Dispelling four myths on visiting Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu has been named as one of the seven wonders of the modern world (which actually contains a lot of ruins from a more ancient past…) and it was one of the must-do things for us in our visit to South America. In early August, I was sitting in the living room of a casa-de-cicilistas (a local host for cyclists in Latin America) by Quito, Ecuador almost tearing my hair out trying to figure out plans for the trip and whether I needed to book in advance. We’re cycling so it’s a bit of a bother to figure out exact dates for when we would be in Southern Peru, a sentiment shared by many travellers I’m sure. I realized in my attempt to filter through all the random information and now after having a wonderful trip to Machu Picchu, there is a lot of unclear or mis-information on visiting Machu Picchu. Here are four main myths about visiting Machu Picchu dispelled:

  1. Machu Picchu Mountain is a tough but rewarding hike....and it seems readily available!

    Machu Picchu Mountain is a tough but rewarding hike….and it seems readily available!

    This is the biggest one for me – most people do not actually need to book your visit to Machu Picchu in advance! I was under the impression that I needed to book everything in advance or we wouldn’t be able to go to Machu Picchu but that is simply untrue. The two exceptions are the Inca trail, which books out about 6 months in advance and the Huayna Picchu hike to a hill that overlooks the ruins of Machu Picchu. There is only 400 people allowed daily to hike up Huayna Picchu so it does book out BUT you can always hike up Machu Picchu mountain, which is cheaper and is typically avaliable (but it is longer and harder). Otherwise, there are 2500 tickets to Machu Picchu daily and you can buy them in Cusco or even in Agua Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town at the base of Machu Picchu. If the pricy trains from Cusco to Agua Calientes are booked out, no problem! There are many trains going to Agua Calientes including three companies with many trains going from Ollaytantambo in the Sacred Valley (an easy bus ride from Cusco and also a noteworthy place to visit with impressive ruins and a quaint town) and three Peru Rail trains daily from the Hydroelectric Dam near Santa Teresa. The plus side of not booking everything online far in advance is that you can actually talk to and compare tour agencies in Cusco to find the specific tour you want and often at a much cheaper price as well.

  2. The scenic train from the hydroelectric dam to Agua Calientes

    The scenic train from the hydroelectric dam to Agua Calientes

    You do not need to be incredibly fit to do multi-day treks or have a deep wallet for expensive trains to tours to visit Machu Picchu. There are actually many different options avaliable for all different budgets and physical abilities. For those who don’t want to hike, trains from Ollaytantambo and the hydroelectric dam are much cheaper than all the way from Cusco – $60-80 each way from Ollaytantambo and $26 each way from the Hydroelectric dam. Both Ollaytantambo and the hydroelectric dam are reachable by bus from Cusco. The route to the hydroelectric dam via Santa Maria and Santa Teresa seem to be rapidly gaining in popularity with the Inca Jungle trek (which involves downhill biking and optional rafting and ziplining along with trekking. Because there is no camping involved in this trek as people hike from town to town staying in hostels and eating at restaurants, you can actually do this trek quite easily independently without much equipment. Contact me for more details if curious) and the daily mini van bus from Cusco, which is approximately $30-40 round trip (depending on the tour agency so check around). For those who like to hike or want to do it cheaper, you can also hike the 11km (mostly flat along the train tracks) from the hydroelectric dam to Agua Calientes instead of taking the train. From Agua Calientes, you can hike the 9km (steep uphill) to Machu Picchu for free. Alternaltively, there are many buses that run practically every five minutes from Agua Calientes to Machu Picchu from 5:30am to 4:30pm – $10 one way or $19 round trip. Everything in Agua Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo) seems to be three times the price as in Cusco but you can find cheap meals in the local food market there.

  3. Watch out Machu Picchu! View from Machu Picchu mountain

    Watch out Machu Picchu! View from Machu Picchu mountain

    The best pictures of Machu Picchu ruins are not from climbing the nearby mountains. I thought the postcard pictures came from hiking up Huayna Picchu, which unfortunately is something that does book out early. Then, we realized that Huayna Picchu is the mountain commonly found in pictures of Machu Picchu so we were excited to be climbing Machu Picchu mountain on the opposite side of the city ruins. The hike was beautiful with amazing views of the misty mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. However, the best pictures and in fact, all of postcard pictures, are from the Guardhouse perched on top of the farming terraces in the city and free to visit without an extra ticket. The city is designed to unfold out towards the sunrise so another place for great picture is along the hike out to the Sun Gate where the sunrise on winter solstice is seen from the temple of the sun in Machu Picchu. So, if you are looking for a great, challenging hike, try Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountain but if you’re just looking for that iconic photo of Machu Picchu, the regular ticket is fine.

  4. Misty cloud forest

    Misty cloud forest

    Machu Picchu is on top of a mountain but it is actually lower in elevation than Cusco. Machu Picchu, as our guide told us, is at the gateway to the Amazon and is surrounded by jungle. This means several things including that it is warmer than Cusco so bring layers to keep warm at night but also bring lighter clothing as it can get hot during the day. Secondly, there are mosquitos and small biting flies to bring bug repellent (especially if you pass through Santa Teresa, which the Inca Jungle trek and the buses to the Hydroelectric dam passes through. I recommend the hot springs there!). Third, it is jungle down by the river and cloud forests up at the top so it is a wet climate. Our guide said that it rains nine months out of the year (October to May with rains heaviest in December and January) and recommended ponchos, which you can find in all the camping/tour shops in Cusco and Agua Calientes. The weather changes quickly and the misty rain never seemed to last long for us, interspersed with sunshine.

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The classic photo of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu mountain in the background shot from the Gatehouse

Hope this helps! Any questions, email me (maggie.m.woo@gmail.com) . If you have any other tips or advice to add, I welcome you to post below in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Dispelling four myths on visiting Machu Picchu

  1. A friend just asked about how to do the Inka Jungle trek independently and I thought i’d share if anyone was curious:

    Doing the jungle trek independently seems actually pretty easy…the only thing you’ll miss is the 60km of downhill biking from the pass to santa maria. those on the tour are dropped off near the top and then they ride down to santa maria. to do it independently, you can get a bus to ollyantantambo and then to santa maria…both buses are pretty cheap. those on the tour have the option to go rafting at santa maria and I’m sure you can book it yourself if you wanted to. i think it’s around $25 bucks or so. from santa maria, walk along the main road until you get to a sign that says start of the incan trail. this is the incan trail for the couriers and apparently the “quick” way into machu picchu. it starts climbing…and climbing…way above the road…and then it dips down to the river. about an hour before santa teresa (15 minutes by car…and there will be transport there) is an awesome hotsprings for 5 sols along the river. at santa teresa is the option to go ziplining for about $25. there is accommodation in both santa teresa and santa maria and those on the tour stay in hostels in the towns anyways. from santa teresa, you walk to the hydroelectric dam where it is a 11km generally flat hike though beautiful river canyon along the train tracks to agua calientes aka machu pichu pueblo.

    if you want to just do the trek one way, make sure you make it back to the hydroelectric dam by 2:30pm and you can catch a mini van that goes all the way back to cusco downtown. round trip for that bus was around 95 sols so i guess one way is probably around 50 sols or so

    check around cusco though because sometimes you can get amazing deals on this trek. we have a friend (who was admittedly in a group of 10…) who got the inka jungle trek including all the activities, food, lodgings, and entrance to machu picchu for $180 USD. If you do go for a tour…make sure that it includes the activities because those are usually extra

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