There are two choices for a visit to Machu Picchu to enjoy it without the crowds: hop in a time machine or go during a pandemic.
When I saw the famous set of Inca ruins the first time it was from afar, from the Inca trail. We didn't want to just coast in on the train and ride up the mountain to the site. We wanted to arrive on foot and feel like we earned it. So we got our first glimpse from the trail. We asked someone to take a photo of us, in a time before the word "selfie" had entered anyone's vocabulary (and before a tourist plummeted to his death while taking one at the citadel 11 years later).
My wife and I had taken a break from parenting duties after dropping off our four-year-old with her grandparents. We jetted south to Peru in the year 2005, at a time when the citadel was not yet on any official "7 Wonders of the World" list. The country was emerging from years of internal violence, with "Shining Path" and "state of emergency" headlines only two years past in the rear-view mirror. When we eventually got to the Machu Picchu Sun Gate the morning of Day 4 of our trek, there were just a few dozen of us milling around and taking sunrise photos. For the first hour or so as we descended and made our way through the ruins, we trekkers had the place to ourselves.
Soon after, the tourists who had stayed in nearby Aguas Calientes started streaming in through the front gate, but it still felt like a trickle of bodies rather than a flood. After a formal tour with our guide that gave some background, we were free to wander on our own and soak up the majesty of the location. A few others in our group decided to push their tired legs up to the summit of Waynu Picchu, the mountain that figures so prominently in the photo you've seen a thousand times. We had no problem taking photos with no people in them as we wandered with the llamas among the expertly built Inca walls. We weren't sharing the place with many other bodies, even though this was in May, solidly in the high season.
After spending hours at the ruins, we rode down to the town of Aguas Calientes and found a chock-a-block mess. Years later the government would officially rename it "Machu Picchu Pueblo" and pass some actual zoning laws and building standards. At that time though, it looked like a rebuilt war zone filled with tourist trinkets, with colorful woven blankets and shawls hanging on exposed rebar. Pan flute bands played for tips next to every open-air restaurant near the train depot, the same two songs quickly becoming a comical nuisance rather than entertainment. Since there weren't all that many of us foreign faces to hit up, visiting anywhere besides the namesake hot springs felt like a high-pressure sales event.
We could have gone back up the mountain the next day if we had wanted. The tickets were cheap and our recovered legs could have handled the Waynu Picchu hike now. We had limited time in the country, however, and wanted to explore more of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. So we got on the "backpacker train" as it was called then and made our way to the former capital of the Inca Empire. We had advance reservations, but there were a fair number of empty seats.
Six years later I returned to Peru, in 2011, to write about a new lodge-to-lodge trek along the Salkantay Trail through the mountains. This is a very different trek than the Inca Trail, longer and with more altitude variety, but with the same final destination. One night as my tour guide sipped pisco with one hand and smoked a cigarette with another, I broke the news to him that I was going to skip Machu Picchu at the end and head to Urubamba instead. I was probably the first person on one of his tours that had ever done this, so at first he raised his eyebrows and looked like he didn't believe me. I was sure though: the daily crowds were getting out of hand and there was talk of capping the visitor numbers just above current levels, which were already putting a strain on the ruins. But then he nodded, leaned in, and confessed in a low voice, "To be honest, I don't enjoy going there so much anymore. There are way too many people now."
I just didn't want to spoil my magical memories, so I stayed in the Sacred Valley and hired a guide to take me on a one-day trek to some rarely visited Inca ruins out in the countryside. After we walked on empty trails through bucolic villages, we arrived to find a completely empty site. The only other creatures we ran into were a man and his llama. He told my guide in the local Quechau language that things were quiet today, as usual, but yesterday a German tour group with eight people came through. He wasn't used to seeing it so "busy."
In 2015 I returned to the Sacred Valley region of Peru again. For me, the country was now showing up as an answer to that dreaded question, "What's your favorite country that you've visited?" I was on assignment to write about another lodge-based adventure tour, this time on the Lares Route, sometimes called "The Weaver's Trail" because of all the village women producing textiles and clothing by hand. One day's hike ended at Pisac, which can get thronged with day-trippers from Cusco, but another day we visited impressive Ankasmarka, which is inexplicably deserted even during high season. Everyone wants to see the greatest hits of Peru so they can check them off their list. Meanwhile, even more spectacular places remain unknown, waiting for slow travelers with more of a sense of discovery.
The Lares Trek route does not come near Machu Picchu, but since that site is at the top of the must-see list for every first-time visitor to Peru, the tour company must include it at the end of the itinerary. This time I decided I should see the changes in tourism first-hand and visit the citadel with my group. I could update my old photos with a better camera and see how the site was faring a decade after my first visit.
The secluded site on a mountaintop still awed, it was still spectacular, and it still generated the same "How did they do that?" sense of wonder. The experience was not the same, however. This visit felt more like going to an outdoor musical festival than experiencing someplace sacred and special. It was impossible to visit any highlighted point on the map without encountering another group and their guide. At some spots we had to wait our turn to approach because there wasn't room on the platform or in the courtyard for more people to enter. Everywhere I pointed my camera there were crowds, in clumps nearby or looking like ants on a wall in the distance.
