MACHU PICCHU is one of the biggest tourist attractions in South America: beautiful stone architecture enhanced by the Incas’ exploitation of the local 250-million-year-old rocks of grayish-white granite with a high content of quartz, silica and feldspar against a vast and picturesque backdrop of dark green forested mountains rising from the deep valleys of the Urubamba and its tributaries. Distant glacial peaks are dwarfed only by the vast sky.
The mysterious origins of the site are central to its enduring appeal. Still, without knowing too much about its history, archaeology, or the details of each feature, it is possible to enjoy a visit to Machu Picchu. For many, it is enough to absorb the mystical atmosphere.
The name Machu Picchu means Old or Ancestral Mountain. With many legends and theories surrounding the site’s position, most archaeologists agree that its sacred geography and astronomy were auspicious factors in helping the Inca Pachacutec decide to build this citadel here at 2,492m. It does believe that agricultural influences and religious markers prevailed. The site secured a decent supply of sacred coca and corn for the Inca nobles and priests in Cusco.
The Spanish extirpators never unearthed Machu Picchu, the site of Machu Picchu remained forgotten for many centuries, through the local population and settlers knew of its existence until it was discovered on July 24, 1911, by the American explorer Hiram Bingham. It was a fantastic find because the site was still relatively intact, without the usual ravages of Spanish idolaters. Accompanied by just two locals, Bingham left his base camp around 10 am, crossed a bridge, and climbed a steep incline until reaching the ridge around noon. After resting in a small hut, he received the hospitality of a local farmer who described an extensive system of terraces where they had found good fertile land for their crops. Bingham was led to the site by a local 11-year-old boy, Pablito Álvarez, but it didn’t take long to realize that he had found some essential ancient Inca terraces, over a hundred of which had recently been cleared the forest for subsistence crops.
Although more than 1,000m lower than Cusco, Machu Picchu seems much higher; they did build on dizzying slopes overlooking a U-bend in the Urubamba River. More than a hundred flights of steep stone steps interconnect its palaces, temples, warehouses, and terraces. In both directions, stunning views dominate the valley below and extend to the snow-capped peaks around Salcantay. Wherever you find yourself in ruins, you can see spectacular terraces (some of which are once again being cultivated) cutting through ridiculous cliffs, transforming mountains into suspended gardens.
Although it would take a lot to detract from the incredible beauty and unsurpassed location of Machu Picchu, it is a highly supervised place. Site guards frequently blow whistles at visitors who have strayed from the recently instituted one-way routes around the ruins. The best way to enjoy the site, and avoid the guards’ wrath, is to hire a guide in advance, at the entrance to the venue or next to the ticket office map, to help you plan your itinerary.
Following the stairs that descend from the Intihuatana and passing through the Sacred Plaza towards the northern terraces, you will reach the Sacred Rock in a few minutes, below the access point to Huayna Picchu. Little is known about the Sacred Rock, a tablet of rock three meters high and seven meters wide that protrudes from the earth like a carved wall. But it is believed to have a ritual function; its outline is similar to the Inca’s sacred mountain of Putukusi, which rises behind it in the east.
It is easy to reach the site before sunrise, as the sun rarely rises over the mountains to cast its rays on Machu Picchu before 7 am. Head to Intihuatana (the “mooring post of the sun”) before sunrise for an unforgettable morning that will quickly make you forget the trek through the pre-dawn gloom or the tedious bus queues from Machu Picchu Pueblo.
The prominent peak of Huayna Picchu towers over the Urubamba Valley at the northern end of the Machu Picchu site. Any reasonably energetic person easily scales it with a head for heights. The record for this vigorous and rewarding climb is 22 minutes, but most people take at least an hour. From the summit, there is an impressive panorama. It is a great place to get an overview of the ruins suspended between the mountains among a stunning forested Andean landscape.
Temple of the Moon does hide in a cavern that magically hangs over the Urubamba River, some 400m below the pinnacle of Huayna Picchu. It’s at least 45 minutes each way and not that easy, with rock stairs in places. Once you arrive at the temple, you will be rewarded with some of the best stonework in the complex. The level of skill suggests the importance of the site to the Incas.
