Machu Picchu in the early morning before the hordes arrive from Aguas Calientes by train/bus. Huayna Picchu peak towers behind the complex, demanding a final, must-climb effort – which is definitely worthwhile. Photo by Martin St Amant.
Why visit Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is the most intact South American ‘lost city’ ever found, an Inca summer resort village unknown to the Spanish conquistadors and discovered (by the world) in 1911. It’s a staggeringly beautiful setting on a table-top mountain encircled by spectacular Andean peaks and the Urubamba river, but also offers some brilliant Inca stonework and snapshots of Inca life.
Not easy to reach whether you take the Inca Trail high road for three days or an early train from Cusco followed by a bus from Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), the sight of Machu Picchu is magnificent and probably the best ancient site in the world for location.
This is also a grand place to hang out, write diaries, climb every viewpoint, wander in wonder, contemplate the universe, catch some sun, torment llamas, what you will – but it needs more than a few hours, and needs them early in the morning before the train arrives and the video-toting Italians hit the ticket gate.
Machu Picchu, original photo by Martin St Amant. Inti Punku, Sun Gate, is where Inca Trail hikers get their first sight of Machu Picchu. If you go to MP by train take a walk at least up to Inti Punku to get a taste of the Trail.
What was Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu’s residential district. Photo by Christophe Meneboeuf.
Original thatched roofs – apart from a replica or two – are long gone but the metre thick stone walls of all kinds of buildings from palaces to pissoirs still stand, demanding a lot more time than the usual day-return tourist trip.
Machu Picchu, the ‘lost city of the Incas’, was was probably a summer holiday resort for upper-class or royal Incas, built around 1430 and used by less than 800 Inca glitterati at a time for less than 100 years.
The Spanish conquest terminated the Inca Empire and the raison d’etre for Machu Pichu but amazingly the Spanish never found the city, probably because the route there from Cusco was unimpressively narrow and circuitous, as the Inca Trail still is.
The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How to visit Machu Picchu
The Peruvian tourist authorities have now imposed a restriction on Machu Picchu travel in order to improve the visitor experience and reduce the environmental impact of overwhelming numbers on this gorgeous ancient city. Machu Picchu now hosts 2,500 visitors every day.
Tourists traveling to this ‘lost’ Inca city in the Andes mountains now require a ticket for either a morning visit (6am-midday) or afternoon (midday-5.30pm). It is possible to buy tickets for both sessions, but at a price of course.
So forward planning is now needed for booking a hike on the Inca Trail and for a wander around the spectacular ancient site, though both will be all the better for lower numbers of tourists.
Tickets may be booked online at the official site.
Best seasons to visit
The dry season is definitely the best time to visit this extraordinary destination. Low cloud is not unusual even in summertime but choose the rainy season and you may be lucky to see the dripping and ponchoed figure in front of you let alone the magnificent panorama that is the point of the place! Not to mention the waterlogged cameras, slippery rocks and damp, disconsolate queues.
The best season for Machu Picchu travel is May-October, the dry season with warm, sunny days, highs around 20-25C/68F but chilly, near zero nights (it is winter after all! ). BUT, avoid the serious crowds by going May, June, September, October.
November-March is the wet season, with especially heavy rain December-February.
The best Inca structures in Machu Picchu
The Temple of the Three Windows. Photo by McKay Savage.
• the Room (Temple) of Three Windows
• the Sun Temple
• the Intihuatana stone
Otherwise the buildings tend to be very well constructed but less interesting. After the quality of stonework – that we saw before in Cusco – what really grabs the visitor’s attention here is the amazing location and ambience. The perfectly tranquil setting (tourist herds apart! ) on a tabletop mountain, circled by a river and a chain of mountain peaks, this is the epitome of picturesque. On a sunny day sights don’t get any better than this. Anywhere.
The Temple of the Sun. Photo by C T Johansson.
Below the Temple of the Sun, the so-called Royal Tomb. Photo by C T Johansson.
