Tour Machu Picchu, Peru: How to Go and Why
Machu Picchu is at the top of many avid travelers’ bucket lists. The entrancing locale, often called the “Lost City of the Incas,” beckons. But the journey can be expensive and complicated. Can you afford it? And is it worth the cost and the trouble? For most, yes and yes!
Machu Picchu's Story
No doubt, you’ve heard of Machu Picchu and probably seen photos, but you may not know many details about the site. I had long wanted to go there, and after touring many other awesome destinations in other parts of the world, I wasn’t sure if this trip would be worth it. It definitely was!
Machu Picchu, nestled among 125 square miles of protected terrain in Peru, is one of the top tourist destinations in South America, or even in the world. Now a World Heritage Site, it’s been labeled “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization.” Possibly the estate of one of the last Inca kings, it was constructed of huge limestone blocks, cut to fit together without mortar, by the Incas in the mid-1400s on a high mountain saddle between two peaks in the Andes of Peru in South America. Hand-built stone walls created terraces that collected water for crops and prevented erosion of the mountainside. Buildings with a total of approximately 200 rooms were arranged according to function around the site, with the elite residents commanding the best views and most pleasant weather conditions.
A century later, the Incas abandoned the city; the site was never discovered or damaged by the Spanish explorers. The jungle reclaimed it, and Machu Picchu was known only to local indigenous Quechua farmers. Hiram Bingham, a lecturer from Yale University, traveled through Peru, searching out important Inca ruins in the area, and the 11-year-old son of a local farmer introduced him to the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911. Bingham initiated the excavation of the ruins, the marvels of which are now available for travelers to view.
Neighboring Cusco also beckons. The gateway to much of South America and providing access to Machu Picchu, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent.
Planning Your Trip to Machu Picchu
Since Bingham’s discovery, travelers from around the world have come to discover this site for themselves. As you plan your trip, you’ll find scores of options, depending on how much money you plan to spend, how much time you have available and how physically fit you are. Many people take all-inclusive tours, usually flying into Lima, Peru, then to Cusco, with all transportation including airport pickup, lodging, the train and bus, entry to and guided tour of Machu Picchu, and some meals provided.
Authentic Peruvian restaurant meals may include “cuy,” pronounced “kwee,” a prized ingredient in the Andes. It’s roasted or fried guinea pig. It’s eaten by hand, not with silverware. If you’re on a tour where cuy is included, you may offend your guide if you prefer not to eat it. However, if you’re on your own, you can choose not to order it, if you think of those small mammals more as pets rather than food.
Others choose to fly to Cusco and join a tour there, with ground transportation, lodging, and the tour of the ruins included. Another option is to travel independently from Cusco, on to either Ollantaytambo or Aguascalientes, usually by car or taxi along the winding Urubamba River valley, with views of terraced hillsides providing for agriculture and pullouts with indigenous youngsters presenting their llamas and alpacas to be photographed. Travelers can spend a night in either village.
From Aguascalientes, visitors take a bus up the Hiram Bingham Highway’s 13 breathtakingly steep switchbacks traversing the side of the mountain, sometimes through clouds or even above them, with impressive views, either over thick green forest down into the river valley or up at the high, glacier-clad peaks of the Andes at almost every turn, and then to the goal at the top, the ancient city waiting to be toured.
Some travelers book all the segments themselves, including the train trip, bus trip and entry tickets to Machu Picchu. And some prefer to fly into Cusco and take off on a group trek on the Inca Trail, the 26-mile renowned four-day hiking trail with entry fee to Machu Picchu included. If you’re taking the trail, Peruvian law requires going with a government-approved guide, either with a group and its guide or just with a guide for yourself, if you don’t mind that extra expense. Or you can choose a longer hiking tour to Machu Picchu that also includes extended exploration into the Sacred Valley and other sites around Cusco.
You may need to acclimate to the altitude before setting out: Cusco is at 10,800 feet, and Machu Picchu is above 8,000 feet.
It’s wise to purchase your entry ticket to Machu Picchu online. A Visa credit card is required. Be sure to purchase it several months ahead if you’re going during the high season of June through August when the weather is dry. Only 2,500 entry tickets are provided each day.
