Your Machu Picchu Itinerary & How to Conquer The Huayna Picchu Hike
Machu Picchu: the reason you’re probably booking a flight to Peru.
It’s one of the new seven wonders of the world and a first-time trip to Peru wouldn’t be complete without it.
There are many journeys to get to Machu Picchu, each with varying timelines and fitness level requirements. And with new regulation being implemented in 2019, to further limit foot traffic, planning in advance is crucial. Especially for hikes on the Inca Trail or climbs up Huayna Picchu.
This photographic travel guide will give you a sense of what a Machu Picchu itinerary looks like, along with my first-hand experience doing the Huayna Picchu hike. I’ll also give tips on how to get there, where you can stay, how to help prevent altitude sickness and much more.
GO IF YOU LIKE:
ANCIENT HISTORY | ARCHITECTURE | BUCKET LIST SIGHTS | LLAMAS | EPIC VIEWS
Visiting MACHU PICCHU BY TRAIN AND BUS
One of the most important things to consider when planning a trip to Machu Picchu is how to get there.
After flying from Lima to Cusco, the best way to get to Machu Picchu is by train. PeruRail takes passengers on a day trip from Cusco and Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the closest city to Machu Picchu. If time is a factor or there’s no desire to hike, then this is the best option.
There are three different trains and it’s important to remember they all take the same route, so the views are identical.
The trains do offer different levels or service, comfort and amenities. Here’s a breakdown:
1 - PeruRail Expedition Train (Economy)
The most basic option, though basic in this instance is not too shabby. The seats are comfortable, the windows are big and the views are the same as the other trains. Having been on this and the Vistadome I would opt for the Expedition. I didn’t find the Vistadome to be worth the extra money.
2 - PeruRail Vistadome Train (Mid-Range)
This train, pictured above, gets its popularity from the fact that the windows extend above, to give a panoramic view. While I appreciated this, I didn’t find myself looking up too much. The service on board was pleasant, there were snacks and hot beverages. They also had a live fashion show with a masked dancer. I found it a bit corny but others enjoyed it.
3 - PeruRail Belmond Hiram Bingham Train (Luxury)
This is the luxury train that offers fine dining and an open-air deck in the back car. It’s about four times the price of the Vistadome. As a photographer the deck was very tempting, however an early sunset time mean’t my return journey would have only provided one hour of daylight on the train. The Belmond is known for luxury and great service. If you’re tempted to splurge, then consider the Belmond Andean Explorer train from Cusco to Puno.
Regardless of the train, everyone takes the same bus to get to and from the ruins. Lines are usually long and form early in the morning and mid-afternoon.
Sit on the river side of the train for better views.
GETTING TO MACHU PICCHU BY HIKING
Hiking to Machu Picchu is a very popular option. It allows you to follow in the footsteps of the Incas and breath in the history.
There are an array of hikes and treks to choose from, which last anywhere from two-five days. They take hikers through remote villages, climbing the Andes and passing Inca ruins.
I opted for the short Inca trail hike, which is a two-day, one-night affair. The rationale was simple. I only had a short period of time to explore Peru and wanted to see more of the country. I also didn’t want to pack for a trek but I enjoyed hiking and wanted to challenge myself in some capacity.
To read about my experience on the Short Inca Trail and to learn more about other hiking options like The Salkantay Trek and full, four-day Inca Trail pilgrimage read my artcile below.
ARRIVING AT MACHU PICCHU
Most hiking options bring hikers through the Sun Gate. It’s here that it becomes clear to see why Machu Picchu was called The Lost City of the Incas. It’s a thirty-minute (luckily downhill) walk to the ruins. For any hiker it’s the ultimate goal as it’s the first chance to see Machu Picchu.
For anyone taking the train and bus directly to the sight, the entrance is at the Southern point of the ruins. The bus will wind around the road for about thirty minutes before it gets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu Tickets and New Regulations
Every few years, the government implements stricter regulations for visitors at Machu Picchu. 2019 is no exception as tickets are now sold in one-hour time slots and visits are limited to four hours. This means that tickets are valid for entry during the one-hour time slot they were purchased for; not a minute before or a minute after.
One can assume that these stringent rules will make purchasing tickets harder, so booking in advanced is necessary. In addition several hikes, including the Inca trail, need to be done with a certified guide and in order to maintain the sights, only 200 permits are given to travellers every day.
