How to Avoid the Crowds in Machu Picchu
If you’re like us, Peru is right near the top of your bucket list. But how do we avoid the crowds in Machu Picchu so we get an amazing experience?
Thankfully, Amy Lineburg is able to tell us the exact steps we should take to have a fantastic experience at this World Heritage Site! She lived in Peru for more than two years and has visited the stunning ancient temple complex three different times. Amy has traveled all over the world—and when she describes her time there as “life changing” and “the best place I have ever been,” we’d be smart to start planning a trip!
How to Avoid a DisneyPicchu Experience
It is possible to experience a “Mickey Mouse” version of Machu Picchu, surrounded by masses of tourists all following the standard advice given by major guidebooks.
In either case, flying directly into Cusco is the best choice, unless you’re up for a 25-hour bus ride from Lima.
What you do after you arrive in Cusco is what really makes a big difference. Most people are advised to spend a couple days acclimating there—but this isn’t necessary because Cusco is significantly higher (over 1000 meters or 3300 feet higher) than Machu Picchu.
Visit Cusco After Machu Picchu
Amy emphasizes that Cusco is absolutely worth the visit for its stunning beauty and multicultural past. It is known by many as the Jerusalem of Peru because of the combination of Quechua and Spanish cultures.
For your next move—which will ultimately put you in the best position to enjoy your trip and avoid the crowds in Machu Picchu—Amy highly recommends getting out of Cusco and taking a leisurely drive by taxi through the gorgeous Sacred Valley.
A key tactic: hire a taxi for the day as soon as you arrive at the Cusco airport. This should typically be about $30 US—and of course, be sure to confirm the rate up-front. You shouldn’t have any problems spotting the official taxi stand located inside—not outside—the airport.
Spend a Full Day Traveling through the Sacred Valley, Peru
Your end goal for the day is to travel to the quaint town of Ollantaytambo—which Amy describes as the “best-kept secret of Peru”—where you’ll spend the night. Ollantaytambo is much closer to Machu Picchu—just an hour away by train—than Cusco, which is three hours away. So you can get up early in Ollantaytambo and avoid the crowds in Machu Picchu; most people arrive later in the day direct from Cusco.
If you have the time and ability, Amy highly recommends that you take several days to hike the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu. If you’re on a schedule, she has sage advice for the trip through the Sacred Valley from Cusco to Ollantaytambo—and in fact her insight applies to travel in general: make the trip as much as about the journey as the destination.
Now, specifically, Amy has some favorite spots that you definitely should try out on your way to Ollantaytambo. First, consider stopping for lunch in the town of Pisac at Ulrike’s Cafe. But before you get there, don’t miss the beautiful, and hands-on llama and alpaca farm called Awana Kancha. You can learn firsthand how the locals weave the yarn and get vibrant colors using local berries.
A different option for lunch is to head instead to a larger city called Urubamba. There’s a pottery shop there called Seminario that is famous across Peru and would be worth a visit if you are a man or woman of the kiln.
Ollantaytambo is Your Beautiful Base Camp
Once you’ve arrived at Ollantaytambo, Amy says you’ll understand why this city is one of her favorite spots in the entire world. She encourages everyone to spend at least a couple days there, but she’s dreamt of spending an “entire month there just to write.”
It’s a quaint, ancient, cobble-stoned town that beautifully combines both Incan and Spanish architecture. You can spend a serious amount of time appreciating the gorgeous stonework on various doorways throughout the city.
Amy typically chooses to stay at a local hostel where you only have to pay around $6 US a night for your own room with a shared bathroom. If you want to go high end, you can spend around $70 US per night at a beautiful hotel with a sauna stocked with eucalyptus branches.
At least a day before your visit, buy a train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu City. You should secure your ticket early because you want to get on an early train at 5:30am—again, to avoid the crowds in Machu Picchu. While agents aren’t out quite that early, you can buy your ticket online or stop by the train station the day before.
A Majestic Morning You will Never Forget
By hopping on a the 5:30am train, you’ll arrive in Machu Picchu City by 6:30am, and you’ll be beating out the masses traveling from Cusco. You’ll then take a small bus through the gate and up the mountain into the actual Machu Picchu site. Prepare to be blown away by the overwhelming majesty of an ancient Incan temple—and you’ll be enjoying it with a few hundred people rather than a few thousand.
Although initially skeptical about how powerful a visit would be—especially because she’s already seen ruins around the world—Amy now says simply: “It will change your life. It’s the best place I’ve ever been.”
A significant reason it’s so special is because it is quite hidden—Machu Picchu is also mysterious and, perhaps similar to Stonehenge, experts are still trying to figure out exactly what the purpose of the site was. The structure was so well integrated and blended into the natural space, a reminder of the adobe homes at the Pueblo de Taos in New Mexico.
By the way, on your way back to Cusco, Amy says you should visit another beautiful Incan ruin—a fortress called Sacsayhuaman.
During your time in Machu Picchu, bring a journal and spend some time simply being quiet and taking in the awesome sights. Keep in mind that you’ll be very close to the equator, though you’re fairly high in the air, so you should be prepared for some rainstorms. But watching the rainclouds gather and dissipate around the ancient city is special and unforgettable in itself.
By Erick Widman
All images are Amy’s!