Machu Picchu is the site of an ancient Inca city, high in the Andes of Peru. Located at 2,430 metres (8,000 ft), this UNESCO World Heritage site is often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", is one of the most familiar symbols of the Incan Empire, and is one of the most famous and spectacular sets of ruins in the world — a visit to Peru would not be complete without it.
These remarkable ruins were rediscovered by the scientific world in 1911 by the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham, who was led to the site by locals. Perched dramatically 1000 ft 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 not more than 750 people living at Machu Picchu, with far fewer than that during the rainy season. The Incas started building it around AD 1430 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. However, it was not until Bingham that Machu Picchu was scientifically discovered (he was on a trip sponsored by the Yale University, actually looking for Vilacamba, 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 artifacts which Hiram Bingham had stolen from Machu Picchu in the early twentieth century.
Visitors to Machu Picchu typically either hike the Inca Trail or leave by rail from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo, either on a day trip, or overnighting in Aguas Calientes. 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.
The only ways to get to Aguas Calientes are by train or on foot—no roads go there. On foot, it is possible to get to Aguas Calientes by traveling through Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. This alternate route involves walking (1 or 2–3 hours). The basket riding crossing is not required anymore.
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 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 10am and 2pm.
To access the site, you must have both a bus ticket (currently $17.00 for foreign adult round-trip, less for others, available from a small ticket booth near the bus departure area) and ticket for Machu Picchu - which are available on in advance from machupicchu.gob.pe or from various ticket offices described on that website. Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate and are limited to 2500 per day, with entrance to Huayna Picchu being further sublimited to 400.
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 (US$8 each way, US$15.50 round-trip for adult foreigners) starting at 5:30AM. 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. The journey takes around 1/2 hour to slowly wind around the switchbacks and up to the park. Busses depart when full, which typically means they run quite regularly. At popular times, there may be a lengthy queue for the busses, so plan the return trip accordingly in order not to miss train departures. Advance train bookings are recommended, as trains are often sold-out, particularly return trains.
From Aguas Calientes to get to the ruins themselves it is also possible to walk along a similar 8 km 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 5AM when the gate at the foot opens, 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.
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. Travelers should be fit enough to walk for days and sleep in tents.
There are also other options available for hiking to Machu Picchu. This is important to know as the Inca Trail hike is limited to the amount of people that can go on it each day, including porters. As such, there is a much steeper price on this trek and it is necessary to book far in advance to get a place on the dates you will be there.
Two other cheaper, but equally as good, options are the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Jungle Trek. Most, if not all, tour agencies in Cuzco offer these. The Salkantay Trek is a 5 day trek through the Salkantay Mountain Pass. 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 other option, the Inca Jungle Trek, is a three day trek that begins with a drive to the top of a mountain and then a bike ride down to the bottom. A full day of hiking follows the next day to Aguas Calientes.
Both of these alternatives can be booked a couple days in advance when you arrive in Cuzco and can be much cheaper options and good ways to stay away from the crowds before getting to Machu Picchu. Prices, as of December/January 2011 was anywhere from US$180–200 for the entire trek. Do your research in Cuzco and pick the tour company you feel most comfortable with. Some groups will offer slightly more(sleeping bag included, etc.) than others.
The Inca Jungle Trek is an agency tour, but the "backdoor" route they use is also an option for independent travellers wishing to go-it-alone. Minivans and buses are cheap (15-30) Soles 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 December and April due to severe weather. From Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica is a 25 minute taxi or minibus ride and from here you can walk the 2 to 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. Travelers 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 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. The main ruins are fairly compact and easily walkable.