Machu Picchu is an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization. UNESCO designation 1983
As is often said about journeying to a new destination, getting there is half the fun. This is definitely the case when it comes to traveling to Peru’s UNESCO crown jewel of Machu Picchu (sometimes spelled Machupicchu).
The citadel sits high on an awe-inspiring mountain at 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level and is surrounded by cliffs on three sides that plunge thousands of feet down to the Urubamba River which twists and turns below. These natural barriers made the city easier to protect during the 100 years or so it was inhabited by the Inca and also helped spare it from destruction by the invading Spanish armies in the mid-1500s.
Machu Picchu is believed to have been built by Inca Emperor Patchacuti (Pachakutiq in native Quechua), who lived from 1438 to 1472 and is given credit for expanding the Inca Empire to its greatest extent in South America, from southern Colombia to northern Chile. Many archaeologists believe the site was used as a summer home for the Inca royal family as well as a ceremonial and spiritual center.
Architecture and Engineering
The setting of Machu Picchu is one of the most visually stunning sites ever conceived by city planners of any era. In addition to the jaw-dropping views at every turn, the Inca’s refined stone masonry skills and advanced engineering techniques are apparent everywhere one looks. Even so, there is a difference in the quality of the stonework.
The site’s temples and royal residences were built to the highest Inca standards. Blocks were meticulously shaped with stone tools and seamlessly placed so that no mortar was needed. In fact, the Inca designed their highest quality walls in this way so the stones would simply ‘dance’ during frequent earthquakes and then fall back into place. On the other hand, the accommodation for the city’s support staff was built out of rougher stones and mortar was used to hold the walls together.
By using the knowledge they inherited from earlier Andean civilizations as well as applying their favored building skills, the Incas were also masters of agricultural terracing on steep slopes. The stone-walled terracing at Machu Picchu served the dual purposes of slope stabilization and providing elevated plots of soil for growing the food staples of corn, beans and potatoes to feed the city’s population.
Besides the main archaeological site where most of the stone buildings are found, there are additional hikes to either Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu (Quechua: Wayna Pikchu), the iconic pyramid-shaped peak seen overlooking the site in most tourist photos, that can be added to your itinerary. Both of these hikes require advance booking (especially for Huayna Picchu) and the purchase of a separate ticket. Less spectacular, but refreshingly easier, are the hikes to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge which are both included with any Machu Picchu general admission ticket.
Avoid disappointment by planning your visit well in advance
Machu Picchu, as a must-see destination, had been locked in my mind since childhood. I had tried to book a last-minute trip to the site while on a mid-summer visit to Ecuador some years ago. I was told by various tour operators at the time that during the busy summer season bookings must be made weeks or months in advance due to Machu Picchu’s popularity as a destination and the fact that daily numbers were limited by the Peruvian government based on UNESCO guidelines. In other words, a traveler can’t merely show up and expect to be admitted.
The process of obtaining an entrance ticket to the Machu Picchu archaeological site has been made slightly easier by a new scheme enacted by the Peruvian government in 2017 which allows a maximum of 2500 tourists into the site twice daily, based on morning (6:00—12:00) and afternoon (12:00—5:30) sessions. Once a traveler has obtained a coveted entry permit, there’s the matter of securing a ticket on one of the Peru Rail trains that make the journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes) which sits in the river valley below the archaeological site and is the staging point for all trips up to the archaeological site.
A train/bus combination journey from Cusco can be arranged as well, but Peru Rail provides the only public transport that makes the journey all the way to Macchu Picchu Pueblo. The road that carries buses and private cars ends at the town of Ollantaytambo where tourists transfer to one of Peru Rail’s trains. No matter which level/class of coach you book, the ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo goes through the heart of the Sacred Valley of the Incas (also known as the Urubamba Valley) and is a sight-seeing excursion all by itself as the tracks pass by beautifully-tended farms and through narrow canyons topped by icy peaks.
From Machu Picchu Pueblo, there’s a fleet of buses that take tourists up a steep, switch-backing dirt and gravel road to the entrance of the archaeological site. None of these transportation options are cheap—the 25-minute bus journey up to the site costs US $24 each way per person—but the remoteness of the site, along with UNESCO and Peruvian government guidelines, are responsible for such policies and keep the prices on the high side. All the travel segments can be booked online either individually or through a tour operator.
While many tourists see the Machu Picchu archaeological site as part of a long day trip from Cusco, I highly recommend staying overnight in Macchu Picchu Pueblo. It will give you more time to acclimatize to the significantly lower elevation as well as contemplate this small town whose very existence depends on travelers passing through on their way to the lofty archaeological site located on one of the rocky crags that loom above.
