There are three ways to visit Machu Picchu :
● on an organized tour, with all costs included in the price. One-day tours leave and return to Cusco on the same day. Trains depart early in the morning (Machu Picchu can only be reached by train), and take about 3 hours to get to Aguas Calientes town (Machu Picchu town). From here, it is a quick bus ride up the Machu Picchu Mountain to the ruins, followed by a tour of the ruins, some free time and a return to Cusco at night.
● independently, by covering all costs of the trip yourself. The best option is to spend the night before visiting Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes town for an early access to Machu Picchu before all the tourists arrive on the train from Cusco. (There is also the option of staying at the 5-star hotel Belmond Sanctuary Lodge that is located at the entrance gate to Machu Picchu.) English-speaking guides can be hired at the site. However, individual train tickets from Cusco can run more than a hundred dollars each, entry fees to Machu Picchu range from $45 to $60 depending on the option chosen, and there is a limit of 2,500 visitors allowed to enter Machu Picchu per day. Tickets can be purchased online – in high season, it is advisable to do so 2-3 months in advance.
● by doing the Inca Trail.
Introduction to Inca Trail
The Inca Trail (Camino Inca) is one of the most beautiful treks in the world. It is a 4-day hike in the Peruvian Andes that starts in the Sacred Valley at km82 and ends at Machu Picchu. It measures 26 miles, and at its highest point runs up to an elevation of almost 14,000 feet.
The Inca Trail is a tiny part of a highly advanced network of 25,000 miles of roads and trails, built by the Inca with the purpose of connecting the distant corners of their empire (stretching from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south) with Cusco, their capital city.
And that’s what makes it so special. The incredibly varied Andean landscape of :
Day 1 is relatively easy, with minor descents and ascents for the most part. The hike runs for 8 miles along the Urubamba River, through some local villages and past several Inca ruins.
Before the start of the trail, most companies make a stop at Ollantaytambo first to stock up on water, snacks, ponchos and walking sticks. At the start of the trail, there is a passport checkpoint.
Day 2 is the most difficult, with the hike running up to an elevation of almost 14,000 feet. The trail measures 7.5 miles, and involves hours of a steep vertical ascent.
Day 3 is the longest. The hike runs for 10 miles, and has the greatest number of Inca ruins, stone stairways and rock tunnels on it. It starts with a steep ascent through an alpine tundra, and ends with a gradual descent into a cloud forest and a subtropical jungle.
Day 4 is the shortest, with only 4 miles of hike before getting to Machu Picchu where the Inca Trail ends (not counting the miles spent climbing the steep stairs of the Inca citadel).
Concerns about overuse of the Inca Trail leading to erosion have forced the Peruvian government to place a limit on the number of people who hike the trail per season. A maximum of 500 people is allowed on the trail each day, of which only 200 are trekkers, the rest are guides and porters.
Advance booking is mandatory, links of authorized agencies can be found online.
A standard price of the Inca Trail is $600 pp (it is not advisable to buy with an agency outside Peru due to overpricing), which includes permits for the Inca Trail, entry to Machu Picchu, transportation, English-speaking guides, porters, cooks, meals and camping equipment.
All of the year’s permits are released in October, and are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Every trekker must be accompanied by a professional licensed guide, or be part of an organized tour group; independent trekking is not allowed. All permits are paired with individual passports and are not transferable.
The trail is closed every February during rainy season for cleaning.
Exploring Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is the most iconic structure of the Inca civilization. It lies at an elevation of 7,970 feet in the eastern part of Central Andes, 50 miles from Cusco.
Due to the excellent preservation of the ruins sitting on the crest of the Machu Picchu Mountain, the quality of the architecture adapted to a complicated terrain, and the breathtaking mountain views down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back, Machu Picchu is the epitome of magical.
The deep precipices and steep mountain slopes that drop vertically for 1,500 feet to a bow of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, provided natural defenses and made the citadel invisible from below. Therefore the Spanish never found it and couldn’t destroy it, as they did many other sites.
