Deciding on the best time to visit Machu Picchu can be difficult if you've never been to Peru. The climate and elevation will affect not only your trip to Machu Picchu, but everything else you plan to see during your trip to Peru.
Most people have heard of Machu Picchu, it's considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
But if you ask those same people about it's significance, history or location many will be less familiar. This is fair - in part because Machu Picchu is relatively hard to reach unless you're a native of Peru.
On top of this remoteness, we've had to infer much of Machu Picchu's history and significance since the Inca didn't have a written language.
So what's the deal with Machu Picchu? Why is it considered a modern wonder of the world? How do I get there, when is the best time to visit and are these ruins worth visiting?
Continue reading as we dive into these questions and provide highlights from my recent visit to The Lost City of the Incas.
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What is Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is believed to have been built in the mid 1400s, potentially as a royal estate for the Inca ruler at the time or as a place of worship. The ruins boast elaborate farming terraces that allowed the Inca people to farm the otherwise difficult mountain terrain.
The well preserved structures contribute to Machu Picchu's popularity. The Inca have a reputation for being masters at building structures out of stone.
If you look closely at the doorway above you can see how perfectly cut and situated the stones are that formed this structure.
While some restoration efforts have surely taken place, it's incredible to believe that over half a millennium later many of these structures are still standing.
A substantial amount of stone was required to build Machu Picchu. Archaeologists believe the stone used to build Machu Picchu likely came from a quarry situated at the top of the mountain.
The location of Machu Picchu would've made it difficult to import stone from other parts of Peru.
When it comes to real estate it's always about location, location, location and the Incas nailed it on this one.
Part of what makes Machu Picchu so spectacular is it's location saddled between the mountains of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain.
The rugged mountain terrain that makes the ruins so breathtaking to walk through is the same terrain that helped protect these ruins from the Spanish.
Many other Inca sites throughout present day Peru were pillaged by the Spanish when they first arrived. Machu Picchu's location allowed it to stay hidden from foreign invaders.
After spending centuries hidden from most of the world, Machu Picchu was thrust into the international spotlight by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Bingham would lead an expedition to excavate and explore the ruins. Initially Bingham's expeditions were welcomed - until he was later accused of smuggling artifacts back to Yale and the USA through Bolivia.
While he claims to have done so legally, locals were not happy to see artifacts associated with their culture taken from the sites.
While Yale had resisted returning the relics to Peru for many years, in 2011 an agreement was reached to return them. Many can now be viewed at the Machu Picchu Concha House Museum in Cusco.
When is the best time to visit Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu can be visited year-round, but certain periods offer a more favorable experience than others as it pertains to weather and crowds. Peru's dry season, which runs from May to September, is a great time to visit. This less rainy period is also perfect for trekking throughout the surrounding mountains.
If you visit early in the dry season like we did, you're more likely to see snow capped mountains and vegetation that's still vibrant green from the prior rainy season.
Visiting near the beginning or end of dry season is also your best tool for cutting down on the crowds of tourist who flock to this region.
What is Machu Picchu's elevation?
Machu Picchu sits at an elevation of about 2,400 meters or nearly 8,000 feet. The high-altitude location of the site can pose challenges for visitors coming from lower elevations.
Some people may experience altitude sickness upon arrival at the site, due to the thin air and reduced oxygen levels. Altitude sickness symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
Where is Machu Picchu located?
Machu Picchu is situated above the town of Aguas Calientes, in the Urubamba Province of Peru. The site lies above the Sacred Valley, which is also home to the Urubamba River. The ruins are cradled between two towering mountain peaks - Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, with the latter giving the site its name.
Most visitors will use Cusco as their jumping off point to reach Aguas Calientes. The easiest way to reach this area is by train and you should expect to spend around 4 hours traveling between cities.
If you're still looking for accommodations you can browse deals on hotels in Cusco here. I'd also suggest spending at least one night in Aguas Calientes or exploring Ollantaytambo as part of your adventure.
How do I get to Machu Picchu?
First off I'm operating under the assumption that you'll be using Cusco as a base camp for exploring Peru.
During my trip to Peru we had time to visit all of these sites except for Rainbow Mountain. The latter three can be done in the same day.
From Cusco you'll either be taking a train or hiking to Machu Picchu. The latter is quite involved, so let's talk about train logistics first.
You'll either want to take a train from Cusco (specifically from Poroy Station) or Ollantaytambo. Poroy is your closest option and you'll want to budget 45-60 minutes of driving to reach the station.
Ollantaytambo is further, but depending on when you book this may be your only option if Poroy tickets are already sold out.
We returned through Ollantaytambo and while we didn't have time to spend there, the town looked really cool. In hindsight I wish we would've spent a day in Ollantaytambo.
If your schedule allows it, I'd at least budget some time to walk the streets and do some shopping.
The goal from either station is to reach the town of Aguas Calientes which sits at the base of Machu Picchu.
Ideally you'll arrive in Aguas Calientes the day/night before your planned visit to Machu Picchu. This will allow you to spend one evening exploring Aguas Calientes.
After spending a night shopping and checking out local restaurants (there are plenty of both) you'll have the option to wake up early and catch the first shuttle bus up to Machu Picchu.
