How to Perfectly Plan an Incredible Trip to Machu Picchu in 2023
Follow this guide to plan your perfect trip to Machu Picchu, Peru - a wonder of the world and one of the greatest travel destinations on Earth!!
Table of Contents
This is it. The perfect guide to planning an incredible trip to Machu Picchu in 2023. No more confusing information. No more wondering what to bring or abandoning all hope and just joining a tour for $100's of dollars! I give you insights on what to really expect as Slow Travelers, how to get there, what you can expect to spend each step of the way, and all the things you need (and don't need) at Machu Picchu.
A Brief History of Machu Picchu
It’s theorized that Machu Picchu was built in the 1400’s and served as a spiritual retreat and summer palace for Emperor Pachacuti and other royalty. The reason for Machu Picchu’s location is thought to be because it is surrounded by the Urubamba river which mirrors the Milky Way. The Inca believed the Milky Way was a heavenly river in the sky. This made Machu Picchu a spiritually significant area to the Inca people.
The area also included agricultural and urban areas to feed and house the workers who built, maintained, and served the royalty at Machu Picchu. There are around 200 buildings constructed on wide terraces that surround a large public square. Though the buildings today appear without rooftops, they were once covered by thatched roofs using a tough Andean grass called Ichu.
Our guide told us that while most theories say the city was abandoned due to smallpox, the reason why Machu Picchu is actually so well-preserved — where other villages were completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadors — is because the reigning emperor, Atahualpa, had the city abandoned so that the Spanish would not find it by following people to the site.
Other sources basically say that Machu Picchu is so remote that essentially there was no reason for the Spanish to suspect there was a city or religious complex in the area at all. Because the Inca did not keep a written record, or the records were destroyed by the Spanish, we may never know the real reason why Machu Picchu was abandoned.
If you’re interested in learning more about Machu Picchu here are some resources I found for you to explore:
Podcasts: Short History of…: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail; Peru Travel Podcast: 50 Unbelievable Machu Picchu Facts; BBC The Forum: Machu Picchu: Secrets of a forgotten city
Articles/Blogs: MachuPicchu.com; History.com; PeruSim; TravelTalkTours
Books: A list of the best books to read before you go
Videos: The Origins of Machu Picchu (49:00); Machu Picchu Hidden Secrets (9:42); The Rise and Fall of the Incan Empire (5:46)
My Personal Experience in Machu Picchu as a Slow Traveler
Okay, I’m going to say this up front: everything from this point forward is my opinion.
Please feel free to skip to HERE if you don’t care about my personal experience that much or the Slow Travel stuff and just want to read about the logistics of getting to Machu Picchu. My feelings won’t be hurt. Promise ❤️
Over 1.5 million people visit Machu Picchu each year. The destination is on a list of places experiencing overtourism. Efforts are being made to reduce the influx of people to Machu Picchu and prevent damage to the site just from the sheer masses of people that visit every day.
However, this is a huge source of money for Peru and particularly the areas surrounding Machu Picchu including Ollantaytambo and Cusco. As such, there is a major effort to extract as much money as possible from visitors while still making conservation efforts. This means reducing the availability of tickets per day while making some things cost-prohibitive.
This is a very nice way of saying it’s a huge cash grab.
So why do I still promote Machu Picchu even though I’m a Slow Travel advocate???
Because it’s f*cking amazing.
It’s seriously one of the coolest things I’ve probably ever done and I’ve done and seen a fair bit of stuff. Yes. There’s hoards of people. Yes. You will have to pay more than other places to get there. Yes. There’s a lot of touristy/inauthentic stuff.
But will you regret it? Even if you’re not into fast travel tourism? Nope!
Take my partner for example. He’s basically my walking, talking bullsh*t detector. Hates crowds. Hates paying for stuff that doesn’t provide the kind of value we’re looking for. This was his SECOND time at Machu Picchu and he loved it as much as the first time.
Look how happy he is!
Even though I’m a hardline Slow Travel advocate, I’m not a fan of removing things from your bucket list that would lead to regrets. And I wholeheartedly believe that if you were to skip Machu Picchu, you would regret it.