Lots of booking options
The all-inclusive tour prices I saw in Cusco were significantly cheaper than the package I purchased online through a Viator–recommended company, but waiting until you’re on the ground in Cusco to book is probably not wise if you’re traveling during the peak season from May to September. These months make up the high season due to their alignment with North American and European summer holidays as well as the fact these are the driest months in this region of the Andes. A rainy season visit to Machu Picchu would inevitably mean sharing the site with fewer tourists, but the clouds could also obscure all the spectacular views and rain and fog should be anticipated.
For those who are physically fit and have the enthusiasm, treks along the Inca Trail of 1-4 days to the Machu Picchu archaeological site can be arranged well in advance. This allows trekkers to enter the site at the Sun Gate which is the way the Inca would have arrived during Macchu Picchu’s heyday. However, hiking the Inca Trail, even if a porter is carrying your heavy load, requires some level of pre-training along with plenty of time to adjust to the altitude before setting out.
Morning or Afternoon session?
I planned from the beginning to stay overnight in Machu Picchu Pueblo so the trip would be more leisurely. The overnight package I purchased had a standard arrival in Machu Picchu Pueblo of early afternoon with a group tour of the site scheduled for the following morning.
Anticipating that early mornings often bring clouds and fog in tropical rain forest climates, I arranged for an earlier departure time from Cusco as well as a seond entrance ticket to the archaeological site for the afternoon of my arrival in Machu Picchu Pueblo. This allowed me to see the site in both a morning and an afternoon session. As I had anticipated there were some sun breaks during the afternoon sessions, while the following morning was socked-in, gray and overcast. It was such a pleasure to experience the site in different moods as well as in different photographic conditions.
Altitude and acclimatization
I’ve been living in the Andes for the past year and have traveled repeatedly to the high altitude capital cities of Quito and Bogotá, but I wasn’t prepared for my body’s negative reaction to the 11,150 foot (3,400 meter) altitude in Cusco . I’ve experienced altitude sickness before while mountain climbing and know its symptoms and respect its seriousness.
Still, I took the online advisories with a grain of salt, and rejected the idea that I might benefit by taking an often prescribed medication, Diamox (generic name–acetazolamide), to help alleviate any such symptoms. My arrogance was a mistake and almost spoiled the trip for me. [Note: Since returning home, I’ve also read that a chlorophyll supplement may be useful in preventing altitude sickness.]
Mind you, I don’t sleep well when traveling and also have an auto-immune illness, both of which tax my body in a way that almost certainly helped bring on my bout of altitude sickness. I had a headache and felt fluish and generally lethargic for four days in Cusco. Coming down with a cold after returning from the overnight trip to Machu Picchu didn’t help either.
Since altitude sickness is often only cured by descending to a lower elevation, I didn’t feel well again until I arrived back in Lima after my scheduled flight from Cusco. It’s a shame to miss seeing once in a lifetime sights due to a condition that might be preventable. Of course, before taking any medication, please visit your doctor and ask for their advice.
The spectacular setting of Machu Picchu also comes with its own set of hazards, particularly the steep cliffs that surround the site. There are no safety barriers or guardrails so it’s important to remain aware of your footing and relative closeness to these steep drop-offs at all times.
I’ve had lots of experience hiking, backpacking and climbing snow-capped volcanoes, and I saw many instances at Machu Picchu where tourists were clearly not paying attention. This isn’t Disney Land and a healthy respect for the outdoors is essential to both enjoying the site and remaining safe.
Don’t let your own personal safety depend on the courtesy of other camera-totting, backpack-wearing tourists. I came very close to being displaced by a trekker’s backpack when the guy suddenly turned around on a terrace above the Sun Gate. He seemed completely oblivious to his actions. People have been killed at the site because of either their own carelessness or that of someone else.
One more note on transportation
Some mostly young tourists choose to hike from the town down in the river valley up to the entrance of Machu Picchu. While it may be to save the $50 for the 2-way bus transport, in order to be in solidarity with friends who’ve made this decision or simply to prove to themselves that they can overcome the distance and altitude gain, I suggest splurging on the bus and saving your energy for the spectacular hikes within the site itself.
The route these hikers use follows the same dirt road the buses take–which means you’re going to be eating a lot of dust–and even the portions of trail that involve climbing stone stairs in the forest always eventually have to cross and recross this same main switch-backing dirt road to the entrance. I LOVE hiking, but from my point of view, watching others do this just looked miserable.
Despite my days of illness in Cusco, I will be eternally grateful for finally being able to experience one of the world’s most stunning archaeological sites. If you’ve been waiting for the right time to visit Machu Picchu, then start making plans. Prices for entrance tickets, accommodations and train fares will only continue to rise as ever more tourists compete for the limited number of daily entry permits. One can only foresee further restrictions being placed on visitor numbers in the future due to the fragility of the site itself.
And last but certainly not least–as with all your travels, remember to tread lightly in such special places and project an attitude of respect and friendliness toward the local people.