For the exploratory efforts of Hiram Bingham III, who stumbled across the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in 1911, you couldn’t conjure a better reward. The ingenuity, dedication and sheer splendour of the Inca’s greatest citadel, built in the 15th century, is staggering, even in the face of modern feats of architecture. Synonymous with adventure and mystery (archeologists still don’t agree on its original purpose), there are few places on earth that evoke such a sense of wonder. These days, it may be far from a hidden city but the mystique of this mountain marvel persists, crowds and all.
Qantas flies to Lima via Santiago from Sydney, with codeshare partners. Flying time is around 20 hours.
Australians don’t require a visa for visits up to six months in duration. You’ll need to have your passport stamped on arrival to avoid problems on departure and, often, be required to produce evidence of a yellow fever vaccination.
Jorge Chávez International Airport
Jorge Chávez International Airport is Peru’s main airport, a one and a half hour flight from Cusco, Machu Picchu’s closest airport.
Getting to Machu Picchu
Perched at 2430 metres in the Urubamba Valley in Peru’s south-east, Machu Picchu was never meant to be a destination for passersby. Recent developments have brought visiting the site into a more achievable realm, however; public transport runs regularly to the entrance or very nearby and there’s even a luxury hotel within walking distance of its main entry.
How you get to Machu Picchu is a personal choice and somewhat determines how you experience the Incan citadel: a luxury train ride with air-conditioning and picture windows could be your idea of a holiday or a challenging multi-day hike might be just the kind of adventure you’re looking for. Here are the most popular options.
The Inca Trail is the most popular choice for hikers. Generally led by guides over four or five days, the 40-kilometre route traces the footsteps of Incas from the Sacred Valley surrounding Cusco to Machu Picchu and typically leaves from Cusco (although buses bring hikers to a closer starting point). There are less crowded routes through the valley – the Salcantay and Lares routes are a little more meandering and arguably more impressive – but most are longer and you’ll meet the same crowds at the top regardless.
A more accessible option is to hike from Aguas Calientes, the gateway city below. From the town, the eight-kilometre ascent to the top takes around 90 minutes, depending on fitness and ability and is, needless to say, a steep climb.
Those with limited mobility will appreciate the bus routes that lead all the way to the park’s entrance, eliminating exertion but not the awe. From Aguas Calientes, the bus journey takes less than half an hour.
Apply caution when buying objects that include plant or animal material. Even established markets have been known to sell souvenirs made with condor feathers – this is illegal and could cause problems when you attempt to take them out of the country. Crafts that seem to include pieces made from teeth, bones, shells, feathers and the like should be left on the shelf.
Drinking coca tea or the chewing of coca leaves is not considered drug use in Peru (and it’s also considered a remedy for altitude sickness – see below) but the transportation of it out of the country will land you in trouble – make certain to leave any you have behind.
Also, be aware that photographing police, members of the military or airport installations is strictly forbidden in Peru.
The language barrier
Spanish is the country’s most widely spoken language, comprising 80 per cent of the population’s main tongue so it’s worth learning a few basic phrases in preparation for your trip. English is often spoken in areas of concentrated tourism
Customs and etiquette
Peruvians are polite and err on the side of formal and shy when it comes to social interactions with strangers. A handshake is a perfectly respectable greeting for a new acquaintance.
Also, don’t be alarmed if fellow commuters stand a little too close on a bus; personal space is treated a little differently in Peru.
The Sol is the currency in Peru. At the time of writing, one Australian dollar bought roughly 2.3PEN. Check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates.
Major credit cards are accepted in Peru but smaller purchases, such as taxi fares and food, can sometimes be cash-only so always carry cash. You may also be asked to show your passport upon payment with a credit card so keep it handy.
Tipping is not customary in Peru. It is becoming more common to offer a small tip to restaurants that don’t include a gratuity, though it is not expected.
Altitude sickness, or soroche in Spanish, is common when travelling to Machu Picchu and surrounding areas. The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to acclimatise – plan to expose yourself to a place of elevation for at least two or three days before ascending to a height of 3000 metres.
Machu Picchu enjoys cooler temperatures than surrounding cities due to its elevation. A steady 20C is top temperature for most of the year, with lower reaches between 10C and 0C, dipping in July.
When to go
The site of Machu Picchu is open all year round, with peak season falling between July and August. But don’t think that you’ll be on your own if you visit outside of these times, – far from it. The site has a daily quota of 5200 visitors except Sundays, when numbers swell and locals are allowed to enter for free. With the exception of rainy season between October through April, you’ll have to share the site.
As is the case with many bust tourist destinations, pickpocketing and bag snatching are common. There are also additional considerations when it comes to robbery in Peru, with unsafe situations arising in unmarked taxis. Only take taxis that have been pre-booked, especially at night.
The tap water in Peru is not recommended for drinking, unless it’s been treated with purification tablets or pre-boiled. Bottled water is fine but bear in mind that single use plastic bottles are banned from Machu Picchu – visitors are expected to bring a refillable canteen.
Comfort matters most when it comes to your Machu Picchu journey. Lightweight clothing with long sleeves and pants are ideal as the site is known for its hungry sandflies and midges which can have you scratching for up to a week.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to Peru take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including evacuation.
Where to stay
The closest town to the site is Aguas Calientes and those who are skipping the Inca Trail use this as their base for exploring Machu Picchu. Accommodation here is mostly either pricey and luxurious, or a little more rough and ready. For the former, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel or the slightly cheaper Hotel ElMaPi offer cushy digs a bus ride away from the site.
Cuzco, some 75 kilometres south, is another popular choice. Not only is this where the majority of Inca Trail tours begin, it also offers a wider variety of accommodation options. El Mercado is a homey choice, with its deep soaking tubs and open fireplaces, while the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, a former 16th-century convent, gives an elegant glimpse into life from a time gone by – expect a cobbled courtyard and an on-site yoga studio.
Phone calls and mobile data
Most Australian phone companies offer customers a special daily roaming rate to use a device in Peru. Check with your phone company prior to your trip. Alternatively, disable data roaming before you land, don’t answer incoming calls and then purchase a Peruvian SIM card to use while you’re there. That will depend on whether your phone is locked to your Australian carrier – again, check with your phone company before you leave for Peru. The emergency number in Peru is 105.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a distinct lack of wi-fi at over 2400 metres. Many cafés and hotel in Aguas Calientes however offer free wi-fi; a sign is usually displayed if this is the case.
In Peru the voltage is 220V, compared to Australia’s 230V, and the frequency is 60Hz. Plugs are more commonly the two-pronged flat type found in the US, though you might find a few places employing the two-pronged rounded type, too. Bring a universal adaptor.
Handy apps and websites
Habla Quechua is an app created by the Peruvian government to educate visitors on Quechua, the Indigenous language spoken by around three million Peruvians.
Google Translate can help if something is ever lost in translation.
Maps.me allows travellers to access maps without having to find a viable internet connection.
Redbus is a great resource for anyone travelling by bus in Peru - access to schedules, timetables and route maps can be found for a number of companies across Peru.
Smart Traveller for safety information
XE for currency conversion