Earth : South America : Peru : Southern Sierra (Peru) : Sacred Valley of the Incas : Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is the site of an ancient Inca city, high in the Andes of Peru. Located at 2,430m (8,000 ft), this UNESCO World Heritage site is often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas". It's one of the most familiar symbols of the Incan Empire and also one of the most famous and spectacular sets of ruins in the world. A visit to Peru would not be complete without seeing it, but this can be very expensive and crowded.
These remarkable ruins became known to the scientific world in 1911, after the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham was led to the site by locals. Perched dramatically 1000 feet above the Urubamba river, Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also the end point of the most popular hike in South America, the Inca Trail.
The story of Machu Picchu is quite a remarkable one; it is still unknown exactly what the site was in terms of its place in Inca life. Current researchers tend to believe that Machu Picchu was a country resort for elite Incas. At any given time, there were no more than 750 people living at Machu Picchu, with far fewer than that during the rainy season. The Incas started building it around 1430AD, but it was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a hundred years later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.
One thing that is clear is that it was a remarkably well hidden place, and well protected. Located far up in the mountains of Peru, visitors had to travel up long valleys littered with Inca check points and watch towers. Remarkably, the Spanish conquistadors missed the site. However, many people are said to have knowledge of the ancient city as it was referred to in some text found in the 20th century; even so, it was not until Bingham that Machu Picchu was scientifically discovered (he was on a trip sponsored by the Yale University, actually looking for Vilcabamba, the last Inca hideout).
Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place.
Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its primary buildings are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu. In September 2007, Peru and Yale University reached an agreement regarding the return of artefacts which Hiram Bingham had removed from Machu Picchu in the early twentieth century.
Flora and fauna
Both are abundant and varied. Typical plant life in the historic reserve of Machu Picchu includes pisonayes, q'eofias, alisos, puya palm trees, ferns and more than 90 species of orchids.
The fauna in the reserve includes the spectacled bear, cock-of-the-rocks or "tunqui", tankas, wildcats and an impressive variety of butterflies and insects unique in the region.
The lay of the land, the natural surroundings and the strategic location of Machu Picchu lend this monument a fusion of beauty, harmony and balance between the work of the ancient Peruvians and the whims of nature.
Machu Picchu is located on a mountain ledge, a couple of hundred metres above the valley and river. There is no direct way to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco, and you will have to use a combination of transport to get there, unless you walk the entire way. There is a road as far as Ollantaytambo from Cusco, and a railway from Cusco via Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu then lies at the top of the mountain above Aguas Calientes. A road goes up the mountain from Aguas Calientes. There is no public road access to Aguas Calientes from Cusco or Ollantaytambo.
There are a few ways to reach Machu Picchu. Most tourists either hike the Inca Trail, or use the train & bus combo via Ollantaytambo/Aguas Calientes:
- Hike the Inca Trail (you need to book months in advance in high season and you cannot go independently)
- There are tour operator agencies to organise an adrenaline trip to Machu Picchu: biking, rafting, hiking and zip lining. This is usually marketed as the Inka Jungle trek to Machu Picchu.
- The Lares Trek is a high altitude trek
- Minibus to Hidroelectrica through Santa Maria and Santa Teresa (altogether around PEN40 one way, allow 6-7 hours, you might have to change in Santa Maria and/or Santa Teresa). Then you can walk along the railway from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes (free, 2.5-3h) or take the train (USD28 one way). If you go for this option, ask around agencies in Cuzco as it might be cheaper to buy a package that includes the trains to and from Hidroelectrica, buses from Aguas Calientes to MP, minibuses between Hidroelectrica and Cuzco, accommodation in Aguas Calientes and the ticket to MP. The package might be cheaper than going independently, although you will be less flexible once you buy the package.
The wet season in Peru is from November (often only really taking off in December) until the end of March, so then it is best to include a few extra days for flexibly dealing with delays.
From Aguas Calientes, there are two ways to reach the ruins: by bus (USD 24 for a return ticket, with each leg taking 20 minutes) or walking (free steep hike), as described below.
