5 Best Sights in Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, Peru

Machu Picchu

Fodor's choice

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 first visit 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 table on the left as you exit the site.

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. You must purchase your ticket for the hour of entrance. The first slot begins at 6 am, and continues hourly through to 3 pm, which is the final slot. According to regulations, you must be accompanied by a licensed guide, although this is not necessarily enforced. You will have just four hours in the site from entrance to exit. If you purchase an entry to hike Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, you may stay in the site for six hours.

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 they 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-shaped 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.

The 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.

The 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: If you are just doing a regular tour of Machu Picchu, you're probably best off arriving at Aguas Calientes midmorning and getting a ticket for the hour 30 minutes after your arrival. You still may want to stay the night in Aguas Calientes so that you don't have such a long day of travel. If you're going to hike one of the mountains, then you will need to spend the night before in town in order to arrive in time for your hike. In that case, you may also want to spend a second night, after your visit, to allow you time to recuperate and to take a nice, hot, post-hike shower.

Buying a Ticket: Machu Picchu tickets can be purchased online with a Visa card on www.machupicchu.gob.pe, and it’s advisable to purchase your tickets at least a month in advance. If you have your heart set on hiking Huayna Picchu, you need to purchase the ticket at least two to three months in advance, more during high tourist season. If you arrive in Peru without an admission ticket, you must purchase one in Cusco or in Aguas Calientes at the Centro Cultural Machu Picchu (Av. Pachacutec 103, 084/211–196S/152Daily 5:45 am–8:30 pm. No credit cards. Purchase is in person only and with passport). There is no ticket booth at the site's entrance. If you are with a tour, the tickets are most likely taken care of for you. If you wait until you arrive in Aguas Calientes, however, you may not have much choice in entrance times. Bus service begins at 5:30 am, and with the new timed entries, you can wait to line up 30 minutes before your hour. The ticket is valid only for the date it is purchased. So if you visit the ruins in the afternoon, and plan to stay the night and return the next morning, you’ll have to buy two tickets. The park is open from 6 am to 5:30 pm.

Hiring a Guide: There are always guides for hire waiting outside Machu Picchu. With the new rules, the numbers are likely to increase; however, you are best off booking your Machu Picchu trip with an agency, not only because you may not be able to enter without a guide, but also because the best ones tend to work with agencies and get booked up ahead of time. People with guides are given preference in the line to enter.

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 US$24 round-trip (US$12 one-way) ticket up the street from the line of buses before boarding. Bus tickets can be purchased in U.S. dollars or soles. If you’re staying overnight, check in to your lodging first, and then come back to buy a ticket. Although there is no assigned seating, tickets will have your name and passport number on them. Save time by making a reservation at www.consettur.com, printing out the reservation confirmation, and taking it to the booth. The website also offers the ability to pay with credit card, but this does not always work.

Buses leave Aguas Calientes for the site beginning at 5:30 am and continue more or less every 10 minutes, with a big push in midmorning 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 60 to 90 minutes either way, and it doesn't offer much in the way of interesting views.

Being Prepared: Being high above the valley floor makes you forget that Machu Picchu sits 2,490 meters (8,170 feet) 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 bring in a reusable bottle of water. Large packs must be left at the entrance.

Practicalities: A snack bar is a few feet from where the buses deposit you at the entrance gate, and the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge Machu Picchu has a US$40 lunch buffet open to the public. Bathrooms cost S/1, and toilet paper is provided. There are no bathrooms inside the sanctuary, and you may not exit and reenter to use the ones outside.

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 train line. 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 guided visit to the site.

Av. Pachacutec 103, Aguas Calientes, Cusco, Peru
084-211–256-Aguas Calientes
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/152; S/200 with Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, Ticket office: 5:45 am–8:30 pm; Machu Picchu ruins: 6 am–5:30 pm

Hikes from Machu Picchu

If you didn't hike the Inca Trail, you can take a 45-minute walk on a gentle arc leading uphill to the southeast of the main complex. Intipunku, the Sun Gate, is a small structure in a nearby pass. This ancient checkpoint is where you'll find that classic view that Inca Trail hikers emerge upon. The walk along the way yields some interesting and slightly different angles as well. Some minor ancient outbuildings along the path occasionally host grazing llamas.

Built rock by rock up a hair-raising stone escarpment, the Inca Bridge is yet another example of Inca engineering ingenuity. From the cemetery at Machu Picchu, it's a 30-minute walk along a narrow path. Note that you may need to buy two entrance tickets, one for the morning and one for the afternoon, in order to have your guided tour and do the Intipunku hike.

