South America

Guide to Machu Picchu - All You Need to Know

Laura Pattara

Laura Pattara  |  24 September 2017

Our comprehensive Guide to Machu Picchu details the how, the what, the when and even the why, to help you get the most out of your visit to one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.

Here at Viva Expeditions, we often call Peru’s Machu Picchu the ‘poster child’ of South America. You know, it consistently graces covers of guide books and travel brochures, it’s that one truly evocative sight that manages to encapsulate the appeal of a whole continent and the one image which conjures up wanderlust in a mere instant.

You know…this one

Machu Picchu with Lama

Machu Picchu


Yet as popular and internationally famous as Machu Picchu may is, we still field plenty of calls from prospective visitors who really aren’t quite sure of exactly what it is, where it is, how to reach it and, perhaps more importantly, what there is to see and do once you do get there. Do we need to hike for, like, a million days to see it? Is there no other way? Do I need to take a whole month off just to experience it? That sort of thing. So we thought it about time to bust a few myths and give you the low-down on this most magnificent place, so you can feel more confident making travel plans and creating an unforgettable adventure in this most rewarding part of the world.

What is Machu Picchu?

In most travel literature, Machu Picchu is described as the ‘Lost City of the Incas’, although a more accurate description is ‘a most important and revered centre of the ancient Inca people which was indeed found, forgotten about, and then found again’. American Hiram Bingham II ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu in 1911 and proceeded to tell the world he had found the fabled ‘Lost City of the Incas’, although five decades later his claim was disproven conclusively. Nevertheless, what he did discover was an incredible, awe-inspiring citadel built by the Incas over 600 years ago, probably as an estate for then Inca Emperor Pachacuti. For one thing you should really know about Machu Picchu is that not everything is known about it at all. Most info is based on deduction and assumption, still nowadays.

This once urban citadel comprised agricultural terraces, aqueducts, buildings, homes, temples, altars and so much more. All built using the ancient Incan art of stone cutting and building, whereby no mortar was used. And still, not a knife blade fits through the cracks. Wonderfully preserved for centuries, Machu Picchu is a sight of indescribable beauty and the mystery that still surrounds, not to mention its breathtaking location, makes it all the more appealing.

Machu Picchu overview

More than a pile of ruins or important rubble, Machu Picchu is a living and breathing museum of the Inca civilization and for this reason it is now a UNESCO-listed treasure and one of the New Wonders of the World. The site has revealed much about how the Incas evolved, how clever, how resourceful and, more so, how vulnerable they were to outside invasion. Spanish conquistadores may never have stumbled upon Machu Picchu when they conquered the Americas but the ravaging diseases they introduced is believed to have been the main demise of the citadel’s inhabitants. Machu Picchu was abandoned when the Inca world collapsed and was left to lie in wait for more than 400 years.

Machu Picchu ruins

Machu Picchu ruins

Where is Machu Picchu?

You’d be very hard pressed to find a more idyllic location than the one gifted to Machu Picchu. Set in a protective high-altitude valley in the heart of the Andes Mountains (named the Sacred Valley of the Incas for good reason) Machu Picchu rests at 2100m in altitude, some 40-odd km northeast of Cusco (as the crow may fly) in south-eastern Peru. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire and is now not only a mesmerising historical centre to discover but also the main base point for trips to visit Machu Picchu.

In our modern connected times, Machu Picchu is not terribly removed from civilization which makes a visit somewhat ‘easy’. That is, if it wasn’t for the fact that life at these high altitudes requires a ‘slow and steady’ approach to any visit. Whether you hike there, or take the train, you’ll want to this place justice, and you a favour, by planning quite a few days in the region.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

How to get to Machu Picchu

Hiking – You may not need to hack your way through overgrown forests nowadays, to reach Machu Picchu on foot, but you can certainly take a multi-day hike over and through the astonishing Andes to retrace the steps of the ancient Incas. For this kind of adventurous undertaking, you’ll want to have between 7 and 10 days at your disposal. Say, 2 days in Cusco to acclimatise to the altitude and see some gems in town, 4-5 days to hike to Machu Picchu, and an extra rest day in Cusco at the end would really be ideal. Our Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu was designed specifically for those who wish to reach the site on their own steam. You can also check out this page for more walking options, including luxury hiking trips and alternative routes.

