An Insider’s Guide to Machu Picchu

Most people have seen panoramic photos of Machu Picchu, but the images don’t do the awe-inspiring archaeological wonder justice. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, the Inca citadel rests on a plateau set 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Because it is a popular bucket-list item among travelers, Kuoda’s team of travel experts has put together an up-to-date guide to Machu Picchu to deepen your experience.

Seamlessly integrated with its natural surroundings, Machu Picchu appears to emerge from the rocky slopes of the mountain where its 15th-century origins and spirit remain. From its polished stones that fit perfectly together like puzzle pieces to the advanced water systems, the ancient citadel continues to impress. Using Kuoda’s ultimate guide to Machu Picchu, now is your chance to explore and be wowed by this timeless gem of Peru.

Where is Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu pueblo

The citadel of Machu Picchu is positioned between two separate “apus,” meaning sacred peaks in Quechua. Huayna Picchu, Quechua for Young Mountain, marks the north end of the site and on the south stands Machu Picchu, Quechua for “Old Mountain”. Both offer stunning views at the expense of an inclined hike.

Remote yet alluring nonetheless, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is perched above a small town called Aguas Calientes in southern Peru. Some 45 miles from the city of Cusco, the pueblo can only be reached by foot or train. Upon arrival to Aguas Calientes, travelers must continue an upward hike to reach the high-altitude entrance of Machu Picchu (nearly 8,000 feet above sea level) or take a zig-zagging bus ride. Whether hiking or riding a train, tourists will witness the landscape evolve into that of a tropical rainforest region as they near Machu Picchu.

The logistics of arriving at Machu Picchu even in today’s modern world make it evident how this archaeological site remained unscathed by Spanish invaders. In fact, the site would remain ‘undiscovered’ by outsiders for centuries after the Spanish conquest. Not until 1911, when American explorer and Yale scholar Hiram Bingham was taken to Machu Picchu by a local, did the hidden Inca treasure gain international attention.

How long does it take to get to Machu Picchu?

How long does it take to get to Machu Picchu

As previously mentioned, travelers have two options to reach Machu Picchu ̶ by way of a hike or by the comfort of a locomotive. Depending on your transportation mode, the travel time to Machu Picchu will be affected.

Adventurous globetrotters in optimal physical health have a myriad of hikes to choose from that vary in distance and route. The classic Inca Trail takes 3 to 5 days to complete and includes vistas of snow-capped peaks, verdant valleys, and endemic wildlife. Kuoda travel experts can reserve your spot on this popular trek or recommend alternative routes.

For a short yet strenuous hike, visitors may opt to summit from the Aguas Calientes pueblo to the entrance of the Machu Picchu sanctuary. Following the clearly marked pathway made up of stone steps, intrepid tourists will reach the site’s welcome area between 1.5-2 hours.

For those short on time or not yet feeling confident in their physical stamina, multiple trains to Machu Picchu depart daily from Cusco city (a 4-hour ride) as well as the Sacred Valley town of Ollantaytambo (a 2-hour ride). Upon arrival at Aguas Calientes, a 25-minute shuttle bus ride completes the final leg of your journey to Machu Picchu.

Luxury Machu Picchu train options include the lavish, 1920s-style Hiram Bingham locomotive operated by Belmond, Peru Rail’s modern, top-of-the-line Vistadome, and the exclusive Private Inca Rail train service. All three railway experiences include superb food and live music performances ̶  not to mention top-notch comfort and elegant style.

Machu Picchu Circuits

Machu Picchu circuits

To maximize sun exposure, the Machu Picchu citadel is laid out in an east-west direction. Some buildings have windows and other features that align precisely with the solstices, equinoxes, and various movements of constellations.

Distinct in length (long or short) and according to the terraces they visit (lower or upper), you can explore the archaeological site via any of the four following circuits:

• Circuit 1- Machu Picchu only

Visit the upper terraces of the archaeological site as you pass Inti Punku (the Sun Gate), followed by the Main Portal, the Granite Quarry, Room of Mirrors and Ceremonial Fountains. Walking through the high terraces you will be able to snap a postcard-perfect photo of Machu Picchu. This upper section route is considered short.

• Circuit 2 – Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

Why is Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu considered the most popular circuit? This route takes you to the upper terraces of Machu Picchu, through the Inca citadel, and up Huayna Picchu, making it the longest and most complete circuit. In addition to the constructions visited along the Machu Picchu Only circuit, this route will lead you to the Sacred Main Square, Sacred Rock, Temple of the Condor, and Intihuatana* (the Sun Stone).

The Intihuatana, or “hitching post of the sun,” sits atop a pyramid of terraces built from a small rocky outcrop. Believed to have been an astronomical clock or calendar, the main pillar marks the position of the sun throughout the year.

* To prevent crowds, Intihuatana can only be visited between 7:00-10:00.

• Circuit 3: Machu Picchu with Mountain

This short route takes visitors through the lower terraces. Beginning near the entrance of the Guard House, you will walk past the House of the Inca, Room of Mirrors, and Ceremonial Fountains, but not before stepping near the Temple of the Sun*.

