The Complete Travel Guide To Visiting Machu Picchu

travel guide to visiting machu picchu in Peru

Machu Picchu in Peru is one of the few places on earth that is sure to be on everyone’s bucket list.

And although it might seem like it’s in some far away, hidden paradise, the huge number of tourists visiting Machu Picchu every day has made it very accessible for just about anyone to visit.

However, Machu Picchu’s remote location and strict park rules make it somewhat complicated to plan a trip without some serious research and planning ahead of time.

And if you haven’t heard of it yet, you’re likely in for a little sticker shock: it costs about $250 per person to visit the famous hilltop ruins.

But don’t worry, we found a cheap workaround that’ll save you a ton of money! 


After spending a week in the Sacred Valley and an afternoon in the famous Machu Picchu ruins, these are the top things we wish we knew before traveling to Machu Picchu:


things to know before visiting Machu Picchu in Peru
Exploring The Ruins With A Few Friendly Locals

Types Of Entry Tickets & Cost

There are 3 different ticket choices for entering Machu Picchu and each one gets you a different level of access:

  • The General Rate Machu Picchu Ticket that gets you access to the ruins.
  • The Machu Picchu + Waynapicchu (Huayna Picchu) Mountain Ticket which gets you access to the ruins plus access to hike the hill in front of the Machu Picchu ruins – this ticket is highly popular and gets sold out quick!
  • The Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain Ticket which gets you into the ruins plus access to a 2-hour hike up the mountain behind the ruins.

Each ticket is sold for a specific time slot and the time that you choose is the earliest time when you can enter, with time slots available for every hour from 6 am to 2 pm.

Unfortunately, they also separate the entrances into morning and afternoon access, and everyone who enters in the morning must exit the park by noon while everyone who enters after noon has to be out of the ruins by 4:30 pm.

That means that if you’re planning to spend many hours leisurely exploring the ruins, you should try to buy a ticket for a slot between 6 and 8 am for the morning slot, or at noon for the afternoon slot.

You can (and should) buy the tickets online and ahead of time directly from Peru’s Official Machu Picchu Website, which tells you how many tickets are left for any day you choose. You can also buy the tickets in person in Cusco or Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

The General Rate Machu Picchu Ticket

The first and most common type of entrance ticket is the general Machu Picchu ticket which is also the cheapest at $45 USD and most widely available. About 700 of these tickets are available per time slot.

During the peak season of June-August, the early morning tickets and noon tickets tend to sell out days in advance. When we went in January which is the slow season, there were plenty of tickets available for every time slot, even for the next day.

However, even if you don’t get one of these popular entrance times, you’ll still have plenty of time to explore the park without being rushed.

As soon as you enter the park you are greeted with great views of the ruins and Huayna Picchu in the background. From there, you start a slow climb into the upper part of the ruins which gives you increasingly more jaw-dropping views of the ruins below.

All the amazing views of Machu Picchu that you always see in the pictures are seen from here so there’s really no need for a more specialized ticket.

Machu Picchu Views From General Access Ticket

When you’re done taking about a million photos of the place from above, you can start descending down into the heart of the ruins where you can see intricate stone carvings, fountains, and even hang out with a group of llamas which are friendly and don’t mind being in selfies.

The ruins have very specific paths they call “circuits” and you have to stay on these paths at all times. All these paths are one-way and there’s no going back, so make sure to take your time going through the ruins since there are guards everywhere to ensure you don’t break any of the rules.

If all you want to do is experience the ruins and see that magical view without working too hard, the general entrance ticket is for you.

The Machu Picchu + Waynapicchu Mountain Ticket

This is most sought after ticket due to the limited amount of tickets available each day. Only 400 of these tickets are sold per day and they tend to be sold out days (or weeks during high season) in advance.

There are 3 time slots to visit Huayna Picchu: 6 am, 7 am, or 8 am. 200 of the daily slots are given out for the 6 am entrance.

Going up Huayna Picchu (or Waynapicchu) is an adventure of its own as you climb about 1,400 feet up the mountain in front of the ruins of Machu Picchu. The stairs tend to get pretty narrow with steep drop-offs so it’s definitely not for those who are deathly afraid of heights.

From the top, you get amazing views of the ruins and valleys all around.

It takes 2 hours to make the round-trip hike up to Huayna Picchu, or you can do a 4-hour loop of the entire Huayna Picchu mountain which takes you to some additional ruins on the other side of the mountain.

The entrance gate to Huayna Picchu is towards the end of the Machu Picchu ruins and after you’re done with Huayna Picchu, you won’t be able to go back into heart or beginning of the ruins so make sure to explore that area first.

The cost for the Machu Picchu plus Waynapichu mountain ticket is $60 USD so it’s not much more than the general entrance. If you’re looking for some extra excitement while visiting Machu Picchu, this is the best option.

The Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain Ticket

Another ticket option is the Machu Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain ticket.

This one also goes for $60 USD and is available for three time slots: 6 am, 7 am, or 8 am.

Machu Picchu mountain is the mountain behind the ruins and is a good option if you want to squeeze in a 2-hour round-trip hike with a bird’s eye view of the ruins and Huayna Picchu in the background.

This option doesn’t seem to be too popular and plenty of tickets were available when we visited, even for the next day, although I’m sure it’s sold out well in advance during the high season of June-August.

Urubamba River Valley From Machu Picchu

Time Needed To Visit The Ruins

Although it looks huge from the pictures, Machu Picchu is actually not that big.

As soon as you enter, you get to an overlook and the first view of the entire ruins with Waynapicchu in the background. From there, you can go down into the heart of the ruins if you’re short on time or you can continue upwards to get better views, which is really the best part of the ruins.

If you continue upwards, within a few hundred meters you’re at the most scenic and famous viewpoint of the entire ruins.

You can spend anywhere from 30 minutes in this area if you’re short on time to 2 hours if you take a few hundred pictures like we did.

From there, you descend into the ruins where you can easily spend 1-2 hours exploring the many different stone structures, taking in the sights at the viewpoints of the surrounding valleys, or chasing around llamas trying to get selfies with them.

2-3 hours is the amount of time that most people would need to comfortably explore Machu Picchu. We took 3 hours walking around the entire site, but we definitely take more pictures than the average visitor.

Roaming Around The Machu Picchu Citadel

If you happen to buy tickets that only allow you to be in the ruins for an hour or two, you’ll still have plenty of time to explore both the upper viewpoint part of the ruins and the center of the ruins, you just won’t have as much time to linger and take in the sights.

We also saw a few people struggling with the altitude since Machu Picchu sits at nearly 8,000 feet in elevation. It shouldn’t really affect the average person much, but if you haven’t been keeping up with your cardio at home, it could lead to shortness of breath, fatigue, and headaches. If you think you might get altitude sickness, then expect to go through the ruins a bit slower at first.

When To Go

Peru only has two climate seasons: wet season and dry season.

Wet season is roughly from October through March, and during this time the weather is a bit unpredictable.

Everything is still accessible and the temperatures tend to be a bit cooler, usually with sunny days around 70 degrees F and afternoon rain that starts around 3 or 4 pm.

The weather tends to scare tourists off so crowds are much smaller during this time, hotels are cheaper and more widely available, and you don’t need as much planning ahead of time since tickets are usually available for any time slot within a day or two.

The dry season is from April through September and since you’re pretty much guaranteed a sunny day, coupled with summer vacations, this is the tourist high-season, especially June through August.

The surrounding hills tend to look a little more brown during the dry season but you also get more clear views of the breathtaking surrounding peaks around Machu Picchu since there aren’t as many rain clouds hovering over them.

Much more planning is needed ahead of time if you plan to visit during the tourist high-season to make sure entrances and transportation aren’t sold out or hotels completely booked.

To get the best of both worlds, March-April and September-October are the best times to go when the crowds are still smaller and you get to enjoy mostly clear, sunny days.

Views Of Aguas Calientes Town From Machu Picchu

Location

Machu Picchu is in the middle of nowhere and that is the most challenging part of visiting the ruins. If you go with a tour company they’ll arrange all the logistics for you, but if you’re doing it on your own, it takes a good amount of planning and coordination.

The only town around Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes, a small town filled with hotels, hostels, and restaurants. Everyone who visits Machu Picchu has to go into Aguas Calientes first as this is where you can either walk to Machu Picchu (about an hour long hike) or you can take a quick 20-minute bus ride up to the top for $24 round trip. Most people choose to take the bus and save their energy for the ruins.

To make things a bit more complicated, the only thing connecting Aguas Calientes to the rest of Peru is a train track. To get to Aguas Calientes (and Machu Picchu) you first have to take a train in or walk along the train tracks for hours.

Aguas Calientes is a 3-hour train ride from Cusco, a 30-minute train ride from the Santa Teresa area, or a 1.5-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.

Where To Stay

There are 4 main places where you can stay before your visit to Machu Picchu: Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Aguas Calientes, and Santa Teresa. Where you stay depends on how acclimatized you are to the elevation, how much time you have, and what kind of amenities you’re looking for.

Cusco

Cusco is the main city that people fly into to visit Machu Picchu and is the best option if you’re looking for a nice, large city with unlimited food and hotel options. While it might look somewhat close to Lima, it’s a 24-hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco so it’s best to fly in.

Cusco is a great place to base yourself out of because it has a quaint historic center with a buzzing restaurant and bar scene.

