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Machu Picchu Planning Basics

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Machu Picchu’s "discovery" by Yale University historian Hiram Bingham. We’ve got the basics to help plan your own exploration of this iconic symbol of Peru—and one of the world’s must-see destinations.


"Rediscovery" is a more accurate term for Bingham’s 1911 exploration of the site; area residents knew of Machu Picchu’s existence all along. This "Lost City of the Inca" was missed by the ravaging conquistadors and survived untouched until the beginning of the 20th century.

You’ll be acutely aware that the world has since discovered Machu Picchu if you visit during the June–mid–September high season. Machu Picchu absorbs the huge numbers of visitors, though, and even in the highest of the high season, its beauty is so spectacular that it rarely disappoints.

Day Tripping Vs. Overnight

You can visit Machu Picchu on a day trip, but we recommend staying overnight at the hotel near the entrance or in Aguas Calientes. A day trip allows you about four hours at Machu Picchu. If you stay overnight you can wander the ruins after most tourists have gone or in the morning before they arrive.

Inca Trail Options

Nothing matches the sensation of walking over the ridge that leads to the Lost City of the Inca just as the sun casts its first yellow glow over the ancient stone buildings. Some Cusco tour operators market a two-day, one-night Inca Trail excursion as the Sacred Inca Trail or Royal Inca Trail. It’s easier to procure reservations for these trips, but advance reservations with a licensed operator are still essential. The excursion begins at Km 104, a stop on the Cusco–Machu Picchu trains. All of the hiking happens on the first day, and you spend the night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes. The second day is not a trail hike, but a visit to the ruins.

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For more information, see our Inca Trail Spotlight.

Buying A Ticket

If you arrive without an admission ticket, you must purchase one in Aguas Calientes at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (Avenida Pachacutec s/n, 084/211–196 S/126 Daily 5 am–10 pm No credit cards). There is no ticket booth at the ruins’ entrance. If you are with a tour, the tickets are most likely taken care of for you. Buy your ticket the night before if you want to get in the park right away; bus service begins at 5:30 am. From the time you purchase the ticket, you have three days to enter the Inca city, however, once you enter the citadel, the ticket is only valid for that day. So if you arrive in the afternoon and visit the ruins, then stay the night and want to return the next morning, you’ll have to buy two tickets.

Catching The Bus

If you’re a day-tripper, follow the crowd out of the rail station about two blocks to the Consettur Machupicchu shuttle buses, which ferry you up a series of switchbacks to the ruins, a journey of 20 minutes. Buy your $14 round-trip ($7 for children) ticket at a booth across from the line of buses before boarding. Bus tickets can be purchased in US dollars or soles. If you’re staying overnight, check in to your lodging first, and then come back to buy a bus ticket.

Buses leave Aguas Calientes for the ruins beginning at 5:30 am and continue more or less every 10 minutes, with a big push in mid-morning as the trains arrive, until the historic site closes around 5:30 pm. If you’re heading back to Cusco, take the bus back down at least an hour before your train departs. It’s also possible to walk to and from the ruins to Aguas Calientes but this hike will take you a good hour and a half either way.

Being Prepared

Being high above the valley floor makes you forget that Machu Picchu sits 2,490 meters (8,170 ft) above sea level, a much lower altitude than Cusco. It gets warm, and the ruins have little shade. Sunscreen, a hat, and water are musts. Officially, no food or drinks are permitted, but you can get away with a bottle of water. Large packs must be left at the entrance. Tip: If you want to get your passport stamped, stop by the office inside the gate to the left as you enter.


A snack bar is a few feet from where the buses deposit you at the gate to the ruins, and the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge has a S/100 lunch buffet open to the public. Bathrooms cost S/1, and toilet paper is provided. There are no bathrooms inside the ruins but you may exit and re-enter to use them.

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Photo Credit: hadynyah / iStockPhoto

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