For many, Machu Picchu is synonymous with “bucket list”. I’ve never been anywhere that has elicited such envy on social media. To be honest, I visited this awe inspiring historical site almost by accident.
Experiencing the Incan citadel was certainly a highlight of my Sth American odyssey. Here are my tips to make the most of this once in a lifetime experience.
- Book your ticket in advance. The UNESCO listed site is limited to 2,500 visitors a day and tickets are not available at the entrance
- Bring your passport. This is also needed for entry to the site. Since you have it with you, don’t forget to get the Machu Picchu stamp that is available just inside the gates.
- Get a guide. This truly enhances the experience. You’ll shortchange yourself if you see the site without learning the history. They also know how best to avoid the crowds and get the postcard perfect shot.
- There’s no shame in catching the bus. The four day trek to Machu Picchu is a rite of passage for many. It’s a tough walk, especially on the second day, topped off by freezing nights under canvas and even colder showers. Sacred Valley hotels can book a day guide, for a full day walk along the last section of the track. Or just catch the train to Aguas Calientes and jump on the bus the scours the hillside to the site’s entry.
- Miss the morning crowds queuing for the pre-dawn bus and go in the afternoon. Most tourists don’t realize that seeing the sunrise from the Sun Gate is a logistical impossibility, unless you’re trekking (and are a fast walker). For everyone else, even though the site opens at 6am (often later by the time the staff arrive and open the gates), the photo opportunity is well and truly over by the time you’ve completed the 90 minute ascent. The afternoon is usually the quietest time to visit and your best chance to take photos unmarred by crowds.
- Altitude is rarely a problem. While Cusco, the gateway to the region, is 3,400 m above sea level Machu Picchu is a mere 2,400 m. Altitude sickness is unpredictable and indiscriminant but it’s the flight into Cusco that’s a greater culprit.
- Take a sunhat rather than beanie. Even in the heart of winter, while the thermometer dips below zero overnight it’s often in the high 20s c during the day. There’s no shade at Machu Picchu and panting, overheated tourists kitted out in thermals is a common site.
- Drink water, but not too much. Speaking of overheating you’ll need to bring your own water, as there are no shops inside the historic site. Nor are there toilets so it’s a delicate balance. While people often plan an all day visit for their once in a lifetime Machu Picchu experience, for most mortals this will necessitate trekking back to the entry gates at least once. Not an easy feat, battling against the flow of tourists on often narrow tracks.
- Enjoy the region. Peru blew me away. From Lima to Lake Titicaca it’s full of wonderful sights, tastes and experiences. Cusco, Sacred Valley and Aguas Calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu) are all worth exploring. Spending a few days enjoying the landscape between Cusco and the Mountain is also a great way to minimize the risk of altitude sickness.
- Do it now. With a new airport slated for Sacred Valley in the next couple of years, allowing fly in and out visits in a day, tourist numbers are expected to rise to 20 million by 2020. This is unsustainable and far exceeds UNESCO guidelines. According to local guides, if you want to visit Machu Picchu and actually walk through the site– do it before 2018.