How to See Machu Picchu on Your Own
Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The Incas built it in 1405 AD as a retreat center deep in the mountains for their emperor and royal families. While only 50 miles from their capital in Cusco, the Spaniards never found the site when they conquered the Incas only 100 years later.
The beauty of this Incan city is its location set between two mountains of different elevations: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Our family took a trip of a lifetime by joining a tour company for a four-day hike into Machu Picchu. For those who love hiking and camping, I highly recommend it. More on that later. For others who want to see Machu Picchu on their own, I’ll detail how to get to there by train.
5 Tips to Visit Machu Picchu
1. How to Travel to Machu Picchu
You will need to fly into Lima, the capital of Peru. We arrived in the evening and stayed at Hilton Lima Miraflores to enjoy the views and city the following day. I recommend staying in the Miraflores neighborhood because it’s a safe and convenient location with many great restaurants which serve Peruvian seafood and super fresh ceviche.
From Lima, it’s just a 40-minute flight to Cusco. The city sits at 11,900 feet. You will feel out of breath right away. The city and people are beautiful and the air is really thin. Most people do not suffer from severe altitude sickness. Common but minor symptoms include shortness of breath, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, and coughing. Our family of two adults and two children did just fine. We saw our family doctor and received some medication which I will describe below.
The road to Machu Picchu used to take 3 to 5 walking days for the Incans. You can now get there in about 3 hours from Cusco. From Cusco, take a taxi to the train station at Ollantaytambo (oh-yawn-tay-tombo). This will take about 1 hour, 45 minutes and about 100 Peruvian Soles or $30. Ollantaytambo is worth a visit on its own and many people visit the Sacred Valley where you can see other Incan ruins.
The trains from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu range from $64 to $90 depending on the time of day and class. Alternatively, you can take a taxi to Poroy which is only 30 minutes from Cusco. The train from Poroy is limited to only a handful each day and prices range from $84 for a very early morning departure to $100 for the afternoon departures. The deluxe Hiram Bingham class train is about $497 each way. You can buy train tickets through official site of Peru Rail.
From Ollantaytambo, the train ride to Machu Picchu takes you through the Urubamba Valley. These steep mountains define the terrain and beauty of this area. From Ollantaytambo, it’s only a 90-minute ride to Agua Calientes which is now called Machu Picchu Pueblo. This small town sits at the base of the mountain where you will take a bus ride for 20 minutes and $10 up the mountain to the Machu Picchu site.
2. Buying Machu Picchu Tickets
Currently, there is a government set limit of 2,500 visitors to Machu Picchu each day. Tickets must be purchased in advance. You cannot purchase on site. Head for Peru’s official government website to purchase Machu Picchu tickets. You can choose the English option. Other websites may be easier to use, but brokers charge you an additional fee.
Seeing the ruins at Machu Picchu is spectacular enough but there are also other options available. You can hike up Huayna Picchu. Space is limited to 500 people per day at two different starting times, and you will need to purchase your ticket for Huayna Picchu at the same time as your Machu Picchu ticket. From Huayna Picchu, you will be towering above the city of Machu Picchu and have a bird’s eye view.
For families with young children, climbing Huanya Picchu may be a safety concern. It is a steep and possibly dangerous hike for younger children. If you are going during the rainy season (November to March), clouds and rain may affect your views.
3. Avoiding Altitude Sickness
Most people only experience mild symptoms of altitude sickness. There are a few strategies to mitigate severe symptoms. The first option is to see your doctor for recommendations and a medical prescription. We took a common medication called Diamox. We started taking it the day before we arrived in Cusco (11,900 ft) and finished a week later after the hike and after leaving Cusco for Lima.
Second, some people head for Ollantaytambo as soon as they arrive in Cusco. Rather than fighting altitude at 11,900 ft, Ollantaytambo is at 9,100 ft. You can stay in Ollantaytambo and visit the ruins there before heading to Machu Picchu.
Third, for those who decide to stay in Cusco like we did, take it easy on the day you arrive. Get some coca tea in the lobby of your hotel. It tastes like green tea and is a little bitter. Add some sugar and enjoy what the locals drink. Twice a day is plenty. It’s a safe drink for all ages.
4. When to Visit Machu Picchu
Most people visit during July and August, which is the peak season. It’s winter time but it’s also their dry season. Great time to go! Bring jackets for cool mornings and evenings and book your tickets early.
We went during the rainy season in January. It’s warmer, but it rains on and off during the day. The mist and clouds add to the beauty and mystery of this place, but you will need rain jackets and appropriate clothing.
5. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
For adventure seeking families, I highly recommend joining a tour company for the four-day, three-night hike into Machu Picchu. You are no longer allowed to hike the trail without an authorized tour company. There is not a legal age requirement but most companies ask for children to be at least 8 years of age. The walking ranges from about six miles on the first day to about 12 miles on the third day.
You will begin at about 9,000 ft elevation on the first day and reach 14,000 ft by late morning of the third day. We spent three nights in Cusco at 11,000 ft before the hike to acclimate to the altitude and had no ill effects on the trail. My children ages 17 and 12 were tired but did very well. This family trip and hike into Machu Picchu ranks as one of our most memorable experiences.
You may also enjoy:
- Visiting Machu Picchu & the Sacred Valley with Kids: First-Time Tips
- Visiting the Galapagos Islands with Kids
- 5 Fun Things to do in Cartagena, Colombia
- 7 Memorable Experiences in Bogotá, Colombia
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Eugene lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He and his wife have taken their two children to about 15 countries for work and vacation. Eugene is…