It’s easy to see why Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. It was our primary reason for wanting visit to Peru (although during our trip we discovered so many amazing places including the Amazonian jungle) and we had high expectations. We weren’t disappointed. A visit to Machu Picchu was an ambition fulfilled.
How To Get to Machu Picchu
There are several ways to visit Machu Picchu. The most famous is probably the hike along the Inca Trail. The Incas built an intricate and sophisticated network of trails throughout their enormous empire that encompassed Quito (Ecuador) in the north to Santiago (Chile) in the west and to Mendoza (Argentina) in the east. The trails ran to around 40,000km. But the best known trail is that which runs approximately 43km from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu via the sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna. You can’t just turn up with your walking boots and rucksack – you have to book via a tour operator who is both registered and owns a licence. Access to the trail is controlled and can get extremely busy – up to 500 people, including porters, make the trip each day. High season runs from April until October and it is usually worth booking well in advance. The classic four day Inca Trail starts at a place called Km82 (82 km along the railway track that runs between Cusco and Machu Picchu). It reaches a maximum altitude of 4200m so it is really important to have acclimatised fully before attempting the hike. Some operators offer a shorter trek, about 15km, which starts much closer to Machu Picchu, and can usually be completed within a day.
An alternative approach is to travel from the Cusco area, Urubmaba or Ollantaytambo by train. Again, it’s worth getting help with the transport arrangements and ticketing from a tour operator. There are a number of options depending on your budget, from the relatively cheap to the downright decadent. Some trains are for Peruvian visitors only, so that local people can visit their country’s most famous attraction. We travelled on the mid-range Vistadome from Poyroy, a station located around 20 minutes from Cusco. It was an early start and the trip took around three and a half hours to arrive at the valley. A light meal and drinks were provided on the way and the views were stunning.
Transportation will be waiting close to the station when you arrive and you will need to buy a ticket to catch a bus that will take you up a road with an inordinate number of hairpin bends to the entrance, on a journey that takes around half an hour. You need to have a ticket for entry to Machu Picchu and they are timed these days, showing the earliest time you are allowed to arrive, in order to control the crowds.
Arriving At Machu Picchu
Whether you arrive by trail or train it’s the most spectacular sight.
Machu Picchu was an Inca city that wasn’t located by the Spanish Conquistadors and hence wasn’t plundered or destroyed. It was discovered by American professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. Inca architecture really is remarkable (note the amazing structures at Sacsayhuaman near Cusco). The dry stone wall structures are not square, doorways are trapezoidal and the stones are laid in such a way as to provide strength and flexibility. Many of the stones have multiple angles and are cut and sometimes polished to fit together perfectly. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, remaining standing long after the Conquistadors’ flimsy structures had toppled over.
Although the functions of many of the buildings are not known for sure, archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that Machu Picchu was an important ceremonial site and have made some assessments as to what many of the features were – probably – used for.
The function of the Funerary Stone is not fully clear but it is thought that it might be a sacrificial altar.
The Temple of the Sun was likely to be an astronomical observatory. Niches in the walls may have been used for offerings. There is a rock in the centre which lines up with the morning rays of the sun at the summer solstice.
The Royal Tomb – Palace of the Princess may have housed the Sun princesses or Ñustas. This structure takes full advantage of the natural rock formation.
The Temple of Three windows is in the area considered to be the Royal Sector. Most archaeologists now believe that the site was built as an estate for Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth Sapa Inca, that is, the emperor of the Inca empire.
The Principal Temple is the largest of the temples in the Royal Sector and has three sides with huge foundation blocks and carefully cut stones.
It is thought that Intihuatana was used by the Inca people as a sundial. It could have been used to predict the solstices. The shape of the rock resembles Huayna Picchu, the mountain located directly behind the stone.
The mortar district is characterised by the stone circles carved into the rock. The area is also known as the industrial sector. It was originally thought that the mortars were for crushing grain but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for this.
The Condor Temple was originally considered to be part of a prison zone but experts these days believe it was more likely to be a temple. One of the rocks has the appearance of the head of a condor, a bird considered to be sacred to the Incas.
And the terraces – both internal and external – are simply spectacular.
You’re allowed to wander all around Machu Picchu as long as you’re careful with the ruins (stewards will blow a whistle at tourists who touch the stones). The site is huge and there’s still more of the city still to be reclaimed from the jungle – archaeologists are working at uncovering more ruins.
Most visitors who visit Machu Picchu are day-trippers but we decided to spend one night at the local village Aguas Calientes (which literally means ‘hot water’ on account of the hot springs) also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo or Machu Picchu Town, in the valley below, which meant that we could hang around the site until sunset when it becomes significantly less busy. (There is just one hotel at Machu Picchu itself and it is expensive.)
Aguas Calientes is set up for tourists – there are plenty of places to stay and restaurants to eat at. There are also thermal baths if you feel the need for a good soak at the end of a day’s exploration.
Climbing Huayna Picchu
Another essential thing we wanted to do as part of our visit to Machu Picchu was to climb Huayna Picchu on our second day. It’s the mountain you see in the background of the classic shots of Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed up there each day, so we started off early in the morning and caught the first bus from Aguas Calientes.
You have to sign in and out and you are not allowed to start your hike after 1pm.
It’s actually an easier climb than it looks, although you do need to be reasonably fit, and took us about an hour to get right to the very top.
There is a need to wiggle through some rocks on the path.
Needless to say, the view was stunning.
A rufus collared sparrow clearly took the easy route up.
There are llama and alpaca lawnmowers roaming freely around the whole site and they’re clearly very used to hordes of tourists passing through.
Related Posts You May Enjoy
- Day of the Dead in Campeche
- A Galapagos Land Based Itinerary
- RECIPE: How to Make Costa Rica’s Gallo Pinto
- A Tasty Puebla Food Tour
- Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary – Caño Negro
- Visit Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia
- Atacama Desert Itinerary
- Hiking In El Chaltén, Patagonia
- Holiday Scrapbook: A Trip to Canada