When National Geographic published images of the Machu Picchu – the “Lost City of the Incas” – in 1913, the ancient site captured the world’s imagination. And although it’s now understood that Machu Picchu is not the “lost city of the Incas”, the site, nestled among rugged Andes mountains, is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the top bucket list destinations in the world. If you’re planning a trip to this iconic site, read on for tips for your visit and an overview of the best time to travel to Machu Picchu, Peru.
In 1911 Yale Professor Hiram Bingham ‘discovered’* the overgrown city in his hunt for the final stronghold of the Incan king. This was the age of exploration in South America when great expanses of the Amazon rainforest and Andes had yet to be mapped. Bingham went on to explore many other areas of Peru, but it is Machu Picchu (“old mountain” in Quechua”) that remains his greatest discovery.
We were fortunate to visit Machu Picchu recently and will share what we learned about the best time to travel to Machu Picchu and other tips for visiting this extraordinary site.
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Planning your trip to Machu Picchu
A trip to the world heritage site involves a lot of planning. The high Andes location is actually a cloud forest with cool temperatures, frequent rain, and even more frequent misty conditions. In addition, though Machu Picchu is not a high-altitude destination (~8000′ above sea level) getting to Machu Picchu will involve time in Cusco, Peru (11,000′) and the Sacred Valley (9000′). Being prepared for high altitude is essential. And plan well ahead of time as daily tickets and permits are limited.
Machu Picchu is the end point of the famous Inca Trail. Hiking the 26 miles of this route usually takes four days and requires a permit and a licensed guide. As older adults, we opted for the day trip option to visit Machu Picchu. If you are up to the four day hike, make sure to get your Inca Trail permits asap!
A day visit to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu involves a ~2-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes town, and then a 30-minute bus ride up the switchback Hiram Bingham Road to the site entrance.
If you’re fit and looking for a challenge, opt to hike from Aguas Calientes to the entrance. It’s only a 2-3 hour hike but all uphill and buggy. Make sure to bring insect repellent with you!
The Best Time of Year to Visit Machu Picchu
The ideal time of year to visit Machu Picchu is during the dry season months of May to September. During this time, you can expect good weather conditions- sunny days, with little rain, lower humidity, and cooler temperatures. This makes it a good time for outdoor activities, such as hiking and exploring the ancient ruins.
Of course, this is also peak season in Machu Picchu, with travelers from the Northern hemisphere taking summer vacations. During this high season you can expect crowds, higher rates for hotels and transportation, and possible issues in getting entry to the site. (In order to preserve the archaeological site from overcrowding and wear, there is currently a limit of 2500 entry tickets each day. The tickets are for timed admission – morning or afternoon. There are discussions of further restrictions coming to help preserve the site so plan ahead.)
The wet season, October to April, will have fewer crowds but the weather will be more humid with frequent rain. Good footwear is essential as the stone terraces that define the site can be slippery.
A happy medium is traveling during the shoulder season – mid April to May, or late September to early October. Hope for clear skies but come prepared for rainy days. Pack a rain jacket and good walking shoes. If possible, plan to get to Machu Picchu in the early morning. Though not guaranteed, morning is the best time of day on the mountain. Mists and cloud cover tend to build in the afternoon.
Average temperatures and rainfall – Machu Picchu Pueblo
|Month||Average Temperature||Average Rainfall (in)||Avg. Sunny Hours Daily|
Our experience traveling in the shoulder season – April
As we were combining our visit with a week in the Galapagos, we chose to travel in April. We stayed overnight at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel at the citadel. Our afternoon visit to the site was misty and cool, and we had the site almost to ourselves. The following morning broke with clear blue skies. An early start allowed us to hike a bit before the crowds arrived. As we descended the mountain around 8:30 a.m., there were long lines of people heading up the trails.
Tips for Visiting Machu Picchu
Plan ahead. Be sure to get your permits, train tickets, and Machu Picchu tickets well before your trip!
- At this time, entry into the site is limited to 2500 people per day. Timed entry tickets are available. The site’s hours of operations are specified as morning, 6 a.m. to 12 noon, and afternoon, 12 noon to 5:30 pm.
- If you are considering hiking one of the adjacent mountains (Huayna Picchu Mountain or Machu Picchu Mountain) apply for those tickets several months in advance of your trip.
- At this time, you must have a licensed guide to tour the site.
- Early morning visit to the site is recommended for best weather and fewer crowds. The first bus from Aguas Calientes leaves at 5:30 a.m. with first entry into Machu Picchu at 6 a.m.
- Note that tripods, selfie sticks, and large backpacks (over 20L) are not allowed in the site. Umbrellas are discouraged except in rare occasions. Walking sticks with rubber tips are allowed if needed for balance. I packed a collapsible walking stick, but inexpensive sticks were readily available in Ollantaytambo.
- Ollantaytambo is where you’ll board the train to Machu Picchu. But it is also a fascinating archaeological site in itself. Consider spending some time there before heading to Machu Picchu.
- Prepare for the high altitude of the Andes Mountains. If you are unsure how your body will respond, consider getting a prescription for medicine to forestall altitude sickness.
- Interesting Fact: Aguas Calientes town is ONLY accessible by train. It is a charming little town to explore. Especially when you note that all goods for the restaurants and shops must come in on the train lines.
Recommended preparations for your visit to Machu Picchu
Touring the site requires a bit of stamina, especially with the low oxygen conditions. Though it’s not necessary to train for a day visit, make sure you can walk a mile or so, and climb steps. If you are concerned about your balance, I’d recommend a walking stick.
If you bring a camera make sure to have an extra memory card and battery. You’ll be taking lots of pictures.
As always, I recommend you read a bit to familiarize yourself with this fascinating destination.
- Read Hiram Bingham’s first-hand account: Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham
- For a thorough history of the Incas read: Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming.
- If you’d prefer an easier read with a bit of humor, try Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams
Visiting Machu Picchu is a dream come true for most of us. When to visit comes down to your personal preferences and priorities. The best months of the dry season offer cooler temperatures and drier weather, but you can expect large crowds and higher expenses. The rainy season attracts fewer people to the site (and thus lower prices) but the weather can be more challenging for hiking and exploring the ruins. Opting for the shoulder season may be the best choice if you have plans to visit other destinations in Peru.
Weigh the pros and cons of each season and choose the best time to travel to Machu Picchu, Peru based on your needs. You will have a great time no matter what the season!
We traveled to the Machu Picchu on a Tauck tour of Peru and the Galapagos. Once in the Peru all guiding and touring operations was run by Metropolitan Touring, an Ecuadorian company. No part of this trip was subsidized by Tauck or Metropolitan Touring. Our opinions are our own.
*Though Hiram Bingham’s expedition brought Machu Picchu to the world’s attention, local people knew of the site and some actually lived among the ruins.