The stunning and immaculately sited Machu Picchu, the fabled “lost city of the Incas,” is South America’s greatest attraction, drawing ever-increasing numbers of visitors from across the globe. The Incas hid Machu Picchu so high in the cloudforest that it escaped destruction by the empire-raiding Spaniards, who never found it. It is no longer lost, of course—you can zip there by high-speed train or trek there along a 2- or arduous 4-day trail—but Machu Picchu retains its perhaps unequaled aura of mystery and magic. From below it remains totally hidden from view, although no longer overgrown with brush, as it was when it was rediscovered in 1911 by the Yale archaeologist and historian Hiram Bingham with the aid of a local farmer who knew of its existence. The majestic setting the Incas chose for it, nestled in almost brooding Andes Mountains and frequently swathed in mist, also remains unchanged. When the early-morning sun rises over the peaks and methodically illuminates the ruins’ row by row of granite stones, Machu Picchu leaves visitors as awestruck as ever.
History—There is plenty of mystery surrounding the construction of Machu Picchu, as the Incas left no written records. It is believed to have been constructed at the orders of the 9th Inca emperor, Pachacútec (also called Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui), sometime in the mid-1400s. While the official purpose of the city isn’t clear, it wasn’t inhabited for very long. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, Machu Picchu was abandoned, leaving the jungle to overtake the stones for the next several centuries, until American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it, thinking it was the lost city of Vilcabamba.
Sightseeing—Machu Picchu’s popularity continues to grow by leaps and bounds, straining both its infrastructure and the fragile surrounding ecosystem, forcing state officials to limit the number of visitors in high season. The great majority of visitors to Machu Picchu still visit it as a day trip from Cusco, but many people feel that a few hurried hours at the ruins during peak hours, amid throngs of people following guided tours, simply do not suffice. By staying at least 1 night, either at the one upscale hotel just outside the grounds of Machu Picchu or down below in the town of Aguas Calientes (officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo), you can remain at the ruins later in the afternoon after most of the tour groups have gone home, or get there for sunrise—a dramatic, unforgettable sight. Many visitors find that even a full single day at the ruins does not do them justice.
Nature—Many visitors are surprised when arriving to Machu Picchu how lush and vibrant the greenery is around them. They are expecting the altitude of Cusco, but instead find tropical forests and mountainsides blanketed in orchids. The Machu Picchu Sanctuary is more than just ruins, but part of a larger reserve rich in biodiversity. More than a dozen hummingbirds are found here, and rare species like the cock-of-the-rock or golden-headed quetzal can be spotted with the right guide. Even Andean spectacled bears, the same as Paddington, can be seen on very rare occasions on the mountain across from the Inkaterra Hotel.
Where to Stay & Eat—The base for most visitors, Aguas Calientes is a small, ramshackle tourist-trade village with the feel of a frontier town, dominated by sellers of cheap artesanía and souvenirs and weary backpackers resting up and celebrating their treks along the Inca Trail over cheap eats and cheaper beers. The Peruvian government has been doing its level best to spruce up the town, lest its ramshackle look turn off visitors to Peru’s greatest spectacle. It has fixed up the Plaza de Armas, built a nicely paved malecón riverfront area, and added new bridges over and new streets along the river. Attempts to give it a makeover have long been complicated by flooding and mudslides, the most recent in 2010 (when five people died and some 2,000 tourists were stranded at Machu Picchu, eventually evacuated by helicopter). Although Aguas Calientes does look
considerably better than it once did, and despite its spectacular setting—surrounded by cloud forest vegetation and Andean peaks on all sides—it’s still probably not a place you want to hang out for too long.
Active Pursuits—Most visitors come here for one thing: to visit Machu Picchu. Aside from climbing Huayna Picchu, the steep mountain overlooking Machu Picchu, those who stay a while can take several short hikes in the area. Of course, there’s the Inca Trail, the iconic 4- or 2-day hike to the ruins that is on everyone’s bucket list.
The Best Travel Experiences Around Machu Picchu
* Hiking the Inca Trail: Simply put, this is one of the world’s great hikes. Crossing from alpine tundra into cloud forest, over mountain passes and beside Inca ruins, opt between the rugged classic 4-day trek or a shortened 2-day walk.
* Climbing to Huayna Picchu: That towering mountain backdrop featured in every postcard of Machu Picchu? You can climb that. This steep hike along narrow paths gives you a viewpoint of the citadel unlike any other.
* Strolling in the Mandor Valley: Following the railroad tracks along the Vilcanota River from Aguas Calientes brings you to a world of green ferns and secluded waterfalls. Rich bird life awaits, too, so bring your binoculars.
* Taking the train from Ollantaytambo: Wending your way through the valley’s lush green fields, on the banks of the rushing Urubamba River and far below the towering Andes, is reward enough, but the sense of anticipation makes most people positively giddy.
* Spying orchids and bears at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel: Staying at this upscale ecolodge gets you easy access to the hotel’s 372 different native species of orchids, the world’s largest collection. The spectacled bear rehabilitation project is one of the few places you can get up close to this rare species.