It’s a city built with giant stones on top of a tiny mountain. The physical exertion as well as the geological, architectural, and engineering knowledge required to accomplish this feat is astronomical. And I mean literally astronomical. They built one of their temples to exactly capture the sunlight through a tiny window on TWO days of the year (winter and summer solstice)!!
If that doesn’t impress you… okay then maybe you’re the one person who shouldn’t go.
Kidding. Even if you don’t care about all the nerdy stuff. It’s just beautiful. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous.
Just look at this.
Here’s another angle!
So if you’re a Slow Traveler or just interested in the concepts of Slow Travel, I’ll leave you with this: Machu Picchu is a once in a lifetime experience and an incredible destination that I fully recommend but it is NOT a slow travel destination.
So why am I using precious space on my little blog to talk about something that isn’t Slow Travel? Because this is a rare and beautiful example of exceptions to the rule. We Slow Travel so we can save our energy (as well as our time and money) for these places that demand our attention.
“But what about Aguas Calientes?” You might be asking.
If you don’t know Aguas Calientes, it’s the “Machu Picchu puebla” or the little town you stay in at the base of Machu Picchu since you cannot camp at the site and there is only one über luxurious hotel at the top.
Aguas Calientes is a touristic waypoint between Cusco/Ollantaytambo and the archeological site, Machu Picchu. Anyone telling you otherwise is blowing smoke.
The food scene is not so much a scene as it is a diorama of eateries trying to cater to the widest spread of palates as possible. Though we did find a few good places I’ll tell you about in the Itinerary section.
Right by the train station you will find a sprawling market of mass-produced trinkets though the sellers there aren’t quite as aggressive as they are in Cusco and Lima. Probably because there are enough tourists that they don’t need to be.
There aren’t really that many “locals” in Aguas Calientes as most of the people who work there leave at night or stay for a week at a time and then return to Cusco.
The accommodations are modest and while some are quite nice, they don’t always provide as much value for your money as you may find in other places in Peru.
I hope this paints the picture.
Why You Need to Visit Machu Picchu in 2023
Hopefully, if you read the previous section, you’re already thinking, “Okay, I still want to go. Even if it's a little touristy.” But if you’re kind of on the fence because of the stuff I said about how touristy it is, let me just say this. I only elaborate on my experience to set expectations and give you insight I haven’t really seen in other places online.
Here are more reasons why you need to go and why 2023 is going to be the best time to visit for a while.
After next year, Machu Picchu is only going to get more popular, more difficult to visit because of the ticket cap, and more expensive.
As pandemic-era restrictions are lifted and people of all ages can more easily and safely travel, places are going to get crowded. In 2022, global traffic has only reached 68.7% of pre-pandemic levels and there is mixed consensus on whether or not 2023 will be the year that we fully return to pre-pandemic levels.
So yes, the best time to see Machu Picchu was yesterday but the second best time is now! You might just beat the 2024 crowds so start booking your travels.
Everything You Need to Plan Your Trip to Machu Picchu
Okay, now for the nitty gritty stuff. If you’re here for clarification on the mass of confusing and conflicting information floating around online about Machu Picchu, welcome. I hope I can help because HOLY CRAP is it difficult to parse all the information out there.
Because of how popular this destination is, you want to start planning your trip at least 2-3 months in advance and 5 months or more for popular accommodations. Machu Picchu is difficult to get to but a lot less so if you PLAN AHEAD.
Do you need to take a tour to Machu Picchu?
Say you want to skip all this funny business. Do you really need to read a whole blog to go to Machu Picchu? No you could just hire a tour guide and wash your hands of the whole thing.
But I say, no! You do not need to go with a tour. Besides the fact that the tours are expensive, you have little say in what your experience will be like and what the pace is.
I encourage you to try and plan your trip on your own. It’s daunting but you can do it. I believe in you.
The only time you NEED a tour and/or a guide is if you plan to hike the Inca Trail.
If you just want to go see the archeological sites at Machu Picchu, don’t bother paying hundreds of dollars for someone to plan something for you that you can do yourself in like 20 minutes (plus the time it takes you to read this 🙂).
2-Day Itinerary for Machu Picchu
If you are looking for the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu this is how we did it. I know two days sounds really quick (it is) but you can see a lot with only one night at Machu Picchu. Other people do it in a day (yikes!), some take three days.