Any tickets or hiking tours which fall during peak season, May-October, should be made at least six months in advance.
8am - Exploring Machu Picchu
Early in the morning our guide, Eban from Llama Path Sustainable Tours, picked us up and brought us to the ruins.
The first hour of the tour was a history lesson covering everything from what was known about the Inca civilization, the Spanish invasion and Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of the site. We also learned about today’s challenges of the Peruvian government trying to reclaim the lost artifacts.
The Machu Picchu ruins have different houses. Some are fit for royalty and others for regular people.
We passed alters, toilet facilities, storage spaces and unfinished work.
It doesn’t matter how many times I saw the pictures before visiting, it felt amazing to see it in real life.
The most impressive part was the construction of the buildings. Similar to other Inca ruins, we saw how they used large stones that fit perfectly into one another. The precision was so great that they didn’t even use mortar to seal the stones.
All of these details would have been lost on me without a guide. I recommend either doing research beforehand or getting a knowledgable local tour guide.
Sustainable Travel Tip
It’s easy to think that since these stones have lasted such a long time they’re immune to damage, but the truth is the oils from our hands and pressure from our feet are wearing them down. Avoid touching the stones and don’t stand or sit on any of the ruins.
10am - Climbing Huayna Picchu
While I spent the morning walking through the ruins, I also had this pit in the bottom of my stomach. We had purchased tickets months ago to climb Huayna Picchu and I was having second thoughts.
I won’t hide the fact that I’m not particularly good with heights. I had heard this hike described with words like “dangerous”, “death stairs” and “steep”. I pictured myself clinging to tiny stairs on the side of a mountain and being blown off by a gust of wind. Ok, a bit dramatic I know.
But I had the tickets, it would be a waste not to use them and with the encouragement of my friends, we lined up for our 10am climb.
I took one last look at the daunting mountain above me and thought, How the hell was I supposed to get to the top?
Unfortunately for you, my dear reader, I was so focused on making it alive that I didn’t stop for photos. So now I’ll do my best to describe that one hour.
The saving grace for the hike was that it was predominantly shady. The path to go up was indeed very steep but there was always sufficient space and bush to prevent me from falling to my death.
It made me sweat, turned my legs to jello and I was constantly out of breath but I never once questioned if I could make it to the top.
The climb was essentially that, a climb. It was stairs after stairs after stairs of climbing. It was narrow enough for single file but wide enough for the faster people pass.
Everyone went at their own speed. We encouraged each other and were respectful of everyone’s pace. Strangers started chatting, it felt like a team effort.
After an hour, we got to the top, and I finally pulled out my camera.
The top is the area where I suggest additional caution.
It was crowded, everyone wanted a selfie and there was limited standing space. So be patient and watch your step.
It was definitely worth it and I’m so happy I faced my fears.
Getting Tickets For Huayna Picchu
Tickets for Huayna Picchu should be purchased about 3-6 months in advance. Climbing times are split into two groups (early morning and late morning), so ensure that the time for the climb correlates to the time slot on the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu.
If tickets are sold out, consider climbing Machu Picchu Mountain instead. These are also sold in time slots but the hike is less steep and twice as long as Huayna Picchu. While there are no Inca sights on this hike it does provide provide great views, with less people.
Where to Sleep at Machu Picchu
The links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a booking. As always, I only recommend products and services I trust.
When doing the guided hikes, the tour companies provide accommodation. For the two-day hike it was a three-star hotel in Aguas Calientes. For longer treks it is camping sites and lodgment along the trail.
Wanting to splurge a little on this part of the trip my group opted to stay at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. Here’s what I can honestly say about my experience.
Pros: It was very convenient. Waking up to visit Machu Picchu was less stressful because we didn't have to get in line early to take the bus.
The food was delicious and the service was top notch. They also allowed us to use the shower facilties after checkout which was the greatest feeling after hiking Huayna Picchu. It made the train ride to Cusco more comfortable.
Cons: For the extravagant price, I found the overall aesthetic a bit dated and frankly I wasn't physically at the hotel long enough to enjoy all the perks.
I was so exhausted from the hike that I went to bed early. The high altitude supressed my appetite so I was forcing myself to eat the five-star meals and the complimentary drinks were lost on me since I was limiting alcohol intake in order to avoid altitude sickness.