Often mistakenly referred to as the ‘Lost City of the Incas,’ Machu Picchu is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Latin America and the most visited area in Peru. In the Quechua language, the name Machu Picchu interprets as ‘old mountain.’
The site is roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector, into an upper town with the temples, and a lower town with the terraces. The eastern section of the city was residential, the western, separated by a square, was used for religious and ceremonial purposes.
Approximately 200 buildings are arranged on wide parallel terraces around the central square. The various compounds, called canchas, are long and narrow in order to exploit the terrain. Sophisticated channeling systems using natural springs provided irrigation, and made the place completely self-sufficient. Stone stairways set in walls allowed access to different levels across the site.
Located in the first zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Intihuatana Stone, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, God of the Sun and the greatest deity of the Inca.
The royalty area, a sector for the nobility, is a group of residences characterized by large, perfectly assembled reddish walls and trapezoid-shaped rooms.
The residential district is the place where the lower-class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simpler houses.
The agricultural sector was formed by terraced hillslopes to provide more farmland to grow crops, and to steepen the terrain in case of an invasion. The terraces also reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides.
It is estimated that no more than 750 people resided here at a time, most people being support workers who lived here permanently (common people were required to give ninety days of labor to the Emperor each year to build roads, work in quarries cutting stone, construct temples or palaces and farm agricultural terraces).
The central buildings use the classical Inca architectural style of polished stone of regular shapes. The Inca were masters of this technique called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together seamlessly without mortar. When earthquakes happen, the stones are said to ‘dance’ – they bounce through the tremors and fall back into place. Without this building method, many of the Inca structures would have collapsed.
Other stabilizing anti-earthquake features used in Inca walls are trapezoidal doors and windows, narrowing from bottom to top; rounded corners, inclining slightly into the room and tied together by L-shaped blocks; and doors, that have door mantles formed of solid stones and stretching across the top part.
All the stone blocks used in the construction of Machu Picchu were mined and shaped at the quarry on the site.
The Inca knew the principle of wheel but never used it in a practical way. The approach to moving and placing enormous stones remains uncertain, and allegedly involved hundreds of men pushing the stones up inclines. Some stones have knobs that could have been used to lever them into position; after that, the knobs were generally sanded away.
Although many legends indicate that Machu Picchu had been revered as a sacred place in far earlier times, most archaeologists believe that it was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacutec (1438–1472). It was built around 1450 and abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle overgrew it, and only few outside the area knew of its existence.
It remained this way until the American historian and Yale explorer Hiram Bingham happened upon it in 1911.
He traveled the region looking for the hidden Inca capital called the Lost City of the Incas, and was led to Machu Picchu by a villager. There were three families of farmers living here and farming the terraces.
Though he was not the first to visit the ruins, he’s considered the scientific discoverer who brought Machu Picchu to international attention.
Bingham uncovered over 4,000 artifacts, among them mummies, ceramics and precious metals, that he took with him to Yale university. These objects became the center of a long battle between the Peruvian government requesting their return, and Yale university insisting on the law of the day – finders keepers. In 2011, after nearly 100 years, the antiquities were finally returned, and are on display at the new Casa Concha Museum in Cusco.
The real Lost City of the Incas, a place to which the Inca withdrew after the Spanish conquest, is called Vilcabamba. It was built in the jungle 50 miles from Machu Picchu.
It takes several hours to properly see Machu Picchu.
The Sun Gate, or Inti Punku, was the original main entrance to Machu Picchu from the then Inca capital Cusco.
The Sun Gate is a fortified complex of structures, gates and windows held up by terraces. Because of its location in the south-eastern part of Machu Picchu, the rising sun would pass through it each year on the summer solstice.
It is also the entry point for trekkers on the 4-day Inca Trail; here, they get their first glimpse of the citadel below.
