How to avoid the crowds at
Machu Picchu

The thing about Machu Picchu is, it’s almost always going to be busy. This is one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, among the most famous of some 1092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and an immutable icon of travel bucket lists. The Peruvian Amazon with its extraordinary wealth of biodiversity makes up 60 percent of the country; further south are the Nazca Lines and the beautiful Lake Titicaca. But ask any traveler at Lima Airport what they’re hoping to see more than anything, and the chances are the answer will come back: Machu Picchu.
There have long been concerns that this 15th century Incan citadel, built high in the Andes a short distance from Cuzco, has become too popular for its own good. Since being listed by UNESCO in the 1980s its global fame has skyrocketed, and by 2013 it was receiving some 1.2 million visitors annually, a 700 percent increase. That level of footfall on ancient, fragile ruins, not to mention the effect of so many trekkers on the natural surroundings, became so concerning that the Peruvian government has now limited visitors to 2500 a day. There is a maximum of 500 people allowed on the Inca Trail each day, including porters, and entrance to the site itself is via timed slots in the morning or the afternoon (you can stay all day if you buy two tickets). You cannot enter except as part of a guided tour, and strictly speaking, each visit is limited to four hours (or six if you pre-book a trek up either the Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountains to admire the complex from above).
With bus groups arriving from the closest town, Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) by 9am, queues can routinely be expected at the entrance, and at the limited number of toilets which are located there and only there. Crowds at each landmark within the site also very likely, especially during peak season. Read on to learn how to avoid the worst of them.

The seventh stage is acceptance…

Overtourism at ancient sites such as Machu Picchu is a serious threat to their long-term survival. But as Mark Rice, historian and author of Making Machu Picchu explains, “it’s not actually that busy in terms of volume. Roughly 1.5 million visitors a year is nothing comparatively, considering its fame. To accept more people would mean having to provide a different experience, such as a raised walkway around the site and less interaction, but the site management in recent years has been pretty good.” The complex is not small – it’s estimated the citadel would have had around 750 permanent residents, and there are around 200 buildings in total across the Upper and Lower towns, along with stone walkways around them.
So although there are issues with environmental degradation caused by large numbers of people visiting a site of extreme age and fragility, we’re not talking Mona Lisa-busy here. You’ll enjoy your experience a whole lot more if you arrive accepting that there will be a lot of other people around, that you will sometimes need to wait a few minutes for your turn at a viewpoint, and that you need to follow a set route with a guide the same as everyone else.

Avoid summer

Peak season at Machu Picchu is July through August. Instead think about April or May if you can, after the rainy season, when the vegetation is gorgeously lush and it’s significantly quieter. September and early October are also considered good months to visit, but you’re looking at the onset of wetter, more humid weather which if you’re trekking up can make it more of a challenge.

Machu Picchu is open throughout the year, but in February the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance. Other routes such as the Salkantay Trek are still available however. The site is about as empty as it ever gets at the height of the rainy season, but the weather brings serious hazards – mud slides and flooding are not unknown. In January 2010 several people were killed and thousands of tourists trapped in Aguas Calientes and on the Inca Trail by floodwaters.

Skip sunrise

Everyone wants to see the sun come up over Machu Picchu. It used to be that you’d need to start queuing for the bus at 3am to guarantee it, though with the strict ticketed entry system that’s not an issue anymore. But it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the time, especially during the rainy season, the mountains are foggy in the early morning, so you might have a painfully early start for nothing. The soft light of the late afternoon as it bathes the ruins is actually just as prized, if not more, by photographers.

Stay later

You can’t arrive before the crowds at Machu Picchu. You can, however, outstay them. By 4pm most of the day-trippers from Cuzco have disappeared. Many of those who arrived early from Aguas Calientes are also making their way back down by now – there’s no picnicking allowed in the complex, and the few places you can buy food and snacks from are muy expensive, so a day of wandering around can get a beast of an appetite going. Load up on snacks (being sure to take every bit of packaging including fruit peel back down with you) and stick it out until late afternoon. You’ll enjoy beautiful light, and far fewer people, until the site closes at 6pm. Word to the wise: make sure your evening restaurant is pre-booked.

Don’t day trip

It’s possible to get from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes then up to Machu Picchu and back, all in a day, but it’s pretty exhausting and pointless. You’re far better off staying in Aguas Calientes for a night, so that you’re only a short bus journey or 90-minute trek away the following day. One good option is to arrive in AC around midday, head up to the site for the less-crowded late afternoon, and then go up again early the next day in the hope of catching a beautiful sunrise.

Go somewhere else

Sure, Machu Picchu is an incredible place, but is it the only amazing Incan ruin in Peru, or even around Cuzco? Far from it. There is Vilcabamba, ‘the Lost City of the Incas’, which Hiram Bingham also stumbled upon, though he mistakenly believed Machu Picchu was the last capital instead. Not far away is Choquequirao , similar in architecture to Machu Picchu, but requiring a rugged hike to reach – it’s got a more ‘Indiana Jones-y’ feel to it because of that, and may appeal to the more intrepid of you. And there are many well-preserved Incan ruins scattered throughout the Sacred Valley, such as those of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Somewhat overshadowed by their famous neighbour but no less interesting, these sites and the communities near them deserve a visit too, and by doing so you’ll be helping tourism to the Cuzco region become that little bit more sustainable.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bex Walton] [Topbox: Elsie Lin] [People at the ruins: Murray Fourbister] [Sunset: CSW27]