The “lost” citadel is lost no more! Over one million people visit Machu Picchu every year. Even with the recent cap-per-day restrictions imposed on the number of people visiting the citadel, over two thousand people are allowed inside the ruins between 6 am and 5:30 pm. Yet, there is still a way to avoid the crowds and even have areas all to yourself during your visit. See for yourself:
You can really enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding mountains and the immensity of the citadel itself if you follow the following tips in planning and making your journey:
Visit the citadel in the morning
To curb the number of people visiting Machu Picchu at a time per day, officials have separated ticket options to morning (6 am – midday) and afternoon (midday – 5:30pm) shifts. Machu Picchu is crowded in the afternoon, whatever anyone else may tell you. It just makes sense that more people head there in the afternoon, since it is “easier” to get to then because you don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn. It is important to visit the citadel at 6 am to avoid the crowds as much as possible – and avoid heat stroke in trying to climb everything at midday as well! (The Incans worshipped the Sun God for a reason: Cusco has sunshine almost all year round).
Best time of year to visit Machu Picchu
May through September are the driest months to visit Machu Picchu. However, to avoid the summer crowds and still enjoy great weather, we recommend visiting in September or early October.
Buy your ticket to Machu Picchu at least two months before your planned visit
In order to secure your visit at the date and time you need, you will need to book at least two months ahead of your proposed date. Your step by step guide to getting your tickets is at the end of this article. PRINT OUT YOUR TICKETS AT HOME BEFORE YOU VISIT.
Climb Montana (Machu Picchu Mountain) over Huayna-Picchu
Huayna Picchu is the more “famous” peak to climb when one enters Machu Picchu. Therefore, if you want to avoid the crowds, we strongly encourage you to climb Machu Picchu Mountain (Montana). It’s less crowded and even has higher views over the surrounding mountain vistas. It takes longer to climb up (a roundtrip takes around 3.5 hours versus the usual 1 hour 45 minutes to do a round trip of Huayna Picchu) but if you’re looking for beautiful vistas while avoiding crowds, this is incredibly worth it.
Make sure you get the 8 am – 9 am ticket to Montana so you have enough time to visit the Sun Gate first (see below).
Spend the night before you visit Machu Picchu at Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is the town from which the buses to Machu Picchu take off. You cannot take the train or drive yourself directly to Machu Picchu. The only other alternative to taking the bus from Aguas Calientes is walking up from Aguas Calientes. We don’t encourage you to do this as you should really conserve your energy to climb Machu Picchu mountain, the Sun Gate, and the citadel itself. It’s a 20 minute bus ride from from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, but the elevation is formidable: we saw a few veteran hikers stagger up to the gates from Aguas Calientes, complaining that yes, they should have taken the bus too. Furthermore, in order to avoid the crowds, you need to get to Machu Picchu as early as 6am, when the gates officially open (more details below). So unless you want to hike for an hour or more in the dark up the mountain to Machu Picchu, we recommend you take the bus, priced at around US$7 per person, and spend your time better exploring the ruins.
You may be tight on time. However, we strongly recommend you arrive at Aguas Calientes the night before you plan to visit Machu Picchu. This is because you need to line up for the bus to Machu Picchu by 3am the day of your visit to actually be one of the first ones there. We are not joking when we say that people start lining up for the buses at 2.30 am. Getting there by 3 am means you’ll be on one of the first six or so 20-25 seater buses that heads to the citadel at 5:30am.
You also need to purchase your bus ticket to Machu Picchu the day before you travel. See below for details.
We really have to take a moment here to commend the Peruvian authorities on their organization in handling the transport to Machu Picchu. With the immense number of tourists every day, their organization of the buses at the crack of dawn is excellent.
Getting to Aguas Calientes
Fly/take a bus into Cusco to start your journey to Machu Picchu. We can recommend LATAM, Avianca, and Peruvian Airlines to fly into Cusco. Be prepared for delays (but much more so if you take the bus!)
You can then take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. Inca Rail and Peru Rail both offer transport from Poroy to Aguas Calientes. Note that Poroy station is located around 15 minutes from Cusco – you will need to get a taxi, costing between 15-30 soles, to get to the Poroy station from Cusco.
We took Inca Rail and can whole-heartedly recommend their service. We were on time, and the 3.5 hour journey to Aguas Calientes was comfortable and enjoyable. The large windows give you excellent views of the Sacred Valley, and they even provide excellent refreshments.
Staying in Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is a small town, built solely for the purpose of serving the tourists who head to Machu Picchu. There is no other source of income or production in the town. To that end, we would recommend not changing money here (given that it is touristy, the rates are not as good as those offered in Lima) and spending only a day or two at the most here. It is imperative that you arrive the day before though so that you can line up the bus to Machu Picchu by 3 am!
We can recommend Samananchis Machu Picchu to stay in Aguas Calientes. It’s a slightly steep walk from the center of town but they offer excellent lodgings at a very reasonable price. The walk will prep you for Machu Picchu! 😉
Whatever you do, buy mosquito repellent
Now this has nothing to do with avoiding the crowds, speaking from experience, for your own well-being, to avoid the crazy mosquitos in Peru, buy mosquito repellent and put it on before you leave your hotel in Aguas Calientes to climb Machu Picchu (or anytime, really). The mosquitos in Peru are vicious.
