Looking to visit the world’s most celebrated Inca ruin, but don’t know where to start? Relax: this Travel Guide to Machu Picchu has you covered. Here we answer many common queries, regarding both the ruins themselves and the logistics of visiting. Still have questions? Feel free to contact our travel experts: we’ll be happy to furnish you with more info.
Where Is Machu Picchu Located?
The 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is located about 50 miles from Cusco, the former capital of the Inca empire. The complex is situated on a cliff overlooking the tourist town of Aguas Calientes (a.k.a. Machu Picchu Pueblo), at an altitude of 7,970 feet in the Andes of southern Peru.
What Is Machu Picchu?
Sometimes called the “Lost City of the Incas,” Machu Picchu comprises an expansive cluster of 15th-century ruins spread out over some 80,000 acres. Its precincts are divided into two areas, agricultural and urban, that between them encompass sun temples, royal residences, and smaller structures dedicated to utilitarian ends.
Historians are still debating exactly what purpose the complex served. The most common theory maintains it functioned as a royal retreat for the great Inca emperor Pachacutec (1418-71), who likely ordered its construction. Other scholars have speculated it was built as a ceremonial center or, intriguingly, as a monumental artwork to honor the gods and sacred landscape of the Andes.
Whatever its function, there’s no debating Machu Picchu’s magnificence. Perched some 1,500 feet above the Urubamba River, the site commands a panoramic view of parts of Peru’s Sacred Valley. It was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, before being named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
When to Visit Machu Picchu
The best months to visit Machu Picchu are April, May, September, October, and November. During these shoulder periods, there is little rainfall, and visitors are fewer. By contrast, the rainy season runs from December to March, with temperatures hovering between 50°F to 65°F. Crowds are minimal during this time, but you run the risk of encountering rain or afternoon mists that obscure your views. Meanwhile, the peak season goes from June to September, with temperatures varying from around 60°F to 75°F. This is the best time to go if you want clear blue skies and high visibility, but the crowds increase accordingly.
How to Get to Machu Picchu
From Cusco, which is the universal jumping-off point for excursions to Machu Picchu, there are two main approaches to the Inca ruins. The easiest and most common is to take a train to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes, located on the Vilcanota River at the base of the mountain harboring the citadel. The other route—the back door, as it were—entails traveling to the village of Piscacucho (Km. 82 of the local railway line) and hiking the famous Inca Trail to the complex.
Flying to Machu Picchu
There are no flights to Machu Picchu per se, as there is no airport in the ruins’ immediate vicinity. The closest air terminal is Alejandro Velasco Astete (CUZ) Airport in Cusco, some 48 miles (77 kilometers) from the Inca site. Nearly all international flights to Peru pass through Jorge Chávez Airport in Lima, with many travelers electing to spend a day or more in the capital exploring Peru’s history and cuisine before heading to Cusco.
Getting from Cusco to Machu Picchu
- Getting to Machu Picchu by Train
- Getting to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes
- Iconic Machu Picchu Hike: the Inca Trail
Journeying to Machu Picchu by train is comfortable and picturesque, taking you through some of the loveliest landscapes of the Urubamba valley. Travelers who opt for this route can choose between two different railway operators, PeruRail and IncaRail, both of which offer service from the Poroy station in Cusco as well as from Ollantaytambo, an Inca village approximately 45 miles from the city. PeruRail has three different travel options: Expedition (budget), Hiram Bingham (luxury), and Vistadome (which includes panoramic windows and on-board cultural performances). IncaRail, by contrast, offers four: Voyager (budget), First Class (luxury), 360º (similar to PeruRail’s Vistadome), and an exclusive private train. Travel times and prices are comparable, but PeruRail is more popular since it offers more departure times to the ruins. If you decide to go with PeruRail’s Hiram Bingham, be aware you must purchase tickets at least 30 days in advance; last-minute purchasers are no longer guaranteed entrance to Machu Picchu. Also, all train services to the citadel are periodically suspended due to weather during the rainy season.
From the town of Aguas Calientes, you’ll need to get to the top of the adjacent peak to see the ruins. The adventurous can undertake the two-hour climb on foot for free, but most visitors opt for the 30-minute bus ride to the complex, which costs $24 round trip for non-Peruvian citizens and leaves from the town’s center every 10 minutes.
For trekkers interested in seeing more of the Peruvian Andes, the so-called Inca Trail offers another way of travelling to Machu Picchu. The classic 26-mile hike lasts four days and three nights, though variations exist that span from two to eight days, requiring varying levels of physical exertion. Hiking the trail requires planning and a local guide; if you’re interested, see our Hiking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu: What You Need To Know for details.
