Machu Picchu is something of a rite of passage among travelers, with over a million visitors making the trek annually to visit this wonder of the ancient world. But what many travelers don’t know is that Machu Picchu exists in a very fragile ecosystem, and the recent surges in tourism threaten its existence. It’s the subject of debate among many travelers and historians who analyze whether this level of tourism is sustainable in the long term. What’s more, many wonder whether Machu Picchu is even an authentic cultural experience anymore with swarms of thousands of tourists visiting each week.
Despite this debate, we felt compelled to make the trek out to Machu Picchu during our trip to Peru. Everything we had heard was true: It is one of the most beautiful things you can set eyes on in this entire world, yet the crowds can really put a damper on the entire experience. Then there was the added stress of having to plan the entire excursion, since getting out to Machu Picchu isn’t exactly easy.
With all these moving parts, we decided to put together an ultimate guide to sustainable tourism at Machu Picchu to help you prepare for your visit, both the good and the bad. We hope everything in this guide helps make your trip a breeze but if you have any additional questions about your trip, don’t hesitate to leave us a comment below.
Without further ado, here’s our Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Tourism at Machu Picchu.
Sustainable Tourism at Machu Picchu
If you’re planning a trip to Machu Picchu, it’s really important to remember that the high levels of tourism to Machu Picchu are threatening its existence. Back in the 1980s, not even 200,000 people visited Machu Picchu every year. In 2018, the number of annual visitors will likely reach over 1.5 million people, with approximately 2,500 people visiting each day.
Simply put, more people means more garbage, waste, and wear and tear on Machu Picchu and its surroundings. And with these massive rates of increased tourism, it’s no surprise that new Machu Picchu tourism regulations went into effect in 2017. These new regulations aim to hold tourists accountable for the integrity of Machu Picchu, requiring hikers making the 3-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu to enter with a registered guide. Additionally, the new regulations prohibit re-entrance once you leave and tickets require visitors to enter at a pre-specified date or time.
Sustainable Tourism Tips
To help preserve Machu Picchu so it can still be visited for generations to come, here are a few easy things that you can do to help out:
- Don’t litter! You’d think this one is a gimme, but you’d be surprised.
- Stay out of protected areas. There restricted areas at Machu Picchu for a reason: these areas need protection and can’t withstand thousands of tourists a day walking through. By respecting these areas, you are helping to preserve history.
- Don’t flush toilet paper down the toilets in Aguas Calientes. I know this one is a bit of a pain, but their plumbing is really fragile. You’ll notice the signs in every bathroom that you use, so be respectful and try not to do this.
- Use a reusable water bottle. Instead of using a bunch of plastic water bottles, bring a refillable water bottle to save plastic. And since you probably don’t want to drink unfiltered water in South America, we loved our life straw bottles.
- Support the tourism economy. Buy from local businesses, eat out, and tip well.
How To Get to Machu Picchu
At first, actually getting to Machu Picchu might seem like a bit of a hassle. It’s 60 kilometers from the nearest city of Cusco, and pretty much the only way to get there is by taking a train. And while 60 kilometers might not sound like a long train ride, in reality it takes over 3 hours to travel to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu) by train.
Don’t be deterred by the long train ride, because it’s actually one of the most beautiful train rides you could possibly imagine, plus supporting public transit is great for the local economy and environment. The train ride is called the PeruRail Expedition, and we loved it so much we dedicated an entire blog post “PeruRail Expedition: Incredible Train Ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu” to the journey. The train is equipped by comfy reclining seats, personal tables, luggage racks, a clean bathroom, plus a reasonably priced food and drink service.
Along the way, expect to see incredibly scenic views of the surrounding landscapes. The train weaves its way along the Urubamba River for a large portion of the journey, and even makes its way through a few dark tunnels. Our favorite part? When the train uses switch machines to zig zag back and forth down a mountain, the quickest way to rapidly descend in that terrain.
Quick Guide for the Train Ride to Machu Picchu
- The easiest way to get to Machu Picchu is by taking the PeruRail train from Cusco. Buy your train ticket here.
- The train station is a 20 minute drive outside of Cusco in Poroy. To get there, take a taxi or Uber and leave at least one hour before your train is scheduled to depart.
- Bring cash if you’d like to buy food/beverages either at the train station or on the train.
- If possible, make arrangements ahead of time for your taxi or Uber driver to pick you up at the train station when you arrive back after your trip.
Aguas Calientes: The Town at the Base of Machu Picchu
Your train ride will end in the town of Aguas Calientes, located at the base of Machu Picchu. The train arrives in a centrally located train station, easy walking distance from everything that Aguas Calientes has to offer.
To put it bluntly, Aguas Calientes is the definition of a tourist trap. The entire town basically only exists to facilitate visitors to Machu Picchu, so prices are generally very hiked up and expensive. These increased prices are also due to the fact that everything in the town has to be brought in by train from Cusco, an expensive mode of transit.