However, it’s at 11,200 feet of elevation so if you’re not used to it, it can take a day or two to get rid of a mild altitude sickness such as headaches and shortness of breath. If you’re concerned about the elevation, it’s best to head straight to the Sacred Valley or Aguas Calientes after you land at Cusco.

It’s also much farther away from Machu Picchu and the rest of the ruins in the Sacred Valley, which makes it harder to make any of those a day trip from Cusco.

Moray Ruins In Maras, Sacred Valley

Sacred Valley

Sacred Valley gets its name from the dozens of ancient Inca ruins that line the entire valley. If you want to explore a few more ruins outside of Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley is a great place to spend a few days.

The entire valley is surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks which are visible from many of the hotels and restaurants in the valley and overall has much better weather than Cusco.

Sacred Valley sits at 9,300 feet of elevation which is still high but not as high as Cusco, so it makes the transition easier for tourists who recently landed in Cusco without as much risk of getting altitude sickness.

There are two main cities to choose from in the Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo or Urubamba.

Ollantaytambo is a great, small town with plenty to see and do. It has its own set of Inca ruins on either side of the town, and walking through the narrow alleys that criss-cross the entire city feels like an adventure of its own.

There are plenty of restaurants in town, mostly serving traditional Peruvian food, and tons of hostels and hotels to choose from. But if you’re looking for higher end hotel and restaurant choices, the selection is somewhat limited as this town caters more to tourists with a more limited budget.

Ollantaytambo Town In Sacred Valley

Ollantaytambo is also a great place to stay because it’s the home to the train station going into Machu Picchu, so if you want to spend the least amount of time in a train/bus on your way to Machu Picchu, this is the place to be.

Urubamba is also a great option in the Sacred Valley and although the town itself doesn’t have much to offer, it is surrounded by high-end restaurants, spas, resorts, and boutique hotels that cater to tourists who are looking to pamper themselves in a more tranquil setting.

Urubamba is also at the center of the Sacred Valley so if you’re planning on visiting other attractions in the valley, the trips are much shorter than from Ollantaytambo.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes town is at the base of Machu Picchu and the only way to get in is to walk along the train tracks for hours or take the train in from Ollantaytambo, Cusco, or Santa Teresa.

Aguas Calientes is a very small town but is full of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops ranging from very budget minded to somewhat fancy. But other than that, the town doesn’t really have anything else to offer so I wouldn’t plan to spend too much time here.

If you’re thinking of doing a very early visit to Machu Picchu or want to add in one of the hikes like Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountain, then a night in Aguas Calientes is your best option before heading to the ruins. The other options would be too far away to get any sleep and make it into Machu Picchu at 6 am.

Also, Aguas Calientes sits at a still high (but much lower than Cusco) 6,700 feet of elevation, so it’s a great place to head to right after landing at Cusco if you’re really concerned about getting altitude sickness.

machu picchu peru travel tips and things to know before visiting
Soaking In That Famous $250 View

Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa is often overlooked by international tourists because it’s much harder to get to than the other three options. But if you’re looking at visiting Machu Picchu without spending over $200 per person, Santa Teresa is really the only option.

From Santa Teresa, you can walk the very popular 2-hour Hydroelectric plant route into Aguas Calientes and save around $150 per person on train rides on your way to Machu Picchu.

From Cusco, you have to take a few buses to get into Santa Teresa, but they’re fairly cheap (around $20) and take about 6 hours total. Once you’re there, everything else become much, much cheaper than coming from Cusco or the Sacred Valley.

The options for hotels and restaurants is much more limited as this area caters mostly to Peruvian tourists and international backpackers looking to visit Machu Picchu at a reasonable price.

How To Get To Machu Picchu

There are two options to get to Machu Picchu: take a train & bus or walk.

There are two train companies that will take you to Aguas Calientes, Peru Rail or Inca Rail. We found the prices to be pretty similar, starting at around $150 round trip per person.

You can board the train headed to Aguas Calientes at either Cusco, Ollantaytambo, or Hydroelectrica (Santa Teresa).

From the Hydroelectrica, the train is about $30 and a 20-minute ride to Aguas Calientes. You can buy these tickets directly at the hydroelectric plant terminal just outside of Santa Teresa, they are not available online.

If you’re staying in Cusco, the train from there starts at around $150, depending on the cabin you choose, and takes about 3 hours.

Unfortunately, the train doesn’t run from Cusco in the low season of January 2nd through April 30th. During this time, you have to first take a 2-hour bus ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, then get on the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes which takes another 2 hours.

If you’re staying in the Sacred Valley, the train leaves from Ollantaytambo and takes just under 2 hours. Prices start at around $120 round-trip per person for the cheapest train. If you’re in Urubamba, Peru Rail offers trains from Urubamba starting at around $160 round trip.

If these prices seem outrageous, you’re not alone. We definitely had sticker shock when we first saw the prices.