Map of Access to Machu Picchu, Peru
The site of the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu in the high Andes of Peru.
The Cost of a Trip to Machu Picchu
All-inclusive tours vary considerably in cost, from $300 (plus airfare) to $4,990 per person, and amenities, depending on the level of luxury you choose, especially as to lodging and meals. Check out recommendations in travel guide books and online sites. But be skeptical; tour companies have written some of the reviews themselves and may exaggerate their quality. If you’re planning to trek the 26-mile, 3-to-4-day Inca Trail, you’ll need to budget $550 to $1000 for a guide, outfitter, possibly porters and a cook, and entry ticket to Machu Picchu. You’ll need reservations for the trail; usually two to three months ahead is required. Only about 180 Peruvian companies are allowed permits to provide these trips, so you’ll likely save money if you select the tours directly from the guide companies in Peru rather than booking through U.S. companies, which subcontract the tours to the local companies.
Purchased separately, tickets for your entry and required guided tour of Machu Picchu will be about $100. If you’re not a Spanish speaker, be sure to ask for a guide who speaks your language. English is spoken by many of the guides. Roundtrip airfare from anywhere in the U.S. costs between $1,000 and $2,000. Most flights require at least two stops, usually in Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York or Atlanta, and Lima, Peru. You’ll likely want to stay at least one night in Cusco and another in either Aguas Calientes, the town nearest Machu Picchu, or in Ollantaytambo, a fascinating, historic location a little farther from Machu Picchu. Both of these communities provide hospitality and comfort as you journey through the area.
Last-Minute Arrangements to Tour Machu Picchu
Even if you’re not planning to hike, and you choose to arrive in Peru before making arrangements for the part of your trip to the “Lost City,” be sure to reserve your ticket to the site ahead of time. Other than that, you should be able to make all other arrangements after you arrive.
You’ll likely meet other travelers who have already been; ask them for their recommendations. Or you may meet other incoming tourists who have helpful information, and you may decide to share a hired car or shared taxi, hotel or hostel accommodations, etc., as well as transportation between towns by auto with a driver or by van, and bus and train transport and guides to Machu Picchu itself. You’ll have to use your own judgment and should feel free to negotiate price and accommodations. In some cases, you may be asked to use your ATM card and pay for some portion of the trip in cash. Be cautious. Most of all, if you’re traveling on your own, be aware of the possibilities and be flexible.
Many potential complications can arise, but being adaptable can help you accomplish your goals. At times, weather events, transportation strikes, political issues and such can disrupt your plans, but the locals are quite eager to help you get to and enjoy Machu Picchu. That’s how many of them make their living, and they’ll want your experience to be positive and hope for you to recommend them to others. Trust them with your concerns and complications, adapt as much as you possibly can, and you’ll likely have a wonderful trip. Be sure to take your camera, for photos of a lifetime!
Machu Picchu: The Experience
When you pass through the gates and first lay eyes on the fabulous site, you’ll know it was worth what it took to get there. Your guide will explain what you’re seeing and take you through the fascinating points--the vivid greens of terraced grass; the complex construction of the gray limestone walls of the ancient city, some that form steep points that once supported thatched roofs, a few of which have been reconstructed; the sparse and lanky trees; the sedate and furry presence of the llamas that calmly perform the function of lawnmowers; the Urubamba River that expended eons of its existence carving the valley far below; the puffs of clouds that often rise from the bottom or sail overhead; the lush aroma of fertile ground. And after your guided tour, you’ll be free to roam the site at will, enjoy the sight of exotic plants, retrace your favorite steps, even take time to sit and experience the breath-taking calm, the quiet beauty and mystic elegance of it all.
Other Important Information About Travel to Machu Picchu, Peru
Other aspects of a trip to Peru may be important to consider, including bird-watching opportunities, bus transportation, clothing and shoes, equipment for the Inca Trail, financial transactions, food and beverages, general transportation info, health, internet access and phone calls, luggage, operating your electric appliances, passports, safety, tipping, toilet issues, train transport, travel insurance, trip brokers, visas, weather and seasons, and where to stay. Many of these are addressed on online travel forums.
Start planning your trip immediately. It’s likely to be the best of your life.
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© 2016 Janda Raker