Depending on when you arrive, the site may be quite crowded or nearly deserted. The busiest periods are in the dry season (June-August), with the slowest being in February, the height of the rainy season, when the Inca Trail is closed. Most visitors arrive on package tours and are in the park between 10:00 and 14:00. All visitors must leave Machu Picchu by 17:00
To access the site, you must have a ticket (128 sol / 65 sol for students with ISIC card) for Machu Picchu - which are available online in advance (see Fees/Permits below for more details) or from various ticket offices described on that website, including one across from the town hall in Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate and are limited to 2500 per day, with entrance to Huayna Picchu and Montana Machu Picchu each being further limited to 400. During peak times of the year, tickets can sell out days in advance.
By train to Aguas Calientes
There are a number train companies operating to Aguas Calientes, the end of the line, most of which start from Ollantaytambo. If you are travelling from Cusco, you have three main options.
1) Take a minibus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (roughly 90 minutes), stay the night, then take a morning train to Aguas Calientes, arriving in Macchu Pichu relatively early (around 9am) 2) Take the minibus to Ollantaytambo, and get straight on a train to Aguas Calientes, and stay the night there. In the morning you can get an early bus up to Macchu Pichu avoiding the later crowds. 3) You can also do a (long) daytrip from Cusco, but getting a very early bus to Ollantaytambo, then a train to Aguas Calientes around 9am. You’ll arrive in Macchu Pichhu around 12 noon. You can then either get a late train back, then minibus to Cusco, or stay in Aguas Calientes or Ollantaytambo. 4) Take the very expensive Belmond Hiram Bingham train, which runs from near Cusco directly to Aguas Calientes. This service is timed to offer day trips from Cusco.
Overnighting allows you to visit the park early or late in the day and avoid the worst of the crowds, and on sunny days, gives you a nice window of reprieve from the beating sun. Don't forget sunblock. However, it can be quite foggy in the morning, especially in the rainy season.
Ollantaytambo is small, and a good option for a night before an early train. Aguas Calientes is much larger, busier and noiser, but also have a much larger range of hotels and restaurants.
Train tickets are probably the most expensive in the world (by distance). A one way ticket from Ollantaytambo will set you back USD55-80 and from Cuzco even more. There is a luxurious service that can cost as much as USD700. Peru Rail (Cusco or Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes) is a concession run by foreign investors, so much of the money does not stay in Peru. (Some people take this into account when they choose their way to get to Machu Picchu.) Inca Rail (Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes) is a concession run by Peruvian investors. Advance train bookings are recommended, as trains are often sold-out, particularly return trains but you can typically get a last minute booking on the extremely early morning train.
The final train of the day from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo arrives around 11pm. There are normally plenty of taxis and minibuses waiting for customers to drive back to Cusco, where you’ll arrive around 1am. Make sure you don’t take too long to get off the train, as there is normally a mad scramble to get going ASAP. Alternatively stay in Ollantaytambo.
Whilst train fares are high, service is generally good both at offices, and on-board. Even the cheapest class of train includes a drink and snack, and the trains are clean and comfortable. Whilst at the stations, you may see less comfortable and very busy trains full of people. These are for Peruvians only (mostly workers in Aguas Calientes). The fares are tiny in comparison to the tourist trains, but without a Peruvian ID card, you won’t be sold a ticket, or be allowed on board. There are ID checks for all passengers on all trains when boarding. In Aguas Calientes, make sure you proceed through the manned gate to the tourist waiting room, and not to stop or join the queue for the locals train to your left when entering the station.
By bus from Aguas Calientes
Most people will choose to take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Macchu Pichu, as the walk is long and hard, and seldom with good views.
If arriving by train into Aguas Calientes, walk out of the station and keep going roughly straight through the warren of handicraft stalls and over a foot bridge to the bus departure area. Frequent buses leave to the ruins (USD12 one way or USD24 for a return tickets for adult foreigners) starting at 05:30. There's often a queue, so if you're intent on being on the first bus up, you should arrive at least 90 minutes early. They only accept cash, either USD or Sol, and need to see ID. The journey takes around 30 minutes to slowly wind around the switchbacks and up to the park. Buses depart when full, which typically means they run quite regularly. At popular times, there may be a lengthy queue for the buses and a lengthy queue to buy bus tickets, so plan the return trip accordingly in order not to miss train departures.