Luckily, there’s a way to skip the high prices of the train rides, it just requires a lot more effort.

You can walk along the train tracks all the way to Aguas Calientes. For Free.

If you start in Ollantaytambo, we’ve heard of people walking all the way to Aguas Calientes in about 5-8 hours.

Similarly, you can take a bus to Santa Teresa, take a cab from there to the Hydroelectric Plant train station, and start hiking from there. The hike along the train tracks from the Hydroelectric Plant station can be done in about 2 hours and is very popular among backpackers and locals.

If you have some extra time and don’t mind hiking to save about $150, then the Hydroelectric Plant hike into Machu Picchu is the best option.

And then of course, there’s the uber-famous Inca Trail, a multi-day hike that many people choose to do but is crazy expensive and requires booking months in advance due to its popularity and strict government hiker quotas. If you want to hike the Inca Trail and your trip is coming up, you need to contact a tour company ASAP.

Inside The Machu Picchu Archaeological Site

Machu Picchu Site Rules

Since there are so many people visiting the ruins every hour, a ton of rules have been set to make sure everything stays in order, the people keep moving through the maze of walkways, and to maintain the integrity of the ruins.

Some things we saw that aren’t allowed in the ruins:

  • Absolutely no drones. No way could you sneak one up into the air without being noticed.
  • No tripods. There’s just too many people walking around to set one up and it would interrupt the flow of the visitors.
  • No selfie-sticks. Well, technically this is true, but we saw a lot of people using them.
  • No Strollers or anything with wheels that could damage the stones of the ruins.

Having said that, I didn’t see anybody’s bags being checked when we passed through the gates. We did, however, notice a couple who had a large tripod hanging outside their backpack and they were told to check it in at the lockers just inside the gate.

If you want a tripod for your camera, bring a small GorillaPod like this one which is what we brought. It fits inside a backpack and since it doesn’t need to be set up, nobody cared that it was brought in or was being used.

Once inside, there are park rangers every few hundred feet and they’re quick to let you know you’re doing something wrong. Things you can’t do:

  • Walk the wrong direction on the pathways, you always have to keep moving forward.
  • Sit on any ledges with your feet hanging off. Sitting on the ledge is fine as long as the feet don’t go over.
  • Take your shoes off… that was a weird one we saw being enforced.
  • Go over any ropes which are set up along both sides of almost the entire walkway.
  • Jump on someone’s back for a picture… again, another weird one we saw being enforced.

Overall, the rules are pretty simple: just try to blend in. As soon as you try to do something different, the park rangers will blow their whistles and tell you that’s not allowed.

If you do get caught taking pictures while doing something that’s on the “no-no” list, the park rangers will make you delete those pictures in front of them or you’ll be asked to leave (without a refund).

When In Doubt, Follow The Llamas

What To Bring

I don’t think this needs to be said, but if you’re going to Machu Pichu you need to bring along a good camera to capture it all. We brought along our trusty Sony A5100 mirrorless camera. It’s what we always use and the camera we strongly recommend for anybody who wants to take great pictures without lugging around a huge camera.

And if you want to take great pictures, you’re going to need a tripod to make sure you capture all the detail. While normal tripods aren’t allowed in Machu Pichu, we brought this Gorillapod 3k small tripod that can be easily stashed away in a backpack, weighs next to nothing, and can also be used as a small selfie stick.

We also needed a small backup battery power bank like this one to power our 3 phones and camera for the entire day. From the moment we left our hotel to the moment we returned, it took us about 13 hours to visit Machu Pichu. The last thing you want is to be stranded at the train station in Peru with a dead phone battery.

Since the weather is pretty unpredictable, we recommend that you bring along a good rain jacket. We love our North Face Venture 2 rain jackets, which keep us dry and have vents in all the right places to keep us from sweating when it’s hot. They’re available in both men’s sizes and women’s sizes, and they pack up really small and light so they won’t take up much room in your backpack.

And of course, don’t forget to bring a lot of water and sunscreen since there’s no shade and we only saw one place outside the entrance that sold water bottles.


Visiting Machu Pichu is an unforgettable experience from the moment you jump aboard the panoramic train or start your trek along the misty train tracks.

Yea, it might take a little more planning than normal, but the moment you get the first magical glimpse of the hilltop ruins it all becomes worth it.


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Jack & Elaine

Thanks for the great article. We are heading there in a few months. Just to clarify, if you purchase ticket choice 2, do you still have to be out by noon or does that also allow afternoon access?

HUE

Love reading your detailed posts. I gives me valuable insight and helps make decisions.

D J

Great site!
Just wondering how you handled your cat Minka while off hiking or exploring for long lengths of time. Did you leave her in the van (w/ food, water, ventilation) , take her with you or find a trusting care facility/person?
What about the occasional hotel? Were most accommodating for a cat?
Thanks!