The Huayna Picchu trail, which follows an ancient Inca path, leads up the famous sugarloaf hill in front of Machu Picchu for an exhilarating trek. Limited to 400 visitors daily at two entrance times (7–8 am and 10–11 am), tickets must be purchased at the same time as your entrance tickets for Machu Picchu (combined price S/200, S/152 for Machu Picchu plus the S/48 for Huayna Picchu). The arduous, vertiginous hike up a steep, narrow set of Inca-carved steps to the summit and back takes between two and three hours round-trip, and there are some Inca structures at the top. Bring insect repellent; the gnats can be ferocious. An alternate route down from Huayna Picchu (at least 1½ to 2 hours down and back over to Machu Picchu) takes you to the Temple of the Moon/Great Cave (Templo de la Luna/Gran Caverna). It's not an easy venture, but it's well worth the opportunity to be in nature without the crowds. Give yourself five hours for the whole route with time to stop.

Hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain is another possibility. Tickets for this must also be purchased at the same time as the entrance to the site itself (combined price S/200). Entrance is allowed at two times: between 7 and 8 am and between 9 and 10 am. This hike is longer than that to the top of Huayna Picchu but somewhat less steep and harrowing. There are no structures on this mountain, and the bird's-eye views of the Machu Picchu site are from farther away.

Only with entrances to one of the two mountains are you allowed to stay in the site for more than four hours: with these permits, you may stay for a total of six hours.

Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, Cusco, Peru
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/200 combined entrance to Machu Picchu with either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain

Inca Trail

One of the world's signature outdoor excursions, the Inca Trail (Camino Inca) is a 43-km (26-mile) sector of the stone path that once extended from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Nothing matches the sensation of walking over the ridge that leads to Bingham's Lost City of the Incas just as the sun casts its first yellow glow over the ancient stone buildings.

There are limits on the number of trail users, but you'll still see a lot of fellow trekkers along the way. The four-day trek takes you past ancient structures and through stunning scenery, starting in the thin air of the highlands and ending in cloud forests. The orchids, hummingbirds, and spectacular mountains aren't bad either.

You must go with a guide and a licensed tour operator, one accredited by SERNANP, the organization that oversees the trail and limits the number of hikers to 500 per day (including guides and porters). There are some 260 such licensed operators in Cusco.

May through September is the best time to make the four-day trek; rain is more likely in April and October and a certainty the rest of the year. The trail fills up during the dry high season. Make reservations at least four months in advance if you want to hike then—two months in advance the rest of the year. Some companies are now bypassing the third night of camping and going straight to Aguas Calientes that night. The trek is doable during the rainy season but can become slippery and muddy by November; it closes for maintenance each February.

Inca Trail Day by Day

Most agencies begin the Inca Trail trek at Km 82, after a two- to three-hour bus ride from Cusco. Tip: opting to stay overnight in Ollantaytambo will allow you to get a bit more sleep before starting out.

Day 1: Compared to what lies ahead, the first day's hike is a reasonably easy 11 km (6.8 miles). You'll encounter fantastic Inca structures almost immediately. An easy ascent takes you to the first of those, Patallaqta (also called Llactapata). The name means "town on a hillside" in Quechua, and it is thought to have been a village in Inca times. Bingham and company camped here on their first excursion to Machu Picchu. You will see different types of architecture here, both pre-Inca and Inca.

At the end of the day, you arrive at Huayllabamba (also called Wayllamba), the only inhabited village on the trail and your first overnight. If the plan is to stay at Aguas Calientes the third night, you'll likely press on to the campsite at Ayapata.

Day 2: This will be your most challenging day of hiking. It's another 10-km (6.2-mile) hike, but with a gain of 1,200 meters (3,940 feet) in elevation. The day is most memorable for the spectacular views and muscle aches after ascending Dead Woman's Pass (also known as Warmiwañusca) at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet). The pass is named for the silhouette created by its mountain ridges—they resemble a woman's head, nose, chin, and chest.

A tricky descent takes you to Pacaymayu, the second night's campsite, and you can pat yourself on the back for completing the hardest section of the Inca Trail. If cutting out the third night, you'll likely go on to Chaquicocha.

Day 3: Downhill! You'll cover the most ground today (16 km, 9.9 miles), descending 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) to the subtropical cloud forest where the Amazon Basin begins. There's some of the most stunning mountain scenery you'll see during the four days. The structure at Runkuraqay was a circular Inca storage depot for products transported between Machu Picchu and Cusco. It may have also been used for astrological purposes.

You also pass by Sayacmarca, possibly a way station for priests and others traversing the trail.

Most excursions arrive by midafternoon at Huiñay Huayna (also known as Wiñaywayna), the third night's stopping point, at what may now seem a low and balmy 2,712 meters (8,900 feet). If heading on, you will have lunch here and keep going through the Sun Gate and down to Aguas Calientes to spend the night in a hotel. After dinner, there is usually a ceremony to say thank you and good-bye to your cook and porters, as well as to tip them.

There is time to see Puyupatamarca (also known as Phuyupatamarca), a beautifully restored site with ceremonial baths and perhaps the best of the Inca structures on the hike. At this point, you catch your first glimpse of Machu Picchu peak, but from the back side.

