Machu Picchu tourism revamp: What travellers need to know when planning trip in 2024

It used to be that you could visit Machu Picchu more than once on the same ticket—entering the Incan ruins at daybreak and then circling back around to see the afternoon sun cast its light on different facets of the jagged landscape and its 500-year-old relics. You could also come without a guide, following your curiosity or a stray alpaca around the expansive grounds but no matter how you went, lots of planning was required—typically through third parties who controlled the ticketing systems and imposed on it a web of opaque rules and regulations.

Machu Picchu tourism revamp: What travellers need to know when planning trip in 2024 (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)

The ability to visit without a guide and enter multiple times are both long gone—ditched years ago in an effort to curb excessive foot traffic and bad behaviour.

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But now there’s good news. As Peru’s tourism industry attempts to recover after an extended post-pandemic lull, the country is trying to make the process of visiting the site easier and more transparent. A state-run ticketing website is in the works for all Machu Picchu visits, and the Peruvian government is also increasing the number of daily visitors allowed entry into the Inca citadel. Officials say the plan is slated to roll out by April. In addition, new circuits introduced in 2021 split the site into four separate walking paths to help prevent overcrowding.

The changes come at a delicate time. While neighboring countries such as Colombia and Brazil are setting new tourism records, Peru remains stuck at 60% of its pre-pandemic international visitation levels. And while Machu Picchu is a main tourism driver to the country, it may not be in the heritage site’s best interest to substantially increase the number of visitors. Before the global shutdown, it saw some 1.5 million annual tourists; about 950,000 visited in 2023.

Complicating the recovery have been several protests throughout the Cusco region over the last year. A one-week strike in January shut down public transportation to Machu Picchu for more than a week, leaving tourists stranded.

The strike—which concerned the new Machu Picchu ticketing system—was quickly resolved and transit has since been restored. But coming after a series of more widespread, politically motivated protests last year, it fueled perceptions of continued disruption, forcing operators in the area to reassure their guests that the current situation would be stable during their trips. “The issues last year were far more serious and widespread than the current situation in Machu Picchu, which is very local and contained,” says Fernando Rodriguez, general manager for Peru at Intrepid Travel.

Despite the shaky publicity, Machu Picchu is poised to have a big year. Bookings for the upcoming tourist season, which stretches from April to October, are far outpacing last year’s figures. Intrepid Travel noted a 55% increase in bookings made in February from the same period in 2023, while luxury operator Jacada Travel’s bookings from December through early February were up 100% year-on-year. And if the protests gave potential visitors pause last year, that seems to blowing over: Cusco-based Alpaca Expeditions has noted that only 5% of its prospective guests are voiced concern over protests when gauging whether to book a trip.

More likely to impact visitors will be the increased numbers of daily visitors allowed at Machu Picchu. The system rolling out in April will raise the maximum number of tickets to 5,600 on certain dates during high season, up from 4,044. That increase, confirmed by Peru’s tourism board in an emailed statement without further comment, runs contrary to Unesco recommendations, which call for a limit of 2,244 visitors per day in order to best preserve the site.

Given all the rule changes—and the potential for larger crowds—planning a trip to Machu Picchu this year will look substantially different than it has before. Here’s what you need to know to ensure a smooth trip.

Map Out Your Journey

The first thing to figure out for any trip is timing—and with Machu Picchu it can be an especially important consideration. Here, the dry season runs from May to October, with June through August being the most popular. (Think: American summer vacations.) While it’s hard to skip crowds entirely, shoulder months such as April or November could be your best bets if you’re trying to avoid a big rush. You may get a bit of rain, but with that can come uncrowded footpaths and the possibility of rainbows.

If you can outsource all the planning, do. Relying on your luxury hotel or a tour operator is the best way to take the stress out of handling the many pieces of the puzzle—including tickets and guides. Should disruptions occur along the way, licensed providers are best positioned to find alternative, safe routes to and from Machu Picchu.

As for where to stay: It used to be that the best hotels for a visit to Machu Picchu were in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the site. Now there are many decadent options throughout the Sacred Valley—the mountainous area between Cusco and Machu Picchu—which offer access to a wide array of glacial hiking trails, cultural experiences, and Incan ruins. (We loved Explora Sacred Valley.)

Figure out how you prefer to get around. After flying into Cusco, it’s easy enough to have your hotel arrange a car transfer. But some hotels, like the riverside Tambo del Inka, part of The Luxury Collection, have an on-site train station, making it possible to nix the winding drive for a scenic ride on PeruRail’s Sacred Valley train route.

Regardless, leave time to acclimate to the altitude—which ranges across the region but is typically around 9,000 feet. That extra time will double as a buffer for any travel hiccups—a practice that will bring added peace of mind when your entire trip is built around an activity you can’t reschedule.

Note that if you’re opting to DIY your trip, you should buy Machu Picchu tickets before booking anything else. (It’s like planning a trip to Copenhagen only after you get a table reservation at Noma.) And seats on PeruRail or Inca Rail should be booked at least a month out, especially if you’re intent on a luxurious ride on Belmond’s Hiram Bingham train, which includes gourmet meal service and live Peruvian music.

Know the Machu Picchu Circuits

Buying tickets to Machu Picchu now requires opting in to a particular circuit—something you may miss if you’re not reading the fine print. (Until the new ticketing website launches in April, this is done via the website; to avoid glitches, navigate in Spanish by choosing “tarifa general” from the first drop down list. The rest is intuitive.)

Confusingly, Circuits 1 and 2 are sold as one single option. (Also confusing: both are called “Llaqta de Machupicchu.”) They’re the most popular choice—these trails climb along Machu Picchu’s upper platforms and lead to the most iconic panoramic views. Circuit 3 takes visitors to the lower ruins of Machu Picchu, ideal for those with mobility issues. Other circuits are reserved for those doing more ambitious hiking tours, like trekking the Inka Trail.

If someone tries to steer you toward skipping the online portal and getting a next-day ticket purchase instead, run the other way. While 1,000 of these last-minute tickets are sold daily at the cultural center in Aguas Calientes, it’s a risky proposition that has led to long lines and disappointment for many travellers.

And be aware: All these updates may be short-lived. The impact of tourism growth on Machu Picchu has been a pressing issue dating as far back as 1999, when Unesco first expressed concern that excess visitation could increase the risk of landslides and endanger the entire destination. Master plans to sustainably manage the site have come and gone, with a new one currently in the works. Unesco declined to comment on the new ticket caps, but a spokesperson said that it expects Peru to comply with the aforementioned recommendation to reduce visitation by December—setting up a potential showdown later this year.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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