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Machu Picchu Circuits Explained
Machu picchu Tours

Machu Picchu Circuits Information – Which Is the Best one?

Written by: Incatrailhikeperu September 2, 2023

In the past, visitors to Machu Picchu were allowed to freely explore the Inca site. However, if you visit Machu Picchu today, whether visiting on your own (yes, it’s allowed!), on a tour like this one, or as part of the Inca Trail hike, you will have to walk along one of its 5 circuits, or set routes. See all the information about Which Machu Picchu Circuit is the Best One

Moreover, while preparing for your Inca Trail hike or Machu Picchu visit, you will have to make some decisions related to the circuits. The tickets you end up buying will affect which areas of Machu Picchu you will and won’t be able to visit. You may end up buying 2 or more different Machu Picchu tickets in order to explore the whole site.

Even though the official site (Spanish only) has a map of each of the circuits, understanding these maps can be overwhelming and requires a lot of research. In fact, many visitors don’t really understand the circuits, even during or after their visit.

Why Does Machu Picchu Have Circuits Now?

Machu Picchu has long been one of the world’s classic examples of overtourism. As many as 1.5 million people visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site and New World Wonder per year, or over 4000 per day. This is double the limit that UNESCO has recommended. UNESCO has presented other concerns about the site, too.

In an effort to appease UNESCO and to control the tourist crowds at Machu Picchu, the new circuits were introduced in October of 2021. Space is limited at Machu Picchu. Many trails, staircases, and doorways are very narrow, only allowing one person to pass through at a time. These create bottlenecks in the traffic flow, and human traffic jams are all too common.

The purpose of the new circuits is to spread out the crowds to different areas of the Sanctuary and at different times of the day. Not only will you have to enter Machu Picchu at a certain time that you will choose when you buy the ticket, but also you won’t be allowed to linger in certain areas with limited space for too long.

NOTE: What’s more, certain visitors MUST take certain circuits. For example, those arriving on the 4 Day Inca Trail must take Circuit 3 upon arrival at Machu Picchu. And those who want to climb Huayna Picchu can only do so by getting a Circuit 4 ticket.

Unfortunately, however, each circuit misses certain parts of Machu Picchu. So if you really want to see the whole site, you will have to buy multiple tickets to Machu Picchu, each on a different circuit.

Which Machu Picchu Circuit is the Best One?

I will cover each of the circuits in detail below. But before that, I’d like to cut to the chance and tell you that the Circuit 2 + Puente Inka is the most complete and best Machu Picchu circuit.

WHY?

Circuit 2 on its own gives you access to the largest number of areas at the site, including the classic Machu Picchu viewpoint from the Guardhouse. In other words, Circuit 2 is the best of the 5 numbered circuits.

The option that allows you to add the Puente Inka (Inca Bridge) trail to Circuit 2 is even better. Here’s my guide to the Inca Bridge trail.

Circuit 2 isn’t perfect, though. It does miss a few things that are only included on Circuits 3, 4, and 5. But overall, it is still better than those circuits because it visits several of the most important and sacred sights at Machu Picchu. And most important, Circuit 2 includes the famous Machu Picchu viewpoint, while circuits 3, 4, and 5 don’t (note: if you arrive via the 4-day Inca Trail, you’ll get to see the famous viewpoint).

If your hike or tour comes with Circuit 3, 4, or 5 (make sure to ask your company which Circuit is included!), then I recommend buying an additional Circuit 2 + Puente Inka ticket on your own for the most complete Machu Picchu experience.

Note: Ideally, we recommend buying your second ticket for the following morning, since Machu Picchu becomes very crowded in the early afternoon. Visiting on two mornings in a row is better than making two visits in the same day. Mornings are the least crowded.

As for the mountain tickets (Huayna Picchu, Huchuy Picchu, or Machu Picchu Mountain), these are not the “best” tickets on their own, but they are essential if you want to do any of these hikes. This means they should be purchased as an additional ticket, not as your main/only ticket.  Sure, you could buy one of these mountain tickets as your main ticket, but because each of them only come with a Circuit 3 or 4 ticket, it means you’d be missing some key sights at MP, including the classic viewpoint.

We highly recommend Huayna Picchu MT as the top pick of these three mountain tickets, but it also sells out the fastest. Confused yet? All of this will become clearer as you read the following section.

What Are the Different Circuits?

First and foremost, I must point the Machu Picchu circuits have changed since they were first created, so even the maps on the official site right now are incorrect – probably a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.

Circuit #1

Circuit 1 is meant to be an abbreviated version of Circuit 2 (the best one). It is aimed at visitors who have limited walking ability or want a shorter visit, such as elderly of visitors to Machu Picchu with kids.

After entering the site, you will proceed to the Guardhouse (10 minutes uphill), which offers the famous or classic view of Machu Picchu. After that, you will see only about half of the Upper Ruins before taking a shortcut across the middle area to the Lower Ruins and finally exiting. Because of this shortcut, you miss the northern half of the site (often the right side on maps of Machu Picchu).

What will you see on Circuit 1?

