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HOW TO: Make the Most of a Visit to Machu Picchu

by Globetrooper Todd | 29 Responses
Visit Machu Picchu

It’s easy to make a visit to Machu Picchu un-memorable. Arrive at 10am, take a two-hour guided tour, pose for a few happy snaps, and return home with a memory full of rocks.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. After two full-day visits to Machu Picchu in a single week (long story), I can tell you exactly how to make your visit something to remember.

Climb Huayna Picchu

This is the tall jagged mountain that stares down over Machu Picchu. Every morning, 400 lucky visitors are granted access to scale it for the best pictures in the house. More than the pictures though, climbing Huayna Picchu (aka Wayna Picchu) adds a huge dose of adventure to an otherwise cultural (read: sedate) destination.

Huayna Picchu

The larger mountain is Huayna Picchu, towering over the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu

The climb isn’t technical, but it isn’t easy either. It’s quite strenuous, starting at an altitude over 2,000m. It gets steeper and steeper, until the route becomes almost vertical with rock-hopping over large bolders and squeezing through small tunnels.

So, if you want to turn a visit to Machu Picchu into an adventure, wake up early, catch one of the first buses from Aguas Calientes, line up at the huts, write your name in the book, and head up towards the sky. I very highly recommend it.

Trek to the Inca Bridge

Like Huayna Picchu, the Inca Bridge offers a dose of adventure for your next Machu Picchu visit. However in this case, the adventure is a little less strenuous, but a lot more death defying.

Inca Bridge

Scaling the Inca Bridge - funkz

The Inca Bridge is a narrow path that winds along the side of the mountain with very little between you and a 580m (1,900ft) drop. It is partly cut into the side of the mountain and partly built up with a large tower of stones. There’s a 6m (20ft) gap in the bridge that was designed to be bridged by tree trunks that could be discarded to make the bridge impassible to outsiders.

The bridge is absolutely worth a visit, even if you don’t trek all the way to the bottom.

Visit the Sun Gate

The Sun Gate is the pass up above Machu Picchu that hikers on the Inca Trail enter the ruins through. These hikers tend to leave their last camp very early in the morning to arrive at the Sun Gate to watch the sunrise and be some of the first visitors of the morning to the ruins.

Sun Gate

The view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate - ethanlindsey

For those not entering the ruins via the Inca Trail, they can still hike up to the Sun Gate for a breathtaking view and to greet some of the hikers as they arrive.

Although it’s not nearly adventurous as a climb up Huayna Picchu or a hike to the Inca Bridge, it gives a different perspective of the ruins and a view over the mountain from where the Inca Trail approaches.

Hike to Aguas Calientes

Buses depart up and down from Aguas Calientes on a very frequent timetable. But you don’t have to take the bone-rattling bus to get to the ruins. You can also hike up and down the mountain taking steep shortcuts between the switchbacks.

Road to Machu Picchu

The windy road up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes

Enthusiastic tourists used to hike up the mountain in the morning before the first bus to secure a spot to climb Huayna Picchu. But these days officials keep the bridge locked until about 6am, so hiking up is now futile. Plus it’s a steep climb and it will wear you out for the later treks up Huayna Picchu, the Inca Bridge and Sun Gate.

But consider hiking down the mountain after the day is done. It will make the warm shower in Aguas Calientes all the more worth it.

Posted in How-To Guides, Peru | October 4th, 2010

29 Responses to HOW TO: Make the Most of a Visit to Machu Picchu

  1. I hiked the Inca trail in May this year (pours pretty much the whole time bar the final day when the sun finally came out) and what I discovered was that it is almost impossible to get a ticket to climb Huayna Picchu. All these people who turn up at 10am having not hiked 4 days to get there scoop up all the tickets before you get a chance to get down to the ticket office. I was first to the sun gate and my group were the first to get down to the site and there were no tickets, but there were hundreds of people already there.

    The only way around this is if you want to climb Huayna Picchu and hike the inca trail is to do the hike, then following it spend a night in Aguas Calientes, then go back the next day to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu, though after the 4 days and having arrived at the sun gate for the sun rise before the coach loads of people do, you probably wont care too much about Huayna Picchu because your first glimpse satisfies the anticipation to arriving as your first view of the site is is 100 times better than those who arrived on a coach.

    So important things to remember is to have enough space on your camera and replacement batteries ;) also be prepared for cloud/mist to come over the site in the morning, but it doesn’t take long to clear.

    If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask.

    • What time did you get down there Rick? We were there at about 7:30am and were position #130. But you’re right, we stayed in Aguas Calientes the night before and got up there early. We did the Lares Trek rather than the Inca Trail (a matter of timing and permits). Loved the trek though, as I imagine you did too.

      • I think it was about 8am, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t bother trying to get a ticket firstly because I injured my knee on day 3 doing some pretty crazy downward stair running as I had most days, secondly I was on a tour in Peru and some did not do the hike got there early and only managed to get tickets 198 and 199 of the 200. They met us on our way down from the sun gate.

        Nothing annoyed hikers the most after a long journey and wanting to do the extra hike, not being able to get the ticket because of too many lazy people hogging tickets. I do recall someone lining up to do that hike saying to their friend how awesome they were for doing the 90 min hike – I had to laugh at that after my previous 3 days of doing it in the wind, rain and bitter cold :D

    • One thing I forgot to mention is that the cafe just inside the entrance have (or so it felt after hiking 3 and a bit days) very tasty mini square pizza, sure they are a rip off, but I could have gone back for seconds and really hit the spot with a hot chocolate early in the morning before doing my tour.

