Voted as one of the new 7 wonders of the world in 2007 and a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983, Machu Picchu is perhaps one of the the most famous sites in South America. It is a place of history and mystery. Originally unbeknownst to the outside world, Machu Picchu was made famous in 1911 when Hiram Bingham, a professor at Yale University, stumbled upon the Lost City of the Incas while trekking in the area. Bingham and his group encountered two families hiding in the ruins to avoid paying taxes on their agricultural products. It was actually one of the children of these two familes who guided Bingham to the main temple. It is strange to me to think that this amazing place could simply be abandoned and largely forgotten. Even the Spanish conquistadors had no idea that Machu Picchu existed. Despite being such a popular tourist site, remarkably little is known about what Machu Picchu was used for or why the Incas abandoned it.
Before You Go
Cusco is the main jumping off point to Machu Picchu and many other ruins in the Sacred Valley. It also has an international airport, many travel agencies, and even more tourists. Read more about what we did in Cusco in Anna´s last post.
The first thing you need to decide while in Cusco is if you want to visit Machu Picchu with a tour or go independently. We chose to do it independently because it allowed for more freedom and was more budget friendly. To find out how to visit Machu Picchu on our own, a gentleman in the tourist information office suggested that we go to several travel agencies to hear what they offer and then do it ourselves. In my opinion, this was one of the best travel tips we have received on our trip.
The second thing you need to decide is if you want to take the short (and expensive) route or the long (and cheaper) route. Either way, ask your hostel or hotel in Cusco if you can leave most of your stuff in their luggage storage and only take what you need for two or three days. Note: The third way to visit Machu Picchu is by hiking the Incan trail, but this requires planning several months ahead of time, and you must be in good phyiscal condition.
The third thing you need to decide is if you want to climb either Huyana Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. These two mountains are adjacent to the ruins and provide great views of the entire city. If you are doing Machu Picchu independently, make sure to buy your tickets for the city and the mountain(s) before leaving Cusco.
From Cusco, there are two routes: train & bus. The train takes approximately 3 hours, costs about $100 each way, and is supposed to be one of the most spectacular train rides in the world. There are two train companies, Peru Rail and Inca Rail, both offer regular service or cars with panoramic views. We heard that while choosing a seat, pick one on the left side for better views.
The bus option is a bit more complicated and less comfortable. It takes about 10 hours, but since it is less expensive and we were not pressed for time, we chose this route.
The first phase of the journey is the longest. Try to catch a bus to Santa Maria before 9am because the next bus does not leave until 1pm. Since we got there after the first buses left and did not want to wait, we took a micro (or minivan) from right outside the bus station. It takes 5 hours and cost 50 soles for the two of us. The actual bus is a little slower and a little cheaper. Bring layers since you go through some snowy areas as you climb to higher altitudes before descending into the warmer weather again.
After arriving in Santa Maria, take another 1-2 hour car ride past Santa Teresea to Hidroelectrica. This cost 30 soles for two people and was kind of thrilling since you drive along a cliff side on an unpaved, one lane road with vehicles going both ways in a station wagon packed with 4 people in the back seat and 2 in the trunk.
The final step is a 3 hour hike along the train tracks from Hidroelectrica to Machu Picchu pueblo or what is more commonly referred to as Aguas Calientes. Be careful of trains, but stay close to the railroad tracks the whole way into town. Once you go through two tunnels, you are almost there. If it is not to dark, look up and to the right while walking and you might be able to get a glimpse of Machu Pichu on top of the ridge. Bring a flashlight for the walk just in case.
Climbing To Machu Picchu
From Aguas Calientes, you can either take the bus to the entrance or hike. The bus is far more popular and costs 18.50 soles round trip. The first bus leaves at 5:30 AM, but you will need to stand in line earlier if you want to be on the first bus. Nearly everyone we talked to advised us to wake up early and get on the first bus so that you can be one of the first people in the ruins. The other option, the one we chose, is to hike.
The night before we went to Machu Picchu, we packed daypacks with snacks, a flashlight, and lots of water. We woke up at 4:00 AM and walked down past the bus station to Puente Ruinas where there was already a line forming. In my opinion, if there is ever a bridge that deserves the name Ruins Bridge (translated from Spanish), it is the one before Machu Picchu.
The bridge guard checked passports and tickets of everyone waiting to hike and opened the gate slightly after 5:00 AM. The hike is dark in the wee hours of the morning so use the flashlight you packed the night before and wear layers. It is cold in the beginning, but we got really warm while climbing the steep stone stairs. We crossed the road that the buses take 9 times, and it took us 50 minutes. Everyone was anxious to get to the top and started quickly, but if you start off too quickly, getting to the top will be extra hard. My recommendation is to go slow and steady. Be the tortuous, not the hare. Since we arrived literally right before the first bus we were fortunate enough to be two of the first five people to be let in and were able take some pictures of the magnificant ruins without any people.