If the shortcut ever reopens and Circuit 1 comes back someday, you will see the following: the Guardian House or classic Machu Picchu viewpoint (#1 or 2 on the official map, you can choose either, go for the higher one – #2), the Machu Picchu Main Entrance Gate, the Torreon viewpoint (#4) or Inca Quarry (#5 – you will have to choose one or the other when walking), and the House of Mirrors.

What will you miss on Circuit 1?

Since there currently is no Circuit 1, this does not apply. But if they ever reopen the shortcut to create Circuit 1 again, you must know that Circuit 1 misses the Torreon (Sun Temple, only possible to visit up close on Circuit 3, 4, 5), the Sacred Plaza and Temple of Three Windows, Intihuatana, Sacred Stone, and Temple of Condor.

If Circuit 1 does reopen, I only recommend this route for those who want to see the classic Machu Picchu viewpoint, but who don’t mind missing several other important areas of the site, perhaps because you want a shorter visit or have very limited time at Machu Picchu.

If you have mobility issues, then Circuit 3 (see below) would actually be best for you, because it omits Guardian House (the classic viewpoint), which required a 10-15 minute uphill hike.

Circuit #2 ( Best Machu Picchu Circuit )

Circuit 2 is widely considered the best Machu Picchu circuit. There are two options for booking it: Circuit 2 on its own, or Circuit 2 + Inca Bridge (the most complete option).

Circuit 2 begins the same was as Circuit 1, including the famous viewpoint at the beginning, and proceeding to the Upper Ruins. But instead of taking the shortcut, you continue along the Upper Ruins to the Sacred Plaza, then up some stairs to Intihuatana (only open from 7 AM to 10 AM, otherwise you will have to skip it!).

The circuit then goes all the way to Sacred Rock at northern end of the site before looping back. At the end of Circuit 2, you’ll only be able to visit one of Temple of Condor (10 AM to 1 PM) or Hall of Mirrors (before 10 AM or after 1 PM). This is really too bad, because both are cool.

If you have more than one Machu Picchu ticket, try to time it so you catch the Temple of Condor on one of your circuits, and the Hall of Mirrors on the other.

Every Machu Picchu circuit passes by these two areas at the end. So matter which Machu Picchu circuit you choose, you’ll only see Temple of Condor or Hall of Mirrors at the end, depending on the time.

What will you see on Circuit 2?

The Guardhouse or classic Machu Picchu viewpoint (#1 or 2 on the map, you can choose either, go for the higher one – #2), the Machu Picchu Main Entrance Gate, the Torreon viewpoint (#4) or Inca Quarry (#5 – you’ll have to choose one or the other when walking), Sacred Plaza and Temple of Three Windows, Intihuatana, Sacred Stone, and Temple of Condor (10 AM to 1 PM) or Hall of Mirrors (before 10 AM or after 1 PM).

What will you miss on Circuit 2?

Circuit 3 still misses a few things. You won’t get to see a close-up view of the Torreon (Sun Temple) and the cave (Royal Tomb) under it, the House of the Inka, and the Ceremonial Fountains. These three places can only be seen on Circuits 3, 4, and 5.

Circuit #3

Circuit 3 is an abbreviated Circuit that only visits the Lower Ruins and not the Upper Ruins of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, it is mandatory for anyone arriving at Machu Picchu to take Circuit 3 upon arrival, usually led by your Inca Trail tour guide.

While those arriving on the Inca Trail get to enjoy the classic Machu Picchu viewpoint before they exit Machu Picchu and then re-enter to do Circuit 3, those arriving to Machu Picchu by bus would miss the classic viewpoint if they chose Circuit 3.

You should only choose Circuit 3 if you have mobility issues and aren’t able to walk up to the classic viewpoint (a 10-15-minute uphill walk for able bodied people).

So, if you are coming to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, you must know that you are going to be walking on an inferior circuit that misses several key places at Machu Picchu. On the plus side, it does include a few cool spots that Circuit 2 doesn’t.

For this reason, if you really want to see all of Machu Picchu, then we recommend you get a second (or possibly even third ticket) for your visit. I recommend getting an additional Circuit 2 ticket for the places you’ll miss, PLUS you’ll need to get a Circuit 4 ticket if you want to hike Huayna Picchu or Huchuy Picchu.

What will you see on Circuit 3?

On Circuit 3, instead of walking up to the classic viewpoint at the beginning, the trail cuts straight across some colcas (Inca storehouses) and terraces to the Middle Area of Machu Picchu (the field between the Upper and Lower ruins). From there, you get to see the Ceremonial Fountains (#7), Torreon (Sun Temple, #5) and cave (Royal Tomb) below it, and House of the Inca (#6). These sights are actually at the base of the Upper Ruins.

If the shortcut reopens in the future, then after the House of the Inka, Circuit 3 will then go directly down to House of Mirrors before exiting the site.

If the shortcut is still closed like when I visited, Circuit 3 will proceed to the far northern end of the site (Sacred Rock), then turn back and visit either Temple of Condor (10 AM to 1 PM) or House of Mirrors (before 10 AM or after 1 PM) before exiting.   