It was still a better experience in 2015 though than it would turn out to be later. The tour company did have to pay extra at that point for me to hike up Waynu Picchu, a surprisingly tough hike as it turns out, but they didn't have to reserve a spot months in advance for just 400 spots as became necessary in later years. After I finished the hike, I was free to wander on my own and snap some more shots. A couple years later that option disappeared too: strict walking routes were set, times inside the attraction were capped, and every visitor now needed to be accompanied by their guide at all times.
By the time 2019 rolled around, Machu Picchu was Latin America's leading example whenever the new word "overtourism" came up in articles and policy lectures. The government instituted a slew of steadily tighter regulations, price increases, and advance ticket requirements in a desperate attempt to keep the visitor numbers below 5,600 per day—a number already deemed dangerously high by UNESCO and archaeologists. Despite all that, the hordes kept coming, nearly two million people walking on the stone paths of the ruins in 2019. It seemed like a miracle would need to happen to keep the iconic citadel from buckling from its own success.
In 2020 the miracle came. It just required something awful to happen first.
Just as Mother Nature was a beneficiary of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to reduced air pollution across the world, so were the poster children of overtourism. Locals could walk freely through St. Mark's Square in Venice without pushing through thousands of tourists disgorged from cruise ships. The locals could again stroll along the canals of Amsterdam without getting whacked by selfie sticks. Sunrise at Ankor Wat was serene again. And for the first time in a very long time, Machu Picchu was closed. Then it stayed closed for months.
In theory the locals living nearby could probably visit, but only if they walked in. The tourist trains stopped running, the buses that normally went up and down the mountain all day sat parked. I wondered if some of the porters who had never been went on a hike themselves and snuck in for a look. One of the ironies I discovered when interviewing porters for an article back in 2005 was that almost none of them had seen Machu Picchu in person. I heard the same thing from other porters in subsequent visits. Here they were every week schlepping bags, tents, sleeping bags, and a whole kitchen and dining set-up for travelers walking to the ruins. The foreigners they served had come from a hemisphere away to hike to Peru's most famous site, but these men living in Sacred Valley villages nearby had not seen that famous site with their own eyes. It seemed like a tragedy, but the reduced admission price for locals was still roughly what these porters made for three days and nights of work.
In late 2020, the government finally gave Peruvians an opportunity to experience their patrimony, with free admission to Machu Picchu and 54 other archaeological sites, as well as 22 reserves and national parks. With the whole country closed to foreign visitors, the descendants of the Incas could see what brought people from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia to their country in increasing numbers each year—without needing to compete with them to pose for a photo.
The deal for locals had an end date though. A country so reliant on tourism cannot stay an island forever without causing irreparable economic damage. So in November of 2020, the airport gates starting welcoming international flights again and Peru was open for business. Naturally, there were some caveats. Anyone entering had to come with proof of a recent swab test showing they were virus-free. Masks are required in public and temperatures are checked before allowing admission to attractions. Every business must adhere to capacity controls.
From one point of view, "capacity controls" are a serious negative, especially if you own a business with hefty monthly expenses. When we're talking about an overly popular bucket list attraction, however, the other side of that coin is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" instead. Machu Picchu is open again, but now those advance ticket requirements are even stricter: entrances are limited to 30% of the previous visitor cap to enable social distancing. So while before the daily limit was 5,600 split between morning and afternoon shifts, now the maximum number of people you could be sharing the experience with is 839. Factor in lower airline capacity, the difficulty of getting test results quickly before flights, and normal low-season declines for rainy season through April, and it's likely the numbers won't even get close to that lowered limit until mid-2021.
Looked at another way, we've jumped back in time about 15 years.
In the early 2000s, before I made my first trip to Peru, I was in the cubicle of a work colleague and she had a photo of Machu Picchu on her monitor as a screen saver. "Oh nice, I'm working on plans for a trip there," I commented.
She said it was on her wish list too and remarked with a chuckle that "Most people who see that photo ask me where it is." It seems unbelievable now, but these were the days before social media and streaming video, before going on Instagram and not seeing the wonders of the world was like turning on your laptop and not using Google.
For me, visiting Machu Picchu before the crush of crowds now seems akin to my experience of seeing Pearl Jam in 1991 when they were just an opening band or catching Wynton Marsalis in a small jazz club a decade earlier before he became a jazz legend. It's the kind of fleeting break you assume can never happen again, something lost to the sands of time. Unlike a band though, the Inca Citadel looks as good as it did 15 years ago, especially for those who get to see it mostly empty.
As this article goes to press, flights are only available to Peru from locations less than an eight-hour flight away and visitors must arrive with results from a negative PCR test taken less than 72 hours before departure. Reserve tickets to the attraction in advance here and make reservations well ahead for trains (capped at 50% capacity) and the best Cusco and Machu Picchu hotels. Since you have to visit with a guide anyway and reserve lots of aspects in advance, check out prices on these Machu Picchu holiday tours from Intrepid Adventures.
Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer who lives in Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running bargain travel blog here.
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How to Lose Friends and Mortify People While Hiking in Peru - Marco Ferrarese
Bullfighting Buddhists or Backwards Bumpkins in Peru - Kirsten Koza
The Other Side of the Yucatan - Tim Leffel
See more travel stories from the South America in the archives
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