Machu Picchu ruins are similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia in that the area is massive and the work involved to build such a place is incredibly impressive. In terms of photography at Machu Picchu, it is difficult to photograph the location due to the number of tourists and the sheer size of the area. However, I’ll give you advice I figured out during my visit that will help, whether you’re shooting with a phone or an SLR.
Camera & Phone
I shoot with both my phone and my camera. They take different types of photographs because I bring a limited number of SLR camera lenses with me. They are both heavy and expensive, and for the amount of walking I do, I don’t want to carry 50 pounds (23 kg.) of camera gear. Beginner photographers like to say that I get good photographs with my phone because it’s a newer iPhone. However, this is not entirely true. I’ll show you good photography technique in other posts. For example, make sure your grid is turned on.
Itinerary for Photography at Machu Picchu
For photography at Machu Picchu, I suggest staying a minimum of 2 nights in the cute, small town of Aguas Calientes, which lies at the bottom of the mountain, below Machu Picchu. This will allow you 1 full day at Machu Picchu, which is generally open from 6 am to 6 pm.
Three nights would be ideal if you’ve arrived in Aguas Calientes at the end of the Salkantay Trek, Inca Trail, or similarly extended hiking. This would also give you time to explore the town and visit the Machu Picchu museum near the bridge. Additionally, two nights in Ollantaytambo is a great stopover between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Read on for details!
About Aguas Calientes
Like Cusco, Aguas Calientes is a very tourist-friendly place. Accommodation is available in all price ranges and there are restaurants of all kinds, including Peruvian, Italian, craft beer, and a French bakery. Tourist police are everywhere, so it’s safe outdoors during regular business hours. At your accommodation, ask reception for the safest place to leave your valuables when you’re not in your room. It would be terrible if anything ruined your photography at Machu Picchu.
Staying in Aguas Calientes allows time for photography at Machu Picchu in both morning and evening, as the town lies at the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. From town to the entrance gate of the ruins, it is a 1 hour very steep hike or 25-minute bus ride ($12 USD each way in 2015).
Pro Tip Purchase your tickets for entrance into Machu Picchu ruins and associated hikes up the 2 mountains within the entrance gates in advance. This can be done in Cusco and in Aguas Calientes. Earlier is better, as tickets are limited. I read on another blog that if you lose your ticket, it can be reprinted at the entrance since your name is in the database. Still, bring your passport for identification.
Day 1 – Arrive in Aguas Calientes
Arrive in Aguas Calientes and enjoy the town and souvenir market. After hiking the Salkantay or Inca Trail, you may just want to enjoy a beer in the plaza. Of course, eat a good dinner so you’re well-nourished for tomorrow. And, get to bed early, since it’ll be an early wake-up call!
To Do List
In order, make sure all these get done.
- Charge up everything. This includes your phone, camera batteries, phone recharger, gimbal. Everything! – As silly as it may sound at the moment while you’re reading this, you’re probably going to be like me and everyone else, taking plenty of selfies with the llamas.
- Purchase your bus ticket up the hill to Machu Picchu for the next morning and avoid long lines at 4 am.
- Wander the market for cheese, fruit and other snacks while at Machu Picchu, since food is expensive and only available outside the park gates. There is 1 restaurant at Machu Picchu, located just outside of the ruins.
- Memory Cards – Offload all photos onto another device and format the cards for maximum space.
- Check that your camera settings are correct for first photos of the morning, including time zone, date, photo format (RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG, etc.), and expected ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed.
- Attach the tripod mount to your camera body to avoid searching for it later.
- Batteries – Triple check that all the batteries are charged by actually putting them in your camera and seeing that it powers up completely.
- Pack your Entrance Ticket, Passport – These are checked at the entrance!!
- Pack your photography gear the night before. You definitely don’t want to forget anything in an early morning rush. Here’s my Machu Picchu photography gear list.
Pack these items, as everything is double the price on Machu Picchu Mountain, if available at all:
- Don’t forget your passport and entrance ticket! These will be checked at the entrance!!!
- Bottled water + lunch + snacks.
- Dry shirt and rain pants, if you are hiking from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu ruins. Sweat and mist will absolutely soak your clothes!
- Rain poncho or other rain gear in case it is wet on the mountain. Dress in layers and appropriately for the time of year. The poncho can also serve as a picnic blanket. There is very little seating, apart from the ground. Do not sit on the fragile walls– guards will blow their whistles at you if you break this or any other rules.
- Personal items such as money, hat, sunglasses, mosquito repellant, sunscreen, medications, spare glasses. You know the drill by now.
Day 2 – Visit Machu Picchu
Obviously, this is the highlight of the trip! It’s even more amazing than I imagined. I was prepared for some old ruins. I’ve been to Tikal, Bagan, Europe… I was considering skipping MP on this trip, but a guy I met told me “Go, just go. Yes, it’s a little touristy, but go.”
There are three mountains. First, Machu Picchu itself is on top of a mountain, above the town of Aguas Calientes. Second, within Machu Picchu (after your show your main entry ticket) there are two more optional paid mountains. Each of these mountains requires its own additional ticket, and entry is timed. So, look at your ticket and know what time you must enter. All of these tickets must be purchased in advance.
