Since its rediscovery in 1911 and initial exploration by an American team of archaeologists from Yale during the next 4 years, the ruins of Machu Picchu have resonated far beyond the status of mere archaeological site. Reputed to be the legendary "lost city of the Incas," it is steeped in mystery and folklore. The unearthed complex, the only significant Inca site to escape the ravenous appetites of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, ranks as the top attraction in Peru, arguably the greatest in South America and, for my money, one of the world's most stunning sights. Countless glossy photographs of the stone ruins, bridging the gap between two massive Andean peaks and swathed in cottony clouds, just can't do it justice. I distinctly remember seeing pictures of Machu Picchu in a textbook when I was 5 years old and dreaming that someday I would go there. When I did, for the first time in 1983, the glorious city of the Incas more than lived up to all those years of expectation. It is dreamlikeand remains so, even though it's a mandatory visit for virtually everyone who travels to Peru.
Invisible from the Urubamba Valley below, Machu Picchu lay dormant for more than 4 centuries, nestled nearly 2,400m (8,000 ft.) above sea level under thick jungle and known only to a handful of Amerindian peasants. Never mentioned in the Spanish chronicles, it was seemingly lost in the collective memory of the Incas and their descendants. The ruins' unearthing, though, raised more questions than it answered, and experts still argue about the place Machu Picchu occupied in the Inca Empire. Was it a citadel? An agricultural site? An astronomical observatory? A ceremonial city or sacred retreat for the Inca emperor? Or some combination of all of these? Adding to the mystery, this complex city of exceedingly fine architecture and masonry was constructed, inhabited, and deliberately abandoned all in less than a century -- a mere flash in the 4,000-year-history of Andean Peru. Machu Picchu was very probably abandoned even before the arrival of the Spanish, perhaps as a result of the Incas' civil war. Or perhaps it was drought that drove the Incas elsewhere.
Bingham mistook Machu Picchu for the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last refuge of the rebellious Inca Manco Cápac. Machu Picchu, though, is not that lost city (which was discovered deeper in the jungle at Espíritu Pampa). Most historians believe that the 9th Inca emperor, Pachacútec (also called Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui) -- who founded the Inca Empire, established many of the hallmarks of its society, and built most of the greatest and most recognizable of Inca monuments -- had the complex constructed sometime in the mid-1400s, probably after the defeat of the Chancas, a rival group, in 1438. Machu Picchu appears to have been both a ceremonial and agricultural center. Half its buildings were sacred in nature, but the latest research findings indicate that it was a royal retreat for Inca leaders rather than a sacred city, per se. Never looted by the Spaniards, many of its architectural features remain in excellent condition -- even if they ultimately do little to advance our understanding of the exact nature of Machu Picchu.
One thing is certain: Machu Picchu is one of the world's great examples of landscape art. The Incas revered nature, worshiping celestial bodies and more earthly streams and stones. The spectacular setting of Machu Picchu reveals just how much they reveled in their environment. Steep terraces, gardens, and granite and limestone temples, staircases, and aqueducts seem to be carved directly out of the hillside. Forms echo the very shape of the surrounding mountains, and windows and instruments appear to have been constructed to track the sun during the June and December solstices. Machu Picchu lies 300m (1,000 ft.) lower than Cusco, but you'd imagine the exact opposite, so nestled are the ruins among mountaintops and clouds. The ruins are cradled at the center of a radius of Andean peaks, like the pistil at the center of a flower.
Appreciating Machu Picchu for its aesthetic qualities is no slight to its significance. The Incas obviously chose the site for the immense power of its natural beauty. They, like we, must have been in awe of the snowcapped peaks to the east; the rugged panorama of towering, forested mountains and the sacred cliff of Putukusi to the west; and the city sitting gracefully like a proud saddle between two huge cerros, or peaks. It remains one of the most thrilling sights in the world. At daybreak, when the sun's rays creep silently over the jagged silhouette, sometimes turning the distant snowy peaks fiery orange, and then slowly, with great drama, cast brilliant light on the ruins building by building and row by row, it's enough to move some observers to tears and others to squeals of delight.
