What does it take for an experience to earn a spot on your bucket list?
How about one of the Seven Wonders of the World? A unique and rare glimpse into history? Jaw-dropping natural landscapes? A strenuous but rewarding hike? The most epic Insta photo you’ve ever posted?
If all of these things sound worthy to you, Machu Picchu is calling your name.
Here’s everything you need to know about one of the world’s most sought-after bucket list experiences.
A quick history lesson
Machu Picchu is the archaeological site of an ancient city in the Sacred Valley in Peru. It is known as the last refuge of Peru’s indigenous people, the Incas, before the Spanish conquest of 1532.
Nestled between the jaw-dropping peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains, this city is built by immaculately stacked granite stones. It is a testament to the incredible work ethic and organization of the Incas, providing a unique look into Peru’s history.
The Incas chose to build their civilization at 2,250 metres above sea level in order to avoid floods and be close to the gods. Scientists have counted 168 living rooms and estimate that it was inhabited by anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people.
It is uncertain exactly what this site was used for, but it is understood to have had religious and agricultural purposes. There are also theories that it was a site used for education, or resting and rehabilitation.
Farmers had harvested their crops on the site since the conquest, but it wasn’t officially discovered until 1911, when Hiram Bingham, a historian from Yale University, came across the lost city of the Incas in his exploration of South America (imagine being that guy! Just a casual stumble upon Machu Picchu). Bingham revealed the site to the world two years later via a National Geographic feature.
Following this came years of continued farming and gathering information. Finally, in 1950, a road was built to allow visitors to access from the ground below, and today Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Wonder of the World, and government-appointed Historical Sanctuary that attracts millions of tourists from around the world.
There are various options to access Machu Picchu using a combo of foot, train, or bus.
1. Four-day trek
This is for the true adventurers who want the reward to match the effort they put in. Pack your backpacks and hit the dusty trail as you trek through Peru’s high jungle and witness the most epic views, pushing your physical ability to the limit as you take on the stairs and altitude like a champ.
The most popular/iconic route is the one that was taken by the Incas themselves, aptly named the Inca Trail. This route requires booking as far as six months in advance and is more expensive, ranging from $550 to $1,500, as permits are limited and they go fast. Even during peak season, there are also alternative options that you can book one week in advance through tour agencies such as the Salkantay trek and Inca Jungle trek (trek lengths vary). Great deals can be found in Cusco if you are willing to wait it out.
Treks are offered with a guide, and depending on how much you spend, they will even carry all your stuff for you too.
2) One-day trek along the Inca Trail
This is the more do-able hike in terms of timing, but the trail will certainly test your endurance. There are slippery slopes, steep stairs, and it will take around five to six hours. But the views along the way, leading up to the grand finale of Machu Picchu, are absolutely stunning.
For the one-day trek, stay overnight at Ollyantambo and hop on the one-hour Machu Picchu train in the morning to begin your hike. (The town is v. cute with mountain backdrops, cobblestone streets, rivers rushing down them, and Peruvian markets galore.)
The hiking option will take you to the highest vantage point of Machu Picchu at Sungate, which we PROMISE you will take your breath away. And we’re not just talking about the altitude. Or that hike you just finished. The view itself is stunning.
Thanks to a (quite sketchy, single-lane switchback) road built in 1948 called Hiram Bingham Highway, you can access Machu Picchu by vehicle. Just hop on a shuttle bus, they leave every seven minutes or so from the base. You can also hike up the stairs directly to the gates, which will take two to three hours but the views won’t compare to the Inca Trail.
To stay close to the gates, set yourself up at the town at the base of the mountain called Aguas Calientes. This town is also charming AF, also has mountain backdrops, rivers rushing through, and Peruvian markets. Same same but different.
You can also take a train/bus combo from the Ollantaytambo or Cusco itself.
Pro tip for experiencing Machu Picchu in all its glory
Get there for sunrise. Stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and take the first bus up to the gates in the morning, which leaves at 5:30 (get there early – below is the lineup at 5:15).
