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. If you can, opt to spend two nights, one before visiting Machu Picchu so you can be on the first bus up to the ruins in the morning, and one after your visit to allow you time to recuperate especially if you hike Huayna Picchu.
Buying a Ticket: In theory, Machu Picchu tickets can be purchased online with a Visa card on www.machupicchu.gob.pe but this option rarely works as there are often technical difficulties with the website; it’s advisable to purchase your tickets a month in advance. If you have your heart set on hiking Huayna Picchu, you need to contact a travel agency to purchase the ticket for you, at least 2 months in advance. If you arrive without an admission ticket, you must purchase one in Aguas Calientes at the Centro Cultural Machu Picchu (Avenida Pachacutec 103, 084/211–196 S/126 Daily 5:10 am–8:45 pm. No credit cards). 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. Buy your ticket the night before if you want to get in the park right away; bus service begins at 5:30 am. The ticket is valid only for the date it is purchased for. So if you arrive in the afternoon and visit the ruins, then stay the night and want to return the next morning, you’ll have to buy two tickets. The park is open from 6 am to 5:30 pm.
Catching the Bus: If you’re a day-tripper, follow the crowd out of the rail station about two blocks to the Consettur Machupicchu shuttle buses, which ferry you up a series of switchbacks to the ruins, a journey of 20 minutes. Buy your $19 round-trip ($10 one way) ticket at a booth across from the line of buses before boarding. Bus tickets can be purchased in US dollars or soles. If you’re staying overnight, check in to your lodging first, and then come back to buy a ticket.
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 to and from the ruins to Aguas Calientes but this hike will take you a good hour and a half either way.
Being Prepared: Being high above the valley floor makes you forget that Machu Picchu sits 2,490 meters (8,170 ft) above sea level, a much lower altitude than Cusco. 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. The office also has a simple free map of the ruins.
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 has a $40 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 re-enter to use them.
The Inca Trail, Abridged: Most Cusco tour operators market a two-day, one-night Inca Trail excursion. An Inca Trail permit is required and you must go with a licensed operator; book well in advance. The excursion begins at Km 104, a stop on the Cusco/Sacred Valley–Machu Picchu trains. All of the hiking happens on the first day, and you get to enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate and spend the night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes. The second day is not a trail hike, but a visit to the ruins.