Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail Travel Guide

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail Sights

Machu Picchu

  • Av. Pachacutec 103 Map It
  • Aguas Calientes
  • Archaeological Site/Ruins

Published 02/07/2017

Fodor's Review

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 right 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, and the office past the entrance to the left has a simple map available for free. As of July 1, 2017, you must purchase your ticket for either the morning shift (6 am–noon) or afternoon (noon–5:30 pm), and you must be accompanied by a licensed guide. 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 until 2 pm.

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-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.

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 Cusqueñan 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: With the new 2017 rules, if you are just going to do a regular tour of Machu Picchu, you're probably best off getting a ticket for the afternoon shift and arriving at Aguas Calientes midmorning. 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 the night after your visit to allow you time to recuperate and to take a nice hot shower after hiking.

Buying a Ticket: In theory, Machu Picchu tickets can be purchased online with a Visa card on 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 two to three months in advance, more during high tourist season. If you arrive without an admission ticket, you must purchase one in Aguas Calientes at the Centro Cultural Machu Picchu (Av. Pachacutec 103, 084/211–196 S/152 Daily 5:45 am–8:30 pm. No credit cards. Purchase is in person only and with passport). 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 but people begin lining up for the bus long before. The ticket is valid only for the date it is purchased. 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.

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 can't enter without a guide, but also because the best ones tend to work with agencies and get booked up ahead of time.

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 at a booth across 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, printing out the reservation confirmation, and taking it to the booth. The website also offers the ability to pay with credit card but, again, this rarely works.

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 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 hour to an 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 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 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 US$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 reenter to use them, up to two times.

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.

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Sight Information


Ticket Office: Centro Cultural Machupicchu, Av. Pachacutec 103, just off Plaza de Armas, Aguas Calientes, Cusco, Peru

Map It


084-211–196-ticket office; 084-211–256-Aguas Calientes

Sight Details:

  • S/152; S/200 with Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain

Published 02/07/2017


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