What will you miss on Circuit 3?

Most importantly, Circuit 3 does NOT include the classic Machu Picchu viewpoint from Guardian House. But if you’re coming in on the Inca Trail, you will get to see the viewpoint before starting your Circuit 3 tour.

Circuit 3 also misses the Main Entrance Gate to Machu Picchu, the Inca Quarry or Torreon Viewpoint, Sacred Plaza and Temple of Three Windows, and Intihuatana.

If the shortcut reopens, Circuit 3 also misses Sacred Rock and Temple of Condor. If the shortcut is closed like when I visited, it will include Sacred Rock and only one of Temple of Condor (10 AM to 1 PM) or House of Mirrors (before 10 AM or after 1 PM).

Circuit #4

The only people who should buy Circuit 4 tickets are those who want to hike to the summit of Huayna Picchu or Huchuy Picchu, the taller/shorter mountains at the northern end of Machu Picchu, the ones backing the site in classic Machu Picchu photos.

The main purpose of Circuit 4 is to get you to this hike. You actually get to see a fair bit of Machu Picchu on the way. As of 2023, Circuit 3 actually follows the route of Circuit 4. As I explained above, the shortcut that should make Circuit 3 shorter was closed when I visited, so there was no difference between Circuits 3 and 4. In other words, because Circuits 3 and 4 are the same thing, if you have tickets for each of these circuits, you are essentially only buying that extra Circuit 4 ticket just to add on the side hike to Huayna Picchu or Huchuy Picchu.

This is very important, because if you have more than one Machu Picchu ticket, it means you should time your Circuit 4 ticket to be around the time that you’d be passing Sacred Rock.

So, let’s say you bought the earliest Circuit 2 ticket (6 AM) and actually enter Machu Picchu at 6 AM, meaning you caught the first bus of the day from Aguas Calientes at 5:30. After entering Machu Picchu, it might take you about 1.5 hours to get to Sacred Rock, arriving around 7:30 AM. Therefore, you’d want to buy a Circuit 4 ticket for 7 to 8 AM.

If you purchase a Circuit 4 ticket only, note that choosing a time of 7 to 8 AM allows you to enter Machu Picchu from 6 to 7 AM, and you’re supposed to start your Huayna Picchu (or Huchuy Picchu) hike anytime from 7 to 8 AM.

There is some leniency in these times, but that is what is intended. I will further explain the ticket timings, with more examples, in the next section below.  

What will you see on Circuit 4?

Everything I described for Circuit 3 (non-shortcut version) AND you get to hike to the summit of Huayna Picchu or Huchuy Picchu.

What will you miss on Circuit 4?

Same as what I described for Circuit 3 (non-shortcut version).


Circuit 5

The fifth and final Machu Picchu circuit is Circuit 5. we believe this route was added sometime in 2022, because I don’t remember it being there when I first started planning my trip, but then suddenly it was there one day.

The only people who need to think about Circuit 5 are those who will arrive at Machu Picchu via the 1-day, 2-day, or 5-day Inca Trails. All three of these treks are different than the classic 4-day trek because they involve sleeping in Aguas Calientes for one night, then visiting Machu Picchu by bus the next morning.

I’m really not sure why they did this. Essentially, all of these visitors are being robbed of the classic Machu Picchu viewpoint. For all three of these treks, what happens is that you will get to see Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) the day before. This Machu Picchu view is pretty cool, but it’s from much further away than the classic viewpoint.

After that, you go to sleep in a hotel in Aguas Calientes, take a bus to Machu Picchu the next morning with the tourist masses, and then go on a Circuit that is virtually identical to Circuit 3. In other words, it misses the famous Machu Picchu viewpoint from the Guardhouse, and unlike those on the 4-Day Inca Trail trek, you won’t get to see it before you start your circuit.

For this reason, we believe the classic 4-Day Inca Trail trek is the best one. If you’ve already booked one of the others, and Circuit 5 is what you’ve got, then you will want to consider buying an additional 1 or 2 Machu Picchu tickets like I did (I recommend buying Circuit 2 so you can see the classic viewpoint, plus one of the mountain tickets, such as Huayna Picchu, if you want to do one of those hikes).

If you look closely at the official maps, there are some small differences between the routes of Circuits 3 and 5. Notably, Circuit 5 seems to have an extra walk down to the Three Towers (#8, Conjunto Tres Portadas). However, when I visited in 2023, the path to Three Towers was closed, so Circuit 5 is virtually identical to Circuit 3.

Moreover, since the shortcut from Upper to Lower ruins is closed, Circuit 5 will now go all the way to Sacred Rock at the end, just like I described for Circuit 3.

What will you see on Circuit 5?

Circuit 5 is virtually identical to Circuits 3 and 4 (but not including the Huayna Picchu or Huchuy Picchu hikes of course), so see my descriptions of those.

What will you miss on Circuit 5?

See my descriptions of Circuits 3 and 4. Notably, you won’t get to see the famous Machu Picchu viewpoint.

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