized market in Machu Picchu Pueblo which is open every day and has plenty of souvenirs on offer. Shops selling camera film, batteries, ponchos, sun-cream and plenty more are dotted around the town although you will find them to be a little more expensive than Cusco as everything has to be imported by train. There are also plenty of ATMs in Machu Picchu Pueblo, but perhaps the easiest one to find is just by the train station alongside the river and can be found by looking for its big bright orange sign.
Eating Out in Machu Picchu Pueblo
As far as food goes, most of the hotels in Machu Picchu Pueblo include a lunch or dinner with your stay, but if you’re not staying overnight or want to venture out of your hotel for a meal then there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. Toto’s house, located at the end of Imperio de los Incas, is a large traditional restaurant with a wrap-around outdoor seating area, with many tables both inside and outside offering a view of the river. The Inkaterra hotel also has a restaurant just by the train station which is open to non-guests and overlooks the river. The food and service here are excellent and they put on a good afternoon tea as well as more substantial meals.
Getting To and From Machu Picchu
The train is the only way to get to Machu Picchu Pueblo unless you are trekking the Inca Trail, in which case you will still have to end your trip by returning to Cusco or the Sacred Valley by train. There are two train operators on the route, Peru Rail and Inca Rail, but both offer three classes of train: operating on these routes. In ascending order of price: Expedition/Machu Picchu Train, Vistadome/Inca Train, or Hiram Bingham/Inca Princess.
The Expedition or Machu Picchu Train is the budget option – still comfortable but you don’t get named seats, and it takes a bit longer than the other two. The Vistadome or Inca Train provides a quicker trip, has more comfortable carriages with glass roofs to view the surrounding mountains, and include snacks and a drink. The Hiram Bingham train or Inca Princess carriage offer a more unusual and luxurious option with a full gourmet meal, cocktails and entertainment provided. As there is limited space on the trains for luggage the train companies have introduced a maximum of 5kg baggage allowance for each passenger.
There are no cars in Machu Picchu Pueblo (apart from the buses up to Machu Picchu), but it is a small place so the train station is not far from any of the hotels. The buses from Machu Picchu Pueblo up to Machu Picchu run all day and leave when they are full or about every 10-15 mins. The trip up to the site takes about 25 mins and is up an extremely steep and winding mountain but don’t worry - the drivers are very experienced and drive up and down this road many times a day!
Weather & Climate in Machu Picchu
The weather in the Andes is likely to be quite different to other destinations in Peru at any given time. Between May and September it’s the dry season, and you can expect clear skies and mild temperatures for your tour of Machu Picchu, although the temperature can drop quite significantly at night due to the high altitude.
The rainy season runs from October to April, although the heaviest rain doesn’t usually start until January and generally lasts until March. The wettest month is generally February, and for safety and environmental concerns the Inca Trail is actually closed for the entirety of the month each year.
The graph here is for Cusco, but conditions in Machu Picchu are slightly warmer and wetter due to the lower altitude. Incidentally, don't scorn the 'shoulder' seasons for weather reasons: we honestly think a few clouds floating around the peaks adds to the atmosphere!
Tailor-made Machu Picchu Holidays
All our Machu Picchu holidays can be 100% tailormade, so if you'd like to customise any of the tours you see above, or just plan a trip to Machu Picchu completely from scratch then get in touch and let us know - we'll be delighted to help you plan your perfect tour of Machu Picchu.
Did you know?
The Incas didn't keep any real written records, so we may never know the true purpose of Machu Picchu. A fortress hidden from the Spanish, a religious centre and a botanical laboratory have all been suggested. However, most archaeologists agree that construction began at Machu Picchu around 1450, before the Spanish arrived, and there are too many “ordinary” buildings for either of the latter two explanations. A more recent explanation has Machu Picchu as a country retreat constructed for the Inca Pachacutec: a kind of Balmoral of the Incas!