Explore Machu Picchu, Peru
Explore Machu Picchu which is the site of an ancient Inca city, high in the Andes of Peru. Located at 2,430m, this UNESCO World Heritage site is often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”. It’s one of the most familiar symbols of the Incan Empire and also one of the most famous and spectacular sets of ruins in the world. A visit to Peru would not be complete without seeing it, but this can be very expensive and crowded.
These remarkable ruins became known to the scientific world in 1911, after the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham was led to the site by locals. Perched dramatically 1000 feet above the Urubamba river, Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also the end point of the most popular hikes in South America, the Inca Trail.
The story of Machu Picchu is quite a remarkable one; it is still unknown exactly what the site was in terms of its place in Inca life. Current researchers tend to believe that Machu Picchu was a country resort for elite Incas. At any given time, there were no more than 750 people living at Machu Picchu, with far fewer than that during the rainy season. The Incas started building it around 1430AD, but it was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a hundred years later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.
One thing that is clear is that it was a remarkably well hidden place, and well protected. Located far up in the mountains of Peru, visitors had to travel up long valleys littered with Inca check points and watch towers. Remarkably, the Spanish conquistadors missed the site. However, many people are said to have knowledge of the ancient city as it was referred to in some text found in the 20th century; even so, it was not until Bingham that Machu Picchu was scientifically discovered (he was on a trip sponsored by the Yale University, actually looking for Vilcabamba, the last Inca hideout).
Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place.
Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its primary buildings are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu. In September 2007, Peru and Yale University reached an agreement regarding the return of artifacts which Hiram Bingham had removed from Machu Picchu in the early twentieth century.
Flora and fauna
Both are abundant and varied. Typical plant life in the historic reserve of Machu Picchu includes pisonayes, q’eofias, alisos, puya palm trees, ferns and more than 90 species of orchids.
The fauna in the reserve includes the spectacled bear, cock-of-the-rocks or “tunqui”, tankas, wildcats and an impressive variety of butterflies and insects unique in the region.
The lay of the land, the natural surroundings and the strategic location of Machu Picchu lend this monument a fusion of beauty, harmony and balance between the work of the ancient Peruvians and the whims of nature.
Machu Picchu is located on a mountain ledge, a couple of hundred meters above the valley and river. There is no direct way to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco, and you will have to use a combination of transport to get there, unless you walk the entire way. There is a road as far as Ollantaytambo from Cusco, and a railway from Poroy (near Cusco) via Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu then lies at the top of the mountain above Aguas Calientes (now officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo). A road goes up the mountain from Aguas Calientes. There is no public road access to Aguas Calientes from Cusco or Ollantaytambo.
There are a few ways to reach Machu Picchu. Most tourists either hike the Inca Trail, Alternative hike, Train or by car.
Machu Picchu Ticket : You must have a ticket which are available online in advance or from various ticket offices described on that website. Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate and are limited to 2500 per day, there are two times to visit Machu Picchu, (first group: 6:00, second group: 12:00 or 12:00 to 17:00) with entrance to Huayna Picchu and Montana Machu Picchu each being further limited to 400. During peak times of the year, tickets can sell out days in advance.
On foot via the Inca Trail
Hiking the Inca Trail is a great way to arrive as you first see the city through the Sun Gate (instead of arriving from below as you do from Aguas Calientes). Both the four-day and two-day hikes are controlled by the government. Travellers should be fit enough to walk for days and sleep in tents. Every traveller needs to travel with a tour agency because of the rules and regulations of entering the park.
The Peruvian government has imposed a 500 person pass limit per day on Inca Trail traffic. Passes do sell out far in advance, particularly for the high season. Travellers must have a valid passport in order to purchase a pass at the time of reservation. Many local tour operators have since opened up alternate trekking options that allow for similar trekking opportunities in the area. Most visit other Inca ruins, not as well excavated, and finish with the train trip up to see Machu Picchu at the end. One such option is the Choquequirao Trek, which starts in Cachora and ends in Salkantay or the Cachiccata Trek (Inca Quarry Trail) which starts in Raccha and ends in Cachiccata.
Alternative treks to Machu Picchu
There are also other options available for hiking to Machu Picchu. This is important to know as the Inca Trail hike is limited in the amount of people that can go on it each day, including porters. As such, there is a much steeper price on that trek and it is necessary to book far in advance to get a place on the dates you will be there.
By bus from Aguas Calientes
Most people will choose to take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, as the walk is long and hard, and seldom with good views.
Machu Picchu is by car, but the “backdoor” route they use is also an option for independent travellers wishing to go-it-alone. Minivans and buses are cheap from “Terminal Santiago” in Cusco.
The wet season in Peru is from November (often only really taking off in December) until the end of March, so then it is best to include a few extra days for flexibly dealing with delays.
From Aguas Calientes, there are two ways to reach the ruins: by bus or walking.
