The ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu is a must-see on any South American itinerary. Set at a dizzying 2430 metres above sea level, wandering the 15th-century estate is breathtaking (both literally and figurative): palaces, tombs and temples are dwarfed by the surrounding mist-shrouded green peaks of Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains, while llamas graze lazily on the grassy terraces.
How to get to Machu Picchu
Hike the Inca Trail
Each year, thousands of trekkers follow the route of the labourers who built the mysterious city and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Starting at Kilometre 82, just outside Ollantaytambo, the four-day guided hike takes you past ruins, through cloud forests and up (and down) the highest point of the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass. Only 500 hikers are permitted on the trail each day (including porters and guides) and all hikers require a permit. If you miss out on permits or prefer a less-populated trek, the Quarry Trail is a great option; it’s just as challenging as the Inca Trail, but with fewer walkers.
Hike the Inca trail on the below tour
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Take the train to Machu Picchu
A less-strenuous route to Machu Picchu is taking the 90-minute train journey from neighbouring Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the train also runs from Sacred Valley and Cuzco), then taking a bus up to the site. Word to the wise: those with a fear of heights should sit in an aisle seat and avoid looking out the window; some of the corners along the zig-zagging road can be a little hairy. It’s best to plan your arrival either first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the throngs of selfie-stick-wielding tourists.
In the neighbourhood
Aguas Calientes sits at the foot of the Machu Picchu and is really just a tourist town. Its location amid towering cliffs and cloud forests is beautiful, but the town itself doesn’t offer much to travellers, apart from souvenirs, vendors pushing pizza and burgers to weary hikers and the promise of a comfortable hotel room the night before a excursion to Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo (also known as Ollanta) offers a more traditional Inca experience. The tranquil town is set around a small grassy square on a grid of cobbled streets, criss-crossed by canals. There are several restaurants and bars in the area, along with shops to pick up locally crafted goods (along with the usual souvenir trade). Visit the nearby ruins on the outskirts of town; the steep terraces served as a fortress during the Spanish conquest, and are one of the few locations in Peru where the Spanish conquistadors lost their battle.
At the entrance to the lush Sacred Valley is Pisac, a mecca for new-age spiritual types and trekkers en route to the Inca Trail. The village is worth a visit on Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday when a colourful market overtakes the town.
Cusco is the starting point for most journeys to Machu Picchu. At an altitude of 3400 metres above sea level, many travellers experience altitude sickness here, so it’s worth spending a few days in town and taking your time acclimatising. Pretty easy, considering the array of colonial architecture to admire, humming markets to explore, and restaurants and cafes to sate your appetite.
A word on altitude
No matter how strong, young, fit or healthy you are, many travellers to Machu Picchu experience altitude sickness. Altitude sickness occurs as your body reacts to decreasing amounts of oxygen; symptoms can range from headaches, fatigue and nausea, to tightness in the chest, fever and loss of balance and/or coordination. Some pre-existing medical conditions can worsen at high altitudes, so it’s important to chat through your travel plans with your GP before you leave.