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The magnificent Machu Picchu archaeological site, perched atop a mountain overlooking the Urubamba Valley in Peru, also sits at the top of every traveller’s bucket list.

But since officials implemented a daily cap of 2,500 visitors in mid-2011 to protect and preserve the transcendent City of the Incas, it is highly advisable to secure tickets ahead of time -- especially during the high season of May to early September.

Despite Machu Picchu’s popularity, however, the process for securing tickets online is far from streamlined and user-friendly. 

The most direct way is to purchase tickets on the official government website, but this transaction requires a Visa credit card that has been “verified by Visa”, a free security feature that needs to be activated and is not available through all Visa credit card suppliers. Even with this service, a number of people encounter issues with the fickle site, detailed in full frustration on a multitude of online forums. In fact, the site is currently not accepting payments since detecting a high level of credit card fraud in those attempting to purchase tickets online using fake credit cards. There is no official word on when the site will be working again. As an alternative, hopeful visitors can reserve their tickets on the official government website, print out the reservation and pay in person at any national branch of the Banco de la Nación de Peru, located throughout the country.

Those travelling with an organised tour largely avoid the headache of attempting to navigate the ticket website, but it is a wise idea to double-check with your tour organiser that tickets have been purchased ahead of time. When the quota was first enacted, some unwitting providers arrived at the entrance with buses full of tourists and were unable to enter because they had not purchased tickets ahead of time. It is not possible to buy tickets at the site entrance.

Independent travellers can also contact a tour operator solely to purchase tickets, or reserve tickets through one of the many hotels that dot the rural Sacred Valley between the city of Cusco and the town of Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. Arranging tickets this way often comes with an additional service charge, but it is an appealing option for the financially risk-averse or those without the “verified by Visa” security service enacted on their credit card. General admission to Machu Picchu runs 126 soles.

While it might help put travellers at ease — especially those investing heftily in flights — to have their Machu Picchu tickets in hand before departing for Peru, it does not mean those who arrive in the country without them will be locked out of visiting. Those travelling on a more open schedule, or rather those who do not have a specific date pinpointed to make it up the mountain, can purchase their tickets in person at the Instituto de Cultural Nacional de Cusco located off the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, as well as the Machu Picchu Cultural Center in Aguas Calientes.

For those planning to take the days-long Inca Trail hike, which starts in the Sacred Valley between Cusco and Aguas Calientes and concludes at Machu Picchu, a limited number of permits – 500 per day including all tourists, guides and support employees -- are available and must be arranged through tour operators, including Andean Treks, Mountain Travel Sobek and Peru Sur Nativa. It is important to confirm that your tour operator has the necessary governmental license to guide groups on the trail -- this can be verified on the official Machu Picchu website (click on “Consultas” or “Queries” and then “Agencias” or “Travel Agency”). Furthermore, intrepid visitors looking to climb Huayna Picchu the prominent peak towering over the site, and the crown of Machu Picchu , must purchase a separate ticket along with their general site admission for a total of 150 soles, which includes standard access to the Machu Picchu site. These tickets also are capped at 400 per day and often sell out farther ahead of time than the standard tickets.

To round out the advance planning, it is also advisable to purchase train tickets to Aguas Calientes in advance, which is how most tourists arrive. The two major train operators who run to the Aguas Calientes station are Peru Rail and Inca Rail, though to purchase tickets online both require a “verified by Visa” card. Tourists also can buy tickets in-person at the stations scattered throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and it is recommended to do so a few days ahead of time in order to secure tickets for the required dates.

And as with most processes in South America, keep in mind that in Peru things move at a leisurely, relaxed pace. Still, taking the extra steps and approaching the process patiently will be worth it once standing atop Machu Picchu.

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