The Temple of the Sun includes a rounded tower-like structure with windows, one of which aligns directly with the morning sun during the winter solstice in June. Beneath the temple is a cave that some researchers believe once held the mummy of Inca Pachacutec. Today, it’s thought that the citadel may have been a type of country retreat for Pachacutec.

* To prevent crowds, the Sun Temple can only be visited between 13:00-16:00.

• Circuit 4: Machu Picchu with Huchuy Picchu

This is the longer route option that includes the lower terraces of Machu Picchu. Beyond the constructions included in the previous circuit, the Machu Picchu with Huchuy Picchu circuit also includes the Sacred Rock and the Temple of the Condor*.

The Temple of the Condor is particularly striking in that the Incas ingeniously conditioned a rock that was naturally part of the mountain to appear as the spread wings of a condor. As well, a carving of what appears to be the condor’s head can be observed.

* To prevent crowds, the Temple of the Condor can only be visited between 10:00-13:00.

Machu Picchu Entry Times & Protocols

Machu Picchu protocols

While Machu Picchu is open daily from 06:00-17:30, it is not possible to enter the archaeological site after 14:00. When purchasing a ticket to Machu Picchu, a fixed time slot of 60 minutes must be selected. The following shifts are currently available for Machu Picchu entrance:

First Shit: between 06:00-09:00 (6:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m.)

Second Shift: between 09:00-12:00 (9:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m.)

Third Shift: between 12:00-15:00 (12:00 p.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m.)

In order to conserve what is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the number of daily visitors allowed in Machu Picchu has been reduced to 3,500 as of 2022. Basic rules of entry to Machu Picchu include showing your passport (or form of identity that you used to make ticket reservation; proof of Covid vaccination (both physical and electronic forms are accepted) or a negative PCR test (taken within 48 hours of visit).

At present, it is not necessary to present the vaccination card or the use of a face mask when visiting Machu Picchu. The use of a mask is no longer required in outdoor spaces across Peru so it is recommended but not mandatory during the visit.

The Best Time to Visit Machu Picchu

Best time to visit Machu Picchu

If you are planning a trip to explore the highlights of Peru, you are likely wondering when is the best time to visit Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu has dry and wet seasons, and the prime times of year to visit are during the shoulder seasons.

June, July, and August are considered the dry months for Machu Picchu, which can seem ideal as the trails and stone steps will be easy to navigate. However, this time of year lines up with summer in the northern hemisphere, thus there are far more tourists during this area of Peru’s dry season.

Meanwhile, the rainy season hits Machu Picchu between December and March, with late January and all of February seeing the most downpours. The beauty of visiting Machu Picchu soon after the rainy season has ended —between late March, April, and May —is witnessing the archaeological site illuminated by lush green lawns and vibrant gardens, which include rare orchids.

Likewise, the shoulder season that appears just before the rainy season beginsSeptember, October, and early November —has the benefit of low levels of tourists.

Additional Hikes at Machu Picchu

Additional Hikes at Machu Picchu

This wouldn’t be a complete insider’s guide to Machu Picchu if we didn’t share some of the best additional hikes that you can enjoy on your trip to Machu Picchu. Take a look at the following for add-ons that vary in length and difficulty.

• Huayna Picchu

Standing at 8,924 feet (2720 meters) above sea level, Huayna Picchu is nearly 1,000 feet taller than the Machu Picchu ruins. The mountain, whose name means ‘young mountain’ in the native Quechua language, is the smaller of the two peaks that appear in the background of classic photos of the Inca archaeological site. From the top of Huayna Picchu, hikers are able to gain a whole new perspective of Machu Picchu and the snaking Urubamba River.

Getting to the top of Huayna Picchu is not an adventure for those with acrophobia. Depending on each individual’s pace, the climb can take anywhere between 1-2 hours. Ascending a narrow trail, there are a few sections where handrails have been placed to aid in balance. While the gain in altitude is not much, this hike is steep and requires much stability.

Along the side of this so-called ‘young mountain’ is the Temple of the Moon and the Great Cave. At the top of Huayna Picchu are Inca ceremonial buildings, which has led some archaeologists to believe that the mountain was used by Inca priests. The height of the mountain would have allowed them to be closer to the Sun deity.

Only 200 permits to Huayna Picchu are available daily. Time slots include: 06:00-07:00; 08:00-09:00; 10:00-11:00, and 12:00-13:00. After having summited Huayna Picchu, visitors are not allowed to re-enter the Machu Picchu archaeological site.

• Huchuy Picchu

Neighboring Huayna Picchu is the ‘little mountain’ Huchuy Picchu. Despite its endearing Quechua name and relatively small stature (it stands less than 100 meters above the Inca citadel), Huchuy Picchu offers up stunning views of the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu and the surrounding area. Having opened up to the public as recently as 2021, the Huchuy PIcchu hike is a great option for tourists seeking an add-on that is shorter and less challenging than Huayna Picchu.