You will need to buy a bus ticket in advance, which can be done in Aguas Calientes.
Here's a link to a guide from Ticketmachupicchu.com that I found helpful for purchasing tickets. The bus ride isn't too long from here, maybe 20-30 minutes.
The drive involves navigating some rather sketchy Peruvian mountain roads, if you aren't a fan of heights I'd avoid the window seats!
So I mentioned hiking as an option. There are two popular treks that wind through the surrounding mountains which eventually dump you off in Aguas Calientes. These two adventures are known as the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek.
My brother and I opted for a 5-day Salkantay Trek to reach Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. The operator we chose for this excursion was Alpaca Expeditions. You can check out their website and Salkantay Trek itinerary at the link I provided. If you're serious about that adventure, I've also put together a Salkantay Trek packing list which is really helpful when planning for 5 days in the mountains!
They handled our logistics, which involved shuttling from Cusco to near Humantay Lake, where we started our trek.
We hiked in the Andes for 4 days before arriving at Aguas Calientes on the last night. The fifth day was spent exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu.
I'd highly recommend attempting either the Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail if you have the time and physical endurance for it.
The build up to reaching Machu Picchu made the experience that much more memorable.
During our trek we visited Humantay Lake, crossed the Salkantay Pass, made coffee from scratch at a local coffee farm, camped overlooking Machu Picchu at Llactapata and so much more.
Our experience with Alpaca Expeditions was excellent and I'd recommend them without hesitation.
After shuttling to Humantay Mountain you'll hike the entire way to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu (with the exception of a bus ride to the top).
Our return trip involved taking a train to Ollantaytambo where a small van awaited our arrival to take us back to Cusco. The entire trip was well organized and allowed us to focus on taking in the beautiful Andean scenery along the way.
Are there bathrooms at Machu Picchu?
Visitors will find bathrooms near the entrance to the actual ruins. Once you serve up your entrance ticket, there won't be any additional facilities until you exit the ruins. Be prepared to go two hours or more without using a bathroom.
Do I need a separate ticket to hike Huayna Picchu?
Tickets for Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountains must be purchased separately, in advance and sell out quickly. These hikes are very challenging due to their steepness, the number of steps, altitude and sheer drops that you'll face most of the way up.
Do I need a guide to visit Machu Picchu?
My understanding is that you are required to have a hired guide with you when entering Machu Picchu. Our guide who accompanied us from Cusco and throughout the Salkantay Trek served as our guide here.
During my visit there were a large number of guides hanging out near the entrance offering their services to visitors in need. So if you arrive without a guide in the early morning you shouldn't have any issues finding one for hire. It's unclear to me if they're harder to come by later in the afternoon.
Frankly, there's too much history and information here that you'd miss out on by not visiting with a guide. If you're going to travel across the world to visit The Lost City of the Incas, you should definitely hire a guide for this experience.
When is the best time of day to visit Machu Picchu?
The gates to Machu Picchu open at 6:00 am and close at 5:00 pm, and strategizing your visit within these hours can have a huge impact on your experience. It's an early start to the day, but during our visit we caught the first shuttle from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins which left town around 5:30am.
By doing so, you have the chance to be among the first to enter the ancient ruins as its gates open. Waking up super early isn't fun, but if you can pull it off, you'll be rewarded handsomely for your effort!
For starters, you'll get to take in views of Machu Picchu as the sun rises above the surrounding mountains and casts beautiful golden hour light onto the numerous stone structures. This is a must for photographers or anyone hoping to return home with beautiful images of the ruins.
Not only that, but you'll also drastically cut down on the number of crowds you'll face when exploring the ruins. When we first arrived, the ruins were completely empty. By the time we left a few hours later everything had filled in with crowds of tourists arriving by the bus load.
What are some other tips to know when visiting Machu Picchu?
Small bags are allowed in the ruins - but if you have a larger hiking backpack you might be asked to check it near the entrance for a small fee.
Like other places in the mountains weather can be difficult to predict and temperatures will vary widely depending on time of day. Be sure to dress in layers.
On a related note, pack sunscreen. The high mountain sun can be brutal!
Is Machu Picchu Worth Visiting?
Simply put, Machu Picchu is well worth visiting. I can't tell you how many times I've looked through old photos of trips I've been on and thought to myself 'wow, these pictures just don't do it justice' and Machu Picchu is the perfect example of that times a thousand!
The well preserved Inca ruins at Machu Picchu would be interesting on their own, but what really makes this place special is the setting. Everywhere you look - mountains.
The surrounding landscapes are so vast and beautiful it reminded me of the first time I set eyes on the Grand Canyon back in the USA.
It's a lot to take in and the only proper way to experience it is to go there yourself.
If you're looking for more things to do on your Peru trip, consider visiting the ruins of Sacsayhuaman located in Cusco. The ruins are interesting, but what really steals the show at Sacsayhuaman is the panoramic views of Cusco which sits in the valley below.
Be sure to check out my post covering the best things to do in Cusco since you'll most likely use it as your jumping off spot for visiting Machu Picchu. I also have travel resources available to help you find cheaper airfare or plan your first trip abroad that I'd suggest reading if you haven't already.
I hope this post covering the best time to visit Machu Picchu with photos, tips and more proves helpful when planning your trip!