A visit to Machu Picchu seems to be on everyone’s bucketlist, as it should be. The ruins incredibly sacred, scenic, and unlike any other in the world. It’s nestled high in the mountains amongst the Andes glacier topped mountains and low valley jungles. Whether you decide to do a trek in or a hike once you are there, here are some basic thoughts for planning your trip:
Tips for visiting Machu Picchu
Purchase your entrance tickets at least 1 month in advance, 3 months if you want to hike Huayna Picchu during the high season. You can purchase them here for the best rate. (use Google translate if needed)
Purchase your entrance tickets for a 6AM start so you can be among the first into the site.
Purchase your BUS tickets for the ride up the night before your visit so that you can get in line at 4:30 AM the day of and be ready to go.
Don’t hike up from Auguas Calientes! (unless you really want to) It is a very steep trail with BIG steps up and traverses the same path the bus takes (so you don’t get any different perspective) Even the most fit people in our group got to the top very out of breath and sweating.
DO get a mountain hike ticket! This ticket gets you 1 re-entrance (the normal MP ticket does not allow for re-entry so if you get hungry or need to pee… you’re outta luck)
Dress in layers. It is COLD in the morning but gets very hot during the day. Dress accordingly.
Pack a snack. As previously stated, there’s no re-entry unless you have a mountain ticket.
We were up at 4 and heading out of our hostel with our guide and group by 4:30 to the bus stop. We got bagged lunches/breakfast from the tour company as our last remaining meal provided by them. By the time we got there (about 4:40) the line was already formed and we were maybe 1-2 bus loads from the front of the line… By 5 AM I’d say the end was 10 bus loads back.
We were stationed right outside some convenience shops which did open their doors early for the queue of people. We sat on the curb in our line spot, some of us cracking into our bag of snacks for some breakfast. Around 5:30 the bus officials came by to inspect both our bus tickets and entrance tickets against our passport. (Make sure you book your tickets under the same name) and by 5:40 the buses were rolling up to start moving people up the mountain.
There were at least 10 buses in droves and we were quickly shepherded onto the bus with our group. The ride lasted about 20 minutes and the first half was pretty dark, but twilight illuminated the views for the 2nd half. At the top we got in line to wait the 5 minutes or so we still had before they opened the gates, and our fellows who hiked up met us in front of the line.
We shuffled in showing our tickets a second time and were among the first people into the site so we immediately headed up to the terraces to get the best view. We took a couple shots of the group in a couple good locations before settling at the top of the terraces with our guide to learn some history.
Most of what we were told were things we actually learned from either the Sacred Valley tour or the day before at Llactapata and it lasted about an hour. I wish we had walked among the ruins for our tour but that is a 1 way journey… so unless you have a re-entry ticket, you don’t want to walk around down there until you are ready to leave.
Crowds moving in to watch the sunrise
It WAS one beautiful sunrise- definitely worth the early morning
Around 7AM we said goodbye to our guide and snapped a few more photos of llamas enjoying all the vantage points we could of the terraces before heading up for our hike to Machu Picchu Mountain.
So many llamas
Machu Picchu Mountain
Now onto the hike which was challenging. I’d say it probably is less so when it isn’t on the heels of a 4 day trek, but it is steep and long. About double the height of Huayna Picchu, this trail takes around 1.5-2 hours to climb at a moderate pace. Expect it will take 3 hours round trip. We checked in at the gate to the start of the trail, showing our tickets once again and signing a registrar. As this trail was really more stairs than anything else, we decided to hike at our own pace and do our own thing for it. (my hiking partner got up to the top in probably an hour or so while it took me 1.5)
I’d say I’ve never seen so many stairs in my life (but that would be a lie after hiking around Mt. Huangshan in China)
How the majority of the climb looks
There are pretty spectacular views as you go. Pictured above is the ridge we climbed over the day before with Llactapata hidden in the clouds and the Llatapata resort seen in that cleared space just below the middle of the picture.
The best part is every couple of flights you get another astounding view down on Machu Picchu. Once you get close to the summit, it takes you around the back which doesn’t mean less stairs, but it does give you a bit of a break on steepness, and makes cresting out on top that much more spectacular
First view of the summit from the stairs
Looking down on the river bend we walked the day before
Awesome views of Machu Picchi and Huayna Picchu
Above the ridge line from the previous days climb but still a little ways to go
The trail has frequent drop offs… Keep that in mind if planning to do this hike and don’t have the head for heights
Finally on top!
On top the view down to Machu Picchu is amazing, but the best part really is being above the clouds and at the top of the world. Across nearby ridges you can see the top of Salkantay Mountain poking it’s head up (amazing to think we started our trek on the far side of that mountain) and the ridge we climbed to visit Llactapata. The entire bend of the river is laid out and it is so much easier to see just how nestled among mountains the Incas built their temple. It certainly provides a post card view from the top.