The gates open at 6:00 am, and if you are part of this first group to enter the site you will see why it’s worth it. There will only be a sliver of the crowds to come later in the day, meaning your space and your photos will not be impeded by thousands of other selfie takers. You will also have a much better shot of getting a snap with the llamas, and let’s be real, what is more Peru than a photo with a llama at Machu Picchu?
The way the light hits the Inca City at sunrise is truly breathtaking. Just do it, friends. Sleep is for the weak (okay sorry that was harsh, but just have a nap later).
Booking ahead of time will allow you to climb to the summit of Huayna Picchu, the spectacular backdrop that you see in all the photos. This will provide a unique and rewarding view of the Incan city. The daily limit is 400 people, allowed in at two intervals: 200 at 7:00 am, and 200 at 10:00 am.
These tickets are purchased in combination with the general Machu Picchu ticket.
How to prepare
Machu Picchu is located 2,250 metres above sea level, and altitude sickness can be a major problem if you’re not careful. Be sure to arrive at a similar altitude a few days earlier to acclimatize your body, and drink plenty of water and/or electrolytes. You can also try your hand at Peru’s coca leaves, which you chew and store in the inside of your mouth, as well as tea, chocolates, and other goodies.
Other than navigating the altitude, if you are doing the trek (especially the four-day), you will want to ensure you are in moderate to fit physical condition. In other words, if you haven’t gone hiking in five years, maybe consider the shuttle bus option.
What to bring
Your passport! You cannot enter without it. You can also get a badass Machu Picchu stamp on your way out for one sole.
Bring some extra soles for the washroom and any souvenirs you’d like to purchase, as well as water, sunscreen, potentially a rain jacket, good walking shoes, and of course your camera and a sense of adventure!
What to do when you get there
First, take some time to absorb what you are seeing. This city is a one-of-a-kind experience that is significant and jaw-dropping and humbling.
Then, get your photos from the viewpoints. All of them. Every angle. Don’t forget that selfie. Get a llama in there if you can.
After you have doubled your photo count on your camera, it’s time to walk into the city itself. You will enter through the door and walk through the steps of the Incas themselves, exploring the different structures including sundials, temples, the guardhouse, and more.
The Incas were immaculate and refined in their work, but millions of tourists over 70+ years will start to take a toll on any masterpiece. In an effort to maintain the grounds and the ruins, the government has implemented new restrictions.
Machu Picchu admission is restricted to 2,500 visitors per day. Visitors are directed along one-way circuits throughout the site, meaning once you go forward, you can’t backtrack against the crowds. This limits the time spent so that visitors are only allowed on site for about four hours. There are also two entry groups, with the morning group entering between 6:00 am and 12:00 pm, and the afternoon group between 12:00 pm and 4:30 pm.
Machu Picchu is located in the cloud forest, and because the weather is unpredictable, you never know what you’ll be working with on your visit. Especially in the rainy season, there is a chance you may encounter a Machu Picchu that is completely engulfed in clouds.
So what to do? You’ve booked ahead of time so can’t really depend on the weather forecast (and let’s be real, you can never depend on that thing anyway), so your best bet is to put out good vibes to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and hope for the best. With the wind on your side, you’re likely to get at least a short glimpse during your time there.
So now that you’ve got all the info you need, the next step is to turn your dreams into a reality!
Tickets are 152 soles (about $80 CAD) for adults and 77 soles ($30 CAD) for students. The full list of pricing for all the various ticket options can be seen on the official government website.
Tickets are not sold at Machu Picchu itself, but you can purchase them through the various tour guides in Cusco, Aguas Calientes, or other major cities in Peru. You can also purchase online through the government website or resellers such as GetYourGuide.
It’s recommended to book your entrance and train ticket (if you’re not doing a trek) at least one to three weeks in advance, but our advice is book as soon as you know you’re going. This is one you will not want to miss out on!
When you go, make sure to share your llama and Machu Picchu selfies with us using #dailyhivemapped!