The saying “Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times” perfectly describes Peru’s crowning glory - Machu Picchu. According to the World Heritage Site, the ancient ruins are "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization." With a description like that, it is no wonder that over 1.2 million people visit this lost city of the Incas each year.
Machu Picchu, mysteriously nestled in the rocky countryside northwest of Cuzco, Peru, is a spiritual and architectural wonder – designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The site, which spans over five miles, features more than 3,000 stone steps and stairways, terraces, and 200 structures including temples, ceremonial areas, and residential sections – for lower-class inhabitants as well as nobles. Many of the structures have been strategically designed to line up with the sun. Hint: A great setting for a photo op!
Whether you visit for a day or decide to make the trek into the site, you will come upon a place full of mystery, history, and scenic marvels. During the day, especially early morning, the trees and mountains are draped in a light fog – softly outlining the site as well as an occasional llama grazing in a field. Yes, another great opportunity for amazing photos.
A Piece of History
Archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate or fortress for an Inca emperor in the late 1400s. After the Spanish conquered Peru, the site eventually was abandoned and forgotten for centuries. In 1911, Hiram Bingham, an American historian and explorer, traveled to Peru and took full credit for “discovering” Machu Picchu. Some argue that local peasants and farmers told him exactly where to go – therefore making it not much of a discovery. However, ever since Bingham’s alleged find, much interest in learning about the fortress and visiting the amazingly intact ruins has tempted many a world traveler.
Navigating Around Aguas Calientes
Before you decide on how you will enter Machu Picchu, you need to get to the nearby small town of Aguas Calientes – small as in one street with a post office, train station, and several tourist hotels.
The quickest way to get there from Cusco is by train. The luxury option takes three hours and runs about $500.
Less expensive trains operated by PeruRail run just as well for about $70 – and may even include an alpaca wool fashion show. Regardless of the type of train you select, the ride from Cusco is stunning as you ride along the rolling hills of the Sacred Valley.
Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes, the fastest and most comfortable way to get to Machu Picchu is by bus. The option to take the 30-minute ride runs from 5:30 AM to 3:30 PM daily. There may be crowds lining up, so make sure you buy your ticket in town or online before the bus arrives.
If you have the energy, you can also walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. The two-hour hike is free and scenic, but it is also physically demanding, especially if you factor in the high altitude. The trek begins on the side of the road in Aguas Calientes. Then, you will need to traverse several steps that cut into the mountains.
To Trek or Not to Trek?
The short walk from town to Machu Picchu is not part of the official Inca Trail. If you opt-in for that, you first need to decide how many days you plan to hike/camp – which determines where you begin. For example, the three-day option takes you from the Sacred Valley over the mountain tops and on authentic Inca paths – just like inhabitants used centuries ago. In any case, you will be awed at your arrival when you look down at Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate – breathtaking scenery and spectacular views of the ruins.
Regardless of how many days you decide to hike, it is highly recommended that you find an official tour guide or trekking outfitter to help you maneuver the trip. In addition to taking care of camping accommodations, food, and other logistics, expert guides make your journey easier and safer. The guides also time your arrival at Machu Picchu around sunrise – to guarantee stunning views of the site without any other tourists to photo-bomb your experience.
Where to Stay
You can find several hotels in and around Aguas Calientes. However, the ONLY accommodation located steps away from the Machu Picchu site is the Sanctuary Lodge. This unique Belmond hotel offers exquisite, natural landscaping surrounded by up-close views of the ancient site right from your own private patio.
The hotel amenities include fabulous decor, a spa, and fine Peruvian dining. As a guest of the Sanctuary Lodge, you are truly privileged to be able to take in Machu Picchu without hordes of day-tripper tourists milling about. Whether at sunrise with a cup of coffee or sipping a cocktail at sunset, enjoy the beauty and spirituality of Machu Picchu in complete serenity.