Intiwatana (Intihuatana) Sun Calendar/Solar Clock. Photo by Jim Stevenson.
Climbing Huayna Picchu
The reasonably easy climb/hike up to the top of Huayna Picchu’s peak is an absolute must for the awesome view over the lost city and surrounding mountains, as well as a good way to escape the crowds of wallies videoing each other attempting to cuddle llamas below. BUT. . . you must reserve a spot at the entry gate, with 200 places on offer at 7 a. m. , another 200 at 10 a. m, with some entire tour groups jumping the queue (permitted).
A brief history of the discovery of Machu Picchu
One of the world’s most remarkable archaeological sites, Machu Picchu was built about 1450 AD by the Incas and discovered by American archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911, though the current thinking is that – with the knowledge and assistance of the Peruvian government – a German adventurer/mining prospector, Augusto Berns, found and looted the site in the late 1800s.
Some of Berns’ papers from 1887 described ‘significant rustic buildings. . . closed with stones, some of them carved, which will undoubtedly contain objects of great value, and form part of those treasures of the Incas. ‘
Berns’ paperwork also showed that he had permission from the Peruvian authorities to ‘exploit an Inca huaca’ (sacred place) and Berns’ maps of the area support the Machu Picchu discovery theory.
Bingham found various interesting artefacts there, mummies, ceramics and so on, but nothing of intrinsic value, and in fact mentioned ‘one mining prospector’ in his book, Inca Land.
How to get to Machu Picchu?
The Inca Bridge, fortunately not part of the Inca Trail but a different route running west from Machu Picchu. The drop on the right is 1, 900ft (about 600metres). Photo by Martin St-Amant.
Machu Picchu is only accessible by train from Cusco and Ollantaytambo or on foot via the 2-4 day Inca Trail (Camino des Incas). The latter is by far the best way to reach the site and an incredibly spectacular walk even without the stunning arrival at Inti Punku.
Buses from Aguas Calientes
A short and very wiggly road runs from the village and train terminus of Aguas Calientes, 6kms to Machu Picchu entry gate. Buses takes train passengers and those staying over in Aguas Calientes up the hill to the site, apart from the few very tough hikers who choose to walk the distance.
The first bus leaves from Aguas Calientes at 5. 30 am and the trip takes about half an hour, but the queuing each way could be 1-2 hours. Throw in the line to enter the site and possibly the line to climb Huanay Picchu and you could be standing in line for hours a day. So try to travel to Peru slightly off season!
Machu Picchu Accommodation
There is one seriously expensive hotel, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge at the top of the zig-zag approach road to Machu Picchu. The lodge is next to the site giving excellent, uncrowded early-morning access. Machu Pichu gates open at 6 am but the first train tourists arrive at 9. 30 am giving the affluent a superb, quiet couple of hours of wandering, though early rising backpackers staying in Aguas Calientes may join the lonely as a cloud wanderers. The Lodge is overpriced but worth splashing out on as it’s extremely comfortable and convenient.
Jim: “Can’t recommend the lodge because of the price, but everything is included. Going back into the park by yourself is awesome and only if you stay in the lodge can you guarantee to be (more or less) on your own.
Also the outdoor Jacuzzi in the lodge has the best view of Machu Picchu and has a built-in phone so you can order a pitchu of pisco sours. No where else can you get this view of the ruins while you sip Peruvian cocktails. ”
Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo
Aguas Calientes, photo by C T Johansson.
Jim: “I was very happy to do the walk and not just get the bus up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, arriving from that side you don’t see Machu Picchu because it’s above you, you just arrive in it. So many buses, its a shame. “
Alternatively, for normal mortals there are guest houses, small hotels, restaurants and hot springs not far from the rail station at Aguas Calientes, about six kms away.
The biggest pain about Aguas Calientes (officially known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) is the waiting time for buses to and from Machu Pichu.