We didn’t have a great experience in the town – the food was expensive and not that great, and there wasn’t a whole lot else to do other than eat. Also, since this town is so remote, there isn’t really any hot water to take a shower and the plumbing is very sensitive. For those reasons, we’d recommend you try to limit your time spent in Aguas Calientes. It really wasn’t built for the vast amount of people that visit each year.
However, there were a few good restaurants that we ate at. Our favorite place was called Mapacho Craft Beer and Peruvian Cuisine. The food (pictured above) was pretty good, and the atmosphere was even better. Situated right on the Urubamba River, we recommend you head upstairs to eat on the patio which is right above the river and has scenic views of the surrounding mountains.
If your travel plans require you to spend the night in Aguas Calientes, we highly recommend the Airbnb that we stayed at. It was very inexpensive, and the room was very clean and had incredible views of the surrounding mountains. They even packed us a breakfast for our trip to Machu Picchu the following day!
When To Visit Machu Picchu
There’s a lot of debate about the best times to visit Machu Picchu. And while I can only speak from my own experience, I recommend that you go early in the morning during Peru’s rainy season (October – April). This will provide for the smallest number of visitors, so you’ll be better able to enjoy Machu Picchu undisturbed.
It’s best to be on one of the first morning buses to Machu Picchu, so you’ll have to rise early. The first bus leaves at about 5:30 AM, and the gates to Machu Picchu itself open at about 6 AM. We arrived at about 4:45 AM and there was already a long line of people waiting at the bus station, so arriving by about 4:15 AM is ideal if you’d like to be one of the first people in line.
From the bus station, it’s about a 20 minute bus ride to the gates of Machu Picchu. If you’re on one of the first buses of the morning, you can be near the front of the line for when the gates open at 6:00 AM. Make sure to bring your ticket and passport, as both will be checked at the gates.
Brief History of Machu Picchu
Built back in the 1400s, Machu Picchu was commissioned by the great Incan ruler Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui. Yupanqui likely ordered the construction of Machu Picchu after a successful Incan military conquest. Much of Machu Picchu was used for agricultural purposes, with farming occurring on large terraces that are still present in the ruins today.
Surprisingly, this incredible piece of real estate was only used for approximately 80 years before it was abandoned. The Incans were forced to leave it since other parts of the Incan Empire were under attack by Spanish conquests. Despite Machu Picchu’s close proximity to the Incan Capitol in Cusco, the Spanish never actually discovered it. This is probably the only reason that Machu Picchu exists to this day: it’s secrecy preserved its existence.
In modern history, Machu Picchu wasn’t actually discovered until 1911 by American Explorer Haram Bingham. This means that it had been a secret for over four centuries! Today, Machu Picchu’s tourism industry is alive and well, with over a million tourists visiting every year.
What to Expect at Machu Picchu
No amount of research can completely prepare you for the experience of visiting Machu Picchu. It’s truly a once and a lifetime opportunity, so try to arrive freshly rested with an open mind. Remember that nearly one million tourists visit Machu Picchu every year. And on any given day, there can be upwards of 2,500 visitors. This means that in all likelihood, there will be tons of other visitors when you are there. The good news is that this means there are plenty of people that are happy to snap a picture of you with a scenic background. The bad news is that people can often get in the way of a good shot.
One of the biggest surprises during our trip was how much hiking/walking we did. Once you enter the gates of Machu Picchu, there is actually a pretty steep hike to get up to the viewpoints. And while it’s not very long, you should definitely plan to wear comfy shoes and sneakers and bring plenty of water.
Wondering how much time you’ll spend while there? It depends. We spent about 3.5 hours at Machu Picchu and then felt ready to leave, while many people may spend much more time than us. Between walking along the scenic viewpoints and exploring the actual ruins down below, there is definitely plenty to do to keep you busy for most of the day.
If you’ve seen pictures of Machu Picchu, you’ve likely seen at least a few pictures featuring a charming alpaca. The pictures don’t lie! There are quite a few alpacas grazing in the grassy areas below the ruins. Feel free to take pictures of them, but try to respect their space.
Lastly, remember that you won’t be the only person at Machu Picchu. Try to be respectful when someone else is trying to take a picture (sometimes easier said than done), and other people will be more than happy to take pictures of you.
Preparing for Machu Picchu
What to Wear to Machu Picchu:
- Hiking boots
- Light, comfortable layers (it gets hotter than you think!)
- Rain jacket
Machu Picchu Packing List:
- Plenty of water
- Bug spray
- Picnic blanket (if you plan to eat there)
- Machu Picchu Ticket
- Round trip bus ticket (if you don’t plan to walk)
Machu Picchu is an incredible piece of history and if you get the chance to visit, we absolutely recommend it. Just be cognizant that everything that you do and leave behind will have a lasting impact on this fragile ecosystem.
On the flip side, don’t feel obligated to visit Machu Picchu if you are traveling to Peru. There are so many other incredible things to do, like exploring Cusco, the food scene in Puno, and hiking in Colca Canyon.
What do you think: Is visiting Machu Picchu worth risking the integrity of this fragile ecosystem? Leave us a comment below!