The busiest time to explore this ancient secret city is from June to September, so don’t expect to just show up during these months and get in. A limited number of tickets is available each day, and they can sell out well in advance. Hotel rooms at Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, are also hard to come by this time of year (though overnight stays aren’t required; trains run from Aguas Calientes to Cusco and other towns).
The shoulder season months of April and May, and then late September through October, offer some of the nicest days, weather-wise, and fewer crowds. But no matter the time of year, the climate can change quickly, so dressing in layers and waterproof gear is recommended. The high altitude also makes sunscreen important year-round.
The rainy season stretches from November through March, and January and February are particularly wet. If you don’t mind almost-certain pockets of showers, you’ll find Machu Picchu least populated during this time—but you do run the risk of encountering closed roads and variable conditions due to flooding and landslides.
Those yearning for the Inca Trail experience should know that it’s shifted some from its former glory. Today the route is marred by litter from hiking groups and may feel more like an assembly than communing with the Andes before reaching Machu Picchu. You must go with a guide, and you are limited in the amount of miles you are allowed to hike per day. There are some fantastic hikes throughout the region run by outfitters based out of Cusco, but if you’re determined to hit the Inca Trail, make arrangements well in advance of arrival; you’ll spend more money if you get to Cusco and scramble to find a guide. The trail closes in February.
Guides aren’t required to visit the ruins themselves, but they do help in grasping the intricate mysteries on evidence. If you go it alone, be sure to see the Temple of the Sun, with a window that lets the light in to shine on a stone inside during winter solstice; Intihuatana, a vertical stone column; and the Principal Temple, a three-walled mortarless structure. You can also make a half-day hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain that sits at the north end of Machu Picchu, for a bird’s-eye perspective of the ancient city.