The panoramic views of the ruins backdropped by tropical mountains and Wayna Picchu are phenomenal.
It takes about 90 minutes to hike it, following the upper trail from Machu Picchu’s main entrance and turning left at the Caretaker’s Hut.
The Temple of the Sun is one of the most iconic structures within the citadel.
It served as an observatory, and an altar for ceremonies to give offerings to Inti, the God of the Sun.
It is built on top of a natural rock, and has a large outer wall known for its semi-circular shape (a rarity in Inca construction) as the Torreón (tower or turret).
Windows within the tower are aligned to the summer and winter solstices. Each year on the winter solstice (June 21st in the southern hemisphere), a beam of light streams through the window forming a mysterious shape on top of a granite stone.
Beneath the foundations is a naturally formed cave, that has some beautiful Inca stonework laid into the stone face. The cave was used to store mummies of previous Inca Emperors that were brought out on important occasions to observe the ceremonies. The Inca priests would prepare elaborate food for them, tell them the state of affairs of the empire, and ask them for guidance. The food was then burned in the temple and send to the upper realm.
The Intihuatana Stone is one of the strangest and most enigmatic structures at Machu Picchu.
Carved from a huge slab of rock, it stands on the highest point within the Inca citadel, the Sacred Plaza. It has a tiered setup with a rectangle rock needle at the top. The four sides of the Intihuatana represent the 4 cardinal points (north, south, east and west).
Intihuatana translates from the native Quechua language as ‘the hitching post of the sun,’ or ‘the place to tie up the sun.’ This is not the name the Inca gave the stone; the original name, as well as the whole scope of its roles, is unknown.
Many archaeologists believe that its primary function was astronomical, to indicate alignments of the sun, moon and planets as they appear above the horizon, and to track their movements. Based on that, the Inca created their calendars, and measured time.
‘The hitching of the sun’ ceremonies were meant to hold the sun in place to ensure a good harvest and general prosperity. They were held during the two equinoxes of March 21st and September 21st. On these auspicious dates, the sun stands directly above the Intihuatana, creating no shadow at all. This is only possible because the upper part of the stone was shaped with an inclination of 13 degrees to compensate for the 13 degrees off the equator.
The Intihuatana is often wrongly associated with the solstices. Only the Temple of the Sun casts an auspicious shadow on that date.
The Intihuatana shows an alignment with the December solstice, though. On this date at sunrise, the light projects a triangle which highlights two concentric circles on the floor; the purpose of these is unknown.
Similar Intihuatanas are found at other important Inca sites like Písac ruins, many were deliberately damaged by the Spanish conquistadores.
The Temple of Three Windows is easily recognized by its three distinct windows and a rectangular shape made of monumental stones.
The three large, trapezoidal windows are identical in shape and size, and look out across the plaza, the Urubamba River valley, and the tropical mountains surrounding Machu Picchu.
Peeking out from the floor in front of them is half of the chacana, the famous Inca Cross. The Inca believed in three worlds – an upper world, a lower world and a middle world, and these three windows are supposedly designed to look out into each of them.
Adjacent to the Temple of Three Windows is the three-sided Principal Temple.
The Principal Temple was probably one of the main public temples at Machu Picchu, where large ceremonies would take place. Due to soil movement, one corner of the temple has sunk, its huge stone blocks twisted out of place.
The Temple of the Condor is another example of the artistry and creativity of Inca stonemasons.
At the temple’s entrance, a three-dimensional condor with outspread wings as if in flight is rising in the air.
The condor’s head and beak are carved into a smooth flat rock on the ground, the huge wings behind it are formed by two natural outcrops of rock.
The condor’s head may have served as an altar, the cave inside the temple as a place for burial rituals.
The Inca Bridge protected the western access to the mountain.
It is formed of a stone base in the shape of a wall, that clings to a smooth rock face and has several logs placed across its 20 feet gap in the middle.
