The Ultimate Travel Guide To Machu Picchu

So you’re going to Machu Picchu, eh? Good for you! There’s a lot you’ll need to know about traveling in Peru - tips for acclimating to the altitude; how to get from Cusco to the Inca trail; and more - and there are a lot of online travel guides that will tell you all of those things.

This isn’t one of them.

Instead, this travel guide gives you the kind of Machu Picchu vacation advice you'll need to survive once you get there. Think of it as a FAQ page for all the stuff you really need to know: less which train to take and more what to pack and where (and when) to eat. Assuming you’ll coordinate logistics with a travel agent or a website that deals only with travel, this guide’s purpose is to address all of the loose ends: Do I need an umbrella?, for example. (Answer: No.)

So click through for seven quick tips on traveling to Machu Picchu. Buen viaje

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1. #1: Where NOT to Stay

First things first: skip the hotel at the Machu Picchu gates. Why? Because you’ll wake up every day at 6am to the caw of tourist chatter and camera clicks outside your window, and because the scenic view you idealized while planning your trip will be disrupted by buses from morning to dusk.

Instead, book one of two properties by Inkaterra, the first group in Peru to invest a portion of its profits in protecting and maintaining Peru’s biodiversity. Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is pricey but worth it. The resort’s grounds are dotted with white adobe casitas that feature fireplaces, modern bathrooms and the decorative aesthetic of the Andean highlands. Excursions — everything from birdwatching to tea cultivation to observing native spectacled bears rescued by the resort’s environmental initiatives — are included in the cost.

For travelers on a budget, El Mapi is the best choice. Frankly, thanks to its convenient location and thoughtful design, El Mapi is worth considering even if you’re not on a budget. Just a stone’s throw from the embarkation point for buses departing to Machu Picchu gates, its rooms are crisp, clean, and creatively adorned — smart quotes on environmental conservation are painted on the wall above each room’s bed — and the bar and dining areas are ideal for both swapping stories with fellow travelers and flying solo with a cocktail and a laptop provided by the hotel.  

2. #2: Layer Up

If you’re heading out early — and you should — the fog outside your hotel window will suggest you dress in thermal pants, a wool sweater and a thick coat. Don’t. I spotted more than a few travelers toting heavy jackets and sweating in thick pullovers. None of them looked comfortable, and all of them looked like their clothes were distracting them from their visit.

Instead, wear light, breathable pants and layers of thin shirts that you can easily peel off throughout the day. I recommend combining a long-sleeved undershirt, a cotton pullover, and a thin hoodie. When the fog lifts and the sun rises, tie the hoodie around your waist, toss the pullover in your backpack and push the sleeves of your undershirt past your elbows. Slip them back on while traveling through the shade. Wash, rinse and repeat as needed. (Bring a hat and pocket poncho, too. More on this later.)

3. #3: Travel Light

Here’s what you should bring with you to Machu Picchu:  

  • hat with brim  
  • sunscreen
  • insect repellant
  • bottle of water
  • camera phone
  • poncho (preferably the kind that’s small enough to fit in a Ziploc bag while not in use)
  • passport

Here’s what you should leave at your hotel:

  • large camera with numerous attachments
  • heavy outerwear (see ‘layer up’ tip)
  • umbrella
  • Flat Stanley, traveling gnomes, and any other "funny" items you you think will play well in your Machu Picchu photo collage on Facebook 

4. #4: Bring Your Passport

Remember: You can’t get into Machu Picchu without your passport. You must show your passport at the gates in order to enter, and you’ll need it to re-enter if you exit to use the bathrooms or dine at the restaurant, which are both located outside the gates. 

5. #5: Go Early

It will be foggy in the morning whether you visit in the rainy season or the peak season. Still, being one of the first to enter the site means you will experience Machu Picchu in all its mystical, legendary glory: the fine mist settled into the valley below; the sheet of white clouds clinging to the cliff side; the sun rising on the horizon; and the quiet and awe that you feel when imagining the Incas walking in and out of the ruins beside which you now stand.

That’s why you traveled 3,000 miles, right? So yes, suck it up, and wake up at 4:30 a.m. so you can get in line at 5:00. The first bus leaves at 5:30 a.m., and you won’t be the only one who wants to be on it.  

6. #6: Hire A Guide

Sure, you can walk through Machu Picchu with a guidebook and your sense of wonder. Generally, I’m a fan of this spontaneous, art of discovery method. But let’s be real: you’re not going to discover anything new at Machu Picchu. It’s not an up-and-coming hipster neighborhood or a trail recently cleared by a mudslide. Machu Picchu is a historic site — the kind that anthropologists and UNESCO consider valuable — so wandering around alone in the hopes that you’ll have a eureka moment is just a tad bit audacious.

A local guide can provide insight, context and perspective that the writer of your travel guide cannot. You can book guides in town, at the gates, or at your hotel. (If you stay at either Inkaterra property, go with the hotel guides. They’re fantastic.) 

7. #7: Don't Eat Inside the Gates

You can’t eat within the grounds of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including Machu Picchu. 

So when are you supposed to eat? Here are some ideas: buy a croissant in line while waiting for the bus and eat it en route; pack a banana and eat it outside the gates before entering; bring a Kind Bar from home and eat it when you leave, taking the wrapper with you. Whatever you do, don’t be the fool who litters Machu Picchu with an orange peel and an empty Doritos bag. Seriously. Don’t.