I also had fantasies that I would be able to watch the sun set over Machu Picchu from the resort but because it’s situated lower than the ruins it’s only possible to see Huayna Picchu.
Overall Thoughts: If you have the money to spend, you want luxury, convenience and have time to appreciate the facilities, then it might be the perfect place. Otherwise I'd say skip it and use the money towards something else.
Here are some hotels in Aguas Calientes that get rave reviews online:
Also a luxury accomodation, this hotel is around half the price of the Belmond with higher ratings. It gets rave reviews online and looks like a jungle escape. If I were to redo my luxury accomodation I'd probably opt for here.
The online reviews give it high ratings for large, clean rooms and friendly service. Plus some rooms have a jacuzzi tub, who doesn't love that?!
A ten-minute walk from the train station with all-start service reviews. The rooms look comfortable and clean, making it a great value reservation.
A family-run bed and breakfast that is a little further of a walk from the train station but guests say that the owner will meet you upon arrival. The most affordable option in this list, makes it a great place to sleep and save money.
Fill that Belly
If there’s one thing I learned about being at a high elevation is that metabolism slows down, which means I was rarely hungry.
Machu Picchu itself doesn’t have any restaurants. So meals need to be eaten in Aguas Calientes. Consider bringing a few snacks for the day.
The Belmond Sanctuary Lodge has fine dining and will require reservations. The prices will be considerably higher than restaurants in Aguas Calientes.
We had lunch at Indio Feliz in Aguas Calientes. It was a cool spot, with bills from all over the world posted on the walls. The meal was tasty and filling. I had the pineapple chicken and a refreshing green slushy drink.
How to Acclimatize for Machu Picchu
Altitude sickness is a very real and common problem in the Cusco region. It’s advised to spend at least 3 days, taking it easy while your body acclimates to the altitude.
Acclimatizing in the Sacred Valley is a great option, because it sits at a lower altitude than Cusco and there’s so much to see and do in the region. My guide to the Sacred Valley is coming soon!
I followed every tip and doctor recommendation and I’m happy to report, I was fine. Everyone’s body will react differently so the best thing is to consult with your doctor before travelling.
I also developed a cheatsheet listing all the things I did that helped me avoid getting sick. Subscribe and download it for free.
Safety at Machu Picchu
Walkability inside the ruins is quite easy. There are designated paths that take you to the different areas.
Hikes can be done to Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu Mountain. Note that Huayna Picchu is a steep climb, and requires a good level of fitness. Machu Picchu Mountain, on the other hand is less steep but requires about double the time to hike…so still a good level of fitness.
If partaking in either of these hikes, it’s important to have enough water and protection from the sun. If it’s raining, the decent on Huayna Picchu can be slippery, so take extra precaution.
Once at the top of Huayna Picchu there is very little space and huge crowds. So be patient, watch your step and don’t push.
Machu Picchu Photography Tips
It’s a funny thing, but for a world-renown sight, I didn’t spend much time on photography. I think because of the time limit, we were moving so quickly. And the climb up Huayna Picchu was predominantly overgrown, so there weren’t a ton of views. I was also too tired to focus on anything other than breathing.
Here are a few things I learned:
The late afternoon casts some big shadows on Machu Picchu while the early morning lights it really nicely
There are less people in the early morning and late afternoon
There tends to be a greater risk of mist in the early morning, meaning if you do the early time slot for the Huayna Picchu climb, the ruins might be covered in mist and not visible
I found these two accessories really handy (the links below are an affiliate link, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. As always, I only recommend products and services I trust):
For longer treks there won’t be anywhere to charge batteries. Consider getting a portable solar panel charger. Charge it fully before the hike and hang it from your bag to charge through the day.
The Peak Design Clip is my favourite accessory when hiking. It clips onto my backpack strap and allows me to secure and release my camera while I’m hiking. This means I’m hands free which is a necessity for Huayna Picchu.
Consider This Read before your trip
The link below is an affiliate link, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. As always, I only recommend products and services I trust.
My friend was reading this during our trip and really enjoyed the read. If you’re looking for brush up on your history in a fun way, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, by Mark Adams is a good way to do it.
It recounts the author’s journey to retrace Hiram Bingham’s steps to find Machu Picchu.
It’s filled with history and comedy, as he makes his way through the mountains and jungles.
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