But if you don’t have the time, aren’t a big hiking person, or you don’t really have the money to stay that much longer, here is the itinerary I would recommend:
7:00am: Leave from either Ollantaytambo or Cusco
11:00am: Arrive to Aguas Calientes, check in to your accommodation
12-2:00pm: Get lunch (I suggest Inka Tambo) and explore Aguas Calientes.
3-5:00 pm: Take a walk and explore the Machu Picchu museum and/or the butterfly garden
6-8:00pm: Get some drinks, relax, get dinner (I also suggest Incontri del Pueblo Viejo)
8-?: I wouldn’t stay up too late. You have a long day tomorrow! But I’m not your mom and hanging out with other travelers at your hostel can be fun ;)
6:30am: Get breakfast. Eat a lot. There is so much walking ahead of you today.
7:00am: Get in line for the bus if you have the 8 am entry time slot (more info on this later)
8:00am: The bus to Machu Picchu takes about 30 minutes but you have a short walk to the entrance.
8am-12pm: Explore the ruins! Take lots of photos! You’re in Machu Picchu!
12-2pm: You could take the bus back down to Aguas Calientes and get some lunch
12-2pm: Get drinks at the Sanctuary Lodge bar and eat at the buffet. Drinks are around $8-12 USD each and the buffet is around $29 USD per person. Feel fancy in your sweaty hiking clothes, eat a lot, sit, and digest.
2-3pm: Take the path down to Aguas Calientes. It’s a lot of steps, so if you don’t do this kind of thing often, your calves will hurt the next day. Stretch them out afterward.
3-4:30pm: If you’re taking the train back to Cusco or Ollantaytambo the same day, I recommend you find a hostel that will let you pay for a room for an hour or two so you can wash up (Mantu Boutique was kind enough to let us do this for $25 USD/100 Soles). We were super grateful for this and were much more comfortable on the ride back.
4:30-9:00pm: Take the train back to your hotel/hostel/accommodation.
Okay, so if you like the itinerary I’ve listed out above, here’s the steps you can take to do it. Even if you don’t do it exactly like this, the following information should still come in handy!
I have organized these in the order you should do them:
2-3 Months Before You Leave
Step 1: Buying tickets to the Machu Picchu Park
This is what your ticket should generally look like (our info has been removed).
→ Buy your tickets to the park from the official government site here. ←
There are a few options to choose from. It’s not all that clear to me how the Circuits are regulated because there is no one inside the park to tell you where to go and there are no signs for each of the circuits. However, the entrances to the viewpoint hikes are regulated. So if you want to do some extra hiking for better views make sure you buy the separate ticket for those areas.
Here are the ticket options to choose from:
Llaqta de Machupicchu (Circuito 1, 2, 3, ó 4): This is the one we selected and covered everything we needed. Choose the 8am-9am slot! This is the best time to see the site as the clouds start to dissipate and you will beat the crowds who come later. You will also be able to see the sun dial since that area closes at 10am.
Circuito 4 + Montaña Waynapicchu (ages 12+ only): If you’ve done some research already and this is the first time you’ve seen Waynapicchu that’s because this is also written as Huayna Picchu. You’ll want to buy this ticket if you also want to see Machu Picchu from the top of Huayna Picchu. The hike is a challenging 1 hour trek and can give you a really cool view of the area as well as more archeological stuff to explore. This blog is a good summary of the Huayna Picchu hike also called the Stairs of Death!
Montaña Machupicchu + Circuito 3: With this ticket you can go to the highest point in Machu Picchu and go around Circuit 3. This hike is the toughest climb and takes around 3 hours total with a lot of elevation gain, not for the faint of heart but I hear it has even more incredible views of the site below. This is also the only ticket with which you can leave the site and re-enter.
Circuito 4 + Montaña Huchuypicchu: This is another great bird’s eye viewpoint of the ruins and for those looking for even more hiking to do at Machu Picchu. Here’s a great summary (from the same blog I previously linked to) of the Huchuy Picchu hike which takes about 30-45 minutes and is moderately difficult.
What time should you choose?
If you are just doing the basic circuits without the extra hikes to the peaks, choose the 8am-9pm slot. You will beat the crowds and catch the best views of the site as the clouds clear away.