On foot from Aguas Calientes
From Aguas Calientes to get to the ruins themselves it is also possible to walk along a similar 8km route that the buses run, which will take about 1-2 hours up, and around an hour back down. This route is mainly stairs, connecting the switchbacks that the buses take. It is a strenuous and long hike but is very rewarding, recommended to start around 05:00 when the gate at the bridge opens (it takes around 20 minutes to walk from Aguas Calientes to the bridge (where a checkpoint is in place to verify that hikers already have entrance tickets), so there is little use in starting from Aguas Calientes earlier than 04.40), to make it to the top before sunrise. The descent is fairly easy, just take care when the steps are wet. Keep alert for the bus drivers that rarely brake for pedestrians.
On foot via the Inca Trail
Hiking the Inca Trail is a great way to arrive as you first see the city through the Sun Gate (instead of arriving from below as you do from Aguas Calientes). Both the four-day and two-day hikes are controlled by the government. Travellers should be fit enough to walk for days and sleep in tents. Every traveller needs to travel with a tour agency because of the rules and regulations of entering the park. Some of these approved tour agencies: Tierras Vivas, Cusi Travel, Llama Path, and Adventure Life.
Alternative treks to Machu Picchu
There are also other options available for hiking to Machu Picchu. This is important to know as the Inca Trail hike is limited in the amount of people that can go on it each day, including porters. As such, there is a much steeper price on that trek and it is necessary to book far in advance to get a place on the dates you will be there.
The Salkantay trek is a 4-5 day trek through the Salkantay Mountain Pass (4600m, mind the altitude!) and can also be done independently if you have the gear and some experience. The scenery is amazing and if you go in the rainy season you will be rewarded with dozens of waterfalls. Though, at the same time, you will be wet for the most part anyways.
The Inka Jungle trek to Machu Picchu is an alternative and adrenaline hike to Machu Picchu.
The Lares Trek is a high altitude trek, you will appreciate the Andean Lifestyle, the classic colourful ponchos, Llamas, Alpacas and stone thatched houses.
If you don't have much time to hike the Inca Trail 4 days and there aren't any spaces available now they are 200 spaces per day for the 2 day inca trail and they don't sell out completely.
Other alternative trip to Machu Picchu is by car, but the "backdoor" route they use is also an option for independent travellers wishing to go-it-alone. Minivans and buses are cheap (PEN15-30) from "Terminal Santiago" in Cusco and take you to either Santa Maria or Santa Teresa. Santa Maria is further away from Aguas Calientes than Santa Teresa but is a nice option for those wishing to hike an alternative Inca trail used locally. The walk takes you through the mountains and tiny villages, even people's farms and offers impressive views of the valley. You can end up in Santa Teresa the same day and there are villages, such as Huacayupana and Quellomayo en route which offer an alternative view of local life and accommodation if you don't make it to Santa Teresa that day. Walking on from here to Santa Teresa is along the river (May - November) and by road during rainy season, although it is advisable to get advice before taking this route between November and April due to severe weather, but be very careful. From Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica is a 25 minute taxi or minibus ride and from here you can walk 3 hour flattish trek to Aguas Calientes which is one of the nicest parts of the journey.
The Peruvian government has imposed a 500 person pass limit per day on Inca Trail traffic. Passes do sell out far in advance, particularly for the high season. Travellers must have a valid passport in order to purchase a pass at the time of reservation. Many local tour operators have since opened up alternate trekking options that allow for similar trekking opportunities in the area. Most visit other Inca ruins, not as well excavated, and finish with the train trip up to see Machu Picchu at the end. One such option is the Choquequirao Trek, which starts in Cacharo and ends in Los Loros or the Cachiccata Trek which starts in Racca and ends in Cachiccata.
There are three types of tickets:
Peruvians and citizens of neighbour countries pay less.