Altitude Sickness and Acclimatization
Altitude sickness—what Peruvians call el soroche—is a highly individual phenomenon. Some travelers are unaffected, while others feel it acutely. It’s impossible to predict beforehand how el soroche will impact you personally, since its symptoms manifest themselves irrespective of age, physical fitness, or a person’s general health. Common issues include headaches, nausea, and shortness of breath, which can be alleviated by drinking coca tea or taking a prescribed pill called Diamox.
If you have questions or unusual conditions, such as pregnancy or heart problems, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor before booking your trip. Whatever you do, it’s recommended you acclimatize in Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu, as the city’s 11,200-foot elevation will more than prepare you for the ruins, which stand at a paltry 7,970 feet.
What about Tickets & Permits?
Access to Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains is highly regulated. Permits are required for all the principal attractions in the area.
- Machu Picchu Entrance Tickets
- Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain
To enter the Inca complex, you must buy your tickets beforehand through SA Vacations. Tickets sell out quickly, especially during the peak season of May to September, so book well in advance. You’ll need your passport for the purchase; no tickets are sold at the site itself.
Visitors must choose from three timeframes to visit the site: early morning (6 a.m. to 8 a.m.), morning (9 a.m. to 11 a.m.), and afternoon (12 p.m. to 2 p.m.), with entry during the early morning occurring on the hour at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Currently, tickets allow for a four-hour maximum stay, though this provision is not always enforced. Be aware, however, that Machu Picchu’s increasing popularity has caused numerous regulations to be put in place by the Dirección Regional de Cultura Cusco (DRC) to reduce the number of visitors. A maximum of 2,500 people can visit Machu Picchu daily, and the rules can change at any time. Talk to SA Vacations for up-to-the-minute information.
Current regulations also stipulate that all visitors to Machu Picchu go as part of a guided tour. Tours generally last two hours, after which you’re free to wander the ruins. Reentry to the complex is not permitted.
Visitors to Machu Picchu often elect to climb the adjacent peaks of Huayna Picchu (the iconic sugarloaf that appears in photos of the complex) and Machu Picchu Mountain (a 10,111-foot peak that’s the highest in the area). The good news is that package tickets are available that allow you to bundle these two attractions with your visit to the ruins. Be aware, however, that only 400 hikers per day can access Huayna Picchu, at four entrance times: 6:00 to 7:00 a.m., 7:00 to 8:00 a.m., 9:00 to 10:00 a.m., and 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. The sugarloaf peak requires a separate entrance ticket, as does Machu Picchu Mountain. The latter also admits only 400 visitors per day, in two one-hour intervals starting at 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.
Machu Picchu Facts and History
When Was Machu Picchu Built?
According to a 2021 radiocarbon-dating study, Machu Picchu was likely occupied between 1420 to 1530 A.D.
Who Built Machu Picchu?
Archeologists believe the complex was constructed during the reign of Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, who ruled the Incas from 1438 to 1471 A.D. It was abandoned some 80 years later, after the Spanish invasion, but miraculously, the European invaders never found the Inca citadel.
What Does Machu Picchu’s Name Mean?
Machu Picchu likely means “old peak” in Quechua, the native language of the Incas that is still spoken today in Peru.
When Was Machu Picchu Discovered, and by Whom?
Though German explorers might have come across the site in the 19th century, Machu Picchu was rediscovered by the American historian, Yale University lecturer, and explorer Hiram Bingham, who surveyed the ruins as part of the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition and started excavations there in 1912. In a deeper sense, however, the ruins were never really “discovered,” since local peasants had long been aware of their location and showed them to Bingham when he arrived in the area.
What Can I Expect to Find when I Visit the Ruins?
Machu Picchu is thought to have been a sacred site for the Incas, given the large number of temples in the complex. The Incas believed all of nature was imbued with animating spirits and built shrines to honor these natural deities, like the Temples of the Sun and Moon. The sacred edifices are interspersed with other, more utilitarian structures that are no less fascinating.
When you visit, some high points to watch for include the following:
- Inti Watana: This enigmatic carved stone probably served as a solar calendar.
- Inti Punku: With a name that means “sun gate” in Quechua, this was once the most important entrance into the citadel, affording stunning views of the complex.
- Temple of the Sun: This shrine to the sun god Inti is the most important structure in the complex; only priests and high nobility were authorized to enter. It’s recognizable from its semicircular outer wall or torreón.
- Temple of the Condor: A masterpiece of Inca stonemasonry, this structure has condor wings worked into the rock surface.
