Machu Picchu is the site of an ancient Inca city, high in the Andes of Peru. Located at 2,430 metres (8,000 ft), this UNESCO World Heritage site is often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", is one of the most familiar symbols of the Incan Empire, and is one of the most famous and spectacular sets of ruins in the world — a visit to Peru would not be complete without it.
These remarkable ruins were rediscovered by the scientific world in 1911 by the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham, who was led to the site by locals. Perched dramatically 1000 ft above the Urubamba river, Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also the end point of the most popular hike in South America, the Inca Trail.
The story of Machu Picchu is quite a remarkable one; it is still unknown exactly what the site was in terms of its place in Inca life. Current researchers tend to believe that Machu Picchu was a country resort for elite Incas. At any given time, there were not more than 750 people living at Machu Picchu, with far fewer than that during the rainy season. The Incas started building it around AD 1430 but it was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a hundred years later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.
One thing that is clear is that it was a remarkably well hidden place, and well protected. Located far up in the mountains of Peru, visitors had to travel up long valleys littered with Inca check points and watch towers. Remarkably, the Spanish conquistadors missed the site. However, many people are said to have knowledge of the ancient city as it was refered to in some text found in the 20th century. However, it was not until Bingham that Machu Picchu was scientifically discovered (he was on a trip sponsored by the Yale University, actually looking for Vilacamba, the last Inca hideout).
Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place.
Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its primary buildings are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu. In September 2007, Peru and Yale University reached an agreement regarding the return of artifacts which Hiram Bingham had stolen from Machu Picchu in the early twentieth century.
Flora and fauna
Both are abundant and varied. Typical plant life in the historic reserve of Machupicchu includes pisonayes, q'eofias, alisos, puya palm trees, ferns and more than 90 species of orchids.
The fauna in the reserve includes the spectacled bear, cock-of-the-rocks or "tunqui", tankas, wildcats and an impressive variety of butterflies and insects unique in the region.
The lie of the land, the natural surroundings and the strategic location of Machu Picchu lend this monument a fusion of beauty, harmony and balance between the work of the ancient Peruvians and the whims of nature.
Visitors to Machu Picchu typically either hike the Inca Trail or leave by rail from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo, either on a day trip, or overnighting in Aguas Calientes. Overnighting allows you to visit the park early or late in the day and avoid the worst of the crowds, and on sunny days, gives you a nice window of reprieve from the beating sun. Don't forget sunblock.
The only ways to get to Aguas Calientes are by train or on foot--no roads go there. On foot, it is possible to get to Aguas Calientes by traveling through Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. This alternate route involves walking (1 or 3 hours) and crossing a river in an "oroya", a basket riding over a cable to the other side, or simply walking across the available bridge.
From Aguas Calientes, there are two ways to reach the ruins: by bus or walking, as described below.
Depending on when you arrive, the site may be quite crowded or nearly deserted. The busiest periods are in the dry season (June-August), with the slowest being in February, the height of the rainy season, when the Inca Trail is closed. Most visitors arrive on package tours and are in the park between 10am and 2pm.
To access the site, you must have both a bus ticket (currently $15.50 for foreign adult round-trip, less for others, available from a small ticket booth near the bus departure area) and ticket for Machu Picchu - which are available on in advance from machupicchu.gob.pe or from various ticket offices described on that website. Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate and are limited to 2500 per day, with entrance to Huayna Picchu being further sublimited to 400.
There are no vehicles of any kind in the park, bring some comfortable walking shoes, especially if you plan to do any of the hikes such as Wayna Picchu. No walking sticks are allowed. The main ruins are fairly compact and easily walkable.
Take your time walking around the site, there are many places to see and explore. Although it is not necessary, taking a guided tour does provide a deeper insight into the ancient city, its uses, and information on the geography of it. Keep in mind that relatively little is known about the history and uses of the ruins, and some of the stories told by the guides are based on little more than imaginative hearsay.