The number of visitors climbing each of the mountains is restricted to 400 a day. Huayna Picchu is not as high and easier and therefore more popular. Tickets for it might sell out more than a week in advance in high season. Montaña is higher and more difficult, but the views are actually better. Tickets for it sometimes sell out. You can check the availability for any, at any time on the website.
When preparing your budget, do not forget to include train tickets and bus tickets.
Officially, you are not allowed to bring food inside, but no one checks backpacks. If you bring it in a transparent plastic bag, they will ask you to store it at the entrance. Officially, disposable plastic bottles are not allowed either, but no one seems to care about this. Again, it is best to carry everything in the backpack. In the rush at the entrance they don't have time to check everyone.
Students get a 50% discount of all entrance tickets. You need to show an ISIC card. Non ISIC cards are usually refused. You can try to argue but good luck, they don't really care! - the staff, especially at the ticket office in Aguas Calientes, can be quite arrogant and they really want your money anyway.
Most hostels can sell entry permits and bus tickets. Don´t buy them at the travel agency at the Ollantytambo train station, as they don´t actually sell you tickets, but a receipt that you need to give to a person to get your tickets, you´ll end up running all around Aguas Calientes looking for this person.
Be sure to bring your passport, as it is requested upon entry. There's a popular stamp booth as you exit where you can prove to your friends you've been there, although it is technically illegal for the citizens of many countries to mark their own passports.
Only small packs are allowed in the park (no more than 20L), but there is a luggage storage at the entrance mostly used by Inca Trailers.
There are no vehicles of any kind in the park, bring some comfortable walking shoes, especially if you plan to do any of the hikes such as Wayna Picchu. No walking sticks are allowed, but this rule is rarely enforced. The main ruins are fairly compact and easily walkable.
Take your time walking around the site, as there are many places to see and explore. Although it is not necessary, taking a guided tour does provide a deeper insight into the ancient city, its uses, and information on the geography of it. Keep in mind that relatively little is known about the history and use of the ruins, and some of the stories told by the guides are based on little more than imaginative hearsay. Guides always wait at the entrance and cost PEN120 for a group.
If you have some energy in you, there are a few great hikes involving a bit of legwork. Do make sure that you've taken the time to acclimate to the elevation either in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes for a couple days before exerting yourself too much, especially on Wayna Picchu.
Officially, you are not allowed to bring any food or plastic bottles into the park, and must check these in at the luggage storage at the entrance. In practice, however, bags are rarely searched, and most people have no problem getting a bottle of water and some snacks in with them, which you'll definitely want, especially if you're planning to stray from the central set of ruins. Buy these beforehand, as they're much more expensive at the site itself. Don't even think of leaving a shred of trash behind you.
The concession stand near the entrance of the site is appropriately overpriced given their captive audience. Once in the site, there are no food or drinks for sale, though it is possible to leave and return.
Due to the fact that this is a protected park, further construction in the area is nearly impossible. Thus, there is currently only one expensive hotel at the site itself. Almost everyone who wants to stay overnight near Machu Picchu books a hotel in nearby Aguas Calientes.
Alternative Treks to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is a world heritage site, very popular, very well marketed and indeed situated in a place of exceptional natural beauty. This is where the good news end. On the other hand, it can be extremely expensive to visit (most of the time you will be treated as a walking ATM), it can be very crowded, very touristy, much of the staff around the site and in Aguas Calientes look like it's a long time since they last smiled and they can be very arrogant. Many people therefore choose not to visit. Below are some alternatives. If you are interested in Inca ruins, try those around Cuzco, Ollantaytambo and the excellent Choquequirao. If you still go to Aguas Calientes, but decide not to pay for the entrance to Machu Picchu, you can climb Cerro Putukusi (highly recommended even if you visit MP), right next to Aguas Calientes (1-2h up, 1h down) to get fantastic views of the site and the surrounding nature. Also, the branch of the Salkantay trek that ends in Hidroelectrica, has good views of MP from further away and some ruins, where you can camp and enjoy the view to MP.
Walk the path down (around 1h) or take the bus down to Aguas Caliente.
See the Aguas Calientes page for further details on how to leave the town.