Depending on when you arrive, the site may be quite crowded or nearly deserted. The busiest periods are in the dry season (June-August), with the slowest being in February, the height of the rainy season, when the Inca Trail is closed. Most visitors arrive on package tours and are in the park between 10:00 and 14:00. All visitors must leave Machu Picchu by 17:00
On foot from Aguas Calientes
From Aguas Calientes to get to the ruins themselves it is also possible to walk along a similar 8km route that the buses run, which will take about 1-2 hours up, and around an hour back down. This route is mainly stairs, connecting the switchbacks that the buses take. It is a strenuous and long hike but is very rewarding, recommended to start around 05:00 when the gate at the bridge opens (it takes around 20 minutes to walk from Aguas Calientes to the bridge (where a checkpoint is in place to verify that hikers already have entrance tickets), so there is little use in starting from Aguas Calientes earlier than 04.40), to make it to the top before sunrise. The descent is fairly easy; just take care when the steps are wet. Keep alert for the bus drivers that rarely brake for pedestrians.
To buy your tickets:
The current fee schedule and online tickets should be available at the official government website and from ticket offices listed on that website. It is a 3 step process: Reservation, payment then ticketing. Unfortunately, the reservation page only works properly in Spanish (not in English) so make sure you click on the Espanol flag before you click Step 3. Online payment can only be made using VISA (not MasterCard) and has a processing fee of 4.2%.
You can also buy and pay your ticket directly at the ticket office in Aguas Calientes (open 05:30 – 20:30) or Cusco but NEVER at the Machu Picchu entrance.
Only 2,500 people are allowed to enter Machu Picchu each day. The government website (http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/) lists how many tickets are available for each day. In the low season it should not be a problem and you should be able to buy your ticket at the last minute. During high season it fills up quickly and you might need to buy your ticket in advance. Both, the park entrance and the bus ticket, display your name and ID so they are not interchangeable with other people.
The number of visitors climbing each of the mountains is restricted to 400 a day. Huayna Picchu is not as high and easier and therefore more popular. Tickets for it might sell out more than a week in advance in high season. Montaña is higher and more difficult, but the views are actually better. Tickets for it sometimes sell out. You can check the availability for any, at any time on the website.
When preparing your budget, do not forget to include train tickets and bus tickets.
Officially, you are not allowed to bring food inside, but no one checks backpacks. If you bring it in a transparent plastic bag, they will ask you to store it at the entrance. Officially, disposable plastic bottles are not allowed either, but no one seems to care about this. Again, it is best to carry everything in the backpack. In the rush at the entrance they don’t have time to check everyone. There are no trashcans inside the park, only at the gate.
Students get a 50% discount of all entrance tickets. You need to show an ISIC card. Non ISIC cards are usually refused. You can try to argue but good luck, they don’t really care! – the staff, especially at the ticket office in Aguas Calientes, can be quite arrogant and they really want your money anyway.
Be sure to bring your passport, as it is requested upon entry. There’s a popular stamp booth as you exit where you can prove to your friends you’ve been there, although it is technically illegal for the citizens of many countries to mark their own passports.
Only small packs are allowed in the park (no more than 20L), but there is a luggage storage at the entrance mostly used by Inca Trailers.
There are no vehicles of any kind in the park, bring some comfortable walking shoes, especially if you plan to do any of the hikes such as Wayna Picchu. No walking sticks are allowed, but this rule is rarely enforced. The main ruins are fairly compact and easily walk able.
Take your time walking around the site, as there are many places to see and explore. Although it is not necessary, taking a guided tour does provide a deeper insight into the ancient city, its uses, and information on the geography of it. Keep in mind that relatively little is known about the history and use of the ruins, and some of the stories told by the guides are based on little more than imaginative hearsay. Guides always wait at the entrance.
Sun Gate (Inti Punku) – if you’ve just arrived via the Inka Trail, this will be your first experience of the ruins. Others can backtrack from the ruins along the trail and up the hill. From here you can see back down each valley offering excellent views. It’s a fairly strenuous hike (probably 1-1.5 hours each way) but well worth it. If you catch the first bus from Aguas Calientes and head straight here you may be able to reach it in time for sun to peek over the mountain and through the gate.
Temple of the Sun – Near the summit of the main city, the stonework on the temple is incredible. Look closely and you will see that there are a variety of stone walls throughout the city. Most are rough stones held together with mud, the common stone walls found throughout the world. But many buildings or parts of buildings are done with the more distinctive and impressive closely-fit stonework. The temple is the absolute pinnacle of this technology. Observe it from the side, descending the stone staircase in the main plaza.
Intihuatana – A stone carved so that on certain days, at dawn, the sun makes a certain shadow, thus working as a sun dial. From Quechua: Inti = sun, huatana = to take, grab: thus grabbing (measuring) the sun.
Temple of the Three Windows and Main Temple are thought to be the main ceremonial sites in the old citadel. They are quite central and fairly well preserved.
