Machu Picchu - For Those Who Are Yet To Visit

by Kshaunish Jaini

Where is Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu is truly one of the man-made wonders of the world. Perched atop a mountain ridge in the Andes over the Sacred Valley and Urubamba River some 50 miles away from Cuzco in Peru, this 15th century citadel was once home to a thriving Inca community. Though the origins are still unclear, most archaeologists agree that Machu Picchu was built for Pachacuti, the emperor of the Incas sometime in the 15th century. This iconic man-made city serves as one of the best examples of the Inca civilization.


The valley surrounding Machu Picchu.

Like many civilizations in Latin America, the Incas abandoned the city around a 100 years later in preparation for an invasion by the Spanish conquistadors, though it is now known that the Spanish were unaware the city existed. In fact, the site wasn’t known outside of Peru until the American archeologist Hiram Bingham discovered the site in the early 20th century.

Though the city would have had many buildings at its peak, the most important were the three main structures – Temple of the Sun, Room of the Three Windows and Intihuatana. Much of the rest of the citadel has been restored to give visitors some idea of what the site would have originally looked like.

The citadel’s importance to Peruvian historic culture cannot be underestimated. The site alone brings in millions of tourists a year and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 80s. It’s also been branded as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World along with Chichen Itza, Christ Redeemer, The Great Wall of China, Petra, the Colosseum and the Taj Mahal.

When was Machu Picchu built?

The citadel was built in the 15th century for two Inca emperors - Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui and Túpac Inca Yupanqui. There are many theories as to why it was constructed. Some historians believe it was created as a royal estate, while others theorized that the site was for religious purposes, mainly because of its proximity to the mountains the Incas held sacred. It is even thought that Machu Picchu was a temple for a holy order of nuns.  

Just over a century after its construction, Machu Picchu was abandoned by the Incas. Again, why they left is clouded in mystery. There is no evidence that suggests the Spanish conquistadors ever made it to Machu Picchu, or even knew that it existed. The Incas had left after expecting an immanent attack from the Spanish. Others have suggested that the inhabitants of Machu Picchu contracted smallpox brought by the Spanish, but there is little evidence that this is true.

The Spanish looted, defaced and destroyed many Inca towns and sites when they arrived, but they never reached Machu Picchu. Over the next three hundred years, the site was untouched by humans, few even knowing of its existence.

Who discovered Machu Picchu?

Though Hiram Bingham is famous for having discovered Machu Picchu in 1911, it was actually plundered by a German businessman and adventurer Augosto Berns four decades earlier. Berns owned property close to Machu Picchu and ran a successful timber yard that supplied wood for use on railway tracks. After closing the business, Berns looked for Peruvian gold. Though not much is known about his expedition, there is a letter at Peru’s National Library in which Berns talks about discovering buildings, structures and Inca treasures believed to be Machu Picchu and that he was being helped by the Peruvian government.

Forty years later, explorer Hiram Bingham took an expedition into the Andes to look for the famous lost city of the Incas. With the help of a local, Bingham’s trip was successful and he brought back evidence of the site and international attention. Bingham made further expeditions back to Machu Picchu for three more years to clear and excavate it.

In the 1980s, the Peruvian government declared a large area around the Machu Picchu encompassing the yungas and wet puna regions an historic sanctuary. Several years later, Machu Picchu was granted UNESCO status, with some declaring it as a ‘masterpiece of architecture’.

Other than the impressive buildings, what really makes Machu Picchu special is its location. The site sits on the crest of a mountain a couple of thousand metres above sea level. The site has vertical cliff drops that descend almost half a kilometre below, once providing it with natural defenses. Mountains including nearby Huayna Picchu surround Machu Picchu from all sides and the Urubamba River runs in the gorges below. The Incas would access Machu Picchu along a secret rope bridge that spanned the river below. Another bridge crossed a 6-metre gap in the cliff. Both these access points could be blocked easily, should the city have ever been invaded by the Spanish. The city was fed by natural springs and there was enough nearby agricultural land to feed more people than lived in the city.

Machu Picchu elevation

Interestingly, Machu Picchu is around a thousand metres (so about 2000 m in altitude) lower than Cuzco and therefore has a much less harsh climate. Don’t let this fool you if you decide to hike. Altitude sickness can still be a problem here.

The Inca Trail is part of an extensive Andean trail system used by the pre-Columbian civilization that stretched 39,000 kilometres from Quito in modern day Ecuador all the way to Santiago in Chile. Part of this network predates the Incas, and was created by other cultures including the Wari. It had many uses, but included the trade and transportation of goods, much of which was done using alpacas and llamas, religious events, and the military. In 2014, this huge network of trails was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

How to get to Machu Picchu?

There are a several ways to get to Machu Picchu depending on your budget and inclination. There are no roads leading all the way from Cuzco to the site, so using many different transport options is required to reach the site.

