We’ve all seen the pictures of Machu Picchu, the medieval Inca civilization that was discovered in 1911. It’s easy to see why this architectural wonder, voted as one of the world’s seven new wonders, is on so many bucket lists. However, getting to Machu Picchu takes some research and planning. So, you don’t want to “just wing it” on this vacation.
Your first decision will be when to go. The two primary considerations are weather and crowds. Because Peru is located close to the equator, temperatures don’t vary much throughout the year. However, they do have rainy and dry seasons.
You can visit Machu Picchu year-round, but the dry season runs from late May to early September. If you choose to travel during the dry season, the high season, you can count on crowds being the largest from June through August. During the rainy season, October through March, showers are most common in the afternoon. Therefore, most people visit between 10 am and 2 pm, and Sundays will be more crowded when Cusco residents get in for free.
Once you have decided when to go, you will need to determine how to get there. Your choices are to hike the Inca trail (2-6 days depending on where you start your trek) or travel by rail.
If you plan to travel by rail, you will need to decide if you’re going to do it all in one (very long) day or stay overnight and visit the site in two days. For example, you can see Machu Picchu in 3-4 hours if you want to make it a day trip, but if you’re going to fully appreciate it and experience the many things there are to do at the site, you’ll want to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes.
Riding the rail is the easiest and most comfortable way to get to Machu Picchu. You have several cities from which to choose for your departure, and your destination will be Aguas Calientes. From there, you will take a 20-minutes bus ride or a strenuous 90-minute hike to the citadel.
If you choose to hike the Inca Trail, you will be hiking on the same trail that the Incas used to reach Machu Picchu. The scenery is stunning as you pass by cascading waterfalls, Incan ruins, archaeological sites, and a wide variety of flora and fauna as you hike through the many different ecological zones. This hike can be physically challenging, but if you are up for it, you’ll need to plan months, if not a full year. It’s extremely popular.
Every visitor to Machu Picchu is required to purchase a permit. If you are hiking the Inca Trail, you will need a separate permit for that. The Peruvian government limits the permits to 500/day on the trail and 2,500/day at Machu Picchu. If you plan to visit during the high season, you’ll want to purchase your permit as early as possible as they do sell out. You may also want to buy an additional permit to hike Huayna Picchu, the steep mountain at the end of the Inca site. This can be done on the same day if you opt for the one-day tour.