Last year, a Japanese tourist was stuck in the town of Aguas Calientes, which is directly underneath Machu Picchu. Because of COVID, he waited there for over six months for Machu Picchu to reopen.
Machu Picchu was so high on his bucketlist that he couldn’t get so close and then take a repatriation flight and leave. He had to stay there, because he really had to do it. He had to achieve what he came to Peru to do. He had to take Machu Picchu off his bucketlist.
So, when they reopened it in October, he was the first visitor there. He had to wait for it for seven months — but eventually he did visit Machu Picchu.
For me, this story really represents the lure and the enchantment that Machu Picchu has. It is one of those places that is very high, perhaps the top of many travellers’ bucketlists all around the world.
It was also high on mine. But when I was in Peru, I started having this love-hate relationship with Machu Picchu before I even got there.
I had always jumped about going there. Yet as it got closer to the time, I was bombarded by selfies of people in crowded ruins, and by tour agents trying to sell me a trip and plus, plus, plus. I felt the negativity and crowdedness that comes with being in one of the seven wonders of the world.
I was in Peru, yet I almost didn’t go to Machu Picchu.
Can you believe that I almost spent three weeks in Peru and completely sacked off Machu Picchu? Fortunately I went, and I can say, regardless of whether you’ve seen photos of it being crowded or even heard people say it wasn’t really that good — I can really recommend it.
I can say to you, Machu Picchu is a fabulous experience.
It will not disappoint you, even if it’s been the top of your bucketlist for 15 years.
But I found that it’s easy to be mistaken or to misstep when you’re approaching or wanting to do something that is so touristic and so popular. Now, of course, we’re all tourists. We call ourselves travellers, but we are all tourists and we can’t expect to have Machu Picchu to ourselves. We can’t complain that it is too touristic. To be honest, I think complaining is rather sad. We’re tourists going there, and we also want — all of us — that same incredible selfie or photo that everybody else has.
One of the things that was really big before I went was that you need to go in the morning. That’s what everybody says. In the morning, you can have the best photos, the best experience.
And what happens is, everybody goes in the morning.
So at sunrise, when the park opens — the archeological park — Machu Picchu is incredibly crowded. You can’t see the ruins for the amount of people, because everybody goes there in the morning, in that perfect hour for their photos. Or also, they go there at that time to hike up Machu Picchu mountain, or hike up Huayna Picchu. And there are simply too many people everywhere about the site.
Now, with the ticket, you’re allowed to stay for five hours in the park — and then you have to leave, to avoid overcrowding. But I didn’t follow the rules. I have to say that I stayed in the park beyond my four or five hours. It was too magical a place.
And in the afternoon, it was blissfully quiet.
I was eating a picnic with llamas and alpacas on the field around me. I was gazing down on those incredible ruins, walking among them without hearing another sound — no noise of footsteps or people’s voices.
Every day, they limit the amount of tickets available, so there’s only so many people that can go in each day. And what happens is, everybody goes in the morning — because that’s when you’re supposed to go right? — and in the afternoon, there must have been only 10% of the total volume of daily visitors in Machu Picchu.
And as I spoke to more guides — especially the guides working for the high-end hotels and tour companies — they said the same thing. “We love it that all the blogs tell people to go in the morning, because it’s easier for us to take our clients in the afternoon when there’s more space and more time to explain the place to them.”
So my big recommendation is, when you’re discussing a trip to Machu Picchu with your travel designer or with your guide, ask about going in the afternoon — and soaking up the lost city, hearing the stories, at a time when it’s going to be quieter.
My second recommendation — and I think everybody who goes to Machu Picchu needs to do this — get a ticket for the next day as well.
Because it’s hard to get to Machu Picchu, it’s a long way away. You can walk there, it’ll take you five days. You can go by train and it’s still a very long day. There are no roads to get there. So after you go, what will happen is, you can either leave and take the train out, or you can stay in the town of Aguas Calientes, which is at the bottom of the hill — where that Japanese guy had been staying for six months — and then the next morning you can take a train.
But get a ticket for the next day as well, because then you can go in the morning. And yes, it will be more crowded, but in the morning there are two other experiences that are available to you.
One is to climb Machu Picchu mountain, the other is to climb Huayna Picchu. These are the mountains on either side of the lost city. They’re very limited on the number of tickets — I think it’s only 200 per day — and you have to go to set time. So, seven, eight or nine o’clock in the morning.
In the afternoon, yes, there’s some mist that comes across, so your photos aren’t as good, and that is a drawback. But if you’ve been in the afternoon, you can then go in the morning, hike one of the mountains, see more of the site, and then leave.
And if that sounds like too much, what you can do is, sleep in the only hotel at Machu Picchu.
There is only one place you can stay at that is actually at the ruins. All the other hotels are in Aguas Calientes, at the bottom of the hill — but there is Belmont Century Lodge literally at the archeological park gate, a fabulous five-star hotel.
So, you can go see the ruins, see the lost city. You can stay right up to the minute it closes, because your hotel is 50 metres from the entrance. Then you can spend the night there. You can be enveloped in all these views and the mist and the mountains, have breakfast, go back into the ruins, take another look around and then leave.
And I think if Machu Picchu is really at the top of your bucketlist — if it’s really that thing that’s pushing you to travel — you have to consider it is going to take you a long time to get there, and that this is a difficult place to reach, a difficult goal to achieve. So when you go, go twice.
Go in the afternoon, go in the morning, and experience everything there is with it.
And then it’s going to be a fabulous experience. There are reasons things have been voted in the top seven wonders of the world. And when you go to Machu Picchu and you see it and you experience it, you realize why.