The temple’s name comes from the moonlight and often illuminates it, but some archaeologists believe that the structure was probably dedicated to the spirit of the mountain. The temple’s primary sector is located at the mouth of a natural cave, where five niches are found in an elaborate stone wall of white granite. In the center of the cave is a rock carved like a throne, next to which five cut steps lead to the darkest recesses, where more carved stones and stone walls, nowadays inaccessible, can be seen. Immediately in front of the cave is a small plaza with another carved stone throne and altar. Outside, steps on either side of the massive rock lead above the cave, from which an expansive stone-walled room can be seen running along one side of the cave rock. More buildings and beautiful stone shrines find down a flight of steps from this complex.
If you don’t have a ticket for Huayna Picchu, return to the guardian’s hut on the other side of the site and take the path below, which climbs gently for about forty minutes, to Intipunku, the main entrance to Machu-Picchu, from the main Inca Trail. This viewpoint offers an incredible view of the entire site, with a detailed picture of Huayna Picchu in the background.
Many people settle in the small tourist town of MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO (formerly known as Aguas Calientes), connected to Machu Picchu by bus, to visit the ruins more calmly or in more depth. Although its hot, humid climate and surrounding landscape of towering cloud forest-clad mountains make it a welcome change from Cusco, its unabashed commercialism is rather unattractive, despite the recent addition of a cultural sculpture trail around the place. The city’s explosive growth has reached the valley’s limits quite well; a minimum of flat land has not been built on or covered with concrete. Not surprisingly, this thriving city has a lively, bustling atmosphere and enough restaurants and bars to satisfy a small army of travelers.
Follow the upper part of Av Pachacutec, 400m from the central square, every day from 5 am to 8 pm S/20. Apart from Machu Picchu itself, the main attraction of these places is the natural thermal baths, which they enjoy after a few days on the Inca Trail or a hot afternoon in Machu Picchu, although they can be very crowded. If you head there before sunrise, you’ll enjoy cleaner water and only have to share it with a few locals.
A trail that ascends the sacred mountain of Putukusi begins just outside the city, about two hundred meters along the train tracks toward the ruins. The walk offers sensational views of the town and Machu Picchu, allowing an hour and a half each way. Note that this is not for the faint of heart as the trail is very steep in parts (rock stairs have replaced some sections) and very narrow. When it’s wet, the course is closed for safety reasons.
You travel to Machu Pichu from Poroy near Cusco, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo by train. You will get off at the Machu Picchu Pueblo station (Aguas Calientes), located in the closest town to the ruins. If you are doing the economical route, it is the Hydroelectric route; you can also take a shorter train trip to Machu Picchu Pueblo, although most people walk along the tracks from kilometers 120 to 109.
From Machu Picchu Pueblo, bus tickets to the ruins can be purchased at a small painted kiosk on Av Pachacutec (daily 5 am-5 pm), next to the pedestrian bridge. Buses leave across the street at 5:20 am and continue approximately every 10 minutes based on demand until 5:00 pm. You may have to queue for a bus ride in the high season, especially if you’re trying to get to the site for sunrise.
From Machu Picchu Pueblo
Machu Picchu Pueblo can walk to the ruins (more than 2 hours up, 1 hour down, depending on physical condition). The steps (open from 5 am) are marked on the way to Machu Picchu, about 20 minutes from town.
From Santa Teresa
If you have taken the bus or colectivos from Cusco to Santa Teresa, or a minivan to the Hydroelectric plant, you can make the rest of the trip to Machu Picchu on foot. From Santa Teresa, it follows the Urubamba River upstream for 8 km (1 h 30 min–2 h) to the Hydroelectric plant. The buses also travel this route (20min; S/10). Continue upriver to an INC hut where you must register, then follow the path along the railway and river, 10–11 km (2–3 hrs) to Machu Picchu Pueblo. Avoid the tunnel near the end by going down to the road below. It is a spectacular hike, with good bird watching along the way; drink water.