How Many Days Should You Spend at Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is among South America's (or the world's, for that matter!) greatest sights: a stunning Inca citadel straddling a mountain ridge in the Andes. You don't want to rush seeing this. For many, this is the highlight of a trip to Peru, and generally speaking, the more time you allow for visiting, the better your experience will be.
The shortest possible time for a visit is half a day. This is doable if, for example, you are staying in Ollantaytambo or even Cusco and want to see the ruins and be back in your base by the end of the day, and allows for the 2.5-hour (from Ollantaytambo) or 4.5-hour (from Cusco) journey. This will be something of a whirlwind tour, and you would only see the sights in the main part of the ruin complex (and you would not escape the crowds).
A full day visit is better, and doable if you are staying in Aguas Calientes and leave early to ascend to the ruins. One day is a perfect amount of time to spend at Machu Picchu citadel itself, and allows for one (or both) of the fantastic and less busy hikes up to Wayna Picchu and to Machu Picchu Mountain, as well as enjoying in detail everything in the main ruin complex.
Two days plus in the area, and you can also consider adding on a longer hike in addition to the above (there is no need to spend a second day at the main citadel). These range from the easy 'Back Door to Machu Picchu' hike taking just a couple of hours from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes through to epic treks such as the 5-day Salkantay trek.
The greater your efforts in getting to Machu Picchu, the more time you may want to spend in the area after arrival. There are tons more outdoor activities right on Machu Picchu's doorstep, thermal springs to soak in at Santa Teresa, ancient Inca towns to hang out in along the beautiful route from Cusco, such as Ollantaytambo and almost year-round, one community or other will be having a festival of some kind: think traditional food, live music, dancing and lots of drinking.
See this Ultimate Guide to Machu Picchu for more information on what you need to know before making a visit here.
Machu Picchu in Half a Day
Time is not on your side with such a quick visit; however, a brief look around Machu Picchu is better than none. Maximize your time by beating the crowds that come by mid-morning: you will be able to cover ground more rapidly as you explore everything you can.
Highlights include the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock, the perfect place to get a view of the whole complex, the extraordinary Ceremonial Baths, the Sacred Plaza and Intihuatana, a rock pillar thought to have been used by the Inca to make astronomical predictions. Bear in mind that with such limited time your visit is likely to be frenetic, as you struggle to beat the crowds and see everything you want to see while wondering whether you have enough time to make your bus or train connections back.
Machu Picchu in 1 Day
If you are concerned only with seeing the Machu Picchu citadel (i.e. the ruins you see in all the photographs, with the iconic mountain of Wayna Picchu behind) a day is plenty of time. It takes the pressure off, allows for pauses to take pictures, picnic and absorb the spiritual feel of the place.
You'll also have more of a chance to find a quiet, crowd-free part of the complex. Try one of the two permitted hikes at the citadel itself, either the shorter more popular clamber up Wayna Picchu or the longer less crowded hike up Machu Picchu Mountain. Both hikes give superb views of the verdant, mountainous surrounds.
Machu Picchu in 2 Days
With two days, you can afford to relax a little. While there is not time to attempt one of the more famous treks to Machu Picchu, there are shorter hikes in the area you can do.
Try the "Back Door to Machu Picchu." This trek starts from Santa Teresa, which conveniently has some superb natural thermal springs to bathe in, and takes 2-3 hours to arrive at Aguas Calientes. Or try the 3-hour walk to Putucusi from Aguas Calientes, from where there are sensational views across to Machu Picchu from a rarely seen perspective. The other day should be spent as per above.
Machu Picchu in 4-7 Days
This amount of time is perfect for a long, detailed look around Machu Picchu citadel with a multi-day trek to this ancient ruin as the dramatic prequel.
Most of the well-known treks to Machu Picchu can be completed in this time period, from the classic guided hike, the main Inca Trail, to other treks that can be done independently, such as the Lares Trek (3 days) which mixes mountain scenery with the culture of the region, passing several traditional villages, or the Salkantay Trek (4-5 days), with incredible terrain variety including vertiginous mountain passes and jungle. See here for more on the Lares trek or Salkantay trek.
A day spent at the ruins is in addition to the times quoted here for the treks. That said, you would still have time free after completing either to explore not only Machu Picchu but also one of the pretty Sacred Valley towns like Ollantaytambo in a week-long adventure.
Machu Picchu in 7+ Days
Going for over a week really allows you to experience the Machu Picchu region in detail. You could tackle one of the longer hikes, or even the epic 7-day trek from Cachora which passes the fabulous ruins at Choquequirao on a 7-day remote trail to Machu Picchu.
In two weeks, for example, after the Choquequirao Trek you would still have time afterward for doing everything at the citadel site itself and even one of the other shorter surrounding treks at Machu Picchu, such as the hike to Putucusi from Aguas Calientes.
On the way to Cusco, you would have time for lingering in the pretty Inca-built towns of Ollantaytambo and Pisac, both with astonishing Inca ruins of their own. You would be able to see other remoter ruins such the amphitheater-like site of Moray, and bathe in some of the natural thermal pools in the Sacred Valley. Then there would be time to visit colorful markets like Pisac's, buy beautiful traditional handicrafts at villages like Patabamba and attend some of the many festivities the valley is famous for—all at a lovely, leisurely pace.