1. The Secret Is Out... Visit on the Shoulder Months of April or October
This "lost city" has definitely been found... and the government now regulates Inca Trail and Machu Picchu access. Try and avoid the peak summer months (Memorial Day - Labor Day) and travel on the shoulder months of the dry season in either April or October. During these months, daily attendance is half (around 2,000 people/day instead of 4,000+) and your pictures will be of the sites instead of other people. Machu Picchu should not be like Times Square.
2. Buy Your Tickets In Advance
You don't need to book tickets via a tour company, The Peruvian government sells tickets directly to consumers online. It is an old website (best accessed in internet explorer) and you simply enter your personal information, get a "booking reservation number" and then enter that number to actually buy and print-out your tickets. You will need to bring these tickets and your passport the day of your visit.
3. Begin in the Sacred Valley and Stay in Ollantaytambo
The "beaten path" is to head to Machu Picchu directly from Cusco, but one of our favorite parts of the trip was the Sacred Valley... Several Incan sites as beautiful as Machu Picchu and it is at a lower altitude which makes it easier for your body to adjust. We hired an affordable car ($65 USD) for the day to take us from the Cusco airport to Ollantaytambo (an old Incan town). Along the way, we stopped at the Pisac ruins, the Salt Mines of Maras, and the Moray circles. The Salt mines especially were well worth the trip, and the mountains with Inca terraces in Pisac are a sight to behold.
We ended the day in Ollantaytambo at our boutique hotel, the Casa Blanca Lodge. We loved this hotel since it had a rooftop with a direct view of Ollantaytambo's ruins, which mark the beginning of the Inca trail.
4. Allow Yourself to Acclimiatize
Give your body some time to get used to the elevation... this is where the Sacred Valley helps as it is 2,000 feet lower than Cusco. We never used altitude medication, only ibuprofen to cure a light headache on the first day.
While you can't drink tap water or have drinks with ice, boiled water is fine. Cocoa tea helps with altitude sickness as well as muña (mint) tea. Be sure to leave cocoa leaves in Peru though, it is the same plant used for cocaine! Taking back processed cocoa products is allowed though (chocolates, candy, tea bags, etc.) If you are having trouble with the altitude, know that most hotels have oxygen tanks for their guests as well.
5. There's No Street Access to Machu Picchu: Hike or Take the Train
"Where we're going we don't need roads..." Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, is only accessible via: 1. Train on Peru Rail or Inca Rail to Aguas Calientes station. 2. On foot hiking the Inca Trail (4 days), Salkantay Pass (4-5 days), Jungle Trek (3 days) or from the closest town Hidroelectrica (2 hours)
Inca trail passes are limited and often sell out a year in advance... as such it is often a crowded experience. For the more adventurous and athletic, consider hiking through the Salkantay pass (4-5 day hike to Machu Picchu passing the tallest peak) or taking a Jungle Trek (3 days) which includes activities like biking, white water rafting and zip lining on your way to Machu Picchu. We opted for the lazy way, touring the sacred valley for a few days and then taking the train from Ollantaytambo.
6. Hike Huayna Picchu
When you buy your tickets (either via tours or the Peruvian website), add on Huayna Picchu as you need to book a time slot in the morning to hike that mountain as well. This is the iconic, tall mountain above Machu Picchu. Not for the faint of heart, this hike is steep and vaguely dangerous! It is the type of hike that would probably be illegal in the US, but in Peru it's totally fine. They make you sign in-and-out and there are steps (see below) where the only option is to crawl on your hands and knees! Nonetheless, if you can make it to the top, the view of Machu Picchu can't be beat.
7. Hire a Guide in The Early Morning or Late Afternoon
Guides are available for hire at the entrance ($50-60 USD) and the majority of the crowds enter around 9:00am (after the first train gets in). Many leave mid-day to have lunch in Aguas Calientes. Your pass allows you one re-entry, so after you hike Huayna Picchu and have lunch, hire a guide and do an afternoon tour with Machu Picchu to yourself. Guides double as photographers... and ours (Manuel) took these amazing cheesy shots!
8. Rainbow Flags Everywhere
Rainbow flags abound... like a west village pride parade! This flag is different, however, with seven stripes (including light blue). You'll see rainbows everywhere, a proud symbol of the Cusco region. Many Incan temples were built for sunlight to shine through water (and create rainbows) at particular moments in time (such as the winter solstice or summer solstice). Astrology for the win.
9. Visit Sacsayhuaman on Top of Cusco
If you've already visited Pisac or Ollantaytambo, you had to buy a tourist ticket ("Boleto Turistico"). The full ticket comes with sites all around Cusco, but the one to prioritize is Sacsayhuaman. Another marvel of Incan engineering, it features gigantic boulders (perfectly carved like puzzle pieces) assembled on the city's tallest hill.
10. Ceviche in Cusco is Lake Fish
PROPER Ceviche with fish from the sea is in Lima. In Cusco, it's fish from a lake (often trout). Try it and see what you think! We skipped Lima and flew straight to Cusco... so not much Ceviche for us. In Cusco, we really liked a place called Organika which served farm-to-table food from their fields in the Sacred Valley. Look at that dish, even the flowers were edible! Jason loved Organika (seen jumping for joy just after brunch) and our favorite bite was the handmade pumpkin ravioli.
Bonus Tip! How to Distinguish between Llamas and Alpacas
The main difference is Llamas have longer faces (similar to horses) and Alpacas have hair their heads. Can you spot the differences? Notice, they are proudly wearing their rainbows. #represent