Think you don’t need repellent because mosquitoes never bite you? Think again.
For some reason, mosquitoes always bite Christian and almost never bite me. I left with around 50 bites from Aguas Calientes. They itch, they bleed… they’re crazy. Christian left with 70. Please, put on repellent.
The Machu Picchu Museum
There is an option to buy tickets to the Machu Picchu Museum, located in Aguas Calientes (it’s a short walk from town), on the website mentioned at the end of this article. The museum has some good artefacts and descriptions of what you will see in the citadel. It may be helpful to buy your ticket and pay a visit to the museum if you’d like a more thorough explanation of Machu Picchu before or after you go. You have the option to visit the museum and learn more about the origins of Machu Picchu and the Incan Empire when you arrive at Aguas Calientes the day before climbing the citadel.
Buy your bus ticket to Machu Picchu the night before
You have your ticket to Machu Picchu, but this doesn’t include the ticket for the bus that will take you there. Once you arrive at Aguas Calientes, ask directions for the bus ticket office: you’ll see it on Avenidas Hermanos Ayar (Google Maps shows “bus to Machu Picchu” if you zoom in on Aguas Calientes), probably with a few of the green buses parked next to it. It’s a 5 minute walk from the train station. One bus ticket is valid for three days – make sure you buy a round trip ticket. This is another reason why you should arrive in Aguas Calientes the day before you travel to Machu Picchu.
Get in line at 3 am
Yes, it’s tough getting in line at 3 am but this is absolutely important in securing your chances of avoiding the crowds at the citadel. There are bakeries and supermarkets that are open right by where people line up which allow for bathroom and breakfast possibilities. You can also get a packed breakfast to go from your hotel as long as you let them know the day before.
Have your passport with you and print out your tickets!
Your passport is essential in getting admitted to the citadel. At around 5 am an official will come around stamping your ticket (which you need to have printed out) to let you enter the buses.
Entering Machu Picchu
The buses will take you to Machu Picchu starting at 5:30 am. Once you get to the entrance of the citadel, you’ll have to line up at the gates, which open at 6 am. Once they open the gates, they’ll check your ticket and passport and off you go!
Visit the Sun Gate first
Once you enter the citadel, you’ll walk a few hundred yards and see the ruins stretched out ahead of you. It is a stunning sight. Lining up at 3 am becomes that much more worth it when you are able to see Machu Picchu at sunrise. The morning light spilling over the ruins is indescribably beautiful.
Spend a few minutes snapping pictures and enjoying this scene before you head to the Sun Gate (towards the left of the fork you will find a few steps above from where most people first view of the citadel). The walk to the Sun Gate takes between 30-45 minutes at a moderate pace, and you will have stunning views of the sunrise over Machu Picchu the entire time.
Once you have enjoyed the Sun Gate (and had a few snacks to fuel up!) head back the same way to take a clearly marked left turn to Montana. The hike up to Montana takes about 3.5 hours round trip with breaks. It’s tough cardio but it is incredibly worth it at the top.
By the time you get back to the main citadel to exit you’ll see how crowded it gets towards midday! Do be prepared for long lines to get back to Aguas Calientes as the process of loading each bus begins again at the exit.
If you don’t feel like hiking up any mountains, you can head back to explore the citadel only after visiting the Sun Gate.
Machu Picchu was a trip of a lifetime for us, and we hope this article will help you in your journey to this incredible “lost city.”
Ready to buy your tickets?
The official site to buy your ticket to Machu Picchu is http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/. The site gets a little wonky sometimes, but bear with it. If you are fluent in Spanish, the directions on the site are self-explanatory.
For the non-Spanish speakers like us:
Go to http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/. Wait for it to load.
Select where you are buying tickets for. Under Lugar a visitar, select MACHUPICCHU. If you wish to visit the museum in Aguas Calientes, select MUSEO.
Under Seleccione la Ruta, select Machu Picchu + Montana 8 a.m. – 9 a.m. This will allow enough time for you visit the Sun Gate between 6 am and 8 am. You also have options to buy tickets only for Machu Picchu (the first two options) or Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu.
Select the date you wish to visit.
Under Extranjeros, type in the number of tickets you are trying to purchase under “Cantidad.” Then click Paso 2. If you are from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, or Colombia, enter the information under Nacionales y Comunidad Andina.
Here enter the information as required, and click Paso 3.
Enter your email address, click the buttons ensuring that the information entered is correct and that you accept their terms and conditions. Click Reservar.
Copy down the number on the pop up screen that appears. Take a screenshot of that page to be sure.
Select PAGOS, enter your reservation number, and pay for your ticket. PRINT OUT YOUR TICKET when you receive it. It’s a good idea to take screenshots of any pop ups and print them out for your reference (as we mentioned before, the website does tend to get wonky sometimes!)
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