Not a Woman's World -- For years, the world thought Machu Picchu had been almost entirely populated by the Inca's chosen "Virgins of the Sun." Bingham and his associates originally reported that more than three-quarters of the human remains found at the site were female. Those findings have been disproved, however; the sexual makeup of the inhabitants of Machu Picchu was no different than anywhere else in society: pretty much 50/50.
Visiting the Ruins
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and declared one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World," Machu Picchu's image around the world continues to grow, as does the number of people who want to visit the ruins. As many as 5,000 visitors a day visit Machu Picchu during high season, from May to October, and close to 1 million people visit Machu Picchu annually. You've got to arrive very early or stay pretty late for a bit of splendid Inca isolation, but Machu Picchu's huge numbers of visitors are rarely overwhelming. The place is large enough to escape most tour-group bottlenecks, although people fearful of the crush should plan to arrive as early as possible in the morning, especially to see the sun rise, and/or stay past 3pm. Perhaps the worst times to visit are from July 28 to August 10, when Peruvian national holidays land untold groups of schoolchildren and families at Machu Picchu, or solstice days (June 21 and Dec 21), when everyone descends on the ruins for a glimpse of the dazzling effects of the sun's rays. During the rainy season (Nov-Mar), you are very likely to get rain for (often) brief periods during the day, and Machu Picchu is usually obscured by clouds in the morning.
The ruins are open daily from dawn to dusk: The first visitors, usually those staying at the hotel or arriving from the Inca Trail, enter at 6am. Everyone is ushered out by 6pm. Tickets no longer can be purchased at the entrance; they must be purchased (take your passport) at the Machu Picchu Cultural Center in Aguas Calientes, Av. Pachacútec s/n (tel. 084/211-196), near the main plaza. They may also be purchased at the Instituto Nacional de Cultural (INC) offices in Cusco, on Calle San Bernardo s/n (tel. 084/246-074) several blocks from the Plaza de Armas. The entrance fee has doubled in the last few years to S/124 (half-price with an ISIC card; S/62 ages 8-21; free for children under 8). Some speculate that the fee may increase again in the near future, perhaps as by as much as 100%. Tickets are valid for 3 days from date of purchase, but are good for a single day's entrance only.
Along with your ticket, you will be given an official Institute of National Culture map of the ruins, which give the names of the individual sections, but no detailed explanations. English-speaking guides can be independently arranged on-site; most charge around $30 for a private 2-hour tour. Individuals can sometimes hook up with an established group for little more than $5 per person.
Package Visits to Machu Picchu -- Machu Picchu packages that include round-trip train fare between Cusco and Aguas Calientes, shuttle bus and admission to the ruins, a guided visit, and sometimes lunch at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge for same-day visits can be purchased from travel agencies in Cusco. Package deals generally start at around $150; it's worth shopping around for the best deal. Try Milla Turismo, Av.Pardo 689 (tel. 084/231-710; www.millaturismo.com); SAS Travel, Calle Garcilaso 270, Plaza San Francisco (tel. 084/249-194; www.sastravelperu.com); Chaska Tours, Garcilaso 265, 2nd Floor (tel. 084/240-424; www.chaskatours.com); or any of the tour agencies listed later in this section that organize Inca Trail treks. Packages that include overnight accommodations at the ruins or in Aguas Calientes can also be arranged.
Howling at the Moon -- For a truly spectacular experience on the Inca Trail, plan your trip to coincide with a full moon (ideally, departing 2 or 3 days beforehand). Locals say the weather's best then, and having your nights illuminated by a full or near-full moon, especially for the early rise and push into Machu Picchu on the last day, is unforgettable.
Inside the Ruins
After passing through the entrance, you can either head left and straight up the hill, or go down to the right. The path up to the left takes you to the spot above the ruins, near the Caretaker's Hut and Funerary Rock that affords the classic postcard overview of Machu Picchu. If you are here early enough for sunrise (6:30-7:30am), by all means do this first. The hut overlooks rows and rows of steep agricultural terraces (generally with a few llamas grazing nearby). In the morning, you might see exhausted groups of trekkers arriving from several days and nights on the Inca Trail. (Most arrive at the crack of dawn for their reward, a celebratory sunrise.)
