The exquisite architecture of the massive Inca stone structures, the formidable backdrop of steep sugarloaf hills, and the Urubamba river winding far below have made Machu Picchu the iconic symbol of Peru. It's a mystical city, the most famous archaeological site in South America, and one of the world's must-see destinations.
You'll be acutely aware that the world has discovered Machu Picchu since Hiram Bingham's rediscovery in 1911 if you visit during the June–mid-September
high season. Machu Picchu absorbs the huge numbers of visitors, though, and even in the highest of the high season its beauty is so spectacular that it rarely disappoints.
All visitors must go through the main entrance to have their ticket stamped. You have to show your passport to enter Machu Picchu—if you want it stamped, be sure to stop by the office inside the gate to the left as you enter. From there you work your way up through the agricultural areas and to the urban sectors. There are almost no signs inside to explain what you're seeing; booklets and maps are for sale at the entrance, and the office past the entrance to the left has a simple map available for free.
The English-language names of the structures within the city were assigned by Bingham. Call it inertia, but those labels have stuck, even though the late Yale historian's nomenclature was mostly off base.
The Storage Houses are the first structures you encounter after coming through the main entrance. The Inca carved terraces into the hillsides to grow produce and minimize erosion. Corn was the likely crop cultivated.
The Guardhouse and Funeral Rock are a 20-minute walk up to the left of the entrance, and provide the quintessential Machu Picchu vista. Nothing beats the view in person, especially with a misty sunrise. Bodies of nobles likely lay in state here, where they would have been eviscerated, dried, and prepared for mummification.
The Temple of the Sun is a marvel of perfect Inca stone assembly. On June 21 (winter solstice in the southern hemisphere; sometimes June 20 or June 22), sunlight shines through a small, trapezoid-shape window and onto the middle of a large, flat granite stone presumed to be an Inca calendar. Looking out the window, astronomers saw the constellation Pleiades, revered as a symbol of crop fertility. Bingham dubbed the small cave below "the royal tomb," though no human remains were found at the time of his discovery.
Fountains. A series of 16 small fountains are linked to the Inca worship of water.
Palace of the Princess, a likely misnomer, is a two-story building that adjoins the temple.
The Principal Temple is so dubbed because its masonry is among Machu Picchu's best. The three-walled structure is a masterpiece of mortarless stone construction. A rock in front of the temple acts as a compass— test it out by placing your smartphone with compass app showing on top of it.
Three Windows. A stone staircase leads to the three-walled structure. The entire east wall is hewn from a single rock with trapezoidal windows cut into it.
Intihuatana. A hillock leads to the "hitching post of the sun." Every important Inca center had one of these vertical stone columns (called gnomons). Their function likely had to do with astronomical observation and agricultural planning. The Spanish destroyed most of them, seeing the posts as objects of pagan worship. Machu Picchu's is one of the few to survive—partially at least. Its top was accidentally knocked off in 2001 during the filming of a Cusqueña beer commercial.
The Sacred Rock takes the shape in miniature of the mountain range visible behind it.
Temple of the Condor is so named because the positioning of the stones resembles a giant condor, the symbol of heaven in the Inca cosmos. In this temple priests likely sacrificed llamas, pouring their blood onto the "condor's" head. The structure's many small chambers led Bingham to dub it a "prison," a concept that did not likely exist in Inca society.
Day Tripping vs. Overnight: You can visit Machu Picchu on a day trip, but we recommend staying overnight at a hotel in Aguas Calientes. A day trip allows you about four hours at Machu Picchu. If you stay overnight you can wander the ruins after most tourists have gone or in the morning before they arrive.
Buying a ticket: It is wise to purchase tickets to Machu Picchu online at least one month in advance, but if you arrive without an admission ticket you must purchase one in Aguas Calientes at the Centro Cultural Machupicchu (Avenida Pachacutec 103). There is no ticket booth at the ruins' entrance. If you are with a tour, the tickets are most likely taken care of for you. The ticket office in Aguas Calientes opens at 5:10 am, but you might want to buy your ticket the night before if you want to get in the park right away; bus service begins at 5:30 am. The park is open from 6 am to 5:30 pm. Peruvian soles are the only form of payment. The ticket is only valid for the date it is purchased for.
Catching the bus: If you're a day-tripper, follow the crowd out of the rail station about two blocks to the Consettur Machu Picchu shuttle buses, which ferry you up a series of switchbacks to the ruins, a journey of 20 minutes. Bus tickets can be purchased in U.S. dollars or soles. Buy your $17 USD round-trip ticket ($9 USD one-way) at a booth across from to the line of buses before boarding.
Buses leave Aguas Calientes for the ruins beginning at 5:30 am and continue more or less every 10 minutes, with a big push in mid-morning as the trains arrive, until the historic site closes around 5:30 pm. If you're heading back to Cusco, take the bus back down at least an hour before your train departs. It's also possible to walk from Aguas Calientes to the ruins and back, but this hike will take you a good hour and a half either way.
Being Prepared: It gets warm, and the ruins have little shade. Sunscreen, a hat, and water are musts. Officially, no food or drinks are permitted, but you can get away with a bottle of water and snacks. Large packs must be left at the entrance.
Practicalities: A snack bar is a few feet from where the buses deposit you at the gate to the ruins, and the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel up there, has a S/100 lunch buffet open to the public. Bathrooms cost S/1, and toilet paper is provided. There are no bathrooms inside the ruins, but you may exit and reenter to use them.
Ticket Office: Centro Cultural Machupicchu, Av. Pachacutec 103, just off the Plaza de Armas, Aguas Calientes, Peru
084-211–196-(ticket office); 084-211–256-Aguas Calientes
Mar 31, 2009
My big mistake the first time I went to Machu Picchu was trying to make the trip in a day. To fully appreciate it, you need to spend at least one night to give yourself the opportunity of exploring more thoroughly. One of the most amazing places I've seen in the whole world.