How and when to go to Machu Picchu in 2021 [GUIDE]
What is Machu Picchu?
A Machu Picchu visit involves visiting the Inca’s legendary lost citadel hidden in the mountainous jungles a few hundred miles from the city of Cusco (also known as Cuzco) in Peru. The site is such an impressive feat of Inca architecture that it was voted as one of UNESCO’s New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
Built on top of a jagged mountain ridge and flanked by a steep mixture of jungle and rock, it is said that Macchu Picchu could have only been built with the help of aliens. Mt Machu Picchu rises like a skyscraper from the Vilcanota River, with the ancient city so magnificently placed that it has rightfully earned a place in so many people’s bucket lists.
The current Covid pandemic might have postponed your dream Machu Picchu holiday, but this will not be the case for much longer. The ‘lost citadel’ was successfully re-opened for a couple of months last year and so its bio-security protocols are proven.
Although the country is momentarily closed because of a tough second wave, the Peruvian government is soon to start an aggressive vaccination campaign to complement European and American efforts. Some normality is expected in a couple of months, making 2021 an exceptional chance to visit Machu Picchu without the crowds as tourism is expected to resume gradually.
When to visit in 2021
Weather and crowds-wise, there is no such thing as best month to visit Machu Picchu. Showers and mist are more likely during the ‘rainy’ season from December to March, with the advantage of smaller crowds and warmer temperatures.
The ‘dry’ season from May to September is the opposite and coincides with the ‘high’ season, with sunnier days but crisper nights at the expense of overcrowding in Machu Picchu and throughout the Cusco region.
Getting to Cusco and Machu Picchu from Abroad
There are daily international flights from the US and Europe into Lima (the capital of Peru), and multiple daily connecting domestic flights to Cusco. Even during the height of the pandemic, the three main airlines (LATAM Airlines, VivaAir and Sky Airlines) were all flying into Cusco from Lima.
Getting into Peru requires a negative COVID test taken 72 hours before travel and this requirement is likely to continue throughout the year. However, there have been rumours that the government is discussing the installation of a rapid COVID testing facility in Lima Airport which would facilitate this process.
The flight is about one and a half hours long, but if your carbon footprint is something you are concerned about, it is also possible to travel to Cusco (and Machu Picchu) from Lima by bus. Peruvian bus companies such as ‘Cruz del Sur’ and ‘Oltursa’ have an excellent reputation, providing luxury bus services with horizontally-reclining leather seats and hot meals served. However, this involves a 20+ hour ordeal, as the road has to zig-zag its way up from the coast to high in the Peruvian Andes.
Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco
Once you have arrived in the Incan capital of Cusco (which is also a must see), there is a ‘getting to Machu Picchu’ experience for everyone who wants to see it. You can get there on foot on one of the many different treks, or perhaps choose to take the train service from Cusco to Machu Picchu (calling in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley). The cheapest way however is to take a five-hour shuttle from Cusco, followed by a walk or short train service from the Machu Picchu hydro electric dam or ‘Hidroelectrica’.
The important thing to take away is that no matter how you want to get to Machu Picchu, you must visit Aguas Calientes (Spanish for ‘warm waters’). It’s the only town in the vicinity of this Incan marvel, and thus the only place to find food, shelter and a drink. Named after its hot springs, Aguas Calientes is the home of our exclusive Casa del Sol Boutique Hotel.
Trekking to Machu Picchu
For the most adventurous, the multi-day Lares, Choquequirao or Salkantay treks can be done independently (trekking experience required) or with guided tours. The latter tend to provide all the necessary equipment, transfers, hot meals every evening, porters and more.
All of the hikes (except for Lares) finish at ‘Hidroelectrica’, where a 15 minute train service is available to Aguas Calientes. For those still thirsty for adventure, hiking the 12km train line is also possible, but must be done at your own risk as its not an officially recognized route. The same applies to the Shuttle service that drops you in ‘Hidroelectrica’, discussed in the section ‘Taking the shuttle’ below.
For those wanting to enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate (Intipunku), like the original Inca emperor once did, you must be prepared to hike the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu from the Sacred Valley. The difference with the other treks being that a guided tour is required and there are limited spaces per day. Luxury tents, portable hot showers and a team of local cooks providing well-earned local delicacies are common in this route.
Cusco to Machu Picchu by train:
This is by far the most direct way of arriving to Machu Picchu and if you don't like the physical exertion of hiking, it is definitely very scenic journey worth venturing in.
There are two companies that operate the train line between Cusco and Machu Picchu (calling at Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley): PeruRail and Inca Rail, both which offer a variety of services ranging from simple (yet decent) carriages to more elaborate ones which include immersive cultural and culinary experiences offered on board.
The tourist carriages are by no means the cheaper option but definitely the more classy. There are private coaches available for hire, carriages that include 360º views of the dramatic scenery, others that are accompanied by local food dégustations and delicate Pisco Sours lessons, as well as all-inclusive offers which include the bus service to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes which is otherwise a pain to organize.
If you happen to hold Peruvian citizenship, you can hop onto the ‘locals only’ service which although not luxurious, is much cheaper than the tourist train.
Taking the shuttle to Hidroelectrica
Most travellers on a budget and without the time or will to go on a long hike will take the popular shuttles from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. It is roughly a 7-hour ordeal in a cramped van, but in all fairness the views of the snowy peaks from the road on a clear day are simply stunning. It is also possible to depart/arrive from Ollantaytambo to reduce the journey by an hour.
The shuttle will take you to ‘Hidroelectrica’ (where most of the treks end), which is the closest to Machu Picchu a road can take you. From here, you can take a 15 minute train into Aguas Calientes or if you are feeling intrepid and you don't have much luggage, it is possible to walk next to the train tracks for 2 hours on an extremely scenic route overlooking the towering granite peaks rising from the rushing Vilcanota River. Although most young adventurers do it this way, this ‘trek’ is by no means official and poses its risks as you must take care of not being on the train tracks when the train passes.
Going from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
Unless you are doing the Inka Trail and directly walking into Machu Picchu through the Sun gate (see ‘Trekking into Machu Picchu’ section above), you will need to either hike for 2 hours up to the entrance of the ruins or take an expensive single or return 15-minute bus ride up to Machu Picchu. These tickets must be physically purchased in either Aguas Calientes or Cusco, unless you organize the trip with a tour company.
Casa del Sol, Aguas Calientes
Regardless of how you choose to get to Machu Picchu, Casa del Sol provides you with a calm and safe haven within the bustling Aguas Calientes, as well as an opportunity to unwind and experience Machu Picchu in a unique way. Experiences range from Private tours of the citadel to shaman-led vow renewals, we cater for all. Our bartenders offer Pisco Sour Classes in our exclusive river-side bar while our chefs and masseurs can make you indulge in a relaxation banquet.
Casa del Sol outdoor terrace next to the Vilcanota River