Sunrise in Machu Picchu – Is it worth it?
Sunrise over Machu Picchu sounds almost like a dream. A dream many visitors to the ancient Inca citadel are chasing. Just mentioning the words “Sunrise over Machu Picchu” will make your fellow travelers get those glassy eyes, forcing them to hurry on to make it in time. But is it really worth it? Here’s an analysis:
The facts about the sunrise in Machu Picchu
Sunrise in Machu Picchu will happen very early, as early as 5:13 am in Mid-November. Since the Inca sanctuary is located almost on the equator, there is not much variation throughout the year. The latest time the sun rises in Machu Picchu will be during the touristic high season around July 14th when the sun rises as late as 6:14 am.
The first bus from Aguas Calientes leaves around 5:30 and takes 25 minutes to the main entrance. The gates to Machu Picchu open at 6 am throughout the whole year. It takes about 10 minutes of very fast walking to get to the House of Guardians, where the classic panorama of Machu Picchu can be seen (click for more tips and tricks for Machu Picchu).
So theoretically speaking, it is possible to attend the sunrise in Machu Picchu. Here are the caveats:
A big mountain blocks the view on the horizon. So what you will see at 6am is not the sunrise, but the first daylight seeping over the ruins. That can be a magical moment nonetheless, but not a proper sunrise.
The sun will slowly rise, with the first rays reaching the Inca citadel between 8 and 9am – depending on the season, already standing very high. Too high, in fact, to catch that golden morning light on a photograph (here is a website with all the official sunrise and sunset times).
Also, Machu Picchu is located inside a tropical mountain rain forest. Humidity is an issue and the ruins are often hidden in mist and heavy clouds in the morning. During the rainier season, this is actually the case on most of the days, while during the dry season 2 out of 3 days feature clouds blocking the view.
Because of the allure of the (imaginary) magical sunrise, Machu Picchu is crowdiest in the morning.
The sunrise at the Sun Gate in Machu Picchu
The sun gate (Intipunku) is the highest, western point easily accessible within Machu Picchu. Once it had probably been a gatehouse to the sanctuary and probably no real religious site. Nonetheless, it is the point where you can see the sunrise over Machu Picchu the earliest. This is why people taking the Inca Trail (Camino Inca) will usually stop here to view it.
Sunrise at the Sun Gate will approximately happen around 7 am in the morning (again depending on the season) and much earlier than in Machu Picchu proper, which lies some 200 meters below.
Usually, the Sun Gate is very busy earlier in the morning. Ever since the traffic on the Camino Inca got regulated as well, there never will be a really big crowd. Again heavy fog and morning clouds can and will be an issue.
Further tips to see the sunrise in Machu Picchu
If you really want a chance to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu you have to get up very early and try to get on that first bus. Alternatively, you can sleep in the luxury hotel (expect prices around 800 to 1000 dollar per night, per person) right in front of the main entrance of Machu Picchu. Of course, you can also hike to the top, but you will already be exhausted and sweaty by the time you reach the main entrance. Especially if you are planning to hike Huayna Picchu as well, this might not be a good idea. Considering how much money you spent to see the Inca ruins in the first place, it is better to enter them with a fresh mind and body.
Visitors peak inside Machu Picchu around 11 am when the majority of the tourist arrive (especially those on a day trip from Cusco, Ollantaytambo, etc.). Most people sleeping in Aguas Calientes rise very early to see (or rather trying to see) the sunrise. By late afternoon they will be exhausted and/or need to catch their train back to Cusco.
The best time to appreciate the Inca ruins is thus late in the afternoon. Sunset in Machu Picchu will happen between 17:30 (June) and 18:30 (January). So with a closing time of 5 pm, it is not really possible to see the sunset in Machu Picchu. Again you won’t be able to see the actual sunset.
BUT: The time starting from around 4pm is arguably the best time to take pictures in Machu Picchu. By then Machu Picchu is almost empty and the sun is about to vanish behind the horizon, tinting the Inca ruins in a very mellow golden light. Truly a magical moment! The weather is also better late in the afternoon. Fog and clouds very seldom obstruct the view during the dry season after 2pm.