One of the world’s most iconic images is the view of Machu Picchu from above, its geometric ruins perched at the intersection of cloud and mountain. In person, it is every bit as breathtaking and awe-inspiring as you’d hope. If you’re planning a trip to South America, Machu Picchu should absolutely be on your list.
The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu (in Quechua, “Old Mountain”) was built around 1450, but was only used for about 100 years before its inhabitants fled from Spanish conquistadors. (Talk about a lot of hard work gone to waste!) Abandoned, the city was largely forgotten about until being “re-discovered” in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham. Today, hundreds of thousands of people visit each year, posing unique preservation challenges to this historic site.
I’m not usually one to take guided tours, but here it’s well worth it; Edgar, our guide from the trek, brought to life the archaeology, history, and ceremonial purposes of Machu Picchu before giving us free rein to explore. He noted, though, that we should appreciate our open access to the grounds; in the future, they’ll likely close certain areas to the public to better preserve the integrity of the archaeological site so the days of free-range tourists may be nearing its end. Turns out, having 2,500 people tromp around each day really takes a number on the ruins…
As you explore, watch out for llamas grazing freely on the terraces. The park maintains several dozen of them to act as a natural groundskeepers and they do their job very charmingly. They’re quite gentle, but when one decides it’s time to go up or down the narrow steps, you’re well advised to jump out of their way! (Blaise learned this lesson a different way — while doing a watercolor on the terraces, he was surprised by a friendly llama who poked his head in to sniff the paints and had to be shooed away!)
Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of Machu Picchu was looking at the stone masonry. The Inca had developed an incredible method of cutting huge stones to lock together tightly and without mortar, which has been able to withstand the test of time. Believe me, I never would have thought that masonry could be interesting, but when you see the scale and intricacy of the stonework there, I guarantee you too will be impressed. 😉
The main archaeological grounds are surprisingly compact; we got there when the park opened and left in the early afternoon, and I felt like I had plenty of time to see everything. Unless you want a few extra hours to sketch, hike, or meditate, a half-day trip is probably fine. (Most visitors leave in the afternoon/early evening to catch the train back to Cusco, so you’ll be in good company!)
Plan ahead: A limited number of visitors are allowed at Machu Picchu each day for preservation reasons, so remember to buy your ticket ahead of time. (If you opted to do a trek, your tour operator will likely take care of this for you.)
You’ll have the option of also booking a separate ticket to hike up Huayna Picchu (“Young Mountain”), the huge peak that rises up behind the archaeological site. It’s a very steep uphill climb for about 45 minutes, but the views at the top are amazing — you look down on the actual archaeological site from above. If your knees are up for the challenge, I’d totally recommend it!
An advance ticket to climb Huayna Picchu is necessary, as there are only two windows per day that they allow hikers (7am and 10am) and both fill up ahead of time. We chose the 10am slot, which was perfect since we could fully enjoy the sunrise from the terraces before the hike.
If Huayna Picchu is full, you can also climb Machu Picchu Mountain, which doesn’t have a set limit of hikers. I can’t vouch for it personally, but two of my friends did it and said it was a lovely but looooong hike — whereas Huayna Picchu took us roughly 1.5 hours round-trip, they were out for about 4 hours and said it was harder than the other days on the Salkantay trek!
Getting to and from Machu Picchu: Unless you plan to trek to Machu Picchu, you’ll likely get there by train. Trains run between Cusco and Aguas Calientes fairly regularly, with some pick-up stops elsewhere in the Sacred Valley. From Aguas Calientes you can either take a (long) walk or a bus to get to the park entrance. My recommendation is to only spend one night in Aguas Calientes (the night before you plan to visit Machu Picchu), since it really lacks in charm; after your visit to Machu Picchu, plan on catching the train back to Cusco that same day.
Altitude: As I wrote more about in this post, when visiting this part of Peru, you need to be mindful of altitude sickness. A good way to prevent from getting sick (which I’d strongly recommend if you have the time) is to spend a few days in the Sacred Valley before you visit Machu Picchu, then visit Cusco (elevation 11,000′) at the end. That way, you’ll be going from lower to progressively higher elevations and giving your body more time to adjust. Also, drink lots of water and go easy on the alcohol.
Bonus tip: If you’re like me and enjoy filling up your passport with stamps (and who doesn’t!), there’s a free novelty stamp you can get just inside of the entrance gates. Just remember to do it before you exit the park. 😉