From this vantage point, you can see clearly the full layout of Machu Picchu, which had defined agricultural and urban zones; a long dry moat separates the two sectors. Perhaps a population of 1,000 lived here at the high point of Machu Picchu.
Head down into the main section of the ruins, past a series of burial grounds and dwellings and the main entrance to the city. A section of stones, likely a quarry, sits atop a clearing with occasionally great views of the snowcapped peaks (Cordillera Vilcabamba) in the distance (looking southwest).
Down a steep series of stairs is one of the most famous Inca constructions, the Temple of the Sun (also called the Torreón). The rounded, tapering tower has extraordinary stonework, the finest in Machu Picchu: Its large stones fit together seamlessly. From the ledge above the temple, you can appreciate the window perfectly aligned for the June winter solstice, when the sun's rays come streaming through at dawn and illuminate the stone at the center of the temple. The temple is cordoned off, and entry is not permitted. Below the temple, in a cave carved from the rock, is a section traditionally called the Royal Tomb, even though no human remains have been found there. Inside is a meticulously carved altar and series of niches that produce intricate morning shadows. To the north, just down the stairs that divide this section from a series of dwellings called the Royal Sector, is a still-functioning water canal and series of interconnected fountains. The main fountain is distinguished by both its size and excellent stonework.
Back up the stairs to the high section of the ruins (north of the quarry) is the main ceremonial area. The Temple of the Three Windows, each trapezoid extraordinarily cut with views of the bold Andes in the distance across the Urubamba gorge, is likely to be one of your lasting images of Machu Picchu. It fronts one side of the Sacred Plaza. To the left, if you're facing the Temple of the Three Windows, is the Principal Temple, which has masterful stonework in its three high walls. Directly opposite is the House of the Priest. Just behind the Principal Temple is a small cell, termed the Sacristy, renowned for its exquisite masonry. It's a good place to examine how amazingly these many-angled stones (one to the left of the doorjamb has 32 distinct angles) were fitted together by Inca stonemasons.
Up a short flight of stairs is the Intihuatana, popularly called the "hitching post of the sun." It looks to be a ritualistic carved rock or a sort of sundial, and its shape echoes that of the sacred peak Huayna Picchu beyond the ruins. The stone almost certainly functioned as an astronomical and agricultural calendar (useful in judging the alignment of constellations and solar events and, thus, the seasons). It does appear to be powerfully connected to mountains in all directions. The Incas built similar monuments elsewhere across the empire, but most were destroyed by the Spaniards (who surely thought them to be instruments of pagan worship). The one at Machu Picchu survived in perfect form for nearly 5 centuries until 2001, when a camera crew sneaked in a 1,000-pound crane, which fell over and chipped off the top section of the Intihuatana.
Follow a trail down through terraces and past a small plaza to a dusty clearing with covered stone benches on either side. Fronting the square is a massive, sculpted Sacred Rock, whose shape mimics that of Putukusi, the sacred peak that looms due east across the valley. This area likely served as a communal area for meetings and perhaps performances. Many locals (as well as visitors) believe that the Sacred Rock transmits a palpable force of energy; place your palms on it to see if you can tap into it.
To the left of the Sacred Rock, down a path, is the gateway to Huayna Picchu, the huge outcrop that serves as a dramatic backdrop to Machu Picchu. Although it looks forbidding and is very steep, anyone in reasonable shape can climb it. The steep path up takes most visitors about an hour or more, although some athletic sorts ascend the peak in less than 25 minutes. Note that only 400 people per day (admitted in two groups: 7–8am and 10–11am) are permitted to make the climb, and there is an additional cost associated with it. If you are keen on ascending Huyana Picchu for the views and exercise, make your reservations as far in advance as possible. At the top, you'll reach a platform of sorts, which is as far as many get, directly overlooking the ruins. Others who've come this far and are committed to reaching the apex continue on for a few more minutes, up through a tight tunnel carved out of the stone, to a rocky perch with 360-degree views. There's room for only a handful of hikers up there, and the views are so astounding that many are tempted to hang out for hours—so new arrivals might need to be patient to win their place on the rock. The views of Machu Picchu below and the panorama of forested mountains are quite literally breathtaking.
