How to Experience the World’s Most Popular Tourist Destinations Like You’re the Only One There

Machu Picchu hike view from above
Photo: Stacey Leasca

With more than 2.1 million tags, Machu Picchu is the 13th most-Instagrammed place in the world, and with good reason. The mysterious architectural site situated in the Andean Mountains in Peru is breathtaking beyond belief.

The enormous structure, believed to be built in the 15th century, has stood the test of time thanks to the superior construction skills of the people of the Inca Empire. Each and every stone making up the gorgeous structure is so tightly fit together that you couldn’t even fit a blade of grass through the cracks.

Machu Picchu llamas along the trail
Stacey Leasca

Moreover, the grasslands and mountains surrounding Machu Picchu are such a magnificent green that photos posted to social media could never do it justice. So, while looking at photos of one of the new Seven Wonders of the World on social media is OK, visiting it in real life is even better. But, as all those tags show, visiting Machu Picchu is more popular than ever before. In fact, as many as 2,500 people come to see the ancient ruins every single day.

So how can you experience all that this beautiful place has to offer, without feeling like you’re just a part of the crowd? Here are a few tips to visiting Machu Picchu, or any popular tourist destination around the globe, like you’re the only one there.

Find off-peak hours.

Before visiting a popular tourist destination, it’s important to do a bit of homework about the site’s price, availability, what’s allowed, and hours of operation. Try to find out when peak days and times are so you can avoid those like the plague.

While Machu Picchu has done an excellent job at closely monitoring how many people are let into the site each day, it can still get a bit overwhelming mid-day. Like most popular attractions, the best time to arrive is either very early or close to closing time to avoid the larger lunch rush. Guests to Machu Picchu are let in each day between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. and must leave by 5 p.m.

Get a guide.

For some more remote areas, or in places where you don’t speak the language, it could be a huge asset to hire a guide. On my excursion to Peru, Mountain Lodges of Peru helped my group learn about the past and current culture of the South American country all week long before ending on an incredibly high note at Machu Picchu.

There, our ever knowledgeable guide, Dalmiro Portillo, explained the rich history of the site and the speculative reasons why it’s even there, and informed us about each and every ceremonial area, including the Intihuatana Stone, which was an ancient clock used by the people living at Machu Picchu hundreds of years ago for religious ceremonies.

Dalmiro even knew when and where to go to beat all the crowds, which gets me to my third point.

Machu Picchu hike archaeological sites
Stacey Leasca

Go off the beaten path.

Beyond knowing every little detail about one of Peru’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, our guide was also very in-the-know about how to get off the beaten path and check out some of the sides of Machu Picchu other visitors never bother to see.

For example, behind Machu Picchu’s Agricultural Sector is a small trail leading to the Inca Bridge, which is believed to have been a secret entrance to Machu Picchu for the Inca army. The entrance to the short trail is marked by a warden’s hut. Before entering, you have to sign in with your passport number. The hike only takes about 20 minutes and is well worth the detour. On our short walk to the bridge we saw only a handful of other tourists compared to the hundreds swarming the main site by 10 a.m.

Additionally, Dalmiro knew that we needed to see Machu Picchu the right way, and that included hiking up Huayna Picchu, one of the two mountains flanking the historic site. Only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu each day (same for its sister peak, Machu Picchu Mountain), meaning visitors must purchase a second ticket well in advance.

Those looking to climb the mountain can go in either the morning or afternoon group, each allowing a maximum of 200 people, ensuring this to be a much less crowded Machu Picchu experience. But buyer be warned: The hike is incredibly steep and difficult.

The hike rises just over 1,181 feet above Machu Picchu, the trail made up of hundreds of small steps, some parts no more than a few feet wide, but the destination is well worth the roughly two- to three-hour journey as the views from the top are unparalleled. At the peak make sure to not only snap a few pictures (to add to the 2.1 million already on Instagram), but to also put down your phone, take a few deep breaths, and realize just exactly where you are. You earned it.

And soaking it in may be the best advice of all when it comes to visiting popular destinations around the globe. Sure, others have been there before you, but your experience is uniquely your own. Make sure to stop, experience the moment, and enjoy it, before any fellow tourists can get in your way.

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