There’s a lovely little hut for getting out of the sun and a summit sign to pose with. I spent about 20 minutes trying to de-sweatify, taking in the views, and sharing the largest avocado I’ve ever seen with generous fellow hikers. After about 20 minutes, my friend and I headed down hoping to have plenty of time to check out other parts of the site. It took about an hour to get down (making it well and truly 3 hours RT for me. I am perfectly average on the hiking scale! Woohoo!)
The top of Salkantay Mountain! We started our trek on the far side of that mountain!
The trail down with steep drop offs
Once we got down from the hike, we were shocked by the loads of people meandering around so after a quick break in the sun, we decided to head out through the ruins where you guessed it, even more people milled about!
There were loads of guides with 15+ people groups randomly stopping to point things out in narrow corridors. It. Was. Stressful. And in the end we mostly just wanted to get out of there instead of being able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of what should be exploring stunning architecture and ruins.
My advice for dealing with the crowds
In a perfect world, I’d take 2 days to see MP- 1 day to get up early and get there first things so I can then explore the ruins on my own at 6:30 AM (most people don’t head down there as it is 1 way to the exit) maybe even climb Huayna Picchu since you get to walk through the ruins on the way to that mountain. And then I’d plan a second day to climb MP mountain.
I have heard that if you don’t need to catch a train that day, the place empties out a lot an hour or 2 before close so you might also be able to have some peace then if you use you MP mountain re-entry.
So. many. people
It was cool to explore the ruins themselves. It would’ve been nice to have a personal guide walking around pointing out specific structural intricacies that we may not have learned on previous tours.
Magic floating building. The Incas were magicians.
My last glimpse of the mountain as we exited the site.
The exit is definitely a la Disneyland. There was a long line for the bus (took about 30 minutes), it was hot, and people routinely tried to cut in line. Again you had to have your ticket and passport out for inspection before getting on as well. The bus ride itself was much more scenic this time since it wasn’t as dark and Aguas Calientes is a fun town to explore in the afternoon.
Grilled Alpaca, quinoa, and my signature banana milk shake for lunch
Once you’re finished with your Machu Picchu adventure, pick a spot for lunch, enjoy the street performers that seem to be everywhere, and wander the charming streets of Aguas Calientes.
Bonus: If you do a trek into Machu Picchu, then you get to experience the train back to Ollantaytambo/ Cusco for your first time and it is MAGICAL.
All in all- a Salkantay trek is an incredible trekking experience and Machu Picchu the most awesome finale! I will do a summary post on all 5 days of our trek soon but for now, I hope the Salkantay Trek has earned it’s spot on every reader’s bucket list.
Machu Picchu Day Costs:
Breakfast: Included in Salkantay Trek Tour Return bus ticket from Agua Calientes to MP: $25 Machu Picchu entrance + MP mountain $40 Guide in MP (included in Salkantay Trek tour which was $405) Lunch in Agua Calientes at Munaycha $17 Gelato in town: $3.75 Snacks and water purchased from shops: $13.50 Taxi to hotel from tour office in Cusco $13- $3.25 pp Hotel near Cusco airport (with included airport shuttle): $57- 14.25pp
1. The Llactapata Ruins- RIGHT in front of Machu Picchu
2. The various views of Machu Picchu (above, across, below)
3. Getting to hike along original Inca trail
4. Sunrise on a stunning valley
5. Continued jungle wildlife- especially birds
Day 4 Stats:
Distance: ~18km or 11.5 miles
Elevation: ~2,500 feet up, ~4000 feet down
Time: 9 hours with stops
*You can shave off 3 hours and at least half the mileage by paying $30 and taking the train from Hydro Electric to Aguas Calientes.
Our morning started with epic views on the hike uphill to the ridge
Day 4 was our earliest start on the trail, with a wake up of 4:30 aiming to leave 30 minutes earlier. While we had electricity in camp the night before, the power was out for the area in the morning so it was DARK indeed. We ate breakfast using the collection of headlamps our group had ( I can’t imagine how they cooked stuff for us) and packed our stuff up as normal. This was our last morning with our chefs who we tipped and said goodbye to before hitting the trail at 5:30. The first few hours of the trail were steady uphill and we raced to be done with the uphill before the sun heated everything up. Watching sunrise over the valley was STUNNING and overhead flew parrots squawking and making a ruckus so even with a few hours of sweaty uphill, the morning was a killer hike.
The trail this day was 100% Inca made and required permits to enter which our guide supplied at the start booth. After about 1.5 hours of steady sweating, we took a break at the only stand on that side of the ridge where people got fresh orange juice for a dollar and others used the open air toilets (they were pink!) on the back side of the hut with incredible valley view below. There was a cute puppy wandering around we all shared snacks with before pressing on for another 45 minutes or so to the summit of the ridge. Then it was about 20 minutes downhill to the Inca site Llactapata.
