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The 7 Biggest Mistakes Travelers Make at Machu Picchu

When visiting one of the most spectacular sacred sites on earth, you'll want to do it right. That means booking ahead, avoiding the crowds, and resisting the lures of Peru’s intoxicating national beverage (for at least one night). Here are seven mistakes to avoid when planning your first trip to Machu Picchu.

Mistake #1: Not booking ahead
Usually, I prefer to go with the flow in Latin America. Nothing beats the thrill of rocking up to a Colombian town and finding a donkey festival, or grabbing a last-minute spot on a tour around Bolivia’s Salt Flats. But that attitude won't fly at Machu Picchu. Only 2,500 people can visit each day—and only 1,000 can trek the Inca Trail—so tickets go fast. You’ll also need to carry your passport (or at least a photo ID) while trekking. And keep in mind that an 11-pound bag restriction applies.

Due to the site's immense popularity during high season (July–August), hotels in Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, book up quickly, so plan at least a two to three months ahead.

Mistake #2: Trying to do everything in one day
The first time I visited Machu Picchu, I decided not to stay overnight at Aguas Calientes—a rookie mistake. My train broke down, I missed the chance to climb Huayna Picchu (open only once 7 a.m. and then again at 10 a.m.), and I was left with just two hours to explore one of the most majestic mountain sceneries I had ever seen.

Fortunately, I’ve since redeemed myself on return trips. I recommend spending the night in Aguas Calientes, then setting off on the first bus to Machu Picchu, which leaves at 5:30 a.m. The reward? You'll be one of the first people to enter the site.

Pro tip: The ruins close at 5 p.m., so you'll also encounter fewer crowds if you explore in the late afternoon. 

Mistake #3: Avoiding low season
Many travelers avoid Machu Picchu in February because the famous Inca Trail is closed for maintenance. But it's actually a great time to visit. Not only are there fewer visitors, but you can still access the ruins via alternative trekking routes—such as the Salkantay or the Lares—which can be just as rewarding as the Inca.

If you want a guided tour, journey with G Adventures on the three-day Lares Trek, which winds over towering green mountainsides. The nearly 21-mile route offers ever-changing landscapes: you'll see huge granite columns, shimmering lagoons and the Colque Cruz glacier, etched into a jagged mountain peak. Don’t expect to see any other foreigners, either. In February, you’ll be the only one passing local Quechua women with babies strapped to their backs in rainbow-hued papooses, and men whistling and chirping as they chase llamas over the horizon. 

Mistake #4: Jumping around (literally)
Post a photo of yourself jumping in front of Machu Picchu’s famous peak and you’ve guaranteed a flood of Facebook likes. You've also helped, in a very small way, to sink the sacred city into the ground. According to various studies commissioned by the Peruvian government, Machu Picchu drops by “2-3 cm” every year under the weight of visitors. In an attempt to arrest this alarming statistic, the park now forbids anyone to leap into the air.

Other big no-nos include eating in non-designated food areas, sitting on the sacred ruins, touching their stone surfaces and, most importantly, getting nekkid. 

Mistake #5: Assuming you don't need a guide 
It's easy to bask in the sheer grandeur and majestic surroundings of Machu Picchu. But to get beneath the surface, you need a guide. Sure, you can use a book or the AFAR app as a reference. But the entire essence, feeling, and history of this Inca city is lost without an expert voice. All guides must be certified and are available at the entrance.

Mistake #6: Skipping the Quechua communities
Isolated villages sprawl down the mist-shrouded mountains of the Sacred Valley, the land between Cusco and Machu Picchu that was once the heart of the Inca Empire. Yet very few visitors stop to explore. During high season, a thousand people pass through the valley on their way to Machu Picchu, merely getting a glimpse at local life through car windows.

Ready to explore? Try Ccaccaccollo, a traditional village market where you'll find fine clothing made from alpaca fiber. Sixty women run the show, weaving hats, gloves, ponchos, and sweaters on traditional looms and coloring the fleece with dyes made from Andean flowers and insects that bury into cacti. Complete the transformation into a real Quechua local by devouring a roasted cuy (guinea pig) at Parwa restaurant, just 15 minutes away. Planeterra Foundation helped launch both this locally run restaurant and the Women’s Weaving Co-op; look here for trip info.

Mistake #7: Succumbing to pisco temptation
Maybe it's unnecessary to warn against heavy drinking the night before visiting one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. But Peru’s national tipple is no ordinary cocktail. Whipped with egg white and lemon juice, the eye-poppingly sweet pisco sour is so addictive that one innocent sip can easily lead to a night of pisco-induced debauchery. The result: a hangover accentuated by the high-altitude Machu Picchu hike (8,000 feet) and so tortuous that Lucifer himself would sink to his knees and weep. 

>>Next: Five Ways to Hike to Machu Picchu