If you are going to be hiking anything extra, go earlier. Much earlier. It gets very hot once the clouds clear out around 9am and you will be very warm.
Step 2: Buying Train Tickets
This is the Vistadome train we took with PeruRail. Really cool!
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu. Well… there’s actually two main ways:
There is supposedly a way to get there by bus that goes the “back way” and then hiking from the hydroelectric plant. However, I did not arrive by foot or by bus, so I cannot recommend or give advice on either of those options.
If you want to go on foot, honestly my guide is probably not for you! If that wasn’t already obvious. However, here is a GREAT guide to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
I can however give you advice on arriving to Machu Picchu by train. There are two different train companies that provide transportation to Aguas Calientes: Peru Rail and Inca Rail.
If you’re leaving from Cusco:
Peru Rail has trains that leave from Poroy Station, which is a 30-40 minute drive from the city center of Cusco. You can hire a taxi or an Uber to take you there in the morning. Trains start at 6:40am and range anywhere between $60 (Expedition trains) to $500 USD (Hiram Bingham luxury train).
Inca Rail offers a bimodal journey, which includes a bus that leaves from San Pedro station, a few blocks from Cusco’s main plaza. The bimodal journey means you don’t have to take a car from Cusco to Poroy but you do have to take a 2-hour bus ride to Ollantaytambo. Trains start at 4:20am and range from $65 to $203 USD. IncaRail also offers packages that include tickets and guides to Machu Picchu.
If you’re leaving from Ollantaytambo, I recommend either train company: The convenience, prices, and travel times are more or less comparable at this point.
What did we choose?
Because I get carsick easily we decided to avoid the bimodal bus journey and risking an uncomfortable start to an already very long journey and to take the Vistadome train with Peru Rail from Poroy Station. This turned out to be a perfect choice. The views from the overhead windows were amazing! The staff were very kind and it was fairly comfortable.
Two things: 1) I recommend you bring snacks. The only snacks they offer are quinoa-based. They were okay but not that filling. 2) If you're sensitive to noise, or have sleepy little ones with you, bring noise-canceling headphones. Especially if you leave early and want to sleep as passengers can be noisy and there are no quiet carriages available.
As for getting there and back, we had the number of a great driver who had already taken us around the Sacred Valley so we used him. His number can be provided on request! :)
2-4 Weeks Before You Leave
Step 3: Booking Accommodation
There are a variety of options to choose from in Aguas Calientes and even at the entrance to Machu Picchu itself. I recommend using Booking.com to find your accommodations but here are a few that we liked as well as the one we stayed at:
Supertramp Hostel shared space
Supertramp Hostel: the Supertramp Hostel is a great place to socialize and meet other backpackers. While the location is a little far from Aguas Calientes’ center it is only $40 a night.
Rumiqolqa: This is a more “chill” hostel. Most of the rooms have a great view of the Vilcanota River. Prices are around $45 a night.
Sorry for the quality! It's a screengrab from a video. But this was our view from our room at Inti Punku.
Inti Punku: My boyfriend and I stayed here. It was great for the price and provided everything we needed. The breakfast may not be fully stocked though so make sure to get snacks the night before if you think you’ll get hungry while hiking around. Prices range from $90-$200 USD.
Mapiland Boutique Hotel: This is a nice boutique hotel found on Booking.com. The location is situated a little further away from the hustle and bustle but reviewers also state that hotel staff will meet you at the train station if you have hand luggage. Rooms range from $56-$100 USD.
View from the bar! We got some great drinks here after exploring Machu Picchu.
Sanctuary Lodge: This hotel is located right at the entrance of Machu Picchu, literally 50m away! But you’ll be paying a hefty price for such convenience and luxury, rooms run around $1,195-$2,750 USD per night! If you don’t stay here, I recommend you get a refreshing drink (the Old Pisco and their Negroni are excellent!) at the bar after you spend the morning wandering around Machu Picchu and then take advantage of the expansive buffet ($29/person).
Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel: If the Sanctuary Lodge is a bit too rich for your blood, try the Sumaq Hotel instead! The location is great, closer to the Machu Picchu museum than other accommodations. Rooms have a wide range of options from $357-$1,749 USD.