Temple of the Condor – The tour guides will try to tell you that this was a temple, but look closely: between the wings of the condor is a chamber with grooves cut in the stone to secure manacles, a walkway behind where a torturer may have walked to whip the prisoners’ backs, and a scary looking pit to let the blood of prisoners drain. Clearly the condor was a symbol of cruel justice, but a sanitized version is told for the benefit of middle-aged tourists and their children.
What to do in Machu Picchu, Peru
If you have some energy in you, there are a few great hikes involving a bit of legwork. Do make sure that you’ve taken the time to acclimate to the elevation either in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes for a couple days before exerting yourself too much, especially on Wayna Picchu.
Wayna Picchu. Towering above the south end of Machu Picchu is this steep mountain, often the backdrop to many photos of the ruins. It looks a bit daunting from below, but while steep, it’s not an unusually difficult ascent, and most reasonably fit persons shouldn’t have a problem. Stone steps are laid along most of the path, and in the steeper sections steel cables provide a supporting handrail. That said, expect to be out of breath, and take care in the steeper portions, especially when wet, as it can become dangerous quickly. There’s a tiny cave near the top that must be passed through, it is quite low and a rather tight squeeze. Take care at the peak, it can be somewhat precarious, and those afraid of heights may want to hang out just below. The entire walk is through beautiful landscape, and the views from the top are stunning, including birds’ eye views over the whole site. There are also a few ruins near the top. If visiting these ruins, you’ll see a second way to start making your descent down the mountain, along some very steep and shallow steps…. these steps are a bit dangerous if wet, but the hike may be well worthwhile. This hike is one of your best bets for getting away from Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu crowds. You need a specific, more expensive ticket to climb it. Only 400 people allowed per day to climb the mountain, split into two groups. Group one enters 07:00-08:00 and is told to be back by 11:00. Group 2 enters around 9-10am
If you have some time at hand, or long for a sparkle of solitude, you can also walk to the Moon Temple (Templo de la Luna) and the Great Cave (Gran Caverne). It’s a long walk and adventurous hike involving several ladders. Some may find that the sites aren’t really rewarding, but unexpected wildlife can be seen (wild spectacled bears have been reported). This hike is also quite interesting because partway through you leave behind the mountain terrain and enter a more conventional forest. The caves can be reached either by hiking down the trail from the peak of Waynapicchu (which includes some semi-harrowing but fun near-vertical descents) or by the split from the main Waynapicchu trail (look for the sign that says Gran Carern). Remember that it is much easier to descend from Waynapicchu than to ascend from these temples. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks for this long hike. The hike from the summit to the caves and back to the checkpoint takes about two more hours.
What to eat
Officially, you are not allowed to bring any food or plastic bottles into the park, and must check these in at the luggage storage at the entrance. In practice, however, bags are rarely searched, and most people have no problem getting a bottle of water and some snacks in with them, which you’ll definitely want, especially if you’re planning to stray from the central set of ruins. Buy these beforehand, as they’re much more expensive at the site itself. Don’t even think of leaving a shred of trash behind you.
The concession stand near the entrance of the site is appropriately overpriced given their captive audience. Once in the site, there is no food or drinks for sale, though it is possible to leave and return.
Alternative Treks to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is a world heritage site, very popular, very well marketed and indeed situated in a place of exceptional natural beauty. This is where the good news ends. On the other hand, it can be extremely expensive to visit (most of the time you will be treated as a walking ATM), it can be very crowded, very touristy, much of the staff around the site and in Aguas Calientes look like it’s a long time since they last smiled and they can be very arrogant. Many people therefore choose not to visit. Below are some alternatives. If you are interested in Inca ruins, try those around Cuzco, Ollantaytambo and the excellent Choquequirao. If you still go to Aguas Calientes, but decide not to pay for the entrance to Machu Picchu, you can climb Cerro Putukusi Putucusi is on the same side of the river as Machu Picchu Pueblo. Follow the train tracks a very short distance away from town in the direction of Santa Teresa and Machu Picchu (downhill from town) you will shortly come across a trail on your right heading uphill. (If you come to a train tunnel, you’ve gone too far.) This trail leads to the summit, approximately 2620 meters above sea level. It is the mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu. The trail includes a lot of steps and a steep, near-vertical passage where you have to climb. Therefore, the track is only doable for physically fit persons! The summit offers amazing views of Machu Picchu if it’s a clear day. Always inquire about the condition at the tourist information office in Aguas Calientes before you go, as rain and landslide can damage the path. Allow about 1,5h each way and make sure you’ll be out before it gets dark. Wear long pants to avoid insect bites and take enough water. It´s best to arrive there in the morning, as sun set is behind the ruins.
Also, the branch of the Salkantay trek that ends in Hidroelectrica, has good views of MP from further away and some ruins, where you can camp and enjoy the view to MP.