Taking the Train – We certainly understand that walking is good for one’s health but one need not hike vertiginous mountains for days on end to reap the rewards. One can simply meander leisurely for a few hours, right? We get that. And luckily, so does Machu Picchu. Whether you’re simply not into multi-day hikes or perhaps have a little less time up your sleeve, you have the option of reaching Machu Picchu by train from a town called Aguas Caliente which is not too far from Cusco. The train ride is spectacular and takes nothing away from the whole experience, we can assure you. Once you reach the final train stop you’ll find two options: stay overnight and hike up for a couple of hours to reach Machu Picchu by sunrise (AWESOME!) or take a bus that will deliver you right to the front gates. Check out our Andean Explorer itinerary for further details).

Anyone, of any age or fitness level, can reach Machu Picchu and that is the beautiful part of it all. Think you’re too old to tick off that bucket-list dream? We can get you there! Don’t you worry about it at all.

Hiking to dead womens pass inca Trail

Hiking to dead womens pass inca Trail

What there is to see and do at Machu Picchu?

So: you’ve hiked ad infinitum or you’ve taken the train, the bus, the wheelchair…whatever. You’re there.

What now?

Well, we do hope you have plenty of energy left because the guided tour of Machu Picchu is bound to blow your socks off. There is SO much to see here that you’ll need a map, plenty of interesting info and good walking shoes to soak it all up. Yes, you are free to wander about on your own but local knowledgeable guides can literally bring this place to life, with anecdotes (even a few hilariously outlandish ones!) and information that makes any visit that much richer. You’ve come aaaalllll this way, now’s not the time to go solo. Get the most out of your visit with a guide at the helm. Mostly, because no matter how much you read up about Machu Picchu before you arrive, you’ll either forget half of it or it simply won’t make any sense at the time.

The highlights of Machu Picchu complex, which stretches for 13 square kilometres, include the outstanding Sun Gate, the inspiring Temple of the Sun, the Intihuatana Stone from where the Incas derived their calendar, the impressively carved Temple of the Condor, the Main Plaza and the Temple of the Three Windows. And that’s just a start. Each section of the complex hides a thousand stories, amazing stonework and – need we say it – astonishing viewpoints.

Machu Picchu ruins

Machu Picchu ruins in the Andes mountains

How to Buy Tickets to Machu Picchu

Visitor numbers are restricted to Machu Picchu, with limited daily tickets issued months in advance. Seriously, like 6 months! During peak season, they can sell out fast so do keep in mind that Machu Picchu is not a place you want to include on your itinerary at the last minute, on a whim. We may be able to score you a ticket at the last minute but chances are minimal and potential for disappointment colossal. So plan ahead, especially if you wish to hike the Inca Trail, as hiker numbers are also heavily restricted to prevent trail degradation.

The Logistics of Visiting Machu Picchu

As of January 1st, 2018, the Peruvian Government introduced new rules in relation to visitor numbers to Machu Picchu, effectively dividing daily visitors in two shifts so as not to overcrowd the sites.

Morning ticket – Entry between 6am and 12pm – Maximum stay, 4 hours

Afternoon ticket – Entry between 12pm and 5pm – Maximum stay, 4 hours

Whilst the morning entry ticket is believed to be quite strict, the afternoon shift could have more flexibility and could, potentially, start as early as 11am. Guests who wish to stay in Machu Picchu for an entire day can certainly purchase two entry tickets, one for each shift.

Best Time to Visit Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail closes every February for clean-up and this happens to fall during the off-peak tourist season anyway. Crowds start descending on Peru’ fertile soil from June and that is not only because it marks the start if the northern hemisphere summer holiday period: this is the driest period of all.

The months between April and October are ideal for visiting Machu Picchu and you’ll find the Andes devoid of heavy rains (usually) with clear skies perfect for photography. Nights are always cold at these high altitudes so you will have to pack warm regardless but your best bet for an incredible time is to try and steer clear of wetter months.

cholitas, Peru

Cholitas in Peru

Is there anything else to do besides Machu Picchu?

So glad you asked! In fact, YES, there is!

One of the first things we mention to any potential guest is that this region of Peru is awash with incredible attractions. Unless you plan on coming back over and over again, you really ought to experience them whilst visiting Machu Picchu. Cusco is a destination of its own accord, with incredible architecture, history and cultural flair begging for your time. The Valley of the Incas also boasts several sites you can see on your way to Machu Picchu and not to mention the bevy of fantastic active pursuits (like hiking, horse riding, mountain biking and more) you can indulge in during your visit.

Take your time, if you have that luxury. Machu Picchu, and Peru, will astound you with their endless surprises.

Want to know more? Come on over! We are right here to inform and guide you along the way. For unforgettable Machu Picchu adventures, and more, contact us now.

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