The moderate hike winds its way from the Eastern terraces to take visitors to Huchuy Picchu. After snapping some amazing photos from the top of the peak, hikers head down toward the upper terraces of the Machu Picchu site. Be aware that there are some sections of the trail that run along steep drop-offs.

The Huchuy Picchu trail is just over 1 mile (1.9 kilometers) and can take between 30 minutes to an hour to complete.

Similar to Huayna Picchu, there are just 200 permits allotted daily. Time slots include 06:00-07:00 and 14:00-15:00.

• Inca Bridge

The add-on hike to the Inca Bridge is free and easy and should take just 30 minutes to get to from the Inca Citadel. Follow a narrow trail through the cloud forest for up to 30 minutes, passing lush mountainsides and views of the ever-present Urubamba River. Part of the stone path is cut into a cliffside, which is why getting to the Inca Bridge can be triggering for those with vertigo.

Though it is prohibited to cross the bridge, the wooden overpass is quite amazing. A 20-foot (6-meter) gap is linked together by four logs and was likely used as a drawbridge by Inca guards to allow certain individuals to enter through this ‘secret entrance’ to Machu Picchu and to keep others out.

• Intipunku (Sun Gate)

Typically, Intipunku is the last landmark for trekkers on the Inca Trail before entering the Machu Picchu archaeological site. From the Sun Gate, an epic first view of Huayna Picchu and the sprawling citadel can be ingested by intrepid travelers. Not many know that it is also possible for day visitors to Machu Picchu to also gain this perspective of the famous archaeological site.

It is believed that Intipunku acted as a controlled portal of entry and exit, ensuring that only the Inca elite could pass. Nowadays, tourists can make their way to this important gate without paying anything extra.

Intipunku is situated at 8,860 feet (2,700 meters) above sea level. From the Inca citadel and heading out from the Guard House and along the upper terraces, the Sun Gate can be reached in about 1-1.5 hours.

The Do’s and Don’ts At Machu Picchu

Responsible travel companies like Kuoda are committed to doing their part in conserving national and historical landmarks such as Machu Picchu. Visitors who do not comply with the list of prohibited acts or objects will be asked to leave the archaeological site immediately. In order for you to fully enjoy your excursion to the famous citadel, we have included in our guide to Machu Picchu the following ‘do’s’ as well as the complete list of prohibitions, as provided by the Machu Picchu governmental website:

  • DO bring your passport and entry ticket
  • DO bring sunscreen and a sun hat
  • DO wear comfortable walking shoes
  • DO bring a full, reusable water bottle
  • DO bring a fully charged camera
  • DO bring a rain jacket or rain poncho
  • DO respect the established circuits, routes, and on-site guards
  • DON’T carry backpacks, bags or purses larger than 40x35x20 cm (16x14x8 inches).
  • DON’T enter with food or kitchenware, i.e. plates, cutlery, thermoses, etc.
  • DON’T enter with any illegal substance or to be under the influence of any substance.
  • DON’T enter with any type of alcohol or under the influence.
  • DON’T enter with umbrellas, walking sticks, portable chairs, tripods, monopods, selfie sticks, or other photography/film stabilization accessories.
  • DON’T enter with animals, except guide dogs.
  • DON’T feed domestic or wild animals
  • DON’T enter with any type of aerosol.
  • DON’T deface, alter or leave any type of graffiti.
  • DON’T enter with any type of musical instrument, megaphone or speakers.
  • DON’T make loud or disturbing noises (scream, whistle, clap, sing, etc).
  • DON’T use virtual apps in narrow paths or outside designated explanation areas
  • DON’T enter with heels or hard-sole shoes.
  • DON’T access with baby strollers.
  • DON’T enter with knives or weapons of any kind.
  • DON’T enter with banners, posters, or other objects of this type, clothing intended for advertising purposes, costumes, among others. Film or photograph for advertising purposes.
  • DON’T generate turmoil, undress, lie down, run and/or jump.
  • DON’T climb or lean on walls and/or structures. Touch, extract or move lithic elements such as rocks and stonework.
  • DON’T disturb, collect or remove flora or fauna.
  • DON’T carry out activities that distort the sacredness of the monument; such as fashion shows, dances, social commitments, obscene acts contrary to morality and good manners, perform any kind of activity that implies the impairment or deterioration of the monument, its natural environment and/or facilities.
  • DON’T smoke or vape, or start a fire of any kind.
  • DON’T litter.
  • DON’T stray from the established circuits/routes.
  • DON’T sell or trade inside the monument and surrounding areas, until Puente Ruinas.
  • DON’T fly over with paragliders, drones, or any type of craft.

Luxury tours of Machu Picchu are once-in-a-lifetime trips for many travelers, who are astounded and delighted to finally see this New World Wonder in person. The travel designers at Kuoda Travel are experts in Machu Picchu private tours. Contact us to design your ideal excursion to Machu Picchu as part of an exclusive tour of Peru.

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