Travel to Machu Picchu? Why, you might ask, would anyone want to do that? There are a lot of good answers to that question. Here’s the shortest one: No trip to Peru—indeed, no trip to South America—is complete without going there.
Let’s take a look at Machu Picchu and see what makes it such a great South America trip idea. After that, we’ll go over times to travel there and some info you should know.
Why Should You Go to Machu Picchu?
We’ll start with the first and most important question: Why would you want to travel to Machu Picchu in the first place? One of its biggest attractions is its rich history (cue up the Travel Channel music!).
Situated high up in the Andes mountains, Machu Picchu is sometimes called the “Lost City of the Incas.” That’s not exactly true—lots of people know about and travel to Machu Picchu now, after all—but its connection to the Incas is definitely accurate.
The city was built sometime in the mid 15th century, when Incan civilization was at its height. About a century after its construction, Machu Picchu was abandoned due to the Spanish Conquest (some believe that smallpox killed off most of its inhabitants). The locals managed to keep the city’s location a secret, however, so the conquistadors never plundered the area or destroyed any of its sacred rocks.
Although a couple of people may have found the site and taken artifacts in the late 19th century, very few people outside of Peru knew about Machu Picchu until 1911. That was the year that local farmers guided American explorer/professor Hiram Bingham and his Yale Peruvian Expedition to the ancient city’s site.
Machu Picchu isn’t the only amazing site in this region. Here are some other noteworthy areas that are close by.
Most Machu Picchu escorted tours and travel packages start in the nearby city of Cusco (which means “navel of the world”). As the former capital of the Inca Empire, it’s a pretty amazing place in itself. The region was actually inhabited well before the Incas: Researchers have found that the Kilke people were there sometime between 900 and 1200 A.D. They built the city’s fortress as well as temples, roads and aqueducts.
The Incas moved there sometime in the 13th century and built up the city even further. The Spanish arrived three centuries later. They destroyed and rebuilt much of the city, but traces of the Inca and Kilke architecture can still be found today. (Another historical note: Cusco served as a base of operations for Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition).
Before or after heading up to Machu Picchu, you can wander the streets of Cusco and see the remnants of past civilizations. For example, there’s the Convent of Santo Domingo (aka Qurikancha), the center of worship for the Sun God known as Inti and the former heart of the Incan empire. You can see a wonderful blend of Incan and Spanish architecture here. You can also check out a collection of art from the Cuzco School (a Catholic painting style that lasted from the 1500s to the 1700s).
The Sacred Valley
While vacationing around Cusco and Machu Picchu, you can take in the breathtaking sights of the Sacred Valley. The valley was created by Peru’s Urubamba River cutting its way through the Andes mountains. It’s only an hour outside of Cusco and can be reached on the train line that runs to Machu Picchu.
Travelling through the Sacred Valley, you’ll see locals farming the terraced hillsides just as they did when the Incas were around. Women sporting bright, lovely colors take their wares to lively village markets like they’ve done for centuries. Various amazing ruins are scattered around the valley as well.
If you visit the Sacred Valley while travelling to Machu Picchu, stop by Ollantaytambo. This modest town has stone streets, stores and homes that feature walls built by the Incans. There’s also a big, imposing Inca fortress that looks down on the village. If you’re up to the physical demands, you can hike the Cachiccata Quarry. In addition to showing you the gorgeous landscape, guides can tell you how the Incans were able to transport the large stones that make up the fortress. You don’t need to rough it completely, though: Ollantaytambo also has several hotels and inns nearby.
The Inca Trail
One of the greatest hikes in the world is taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Trips generally take 4-6 days and give you some amazing sights of the Andes. However, anyone wanting to do some backpack travel will need to be in good shape. You’ll also need a few days to acclimate to the high altitude (more on this later).
Lots of people get to Machu Picchu from Lima, the capital of Peru. Originally the headquarters of the colonial empire of Spain, Lima has everything you could want in a modern metropolis. It also has such great spots as the Plaza de Armas and the San Francisco Monastery.
When Should You Go to Machu Picchu?
So now that we’ve (hopefully) explained why travelling to Machu Picchu is a great idea, let’s look at the when. That is, when is the best time to travel to Machu Picchu?
The dry season in Machu Picchu occurs between May and October. If you want lots of sun and clear blue sky, this will probably be your best window. Bear in mind, however, that the mega-heavy tourist season falls within this window too. You could end up jostling with a lot of other backpack travelers for hiking space, photo opps and so on.
Also, dry season doesn’t mean absolute desert conditions in Peru. In the morning and afternoon, you may encounter mists so heavy that they can keep you from seeing particular sights (though the mists can be quite lovely in themselves).
The weather is warmest in Machu Picchu from November to March each year. You may not get a lot of time to work on your tan, though—the rainy season occurs during this period too.
As we mentioned above, the peak time for tourists to visit Machu Picchu is during the dry season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, crowds tend to get especially large in June, July and August. If you go during this time, don’t be too surprised if it gets a little tricky to reach different areas. You can expect long lines at some of the more illustrious spots too.
In short, the best time to travel to Machu Picchu depends on what you’re willing to tolerate (and how much of it you can stand). If you don’t mind having lots of people around, you can go during the summer months. If you don’t mind some rain and want a little more room to wander around, plan a trip for winter or early spring.
It’s also important to note that some spots might not be open depending on when you go. For instance, the Inca Trail season runs from March to January. Rainfall gets so heavy in February that the trail gets closed down. If you want to do some hiking in the Andes, go anytime from April to October.
Other Info about Travelling to Machu Picchu
Here’s some other important information if you want to make time to travel to Machu Picchu:
Needing a Visa (or Not)
If you’re from the US or the UK, you don’t need a tourist visa to enter Peru. One less thing you’ll need to worry about!
Internet Access in Peru
You should be able to get high-speed internet access easily while you’re in the larger cities. When you head out into the country, internet access becomes much harder to find. Also, while most boutique hotels should have an internet connection, a few still won’t.
Using Your Cell Phone in Peru
Depending on your carrier and the type of phone you have, you may be able to use your cell phone while you’re travelling in Peru. You’ll need a GSM phone (i.e. one with a SIM card) in order to make calls using cell towers down there. Also, your cell phone plan will need to include international roaming.
One last thing: If you do use your cell phone in Peru, be prepared for an ugly phone bill once you get back from your trip.
Needing Power Adapters in Peru
If you plan on taking a few electronic devices on your trip, you may need some power adapters. Peru has 220 volt, 60 cycle electricity, so you’ll want a converter if any of your devices are 110 volt. You might also need an adapter for 3-prong plugs and one for two rounded prongs.
Using the Water in Peru
You can use the tap water in Peru if you’re brushing your teeth, washing your hands or taking a shower. However, drink only bottled water while you’re there.
The Air around Machu Picchu and Cusco
While Machu Picchu is almost 8,000 feet above sea level, Cusco is more than 11,000 feet (the Sacred Valley falls between them at 9,100-9,700 feet). Because of this, travelling to this region of Peru carries a high risk of altitude sickness (the Incans had a word for it: “soroche”). Symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid pulse
To avoid getting altitude sickness, take your time going from lower to higher altitudes. This will allow your body to acclimate. If you do come down with altitude sickness, you’ll need to get to a lower altitude.
Travelling to Machu Pichu can be a wonderful experience. If you plan your trip carefully, you’ll get to see some amazing scenery and remnants of past civilizations.