Sun Gate (Inti Punku) – if you've just arrived via the Inka Trail, this will be your first experience of the ruins. Others can backtrack from the ruins along the trail and up the hill. From here you can see back down each valley offering excellent views. It's a fairly strenuous hike (probably 1-1.5 hours each way) but well worth it. If you catch the first bus from Aguas Calientes and head straight here you may be able to reach it in time for sun to peak over the mountain and through the gate.
Temple of the Sun – Near the summit of the main city, the stonework on the temple is incredible. Look closely and you will see that there are a variety of stone walls throughout the city. Most are rough stones held together with mud, the common stone walls found throughout the world. But many buildings or parts of buildings are done with the more distinctive and impressive closely-fit stonework. The temple is the absolute pinnacle of this technology. Observe it from the side, descending the stone staircase in the main plaza.
Intihuatana – A stone carved so that on certain days, at dawn, the sun makes a certain shadow, thus working as a sun dial. From Quechua: Inti = sun, huatana = to take, grab: thus grabing (measuring) the sun. (pronounce 'intiwatana')
Temple of the Condor – The tour guides will try to tell you that this was a temple, but look closely: between the wings of the condor is a chamber with grooves cut in the stone to secure manacles, a walkway behind where a torturer may walk to whip the prisoner's backs, and a scary looking pit to let the blood of prisoners drain. Clearly the condor was a symbol of cruel justice, but a sanitized version is told for the benefit of middle-aged tourists and their children.
If you got some energy in you, there's a few great hikes involving a bit of legwork. Do make sure that you've taken the time to acclimatize to the elevation either in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes for a couple days before exterting yourself too much, especially on Wayna Picchu.
Wayna Picchu. Towering above the north end Machu Picchu is this steep mountain, often the backdrop to many photos of the ruins. It looks a bit daunting from below, but while steep, it's not an unusually difficult ascent, and most reasonably fit persons shouldn't have a problem. Stone steps are laid along most of the path, and in the steeper sections steel cables provide a supporting handrail. That said, expect to be out of breath, and take care in the steeper portions, especially when wet, as it can become dangerous quickly. There's a tiny cave near the top that must be passed through, it is quite low and a rather tight squeeze. Take care at the peak, it can be somewhat precarious, and those afraid of heights may want to hang out just below.
The entire walk is through beautiful landscape, and the views from the top are stunning, including birds eye views over the whole site. There's also a few ruins near the top. If visiting these ruins, you'll see a second way to start making your descent down the mountain, along some very steep and shallow steps.... these steps are a bit dangerous if wet, but the hike may be well worthwhile. This hike is one of your best bets for getting away from Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu crowds.
Access to Wayna Picchu is limited to 400 visitors per day. You must sign in at the entrance gate, and take note of your number, as you're required to sign out upon your return. The first 200 numbers are released at 7AM, and are often gone in less than an hour on busier days. The second 200 are available at 10AM. All visitors must arrive back at the checkpoint before 4PM. Get here early if you're intent on climbing it, and note that large tour groups are able to reserve numbers and jump the queue, so don't be miffed when you're in line and a guide saunters past with 20 people in tow. Since mid-July 2011 you have to pay to climb Wayna Picchu. The fee is S/24 and a the ticket has to be booked in advance. edit
If you have some time at hand, or long for a sparkle of solitude, you can also walk to the Moon Temple (Templo de la Luna) and the Great Cave (Gran Caverne). It's a long walk and adventurous hike involving several ladders. Some may find that the sites aren't really rewarding, but unexpected wildlife can be seen (wild spectacled bears have been reported). This hike is also quite interesting because partway through you leave behind the mountain terrain and enter a more conventional forest. The caves can be reached either by hiking down the trail from the peak of Waynapicchu (which includes some semi-harrowing but fun near-vertical descents) or by the split from the main Waynapicchu trail (look for the sign that says Gran Carvern). Remember that it is much easier to descend from Waynapicchu than to ascend from these temples. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks for this long hike. The hike from the summit to the caves and back to the checkpoint takes about two more hours.