Step 4: What to Pack for Machu Picchu
If you’re only staying one night in Aguas Calientes, this list should be quite short. I recommend you only take what you can fit into a backpack and store your luggage in Cusco or Ollantaytambo.
Some general advice:
The temperature varies a lot from day to night, bring light clothes you can layer
Make sure to apply SPF to your face and anything else exposed to the sun even if it’s cloudy. The sun is very strong in Peru! A hat is essential.
We got absolutely eaten alive by either midges and sand flies are especially prevalent during the dry season. You won’t see these guys until it’s too late so apply bug repellent, wear long pants and socks, and wear long sleeves as much as you comfortably can. Weirdly, they love ankles, wrists, and elbows.
Don't forget your passport. You literally can't do anything without this. Do NOT forget it and bring it with you to the archeological site. You need it to enter with your ticket.
Bring cash. If you decide to hire a guide, bring enough to pay them.
What to bring:
Soles or USD
Refillable water bottle
Small snacks (make sure to take care of your trash)
50+ SPF sunscreen
Broad brimmed hat
Hiking poles (I think these would be helpful if you’re going up to any of the peaks)
Thick wool socks
Long pants or leggings
Sweater or light-weight down jacket
A waterproof shell or poncho
Long sleeve shirt
T-shirt (something that covers your shoulders)
Tank top (last resort if you’re really hot)
What not to bring:
Use common sense - drugs, weapons, etc. are obviously not allowed
Tripods or selfie sticks
Plastic water bottles
No large amounts of food
Step 5: Hiring a Guide for Machu Picchu
Our amazing guide, Lourdes!!
Do you need to hire a guide to enter Machu Picchu?
This is an important one and surprisingly unclear on most blogs and informational websites, including the official Machu Picchu site.
Officially, yes. You do.
HOWEVER, based on what I saw at the site, this is a suggestion and not a rule. Many people entered without an official guide and walked around freely. So if you are trying to do Machu Picchu on a budget, you can try to enter without a guide.
I still advise you to be prepared with cash to hire a guide in case the entry officials feel like being douchebags. There are plenty of guides waiting outside the entrance in case you change your mind or are told to get a guide.
The only time I know it is definitely mandatory to join a tour and/or hire a guide is if you’re hiking the Inca Trail!
Though it's not a hard rule for the site itself, I found the experience with a guide to be great! We hired Lourdes who approached us while waiting in line for the bus. It was 280 Soles total ($70 USD) and I tipped an extra 70 Soles because she did SO much for us.
On top of being an incredible guide, she also took a ton of awesome photos of my boyfriend and me together which we never get to do since it’s usually just the two of us. We also got to ask her lots of questions about Peru, her opinions on the food, the masses of tourists, and a lot more.
She was very honest about everything! We love that. Here is Lourdes’ Whatsapp if you wish to get in contact with her. You may want to reach out a week or so in advance to see if she’s in town when you’re there since she also does tours in Cusco bi-weekly.
Step 6: Buying Your Bus Tickets to Machu Picchu
Buy your bus tickets to Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes the day before you are set to go to the site. This was the only thing we couldn’t do online. The ticket office can be found here on the other side of the river from the train station.
You can purchase roundtrip tickets for $24, or one way for $12. These are the prices for foreigners; locals and Peruvians receive a discount. You will see where everyone waits in line in Aguas Calientes and there are signs that indicate which line you should stand in based on your ticket's time slot.
With the one-way ticket, I recommend taking the bus to the top and – when you’re done at Machu Picchu and have something to eat – taking the trail back down to Aguas Calientes.
While you could hike up the trail to Machu Picchu from town, it didn’t seem all that enjoyable based on how miserable people looked walking up. You’re going to be walking and hiking a lot at the top so I would save your energy for that!
There you go! That’s pretty much everything you need to know to get to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu, see the site, and sleep in relative comfort without breaking the bank. All without needing to pay someone to do it for you!
I know this is a LOT of information. However, even if you’re not able to utilize all of it, I hope that you find some of this guide useful!
If there’s anything that’s missing that you have questions about, please feel free to comment or shoot me a message.
I hope you decide to visit Machu Picchu and that it impresses you as much as it did me. It truly was an incredible experience and I am so glad to share with all of you. Thanks for making it this far and good luck!