Fodor's Expert Review Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail Ruins 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... READ MORE

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 v31539326, 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, 084/211–196 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 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.

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Ruins Flight Centre Historic District/Site Tour–Sight Historical Fodor's Choice

Quick Facts

Av. Pachacutec 103
Aguas Calientes, Cusco  Peru

084-211–196-(ticket office)

www.machupicchu.gob.pe

Sight Details:
Rate Includes: S/152; S/200 with Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain

What’s Nearby