Machu Picchu is truly not an experience that one does well describing with words. It’s something that you do once in a lifetime, and you’ll forever marvel at both the beauty of the natural world and the sheer power of human beings to craft a place in it. Note that this journey is not an easy one, and you must commit more time and energy to planning this trip well than you normally would, but it is 100% worth it. Read on for my travel guide for Machu Picchu.
Check out my Instagram hashtag #caro_in_peru for a photo journal of my trip!
How to Book
My recommendation here would be to book your trip backwards, as I did. There is a daily quota for Machu Picchu and so you need to go onto the website for the “park” and buy a ticket, and then follow this up by providing all of your traveler information via email in order to validate it. Book the ticket, then check your email to ensure that you are on top of this.
Next, book your stay in Aguas Calientes, which is the basecamp town for Machu Picchu. There are not a ton of options, so this is critical. After that, book your train tickets from Cusco to Machu Picchu. We traveled on Peru Rail, which was absolutely lovely and I cannot recommend it more highly. The cars have glass ceilings so you can see the beauty of the Peruvian mountains as you travel. Note that peak train times book up quickly, so getting your tickets locked down is a big step.
After this is complete, book your Cusco accommodations (see my Cusco Travel Guide for faves). I recommend spending a night in Cusco prior to departing for Machu Picchu, so you have a chance to adjust to the altitude. Cusco is at about 11,000 feet above sea level (which is higher than Machu Picchu), so giving your body some wiggle room here is a very good thing. The locals will tell you to chew on coca leaves or drink coca tea, but if you’re nervous, go to your general physician and get a prescription for altitude meds.
Lastly, book your flight to Cusco. Note that there are no direct flights to Cusco, you must go through Lima or another larger airport to get there. Also note that you must go through Cusco to get to Machu Picchu. Scope out all of the elements of this travel flow in advance and make sure that all are available prior to starting to book your trip, and then I recommend booking in rapid succession.
Where To Stay
El Mapi Hotel was one of my favorite hotels that I stayed at in Peru. It is a stone’s throw from the train, which means that you can easily walk there when you depart and arrive, but no matter – the hotel will come grab you at the train and carry your bags for you. El Mapi also has a great continental breakfast, big bar for pisco sours at happy hour, a lovely dinner, and a fantastic spa to boot. We treated ourselves to hour-long massages and a soak in the hot tub here, which is on the top floor of the hotel and encased in glass so you feel like you’re outside in the Andes.
Where To Eat
Out of all of the great things about visiting Machu Picchu, the food in the town of Aguas Calientes was not one of the stronger suits. We ate breakfast at our hotel each day, had dinner there one night, and had them pack a picnic lunch for us for when we went to Machu Picchu for the day. Our only dining experience outside the hotel was for dinner at Treehouse, which was my favorite meal in Aguas Calientes. All of the food was fresh, simple, and delicious.
What to Expect at Machu Picchu
Ah, the wonder of the ancient world. When you book your ticket to Machu Picchu, you will select an entrance time to the site. This is when you need to back your travel out from to figure out when to get up and get going that morning. You need to take a bus to Machu Picchu, which is about 25 minutes from the town of Aguas Calientes. The bus line is always there and always long. You need to get in the ticket line first, where you buy the tickets, then you need to get in another line to wait for the buses. These are two separate lines. They move pretty quickly, despite stretching on for blocks. I would give yourself 20 minutes minimum to buy your tickets and wait in line, 30 to be safe. The bus ride itself is on very narrow winding roads up the mountain, so I would recommend not sitting by the window if that bothers you.
Also, note that you must show your passport to enter Machu Picchu, and there are no exceptions. Pack it in a safe place, preferably a ziplock bag, as the weather patterns are unpredictable.
Once you get to Machu Picchu, the bus will drop you off and you can follow the crowd to the entrance, printed ticket and passport in hand. Once inside, make sure to follow the timing guidelines printed on your ticket – if you’re hiking the Machu Picchu mountain, Wayna Picchu, or any of the surrounding peaks, you need to begin your climb within the hour prescribed on the ticket. If you’re just there to explore the Machu Picchu site, the place is your playground. There are no maps or plaques or directions, you can literally wander in every direction and explore at will. You can also spend as much or as little time in the site as you want. At one point we left for a cold beer and a moment to rest our legs, and we were able to get back in afterwards with our tickets and passports. We were there the entire day, and still could not get enough.