It's not altitude meds, reusable water bottles or sturdy, flat-soled shoes.  All of which are recommended.  (Altitude meds are optional. Machu Picchu tops out around 8000 ft. / 2438 m. Which is not much compared to Cusco at 11000 ft / 3350 m.) By the time you go through Cusco and the Sacred Valley, which will squander about 5 hours of travel time to get to Machu Picchu, you should feel pretty good even if you're coming from sea level.  If you get addled by the altitude, and forget everything else, try to burn this one important thing into your oxygen-deprived brain.

Follow this link if you want to read about the biggest mistake people make in planning their trip to Machu Picchu

What's the most important thing you need to enter Machu Picchu?

If you are a foreigner, you need a passport to enter Machu Picchu. Not just any passport. It has to be the passport you used to buy the ticket! South American nationals are allowed to use their national ID. And everyone must buy a ticket in advance. No entry tickets are sold at the main entrance to Machu Picchu anymore. Tickets can be bought online or at the office in Cusco or Aguas Calientes. To buy a ticket you need to provide your passport number which will be printed on your ticket. And when you enter Machu Picchu, you must show your original passport you used at time of purchase, and your valid ticket. If you renew your passport after you buy your entry tickets, you must travel with both the old and the new passports. Photo copies may not be accepted. However, on rare occasions when we have had groups show up at the main entry and forget their tickets, the guide has gone to the customer service office with their passports and they have printed copies of the entry tickets. Luckily everything is booked electronically and your name and passport number are stored in the government database. This is why we ask all our groups to email a scan or photo copy of their passports. On occasions where someone has forgotten, we've been able to provide a copy of the old passport to the guide to get you in. What if your passport gets lost, stolen or you forget it? It's essential that you file a police report which you will need to show to the agents on duty that day. At one time or another, all of these situations have happened to most of our guides, who advocate for you with the agents on duty to work out solutions. But there are no guarantees. If you are without the service of a guide (who is like your Mom!) you're on your own to communicate your needs. Or beg for mercy. 

What are the most frequent mistakes made by foreign visitors when entering Machu Picchu?

  • They renew their passport after buying their tickets and show up with a new passport that doesn't match the document listed on the ticket
  • Because all visitors store excess luggage when traveling from Cusco to Machu Picchu, occasionally people will leave their passports in their suitcases.  You MUST have your original passport to: enter the Inca Trail, board the train and enter Machu Picchu.

Are other documents accepted?

For foreigners, a valid passport for at least 6 months beyond the end of your trip is the only document accepted for buying entry tickets and Inca Trail permits. Passport cards are not accepted. If you have dual citizenship and hold 2 (or more) passports, choose one and make sure that's the one you bring to enter the hike or the site. Drivers' licenses and birth certificates are not accepted. ISIC (student card) is not accepted. South American nationals can use their valid national ID.  

What if I don't have a passport?

Simply put, you will not be able to reserve flights, trains, permits or official entry tickets to anything. It may be possible to reserve a hotel if you are in contact with a real person who has the authority to hold the reservation until your passport is issued.  We do this all the time with groups where 1 or more people may be waiting on their new document.  We've known people who booked trips with us and didn't realize they need to to apply immediately for their passports thinking they had several months before their trip. This hampers our efforts to buy flights and entry tickets in advance and it can lead to increased costs. 

What if my Passport is Due to Expire?

The good news is that if you have an expired passport or a passport that is due to expire, it is possible to book everything using the expired document, as long as you understand that you absolutely must travel with both the old expired document and the new passport. The bad news is that if you forget your old passport, all the tickets booked with that document are in jeopardy of being useless. When you apply for a new passport, you will mail your old passport to the government agency in charge of renewals. Once the new passport is mailed, they will also return the old document. Note that it is customary to send the old and new documents separately. The date of expiration of the old passport doesn't seem to matter. We've used documents as old as 2007.  

Can I use a photo copy or electronic copy of my passport?

No. With this exception. In an emergency, it may be possible to use an electronic copy to enter Machu Picchu or board the train. But this is determined by factors that are out of our control. This is why we ask people to email copies of their documents. In a couple of cases, a traveler has left his/her passport with their excess luggage stored in the hotel.  We have emailed the digital copy of their passport to their guide to get them on the train and into Machu Picchu. Here's the sad part. We cannot use it to get them on the Inca Trail. The rigid rules require that hikers must show their original document at the point of entry. And it must be the same passport used to buy the permit. Not even God can get you on the Inca Trail without your original passport!

What if I make a mistake with my online reservation?

Please don't make a mistake. Corrections must usually be handled in person, which doesn't work unless you live in Cusco, Peru.  We can arrange to send a guide to try to fix it. We've had cases where the agency in Cusco not only required the guide to present a copy of the valid passport, but they also required a copy of the credit card used to pay for the transaction. This means you have to send us a photo of your credit card which we in turn forward to our guides in Cusco who present it as evidence to validate the correction. Some agencies require us to get an officially signed letter from you explaining the correction.  

Tips to avoiding problems with online reservations

If you are booking through an agent or tour operator, they will deal with the hassles for advance purchase of tickets and permits. However there is a limit to what they can do if you show up without the proper documents. Keep your passport up to date to avoid any confusion about which documents you need to travel with. And if you don't understand how to use online booking services, try to hook up with a tech-savvy friend (ask any 7 year old kid!) 

In case you're wondering, there's still plenty of old-fashioned, cash-only business transactions in Peru. All Inca Trail permits must be paid for in person with cold, dirty cash.