View from our break spot- Almost to the top of the ridge!
Adorable dog at our break spot
Even though we were sweaty and most definitely tired of going uphill, some parts of this trail were just complete magic.
The name of this site means elevated place or “at the top of ” and has a direct view across to Machu Picchu (albeit a little higher up) and had an ornamental fountain and gate that framed Machu Picchu perfectly.
A lot of the site was still overgrown meaning what we saw was only the tip of the iceberg here but wow, the views across to Machu Picchu as well as being able to look to the side and see Salkantay mountain was mind blowing. We’d come so far and were within sight of our final destination!
We took another break here, eating snacks and snapping photos while Carlos explained more about the site and its connection to Machu Picchu. He explained it was used as a preparation place for the wealthier/ more important Inca families as they traveled to Machu Picchu. The site was initially reported by Hiram Bingham in 1912 (same explorer who discovered Machu Picchu) but wasn’t actually extensively explored and mapped until 2003.
The main buildings that are uncovered at the site
Can you spot Machu Picchu’s terraces?
The central gate
I loved exploring this site
After a brief rest here, we pressed on another 30 minutes or so down steep, muddy switchbacks to another rest stop called Llactapata Lodge (you could actually spend the night here) where more toilets and snacks were available. At this point a few members in our group were struggling with the downhill (knee pain) so our numbers were spread thin as everyone moved at their own pace. We didn’t stop again for another few hours until reaching a small shack where we stopped to wait for Carlos to catch up at least and guide us on.
He walked us 15 minutes further to our lunch stop at the restaurant Aobamaba while he ran back up to assist the last people in our group. Lunch here was a family owned restaurant right overhanging the river. We had a type of yellow curry over rice that was delicious and were able to rest a while and digest while waiting for the last of our members (who caught up to us) to finish their meal. We were finally about done with the uphill/downhill game but we still had a LOT of walking ahead of us.
View from Llactapata Lodge
Continuing down the trail, we caught site of a beautiful waterfall just in front of the Machu Picchu site. So beautiful!
After the restaurant we came to the long, and a bit scary suspension bridge that spit us out just below a waterfall running down from Machu Picchu.
After the waterfall we reached the small town of Hydro Electric where you have the option (for $30) of riding the train the rest of the way into Aguas Calientes. A couple of people opted for this option to save their feet and knees but the majority of us pressed on for the final 3 hour walk to our lodging for the day. The trail cut across 2 of the switchbacks the train takes through massive banana trees before then just following the train tracks the rest of the way.
Passing along the bottom of the same waterfall we’d seen in the distance. It was HUGE.
Almost to Hydro Electric
At hydro electric looking straight up the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. That line cutting across the center is actually where the Inca Bridge is (you can hike to it from Machu Picchu as part of your ticket)
It was a BEAUTIFUL walk with the river on one side, and often little streams or falls flowing in from the other side of the tracks. In a couple places you were forced to walk ON the tracks as there wasn’t a separate bridge for pedestrians.
The trains passed us pretty slowly allowing for plenty of time to hear and get out of the way. Eventually our guide caught up to us and guided us off the train tracks and down to the road that would take us straight into town. Unfortunately for us, our hostel for the night was on the upper far side of town. We all settled into our rooms for showers to clean up and nap a bit before dinner.
*Tip pack your soap and change of clothes in your day bag for this day as you barely get your duffel bags before dinner. The room was pretty nice in that it was cooler, with decently comfortable clean beds! (after 3 nights in a sleeping bag, the sheets and bedding were a welcome respite)
The trail cutting across the train track switch backs through epic banana tree forest
The train tracks are so scenic
View from the tracks looking straight up to the bottom of Machu Picchu
Crossing the tracks as there weren’t any pedestrian bridges
Watching a train go by.
After 3 hours of flat walking along the train tracks we finally made it to Aguas Calientes. (the launch pad town for Machu Picchu)
We walked as a group from the hostel to a restaurant where we had dinner (in much the same fashion as we had along the trail) and here you could also order drinks but they were not included in the tour price. (It was again difficult to pay for things when we were charged as a group for drinks… try to have close to exact change and small bills)
After dinner we walked as a group to the bus ticket office a block away where we could purchase bus tickets to Machu Picchu for the following morning. Out of the 11 of us including Carlos, only 2 chose to continue the trail and hike UP to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The bus tickets cost $15 pp round trip and was well worth it as the trail to MP from town was straight up LARGE steps offering no other perspective than what you can get from the bus. After purchasing our tickets, we were able to wander town a bit if we chose and make our own way back to the hostel on our own. But with a VERY early morning the next day, most everyone headed back to bed.