The essential guide to Machu Picchu

Everything you need to know if you're heading to Machu Picchu.

Visiting the Land of the Incas

Set in the upper Amazon basin among a tropical rainforest on the eastern slopes of the Andes, the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is an incredible sight and likely Peru's most well-known attraction. But because of its unique location, it can be tricky to get to. Here's what you need to know.

Weather, peak and off-peak seasons – find out the best times to visit Peru.

The best time to go to Machu Picchu

While Machu Picchu is open year-round, the Peruvian highlands are best visited during the dry season between May and October, with July and August being the busiest months. January and February are very wet and the Inca Trail is closed in February for maintenance.

Best ways to get to Machu Picchu

Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu. From there, you can either choose to hike to the citadel via the Inca Trail, or go directly to Machu Picchu. Read about how to get to Cusco in our guide to travelling to Peru.

How to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu

Via the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail, which takes about four days over roughly 40km of moderate to demanding trekking, usually starts at Piscacucho, otherwise known as Kilometre 82 (although you can also start at the ruins of Qoriwayrachina), and ends at Machu Picchu.

To hike the trail, you'll need a government permit, which you can get through an official operator approved by the La Dirección Regional de Cultura (DRC) government department. You can't do the trek on your own – you'll have to do it on a guided tour. 

Only 500 people (including guides and porters) are allowed to start the Inca Trail per day, so you'll need to book a permit months in advance. You can check how many are left on a particular day by visiting the Ministry of Culture website (be patient – it can take a while to load).

You can find a list of official tour operators on the Association of Tourism Agencies of Cusco website.

Top tip: The Inca Trail is closed in February.

Via train

You can get from the Poroy station near Cusco to Machu Picchu by taking a train to Aguas Calientes, a town located 9km from the historic site. The train takes around three-and-a-half hours, and you should book ahead as tickets can sell out months in advance during peak season.

Three train companies operate on the route: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham train

Trains also run from the town of Ollantaytambo, around halfway between Cusco and Aguas Calientes. You can travel to Ollantaytambo, which is home to its own Incan ruins, from Cusco by bus or minivan.

From Aguas Calientes, you can reach Machu Picchu by bus in about 25 minutes or walk the 8km to the site up a steep path.

How to get acclimatised

Anyone, even someone who is very fit, can get life-threatening altitude sickness if they climb to altitudes 2500m or higher above sea level. The milder symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, lethargy, coordination and performance issues, insomnia, lost appetite, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Severe altitude sickness is very serious, and symptoms can include breathlessness, heart palpitations, a bluish tinge to skin and nails, coughing due to fluid in the lungs, pink or frothy phlegm, irrational behaviour and being unable to walk in a straight line or sit up.

You're more susceptible if you've had altitude sickness before, if you exercise or drink alcohol before acclimatising or if you suffer from health problems that may affect your breathing.

While Machu Picchu itself is slightly below 2500m, to get there, you're likely to have to pass through areas above that level. Cusco is 3399m above sea level, and the highest part of the Inca Trail, Warmiwañusca, sits at 4205m. There have been reports of tourists who have died as a result of altitude sickness en route to the citadel.

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend slowly, allowing your body to acclimatise. Here's what you need to do:

  • Give yourself two to three days to get used to high altitudes before climbing above 3000m.
  • Go slowly, and don't travel more than 300m per day above 3000m.
  • Give yourself a day to rest every few days or 600 to 900m.
  • Drink lots of water (up to seven litres per day).
  • Avoid alcohol and cigarettes.
  • Don't take sleeping tablets.
  • Don't exercise for the first 24 hours after arriving at high altitude.
  • Eat a high calorie diet, but avoid heavy foods.
  • Consider taking acetazolamide, a medication that may help ameliorate altitude sickness symptoms, a couple of days before reaching high altitudes. But it's no silver bullet, so you should still acclimatise.
  • Salmeterol inhalers are sometimes used to prevent fluid from building up in the lungs.
  • While locals believe drinking coca tea can relieve altitude sickness and help travellers acclimatise, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), there's no evidence it works.

What to do if you think you have altitude sickness

  • People who are suffering from altitude sickness often deny they're affected, so you should have a buddy who can check on you as you ascend.
  • If you're feeling unwell, stop climbing for at least 24 hours, rest where you are and don't move higher until your symptoms subside.
  • If you don't feel better after 24 hours, you should descend by at least 500m and not ascend again until your symptoms are gone.
  • You may like to take painkillers such as paracetamol for headaches and nifedipine and dexamethasone for mild altitude symptoms. But be careful, because these medications may hide early warning signs of a serious problem.
  • Diuretic medication may reduce fluid accumulation.
  • If it's available, administer oxygen.

Top tip: While travellers tend to stay in Cusco for a couple of days after arriving to acclimatise, the CDC suggests going straight to the Valle Sagrado of the Rio Urubamba (the Sacred Valley), which is located northeast of Cusco at a lower altitude. You can take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, visit Machu Picchu, then head back to Cusco and spend some time there once you've acclimatised at the lower altitudes. 

Machu Picchu tours

As of 1 July 2017, you can only enter Machu Picchu with a licensed tour guide with a group of 16 people or fewer, either during a morning session (from 6am to noon) or during the afternoon (noon to 5:30pm). You'll have to follow pre-defined routes and won't be able to explore independently. If you want a full-day visit, you'll need to book two tickets. The government is trialing the new system for two years.

You can find a list of licensed tour operators on the Ministry of Culture website. Click on the "Agencias" tab on the bottom toolbar on the site. You can also find a guide at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Check for their official photo ID card issued by the National College of Tourism (it's likely to be worn around the neck).

Where to eat

There aren't a lot of options for eating in Machu Picchu itself – you can bring your own lunch and eat it near the entrance to the site (food is banned inside the citadel), or dine at either the Tampu Restaurant or Tinkuy Buffet Restaurant at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge hotel, or the Snack Bar.

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