Day 4: Day 4 means the grand finale, arrival at Machu Picchu, the reason for the trek in the first place. You'll be roused from your sleeping bag well before dawn to hike your last 6 km (3.7 miles) to arrive at the sanctuary in time to catch the sunrise. You'll be amazed at the number of fellow travelers who forget about their soreness and sprint this last stretch.

The trail takes you past the Intipunku, the Sun Gate. Bask in your first sight of Machu Picchu and your accomplishment, but you'll need to circle around and enter the site officially through the entrance gate—and don't forget to get your passport stamped as you exit, you've earned it.

If you have spent the night in Aguas Calientes, you will take the bus up early in order to enter at 6 am when the site opens.

Prepping for the Inca Trail

You Must Use a Guide: You must use a licensed tour operator, one accredited by SERNANP, the organization that oversees the trail and limits the number of hikers to 500 per day, including guides and porters. There are some 260 such licensed operators in Cusco.

When to Go: May through September is the best time to make the four-day trek; rain is more likely in April and October and a certainty the rest of the year. The trail fills up during the dry high season. Make reservations months in advance if you want to hike then—weeks in advance the rest of the year. The trek is doable during the rainy season, but can become slippery and muddy by November, and closes for maintenance each February.

Getting Ready: Tour operators in Cusco will tell you the Inca Trail is of “moderate” difficulty, but it can be rough going, especially the first couple of days. You must be in decent shape, even if your agency supplies porters to carry your pack—current regulations limit the porter’s load to 18 kg (39.6 pounds) including his own gear. Agencies will typically offer a “half-porter” with a limit of 7 kg (15.4 pounds) for your personal gear. The trail is often narrow and hair-raising and can be challenging for those with a fear of heights, although most will be fine. Hiking Huayna Picchu, however, is not recommended for those with a serious fear of heights. As the mountains sometimes rise to over 4,198 meters (13,775 feet), be wary of altitude sickness. Give yourself two or three days in Cusco or the Sacred Valley to acclimatize. There are seven well-spaced, designated campsites along the trail.

While You’re Hiking

Food: All operators have their own chefs that run ahead of you with the porters, set up camp, and create culinary feasts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This will probably be some of the best camp food you’ll ever have and maybe some of the best food while in Peru. We’re talking quinoa porridge with blueberries, chicken soup, and gourmet pasta dishes.

Campsites: There are seven well-spaced, designated campsites along the trail.

Coca Leaves: Although after Day 2 it is a gradual descent into Machu Picchu, you’re still high enough to feel the thin air. You’ll notice porters chewing coca throughout the trek. Coca leaves are a mild stimulant as well as an appetite, pain, and hunger suppressant. You’ll only need about one bag of your own (about S/2) for the trail. To properly enjoy the leaves, remove and discard the stems from about 15 of them. Stack the leaves on top of each other, and roll them into a tight little bundle. Place the bundle between your gum and cheek on one side, allowing the leaves to soften up for about two minutes. Eventually, the juice will start coming out—you aren't really meant to chew them. It’s quite a bitter taste, but you’ll feel better. All tour operators will also serve tea during snack breaks.

Bathrooms: Toilets could be a lot worse. On most you'll be able to sit down (should you want to), they generally flush, and there are usually working sinks to wash up. You must bring your own toilet paper wherever you go. Campsites all have toilets, but the trail itself does not. Many trail operators are now bringing along toilet tents as well.

Luggage: Check with your tour operator before you go, and pack as lightly as possible. If you hire porters, they’re probably going to be carrying a lot more than just your things on their backs. An American-style backwoods backpack is not the right piece of luggage—it weighs a lot on its own and is an awkward shape for the porters to incorporate into their massive bundles. A simple duffel bag is best and is often provided by the agency you use. You should leave the rest of your belongings with your hotel in Cusco or the Sacred Valley.

Staying in Ollantaytambo the night before will allow you to get a bit more sleep before the trek.

Start: Km 82, Ollantaytambo, Cusco, Peru

Recommended Fodor's Video

Mercado Artesanal

A warren of vendors' stalls lines the couple of blocks between the train station and the bus stop for shuttle transport up to the ruins. You can find some souvenirs here that you may not see in Cusco. The prices for crafts such as textiles, bags, and magnets may or may not be cheaper (this largely depends on your negotiating skill and patience), but it's a great way to spend time before your train leaves.

Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballón

The museum, dedicated to the history, culture, and rediscovery of Machu Picchu, sits on the way up to the ruins about 2 km (1 mile) from the edge of town at the entrance to the national park. Walking is the best way to get here. Plan on about a 30-minute hike. You'll get a bit more insight at the Casa Concha Museum in Cusco, where the repatriated artifacts returned from Yale University are being exhibited, but there are some interesting pieces on display here, some recovered as recently as 2004. Admission also includes entrance to a small but interesting botanical garden at the same site.

2 km (1 mile) from Aguas Calientes, Aguas Calientes, Cusco, Peru
No phone
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/22, Daily 9–4