The first and perhaps most famous way to reach the site is along the old Inca Trail. The Incas built up a vast network of walking trails to connect different communities. The classic trek takes four days and a moderate level of fitness, though it does reach some fairly high altitudes as you hike through the mountain passes. It is not possible to do the Inca Trail alone – you must be accompanied by a guide and porters. The hike brings visitors past many Inca ruins, settlements, and spectacular Andean scenery before reaching Machu Picchu. Each night, a campsite is set up by your guides and porter. Your first glimpses of Machu Picchu are from the famous Sun Gate.


Hiking the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

If you decide to take the Inca Trail, be sure to book up in advance. The Peruvian Government has limited the trail to 500 hikers a day, so tickets get booked up months in advance. It’s also wise to spend at least a couple of days in Cuzco to help with acclimatization.

Before booking with a tour operator, be sure to ask for a copy of the Porter’s Policy. Porters hike the Inca Trail carrying guests bags, tents, equipment, and food. Without them, the trail would be considerably more difficult. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous operators don’t offer porters decent working conditions or pay.

The best time to hike to Machu Picchu is between April and October when the weather is drier and the days warm and sunny. The low season is between January and March when the region suffers from heavy rainfall. During February, the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance. 

There are several other hikes, some of which pass even more spectacular scenery and high passes like the Salkantay  or Lares Trek. Bear in mind that these are combined with other transport to reach Machu Picchu, so visitors do not walk directly there.

If hiking isn’t your thing, the easiest way to reach Machu Picchu is by train to Aguas Calientes and a short bus ride up to the site. The journey takes around 3.5 hours through the Sacred Valley next to the Urubamba River. Most visitors stay at least one night in Aguas Calientes to maximize their time at the citadel. There are currently three trains operating the line which runs from Poroy, a town just outside Cuzco. Inca Rail and Peru Rail are budget options, whereas the Belmond Hiram Bingham (formerly the Orient Express), runs a luxurious and more expensive service which harks back to the golden age of travel. As you can imagine, trains get booked up well in advance, so don’t leave it until you have reached Cuzco to buy your tickets. There is plenty of accommodation in Aguas Calientes and the short 20-minute bus ride up to Machu Picchu departs every 15 minutes or so and costs US $24 return. It is possible to hike up from Aguas Calientes, but be warned that the road is very steep.


Taking the train to Aguas Calientes.

Up to 2,500 people visit Machu Picchu every day, so you will rarely find the site deserted. If you prefer to go when fewer tourists are present, it’s best to travel during the rainy season. Most tourists visit between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. but it’s open until 5 p.m. Some travelers also visit nearby Huayna Picchu, but tickets must be bought in advance and are limited to 400 per day.

Machu Picchu tickets and their cost

Travelling to Machu Picchu can be done on different budgets, but would never be considered cheap. The costs listed below are approximate and are subject to change at any time. One unavoidable cost is the entrance fee to Machu Picchu which costs 100 soles (US $31) or 200 soles (US $62) including Huayna Picchu. The discounts for students with valid ISIC cards are almost half. The cost of the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu is US $24 return, but can be bought as a single. If you are buying a tour package such as the Inca Trail, this cost will be included. Costs from accommodation start off at around US $15 for a basic dormitory and can get very expensive for luxury hotels.

A four-day Inca Trail small group trek of up to 16 people costs anything from US $500 to US$1000 depending on the level of comfort and professionalism of the outfit. Private treks can be considerably more expensive. Included in the cost is the Inca Trail permit, guide, porters to carry your things, tent, equipment, all meals and drinks, the entrance fee for Machu Picchu, a return train ticket back to Cuzco and transport to a from the starting and ending points. Be sure to make sure the operator has guidelines for the treatment of their porters who often get a raw deal with little pay and terrible working conditions. If you want to include Huayna Picchu as part of the package, make sure to tell the operator in advance as tickets cannot be bought on arrival. Other treks like the Salkantay are similar in duration and costs. Look to pay between US $1,000 and US$2,000 for a seven-day trek. None of these costs include the flights to and from Peru and Cuzco and tips for guides and porters will be expected.

Depending on which train service you choose, the cost can vary considerably too. The most expensive is the Hiram Bingham which costs almost US $500 each way. This does include lunch on the way there and dinner on the return journey as well as wines, on board entertainment, entrance fees and a guided tour of Machu Picchu. Most travel on board the Vistadome, which costs around US $90 each way and includes snacks and drinks. The cheapest is the Expedition, a backpacker option at US $77 each way. It’s basic and doesn’t include any food or drinks, but it does have some for purchase. Whichever service you decide, the journey takes around 3 hours from Poroy to Aguas Calientes. Poroy railway station is located some 20 minutes outside of Cuzco. To reach the station, you can either take a taxi which costs around US $13 or a local colectivo bus for US $2, although this option does take a little longer.

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