Machu Picchu, Peru: First Timer's Guide
South America's most popular attraction
When American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the jungle-covered ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru in 1911, he believed he had found the lost city of Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the last Incan king. But Machu Picchu ("ancient peak" in Quechua) turned out to be something far more impressive, the largest Incan settlement never to have been discovered—and plundered—by the Spanish.
When to Go The dry season lasts from May through October, though that's also when the crowds come. Cuzco—the capital of the Incan Empire, where all trips to Machu Picchu begin—swells with locals and tourists during the Inti Raymi (winter solstice) festival on June 24. The wettest months are November through March.
Getting There American, United, and Continental fly nonstop to Lima from the United States (Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Newark). From Lima, it's a one-hour flight over the Andes to Cuzco; the route is serviced by Aero-Continente and Lan Peru.
From the Airport A taxi into Cuzco costs about $3. The driver will inevitably try to sell you a guided tour.
The Lingo Quechua and Spanish.
Acclimatizing At 10,860 feet, Cuzco is one of the highest cities in the world. Rest for a few hours upon arrival—altitude sickness (soroche) can knock you out for days. Avoid meat, alcohol, and smoking for the first day. The local remedy is mate de coca, a tea made from the coca leaf.
Security Take care walking from the Plaza de Armas (where the restaurants are) to your hotel after dark, as a number of people have been mugged in this area. A taxi costs about $1.
Required Reading Peter Frost's Exploring Cuzco—a plunge into the history of that city, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley of the Incas—can be bought in any local tourist store (and there are many). John Hemming's Conquest of the Incas is more in-depth.
Local Delicacies Roasted cuy (guinea pig), anticuchos de corazón (cow-heart kebabs), choclo con queso (corn with cheese).
Best Local Drinks Bottled water, pisco sour, bottled water, Cusqueña beer, bottled water.
Getting to Machu Picchu There's helicopter service from Cuzco to Machu Picchu (51-84/227-283; $150 round-trip), but most people take the train. There are three daily departures: the crowded, uncomfortable local train ($10 round-trip), which makes stops along the way and takes about three hours; the tourist train, with three classes ($22-$70); and the autovagón ($110), with snacks, videos, and toilets. The local terminates at Aguas Calientes, and the others go a half-mile farther to Puente Ruinas. From there, it's a $3 shuttle-bus ride to the ruins.
Tour Agencies They'll arrange everything in advance, so using them is the easiest way to see Machu Picchu. Reputedly reliable ones in Cuzco include Lima Tours (D24 Avda. Machu Picchu; 51-84/228-431) and Inca Explorers (330 Calle Suecia; 51-84/239-669).
Good Deal A Tourist Ticket costs $110 and includes transportation from your hotel to the train station, round-trip fare on the autovagón and the bus to the ruins, the entrance fee to Machu Picchu (normally $10), and a guide. Ask your travel agent for information.
Navigating the Ruins Hire a guide (it should cost $5 to $10) or buy Frost's book to help decipher what you see. Machu Picchu is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Because most visitors arrive by train, the site gets crowded between 10 and 3. If you stay overnight, you can visit in relative peace. The best hotel there—Machu Picchu Ruinas (51-1/221-0826; doubles $240)—is usually booked months in advance, though Sunday night is often a good bet since many on the tourist trail will have moved on to that day's popular market in Pisac. More rustic accommodations can be found in Aguas Calientes.