There were two access routes to Machu Picchu, and who controlled them, controlled the city.
One started at the Sun Gate, an elevated fortification site, and run through the Cordillera to the Sacred Valley and Cusco.
The other started at this back drawbridge, and could be blocked at any time by lifting the bridge up or destroying it, which would leave the place inaccessible.
The bridge is part of a spectacular web of sky-high mountain trails, cut along vertical cliffs hundreds of feet tall.
It is a 20-minute walk to get to the Inca bridge from the Caretaker’s Hut, following a well-marked trail built into a mountainside with 1,500 feet drop-offs.
Rising directly over Machu Picchu is Wayna Picchu, or Huayna Picchu, the ‘Young Mountain.’
Climbing it is a highlight for many visitors, as it offers magnificent views of the citadel and surrounding landscape below. The Inca built a trail that leads to the top.
After signing in at the Warden’s Hut, the trail follows a path for 15-20 minutes until it splits in two. The Upper Trail loops around the top of the mountain, where architectural structures like altars, staircases, tunnels and terraces were built.
The Lower Trail follows the base to the Great Cavern, where the Moon Temple, one of the major temples in the Machu Picchu area, is located. From here, it climbs to the summit.
The climb is a steep hike with some sections where hands and feet have to be used to crawl upwards.
There are handrails in some places but as you ascend, these give way to simply nothing between you and 2,000 feet of a vertical cliff.
The total time of the climb is an hour, the climb is not recommended for people afraid of heights.
The entrance is limited to 400 hikers a day with two controlled entry times, and in high season, tickets can sell out several months in advance.
The town of Aguas Calientes, often referred to as Machu Picchu town, is the gateway to the historical site of Machu Picchu. The town is situated in the Urubamba River Valley below the Machu Picchu mountain, some 3.7 miles away from the Inca ruins.
Aguas Calientes is full of hotels, eateries and shops, it also has a craft market (the Mercado Artesanal), and natural hot baths that gave the place its Spanish name.
There are no roads here, the only access is by train from Cusco.
Spending the night in Aguas Calientes before visiting Machu Picchu has one distinct advantage – an early access to Machu Picchu before all the tourists arrive from Cusco.
To get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, visitors take a shuttle bus. It departs every 15 minutes, the round trip is $24 (if not included in the price of the tour), and the service starts at 5:30 am. It is possible to walk to the ruins for free (the climb is strenuous and takes about 1.5 hours).
There is a low-key museum in Aguas Calientes no one ever goes to. The Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon ($7) is located over the bridge on the road between Aguas Calientes and the Machu Picchu ruins, 20 minutes out of town by walking. The museum is a small place that explains the history and discovery of Machu Picchu, and has an orchid garden with more than 100 species.
To explore one of the round-shaped mountains surrounding Machu Picchu, the Putucusi Trail is located just outside Aguas Calientes.
Putucusi is the mountain on the opposite side from Machu Picchu, that offers spectacular views of it; the Trail is a 4-hour Inca trail, that has only been discovered in recent years.
The Trail starts after 10 minutes of walk along the tracks in the opposite direction of Cusco right behind the Sumaq hotel.
The hike is a relentless ascent, involving climbing some giant vertical ladders.
It is free to enter but check beforehand as to whether the ladders and cables are in place.
An alternative to Inca Trail
Although not as popular as the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek is more pristine and just as beautiful. It is a high altitude trek that starts at Mollepata town (70 miles from Cuzco), and finishes at Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town).
There are 5D/4N (ca 45 miles) or 4D/3N (ca 30 miles) options. Just like the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek goes through incredible nature areas like snowy mountains, a glacier lake, a cloud forest, a tropical jungle, waterfalls, natural bridges, remote villages and Inca ruins.
The accommodation ranges from sky camps and Andean huts to jungle domes. Guides, porters and cooks are also included. As no permission is required, the trek can be done independently.