- Temple of the Three Windows: Located on the Sacred Plaza, this temple features three windows aligned to catch the sunrise.
- Principal Temple: This shrine is so called thanks to its massive size and location on the Sacred Plaza.
- Guardhouse: Also called the Watchman’s Hut or the Caretaker’s Hut, this non-religious building served to protect the complex; it overlooked the Sacred Plaza and Machu Picchu’s two main entrances.
- Inca Bridge: This 90-foot rope suspension bridge made of braided grass has been woven and rewoven by local artisans for 500 years. Walking on the bridge is prohibited due to its current condition.
- Funerary Stone: This rock at the entrance to the cemetery is thought to be where Inca nobles were mummified.
- Palace of the Princess: The so-called “Palacio de la Ñusta” features massive rocks over two floors and a room linking it to the Sun Temple.
- Fountains: An incredible network of 16 fountains demonstrates the genius of Inca hydraulic engineering, culminating in the masterful Stairway of Fountains.
- Sacred Rock: This stone sculpture, close to where religious rituals were performed, is thought to represent the Inca god Apu Yanantin.
- Temple of the Moon: This crucial sanctuary dates back 1,500 years and is thought to have either held mummies or be used for religious ceremonies.
What Else Can I Do in Machu Picchu, besides See the Ruins?
Visits to Machu Picchu can easily extend over into a second day, as there’s no shortage of attractions here aside from the citadel itself. Some of the most popular include:
- Huayna Picchu Hike
- Machu Picchu Mountain Hike
- Huchuy Picchu Hike
- Bird Watching
The 8,835-foot sugarloaf of Huayna Picchu towers 850 feet over the ruins, and is every bit as iconic as Machu Picchu itself. This is the top secondary destination in the area, partly due to the Temple of Moon perched on the mountain’s slopes. Access is via a steep trail that has many exposed sections, though other stretches feature via-Ferrata-style cables to help less- daring hikers. The shorter version of the hike takes about one hour, whereas a longer circuit can take up to three hours. The Temple of the Moon and nearby Great Cavern are reached via a second trail from the summit.
At 10,111 feet, this is the highest mountain in the immediate vicinity. The hike up from the Machu Picchu citadel takes about 1.5 hours, and affords panoramic views of the complex and surrounding valley.
The name of this promontory means “Little Mountain” in Quechua, and the new trail that traverses it is perfect for those seeking a more leisurely hike while enjoying fantastic views of the ruins. The accessible one-mile circuit adjoins Huayna Picchu and takes about 30 minutes.
Thanks to the surrounding cloud forest, Machu Picchu offers amazing bird-watching opportunities. Inca wrens, finches, rush tyrants, and yellow-winged blackbirds are some of the species you’ll find—along with the magnificent Andean condor, one of the truly legendary animals of Peru.
What to Bring on a Machu Picchu Trip
In addition to your passport, cash, water, and camera, consider these items when packing for Machu Picchu:
- Layered clothing to adjust to the weather changes and temperature fluctuations in the mountains;
- A good wind and waterproof jacket in the event of rain;
- Sturdy, comfortable waterproof footwear to explore the uneven ground of the complex;
- Sunscreen and mosquito spray.
Remember that hiking poles are forbidden as they could damage the site; tripods and selfie sticks are also prohibited.
What Lodgings Are Available?
The tourist town of Aguas Calientes offers lodgings at a variety of price points. Some of the midrange and upscale hotels include the following:
- El Mapi Hotel
- Casa del Sol Machu Picchu Boutique Hotel
- Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel
- Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge
An extensive breakfast buffet, free oxygen services to combat altitude sickness, and spa treatments are available in this chic modern hotel.
This homey mountain inn with Andean accents offers luxury services, including a jacuzzi and sauna.
This charming hospice with a colonial design features a pool and gardens with over 300 orchid varieties.
Located immediately adjacent to the Inca complex, this upscale hotel offers lush gardens, massage services, and yoga and meditation classes.
How Much Does a Machu Picchu Trip Cost?
- Machu Picchu entrance tickets start at US$62 and can be bundled with tickets to other attractions such as Huayna Picchu.
- Round-trip bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu cost US$24 per person.
- Trips to Machu Picchu by train cost from US$50 to US$450 (or more), depending on the train booked.
- Lodging in Aguas Calientes at a mid-scale hotel is around US$200-US$400 per night, with upscale lodges charging up to US$1,250 a night.
- Full-day tours from Cusco are also available, which cost around US$350 per person and typically run 14 to 16 hours. Other excursions with different extras are available from local tour agencies.
We hope you enjoyed this Travel Guide to Machu Picchu.
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