    • I did the Inca Trail in 2007 and I was still able to go up Huanynu, but I believe at that time they were offering 400 tickets per day. It was definitely worth the trek up, the view is amazing. If you can’t make it the day of the trek anymore, Aguas Calientes is not the worst place in teh world to stay over night, have a bath in warm natural springs, then trek up the next day,

  2. Todd, why not spring for the cash and stay at The Sanctuary Lodge for a couple of nights. Park that backpack and live a little!

    • That’s the one next to the site – I suggest only staying here if you wish to really splurge. I heard its quite expensive.

    • I heard it’s about US$600 per night. Would rather spend that on a rafting trip down the Urubamba River or a trip to the Amazon rainforest. :) Actually, I’m really keen to visit the Amazon before I go. Have you stayed at The Sanctuary Lodge before? I’m sure it’s decadent.

      • I believe 600 are the cheap rooms :P

  3. There’s so much more to Macchu Picchu that meets the eye. That trek in “Scaling the Inca Bridge” picture looks crazy. Can’t stop thinking about how two people are going to pass by each other on such a narrow pathway.

    • Love the idea of your blog Slava. I’ll certainly keep an eye on it. Yes, most of our group reported that the Inca Bridge was much scarier than Huayna Picchu, even though it’s nowhere near as physical.

  4. Globetrooper Todd
    Good post and great photos. Just like you, I have spent several days trekking, stumbling, crawling and enjoying Machu Picchu and the surroundings. Also, Rick and Dave, I did splurge and spend two nights at The Sanctuary Lodge….a lot of money, but staying there does offer some benefits (didn’t spend anywhere close to $600 a night…there are always “deals” available).

    On another subject….if you are in the area of Ollantaytambo and Urubamba and want to really have a fabulous day (and avoid the crowds of tourists teaming about Machu Picchu), consider joining Ario and Natalia for a climb on their via ferrata…..this is once-in-a-life-time experience:

    • Thanks for the suggestion HairMan. Naturavive looks like a lot of fun. We spent a night in Olly but didn’t realise there was anything like this around. Thanks also for the tip about savings for The Sanctuary Lodge, I’m sure many people would love to stay there if it were more affordable.

  5. Great post! We hiked the Inca Trail so weren’t able to hike to the top of Huanya Picchu either, which was all right though. One of the most memorable moments of my life was entering the sun gate at sunrise after 3+ days of trekking and seeing Machu Picchu for myself for the first time. Absolutely stunning and magical.

    Where is that bridge located? This is the first I’ve heard of that. Looks very interesting. You have some great tips here, and I guess I’ll just have to do the rest the next time I go! Thanks for a great post!

    • I imagine that site was more than enough to compensate for Huayna Picchu. Wish we could have done the same, but permits were booked way in advance for the Inca Trail. If my directions are correct, the bridge is West of the archeological site.

      • They do suggest 3 – 6 month advanced booking ;)

        Yes, the hike and entering via the sun gate was more than enough for me :)

  6. Hiking up to the top of Putukusi (the mountain opposite MP) is also a definite must! The hike’s quite strenuous, but clearly marked so you don’t need a guide. The views are stunning and you get a rare glimpse of MP in a way that most people don’t get to see since they often miss out on Putukusi. The trail starts just outside of Aguas Caliente, just follow the train tracks until you see the trail marker on the right-hand side!

  7. Thank you (all) for sharing your information and tips. This is one trip that is definitely on my wish list. The picture of “Scaling the Inca Bridge” is crazy. It is the first time I have seen this!

  8. You neglected to mention the option of climbing Montaña Machu Picchu (the “real” Machu Picchu), a steeper, 3-hour round-trip hike that almost nobody bothers to do. I ran out of time so could only make it up about 70% but a friend did the whole climb and said it was great and he had the place to himself until one other showed up (I saw nobody on the trail in either direction when I went up).

    • Hey Jeff, we found out about this afterwards and all reports are it’s a great climb. Actually, I think one of the popular “Inca Jungle Treks” takes this route.

  9. Thank you for sharing your tips about M.P. One question: how much time do you need to climb Huayana Picchu up and back down? Can you do this and visit M.P. the same day? thank you.

    • Hey Lycurgo, it took us about 40 minutes each way up Huayna Picchu. We also stayed at the top for about an hour taking pics and admiring the view. Yes, you can absolutely do both in one day. If you get their early, do HP first because they only allow 400 people per day, then do MP after that. You can get back to MP at about 11am if you go up at 8 or 9am.

  10. Going for my 4th visit to Machu Picchu. Every time I go, I find a corner to sit in silence for a while. It’s the most memorable thing I can think of. When I’m back home, I think of those moments of silence more than the activities. One time it was sunrise and I watched the clouds drift away for the “big reveal.” Another time it was cloudy and raining and I had to focus on the drops hitting the stones. It was very cool.
    Just enjoy!

  11. Great post! I really want to visit Machu Picchu one day and then I will defiantly do something of this list, I really like the climb and the trek.

  12. I did the Inca trail but could not enter through sungate – there were some road repairs this year in february… I also was not able to climb up to the mountain as it is hard to get in the list of 400… But I was able to enjoy so much the beauty of the place just because of the exhastion experienced during the trail..When the final destination seems to you as the biggest treasure. I went down to aguas calientes afterwards and relaxed after the long road trip hiking trail. I wish everyone visits this amazing trip.

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