Machu Picchu. It has been on my bucket list for a long time - just the right amount of history, adventure and culture wrapped up into one trip.
Johnny and I had wanted to take a trip before he starts medical school this Summer, so when our friends Jenna and Sean asked us to join them on their South American adventure to Peru, we jumped at the chance to explore The Lost City of the Incas.
But real talk? Machu Picchu is a top travel destination and yet it's actually pretty difficult to navigate your way there. I suppose that's how the Incas preferred it and why it took so long to for anyone to find it (can you believe this magical place was kept a secret until 1911 when it was "discovered"?)
So here it is all in one place - how to get there, what to do and little known tricks to make your trip unforgettable...my top 12 things you need to know for your trip to Machu Picchu. If I don't touch on something, write me a note in the comments, or leave your own best kept secrets of Machu Picchu!
1. Machu Picchu takes a while to get to.
Machu Picchu isn't the easiest to get to from The States. While there are a few ways to get there (like the Inca Trail for particularly fit hikers), there is a fair amount of travel time. Most people can't take extended periods of time off, so here is my recommendation of the best way to get to Machu Picchu fairly swiftly.
2. Go in June - August.
This is Peru's dry season. Yes, it's the time that you'll run into more tourists (quite literally run into some people - it can be really crowded), but it's also the time you're least likely to get hit with rainy weather and the fog will burn off by around 10am. If you're looking for those quintessential Machu Picchu pics, don't risk your trip getting rained out; book between those three months.
3. Buy your tickets in advance.
You can't actually buy tickets to enter Machu Picchu at the gate so you must buy them in advance. We booked through Machu Picchu Terra about 3 months beforehand and decided to travel on our own, but you can also book a guided trip where you'll go with a group. Watch out: in the past year they have started requiring a guide before you go into the citadel. Don't fret if you don't have one; you can snag a guide at the entrance. You'll want one - you learn so much history!
4. Stay in Aguas Calientes.
Soak up your time in Peru and stay in Aguas Calientes, the city at the base of the mountain. We spent almost a full day here before getting up stupid early the next day. We had some of the best food at Incontri del Pueblo Viejo - mouthwatering Italian fare with gelato that rivals Italy! And the souvenirs seemed to be more affordable than in other parts of Peru, so feel free to stock up on gifts.
5. Get up early.
If you want cool temperatures, less crowds, and the possibility to see sunrise at the top, you need to get up early. The first bus leaves at 5:30am, but people start lining up around 4am. Honestly you can get in line around 4:45/5:00am and be fine. They have multiple busses running consistently up the mountain so even if you snag the 10th bus you'll be up at the top by 6:30a when the gates open. Snag breakfast at La Boulangerie de Paris which opens early for croissants and snacks to bring with you for the hike.
6. Bring coca leaves for the llamas.
My fav part about Machu Picchu was the abundance of llamas. Llamas roam the ruins as the natural lawn mowing system. While they are very friendly, they typically are less interested in you than they are with the tasty grass they are eating. Want that llama selfie? I learned that all you need to do is bring coca leaves with you and they will come right over. Also bananas, but who wants to carry something that squishy with you all day.
7. Snag an extra passport stamp.
Right outside the entry gate is a small booth where you can add a special Machu Picchu stamp in your passport. While it's not a country, it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. You don't want to miss this opportunity to make your friends jealous.
8. Hike Huayna Picchu.
I have mixed reviews on this one. If you follow my story highlights on Instagram, you'll know I had some trouble with this hike (I learned I was afraid of heights on the way up, whoop!)... BUT while it was challenging both mentally and physically, the views are breathtaking and only 400 people are allowed to walk these ancient trails each day - you don't want to miss that honor. Snag the early time slot (7am-8am before it gets too hot, but make sure to bring lots of water) and then wrap up your trip with a visit to the Sun Gate.
9. Wind down with a full-body massage.
I looked at my step counter and I hit 20,000 for my day at Machu Picchu... you bet I needed some R&R after that! We made it back down to Aguas Calientes and had 3.5hrs before our train back to Cusco. We had lunch and then went to Otto's Salon & Spa for a 90minute massage (only $30!) Best. Decision. Ever.
10. Alpacas make the best gifts.
You may have to buy an extra suitcase to bring home all your souvenirs, but whatever you do don't forget to bring home an alpaca. Ok, so you can't bring an actual alpaca home (much to my chagrin... did you know alpacas aren't allowed into the US? You can only breed them? If you want to learn more, check out this site) Alpaca is the material of choice in Peru, but baby alpaca is where it's at. Soft, warm, and perfect for sweaters or blankets - and they make cute figurines!
11. Don't forget sunscreen and bug repellent.
Machu Picchu sits at about 7500ft and the sun beats down pretty harshly so definitely don't forget sunscreen. It's also in more jungle landscape than Cusco, which is more arid so the mosquitos can get ya. Bring bug repellent and light weight clothing to cover up.
12. Go to the Sun Gate for the quintessential "Machu Picchu and me" picture.
Not too far from the entry gate, maybe 10 minute hike, is the spectacular view of the city. Get there early and you can watch the fog lift from around the city but by 10am everything should be clear. Yes there are lots of people, but there are so many places to take pictures you won't have any issues. Soak in the unfinished city and all it's glory - it's truly breath taking!