When is the Best Time to go to Machu Picchu in 2019?
The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, perched on a rocky outcrop high in the Andes Mountains, is the highlight of any trip to Peru. Discover the optimum time to visit this spectacular monument.
The best time to go to Machu Picchu is in May or September. The winter months of April to October are in the dry season in Peru, and so offer the best chance of taking stunning photos of the ancient ruins set against clear blue skies. However, June, July and August can be very crowded, attracting up to 2500 visitors per day, so to see the ruins at their best, it’s ideal to visit in May or September. At this time you’ll find clear skies, cool nights, emerald green mountains, and with a bit of luck, you’ll avoid the queues.
The Ancient Mountain
Known in Quechua as the ‘ancient mountain’, Machu Picchu is a ruined Inca city, nestled amidst dramatic Andean scenery. Never discovered by the Spanish conquistadores, the site was completely forgotten until its rediscovery in the early 20th century by the intrepid explorer, Hiram Bingham. Machu Picchu offers a fascinating glimpse into Incan life and society, and is an absolute must-see as part of any visit to Peru.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most-visited sites in the whole of South America, as thousands of tourists flock here every day in peak season. To make the most of your experience, use our guide to time your visit carefully, in order to get the best weather and avoid the crowds.
Timing Your Visit: Beat the Weather
If you want to plan your Machu Picchu trip to perfection, it’s important to understand Peruvian weather. This diverse country has a very varied climate, ranging from tropical rainforest to cool, high-altitude mountains. Machu Picchu is in the mountains, but remains close to the rainforest, so the vegetation is thick and lush, and you should expect to see a little rain at any time during the year.
In Machu Picchu, there are two main seasons. Summer (the wet season) begins in November and ends in March, during which time it rains heavily almost every day and the atmosphere is warm and humid. Winter (the dry season) runs from April to October and is generally dry, sunny and cool, especially at night. If you’re looking for good weather, winter is considered the best time to visit.
Although the wet and dry seasons offer a good guide of what to expect on your visit to Machu Picchu, it’s important to note that the weather here can change rapidly, and a rainstorm is never too far away. You may be unlucky with clouds and rain even in the dry season, so it’s best to come prepared. On my visit, even in the height of summer, we had a little rain and morning cloud in the mountains.
Braving the Rainy Season
Most people come to Machu Picchu seeking stunning views of the ruins under clear blue skies, and as a result, plan their visit in the peak of the Andean winter, in July and August. However, it’s worth noting that at these times, you’re likely to be sharing the experience with thousands of other tourists, which might not be the optimum way to visit the site.
It may seem counter-intuitive to visit during the rainy season, but there are some advantages. First, the site will be much quieter, making for a more relaxed, atmospheric and pleasant trip. Second, the rain leaves the mountains and the ruins covered in vibrant green vegetation, which makes this already incredible site look simply superb. Finally, even in the rainy season it rarely rains for the whole day, but rather for a few hours in the afternoon, when most visitors will have left the site anyway.
If you’re planning to hike, you may not want to brave the tropical rains. However, if you’re arriving at the site by train, it may be worth thinking about visiting in the rainy season, when you’ll have the ruins to yourself. During my visit, the image of ethereal clouds swirling around the Andean peaks more than compensated for my slightly wet feet.
If you’re really looking for a quiet experience, head to Machu Picchu in February when the Inca Trail is closed. Every year, the hiking trail is shut down to prevent erosion during the rainy season. This means that the number of tourists coming to the site is significantly reduced. You may meet with grey skies and wet weather, but the site itself will be far less busy.
The Road to the Ruins: Getting to Machu Picchu
The best time to visit Machu Picchu depends partly on how you are planning to get there. The site is impossible to access by road, so the best way to get there via public transport is to take the train to the village of Aguas Calientes, situated in the valley below the ruins.
Trains run all year round, but it’s best to make the trip from Cusco in the winter months, when the weather is clear and dry, and you can enjoy the beautiful views through the Sacred Valley without getting caught in a rainstorm. This gorgeous train ride was another highlight of my trip, and I’d recommend taking the train during daylight to make the most of the experience.
However, for more adventurous travellers, the most rewarding way to approach the ruins is on foot, on the ancient route through the mountains. The Inca Trail is a four-day trek that passes through a range of historical Incan sites before arriving at the famous Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise on the final day.
The Sun Gate is the ancient entrance to the city of Machu Picchu, and even today it offers the best view of the ruins set against the stunning Andean backdrop. At the culmination of the 4-day Inca Trail, we arrived at this point at sunrise, eager to get the perfect photo of the first rays of light hitting the ancient city. The winter months offer the best chance of seeing this remarkable view without clouds.
Although it is possible to walk the Inca Trail during the rainy season (apart from the month of February), there is a considerable risk that the stunning Andean mountain ranges will be under cloud. As a result, most walkers choose to hike the trail in the dry season, between April and October. July and August is the peak season for hiking, and at this time of year you may find yourself sharing the path with hundreds of other walkers, guides and porters.
So, if you’re hiking the Inca Trail, book for April/May or September/October to avoid the crowds and have a good chance of clear weather. However, if you’re planning on making the trip by train and you don’t mind seeing the ruins in the rain, February offers the best chance of avoiding the crowds. During this month, there are no visitors arriving on foot, and the number of tourists coming by train is also limited, which means you’re more likely to experience the site without hundreds of other tourists jostling for space.
Machu Picchu in Bloom
One of the best times to visit Machu Picchu, particularly for those wishing to trek along the Inca Trail, has to be March, when the orchids are in bloom. Every year, this spectacular corner of the world erupts in a stunning array of colours, as these delicate flowers emerge from every crack in the rock.
The orchid blooming period arrives at the end of the rainy season, when the lush vegetation is at its most green and exciting. If you come at this time of year, you may see unusual flowers and plants, and catch a glimpse of some of the rare vegetation that makes the region so famous. Even in winter, I was blown away by the natural beauty of the ancient landscape and flora along the Inca Trail.
Planning Your Day
Machu Picchu is open every day of the year, from 6am to 6pm. Tickets must be booked online in advance, or purchased from a designated ticket office in Cusco, and allow entry for half a day, either in the morning (6am-12pm) or the afternoon (12pm-5.30pm).
If you arrive by train, there are two options: 1) take an afternoon train and stay the night in Aguas Calientes, before rising early to see the ruins at dawn; or 2) take an early train from Cusco and aim to head to the ruins for the afternoon session.
If you want to see the ruins early, bear in mind that there may be a long waiting time for the shuttle bus that runs between Aguas Calientes and the sanctuary itself. Queues for the first shuttle bus are very long and it may sometimes take 1-2 hours to get a place, so you will need to get there in plenty of time.
The afternoon slot is often somewhat quieter, so if you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, then wait until the midday crowds have passed and head up to the sanctuary around 1pm-2pm. This will still allow plenty of time to explore the ruins (most tours take 2-3 hours), and by the end of the day, the site will be much quieter and calmer. My favourite time at the ruins was at the end of the day, right before closing, when the crowds had cleared, and the sun was dropping behind the mountains.
Finding a Balance
Planning the perfect trip to Machu Picchu will always require some sort of compromise, and there’s no ideal time to go – it depends on your individual priorities, and whether you are looking for perfect weather conditions, or fewer crowds. May and September offer the best of both worlds, with strong possibilities for good weather with slightly smaller numbers of visitors.
Regardless, whatever the weather, and whatever the time of day, Machu Picchu is sure to be a memorable experience. The grandeur of this iconic site will take your breath away, whether it’s set against clear blue skies, or shrouded in eerie clouds. Just don’t forget your camera!
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