Pro Tip: If you are going to do either of these 2nd mountains, do not hike from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu entry gate with a heavy backpack. Or, maybe not at all. The 2nd mountains are steep (using hands) hikes. I fear you won’t have enough energy for the evening light if you are so tired from all the hiking. If you have enough energy at the end of the day, you can always hike downhill to Aguas Calientes.
Morning Photography at Machu Picchu Ruins
Wake up at 4 am and walk to the bridge, which is the first ticket and passport check before being allowed to hike up Machu Picchu Mountain. Alternatively, you can take the bus up and/or down the mountain.
Most tours occur in the morning. If you did not pay for one in advance, you can often find one to join. Be sure you have the cash to leave your guide a nice tip.
Pro Tip Most entrance times for climbing the mountains within Machu Picchu are in the morning. Ask your guide or the person at the entrance gate to look at your ticket and confirm your entrance time, so you don’t miss it. I met some sad tourists who missed their entry time.
Don’t forget to photograph the animals! Everyone loves the llamas.
Lunchtime at Machu Picchu Ruins
Find a quiet place to eat lunch, rehydrate, and nap. Don’t forget to cover your body to prevent sunburn, including your face. Rest your feet. It’s a long day! The light isn’t that good at lunchtime anyway, if it’s a sunny day.
Afternoon Photography at Machu Picchu Ruins
The light began getting good for photography at Machu Picchu around 3 pm in mid-November. Look around for the best vantage points for the most interesting photography of Machu Picchu. Most tourists will begin leaving the ruins at this time, providing you more space.
Evening in Aguas Calientes
Back up your photos. Recharge your batteries and electronic devices. Enjoy a relaxing dinner after a long day. Spend the night in Aguas Calientes.
Note: Additional notes regarding photography and safety at Machu Picchu are at the bottom of this article.
Day 3 – Travel to Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is a picturesque town with Incan ruins, including a fascinating water system, including large baths (you can’t swim in them).
From Aguas Calientes, take the train 2 hours. The train tracks from Aguas Calientes end here in Ollantaytambo, and you can stay, or simply get a bus or tourist transport to Cusco. However, I recommend at least one night in Ollantaytambo, because my 3/4 of a day was not enough.
Read more…. Ollantaytambo Photography Itinerary
Additional Information for Photography at Machu Picchu
My Wilderness First Aid course taught us that a major cause of injuries is from people taking photos while walking. Just as at any other place, at Machu Picchu you should stop walking before taking photos. Paths are simply not safe for walking without your full attention. You could fall off a steep ledge, twist your ankle on uneven paths, or just trip and fall and break your camera or worse.
Additionally, inspect the area where your model (or yourself) is posing before asking them to move, jump, or step in another direction. During the writing of this article, there was news that a tourist fell to their death off a ledge while doing a jump shot.
Guards carry whistles and will warn you if you do anything dangerous or not allowed. It is not permitted to sit or stand on walls. Be respectful of the places you visit around the world and keep in mind that ruins are very old and fragile, even if made of stone.
There are no barriers at the edge of ledges or cliffs keeping anyone from falling. I reiterate this point on safety because I actually yelled at a tourist “stop!” who was about to step backward off a ledge while posing for a photo (his friend was looking through the camera and not at the ground). You are responsible for your own well-being. I can only imagine the drama for all of us if that tourist had fallen 30 feet onto the hard-packed earth and stones below.
Machu Picchu Time
Note the places you would like to return at a certain time of day for the best light for photography at Machu Picchu. It is not possible to move around the ruins quickly for various reasons. These include:
- Many tourists depart the ruins by 3 o’clock and by 4 o’clock the ruins are nearly empty.
- Many walking paths are 1-way and there is no map indicating directions. So, you end up zig-zagging up and down many stairs.
- Altitude – if you are not acclimated, you will move more slowly, as it is difficult to breathe in thin air.
- If you’ve just completed the Salkantay, Inca Trail, or another trek, you may be more tired than usual.
- Some paths are sometimes crowded with tourists, so you walk very slowly.
- Many paths are uneven with cobblestones. Wear comfortable closed-toe shoes. Ankle support is also helpful
Hotels typically allow guests luggage storage after check-out free of charge. However, check that they will care for your valuables appropriately. Some backpacker hotels simply pile luggage in the lobby
Summary of Transportation from Cusco to Machu Picchu Ruins
Travel time from Aguas Calientes to Cusco is 4 hours, including waiting time, with the transfer in Ollantaytambo from a train to a bus. Or, from Machu Picchu, it is possible to walk to the hydroelectric station and catch a bus to Cusco, which is cheaper (all the budget backpackers do this). However, this requires you depart in the early afternoon.
Cusco to Ollantaytambo: By bus or private vehicle (minibus, taxi). The train track does not reach Cusco.
Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes: By train. Or, near Aguas Calientes, you can walk to the Hidrolectrica to catch a bus or minibus to Cusco.
Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu ruins entrance: Straight up a big hill. You can hike (1 hour is fast and strenuous) or take a bus (purchase your ticket the day before).
Interested in reading about Total Solar Eclipses? They are amazing to witness in person! There are some coming up, which you can plan (a trip!) for now.
Any questions or additions? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!
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