Ascending Huayna Picchu is highly recommended for energetic sorts of any age, but young children are not allowed. In wet weather, you might want to reconsider, though, because the stone steps can get slippery and become very dangerous.
Returning back down the same path (frighteningly steep at a couple points) is a turnoff to the Temple of the Moon, usually visited only by Machu Picchu completists. The trail dips down into the cloud forest and then climbs again, and is usually deserted. Cleaved into the rock at a point midway down the peak and perched above the Río Urubamba, it almost surely was not a lunar observatory, however. It is a strangely forlorn and mysterious place of caverns, niches, and enigmatic portals, with some terrific stonework, including carved thrones and an altar. Despite its modern name, the temple was likely used for worship of the Huayna Picchu mountain spirit. The path takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours round-trip from the detour.
Passing the guard post (where you'll need to sign out), continue back into the main Machu Picchu complex and enter the lower section of the ruins, separated from the spiritually oriented upper section by a Central Plaza. The lower section was more prosaic in function, mostly residential and industrial. Eventually, you'll come to a series of cells and quarters, called the Group of the Three Doors and the Mortar District or Industrial Sector. By far, the most interesting part of this lower section is the Temple of the Condor. Said to be a carving of a giant condor, the dark rock above symbolizes the great bird's wings and the pale rock below quite clearly represents its head. You can actually crawl through the cave at the base of the rock and emerge on the other side.
Apart from the main complex, west of Machu Picchu, is the Inca Bridge, built upon stacked stones and overlooking a sheer, nearly 2,000 ft drop. Critical to the citadel's defense, the bridge can be reached in an easy half hour from a clearly marked narrow trail.
For those who haven't yet had their fill of Machu Picchu, the climb up to Intipunku (Sun Gate) is well worth it. The path just below the Caretaker's Hut leads to the final pass of the route Inca Trail hikers use to enter the ruins. The views from the gateway, with Huayna Picchu looming in the background, are spectacular. Two stone gates here correspond to the all-important winter and summer solstices; on those dates, the sun's rays illuminate the gates like a laser.
For a more detailed guide of the ruins and Machu Picchu's history, Peter Frost's Exploring Cusco (Nuevas Imágenes, 1999), available in Cusco bookstores, is quite excellent.
Inca Trail Regulations
For decades, individuals trekked the Inca Trail on their own, but hundreds of thousands of visitors -- more than 75,000 a year -- have left behind so much detritus that not only was the experience compromised for most future trekkers, but the very environment was also placed at risk. The entire zone has suffered grave deforestation and erosion. The Peruvian government, under pressure from international organizations, has finally instituted changes and restrictions designed to lessen the human impact on the trail and on Machu Picchu itself: In the first couple of years, regulations were poorly enforced, but in 2003, the government announced its intentions to fully and strictly enforce them.
All trekkers are now required to go accompanied by a guide and a group. In addition, the overall number of trekkers permitted on the trail was significantly reduced, to 200 per day; the maximum number of trekkers per group outing is capped at 16; only professionally qualified and licensed guides are allowed to lead groups on the Inca Trail; the maximum loads porters can carry has been limited to 20 kilograms (44 lb.); tourists are no longer permitted to travel on the local train from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (or vice versa); and all companies must pay porters the minimum wage (about $15 per day).
These changes have cut the number of trekkers on the trail in half and have made reservations essential in high season. Guarantee your space on the trail by making a reservation at least 15 days in advance of your trip (but 4-6 months or more in advance for high season May-Oct; reservations can be made as much as a year in advance). Travelers willing to wing it stand an outside chance of still finding available spots a week or few days before embarking on the trail, perhaps even at discounted rates, but waiting until you arrive in Cusco is a ridiculous risk if you're really counting on doing the Inca Trail.
The key changes for travelers are that it is no longer possible to go on the trail independently and no longer dirt-cheap to walk 4 days to Machu Picchu. The good news is that the trail is more organized and that hope for its preservation is greater.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.