Inside The Ruins
After snapping our people-free pictures, the first place we went was Inti Punku (or the sun gate). When we arrived, we came across several groups that were hiking the Incan trail for 4 days and learned that Inti Punku is where they catch their first glimpse of Machu Picchu. For our first time visiting Machu Picchu though, we were glad we were not hiking for that long beforehand because we felt we would be too tired to explore the Lost City of the Incas to the fullest. From Inti Punku, you can take cool overview pictures of the ruins with the snow capped mountains in the background.
Around 8 AM, we decided to get a guided tour of the city. As we approached the main section of the city we saw that there were many more people than earlier. Seeing this made us very greatful that we were some of the first few people inside and were able to get pictures without other tourists. If you want a guide, you should get one outside the entrance. However, since we entered so early, there were no guides waiting yet, and we needed to exit the park to find one. A private tour should cost 150 soles or you can do it with a group in Spanish or English for 20-30 soles a person. You are able to exit and enter the ruins as many times as needed during the day. This is nice since there are no bathrooms inside the ruins, but some outside the entrance (1 sole). There is also an expensive restaurant (16 soles for a frappicino – we fed two of us at our favorite restaurant in Cusco for that much), and baggage check for big bags (the one by restaurant costs 5 soles and the one inside costs 3 soles).
Because the guided tour of the main section of the city takes roughly two hours, this meant that we had to find a guide before 9 AM in order to climb Machu Picchu Montana. Our tour guide was informative, but it was also interesting to hear what the other guides had to say as we passed other groups. It was very easy for us to imagine people living on top of this mountian as we walked through the city (which is bigger than the pictures make it look). The Lost City is divided into three sections: agriculture, religious, and living. One of the most prominent features of Machu Picchu was the incredible stone work (part rebuilt) and the terraces that were used for growing food.
In the religious sector, we saw several temples and learned about the beliefs of the Incans. It was intriguing to learn that the three levels of the Temple of the Sun (the temple, the stone, and the cave) represented the three main gods (condor, puma, snake) and the three worldly levels (the sky, the earth, the underworld) respectively in the Incan belief system. Other points of interest include the slightly more creepy Temple of the Condor which was used for torture and sacrificial offerings, and the Temple of the Three Windows, which has a statue of the Andean cross that is placed perfectly so that its shadow would create a complete cross on the summer solstice. As we explored the rest of the city, the guide pointed out key places with the best views of the ruins, and we stopped to take pictures from where the classic picture of Machu Picchu was taken from.
At end of tour, our wonderfully helpful guide directed us to Machu Picchu mountain so we could get to the guardhouse before 11 AM. Our tour guide said that the mountain provides a better view than Huayna Picchu (the green sugar loaf mountain looming in the background of every picture of Machu Picchu) even though Huayna Picchu is much more popular. To give you an idea of how popular it is, when we visited Machu Picchu in July, Huayna Picchu was sold out until September, but some travel agencies in Cusco supposedly “know a guy” who can get you tickets (for a heavily inflated price of coarse).
Fun Fact: The actual name of the abandoned city is unknown, but people began to call it Machu Picchu because it rests under the “old mountain” of the same name. Machu Picchu means old mountain and Huayna Picchu means young mountain.
The hike up Machu Picchu mountain was quite difficult at times especially after hiking up to the entrance, then to the sun gate, and all around the city. Despite the difficulty of the climb, the view from the top was quite revitalizing and made the ascent totally worth it. I do not regret not being able to climb Huayna Picchu. It took us about 1.25 hours to reach the summit, but they say it is roughly a 2 hour hike up and 1 hour coming down. That estimate does not include the rest/picture time at the top. The trek down was quicker, but some of the steps were small for our large, American-sized feet. If we could do it again, we would climb the mountain first, then take the tour of the ruins.
Since most people who come to the Lost City of the Incas are there on pre-arranged tours, by the time we came down from the mountain, most people were gone. After making our way back to the main section of the city, we did a quick 20 minute trek to see the Inca bridge. The bridge itself was not all that impressive, but seeing the sheer rock cliff of Machu Picchu Montana added to the view. Then, we walked around the part of the city we did not see on the tour and saw another temple, the Seat of the Inca, some llamas, and the astrological observatory. By the end of all this we were so thirsty that we did not stay much longer and started the hike back down.
- It was a full day in the ruins: 5 AM – 4:15 PM
- Make sure to bring enough water – 3 water bottles was not enough for us and there is no place to get water while in the ruins
- Make sure you have hiking good shoes with grip on the bottom
- For more information about Machu Picchu and its discovery, read Hiram Bingam´s book entitled “The Lost City of the Incas“
- Take your time hiking and looking around. Our guided tour did not show us everything.
- Bring extra memory cards and batteries. We ran out of batteries on two cameras, and almost out of battery on my iPhone. You will want to be able to take as many pictures as you can.
- Final Thought: Isn´t it ironic that the only thing that is saved is what we call ruins?