The History Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is the most renowned archeological site from the Inca Period.
It dates from the middle of the 15th century. The complex is located 2,430 meters above sea level, on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley. The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. This is considered to be scenically the most attractive part of the Peruvian Andes, for which the site earned inscription on natural criteria as well.
Machu Picchu (a Quechua word for: Old Mountain) was unknown to the Spanish invaders and was only rediscovered in 1911. Its function is still under debate. Theories are that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti and/or was a sacred religious site.
The Inca artistically "sculpted" the mountain. The sanctuary was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Features of Inca archtecture that can be seen are platforms, ramps, stairways, trapezoidal windows and doors.
At inscription it was suggested to extend the WHS to the Sacred Valley, including Pisac and Ollantaytambo for example. To date this has not happened.
Map of Machu PicchuLoad map
Visit May 2011
Machu Picchu’s iconic image is a pretty good representation of the site in general: high green mountain peaks surrounding a completely intact city structure made out of stone. The site is unbelievably photogenic – I took no less than 460 photos here on a half-day visit, the most ever at a WHS. Afterwards you find out that you've taken dozens of the same shots, but well, fortunately we have digital cameras now.
I walked the full circuit in about 3 hours, and then settled down for a while in the residential part of the complex near the agricultural terraces. This is were the common people lived: they enjoyed great views over the valley and the terraces. This is a fine spot to enjoy Machu Picchu’s characteristic play between sun and clouds. It was mostly clouded until about 10 a.m., and then the sun slowly started to take over, shining its light on different parts of the ruins as if putting it into a spotlight.
The site’s forte is what is called “man’s interaction with nature”. The Inca had found a wonderful part of the Andes, and just started to shape one top into a city and religious complex. A gigantic task of course, all done by manpower alone.
The terraces I found especially impressive. No other structures or objects really stand out: the Inca were not big on decoration, and the few landmarks where the guided tour groups are lead to are often difficult to interpretate. There’s a spot called The Condor where a guide was pointing it out to her group, and a wonderfully honest little girl was calling over and over “But I don’t see it!”.
Most of the visitors here seem to come in groups, many of them are outfitted with matching T-shirts and hiking gear. Seeing the body size of some of the people leads me to suspect that they did not all come here on foot, or even have walked for more than an hour over the last 20 years. The site also attracts what I would call a “fly in and get out” kind of tourist – on a 7 day tour of Peru, probably flown in directly to Cuzco, see Machu Picchu and possibly the Nazca Lines and then back home.
It is surprisingly difficult to get correct practical advice to visit the site: there’s a lot of misinformation and outdated info around. Machu Picchu has no official website for example (at least I have not found it). It also suffers from an overemphasis on the negative aspects, which affects Peru as a whole – I generally do not worry much when travelling, but if your guidebook has an extensive “Dangers and Annoyances”-section for every city, you cannot ignore it totally. It has taken me a week or so to feel very comfortable here, and now I take taxi’s and collectivos anywhere like I would do in any other country. The fact is that Peru’s security situation has improved a lot over the last decade, and that its economy has grown significantly to produce a pretty well-functioning public system and a comfortable middle class.
I visited Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo. This seems to be the favourite way of access for daytripping Peruvians. I was on the first train (6.10 a.m.), which gets you in Aguas Calientes at 7.40. We actually arrived a few minutes earlier. I made sure I was the first person to get off the train, walked into the town center to get my ticket and then to the bus stop for the shuttlebus up to the site. I was in the bus before 8 a.m., even had to wait a couple of minutes for the bus to fill up. We were delivered at the entrance to Machu Picchu at 8.20. So no queues at all!
Visitors seem to arrive at the complex in 3 batches: the early batch at about 6 a.m. (those on the Inca-trail or staying overnight in Aguas Calientes), the second batch arriving by trains from Ollantaytambo and arriving from 8 a.m., and the last and probably biggest batch from Cuzco (ca. 10 – 11 a.m.). So at ca. 11 a.m. the site is at its peak number of visitors as all 3 groups are (still) there. By then I had already done about ¾ of the full circuit of the site. It did not feel too crowded anywhere. Sure, there will always be other people around, but I could roam around freely and take plenty of photos without human beings on it. As most people seem to travel here in groups, they tend to huddle together at specific spots. There were even tickets left for the climb to Huaynu Picchu, of which only 400 are given away each day (I decided against taking it because of the clouds).
The cost nowadays is 126 soles (32 EUR) for entrance to the site, 45 soles for a round-trip in the shuttlebus and I paid 80 US dollar for my train tickets. There are cheaper tickets available, but not at the departure times that I wanted. Buying the train tickets is very easy via the Perurail website. I did so about a week before and there still were plenty of seats available.
So do not let horror stories about the crowdedness or cost deter you to visit this magnificent site. I have experienced annoying crowds in Florence, Prague and Venice – Machu Picchu on a weekday in the off-season is far less busy than that. That there is access only on foot or by train actually regulates the number of visitors (it would be much worse if there was a road up there). And what to think of the Chinese WHS, which can be unbelievably full of people. My worst experience ever was at Huangshan National Park where I had to queue for about 1,5 hours to get in and then you could only shuffle along with the other visitors on a single track.
It was nighttime in Cusco, the day before I would travel to Aguas Calientes via Ollantaytambo, when it dawned on me: A childhood dream was about to come true. I am not sure when I first saw a picture of the site but ever since I wanted to visit.
The next day I travelled to Ollantaytambo from where I took the afternoon train to Aguas Calientes. Slowly the mountains grew higher around us while the signs of human settlement receded. We were following the river down and what in Ollantaytambo had mostly been barren mountains became covered by trees with the ridge growing ever narrower. It was here where I understood why Machu Picchu is a mixed natural and cultural site.
Thanks to a strong case of jetlag with some altitude sickness mixed in, I got up at 4:00h and queued at the bus stop in the city center at 4:30h. By then the line was already huge and it only kept growing while everyone waited for the busses to run and to take them up. Eventually I boarded the bus and we made our way up to the mountain top. The first views I got were from the valley. And then I had made my way past the ticket control and stood in the site. Finally.
This is truly one of the great sites of mankind and should feature prominently on any WHS travellers bucket list.
Getting a Ticket
During my visit in should season (October to November) I met several travellers who had bought their tickets less than a week before their visit. The only caveat was that they had to be a bit flexible on the dates. This will probably not work in peak season (June to September). Seeing that it would be a real pity to travel this far, without seeing this stellar site, I would strongly recommend doing the reservation in any case several months ahead.
You basically have two options. You can do it on your own or hire a travel agency to do it. The advantage of the travel agency is that they will give you a complete ticket covering the train rides, hotel stay, the bus rides and the entry ticket. Otherwise you are stuck to do it on your own.
The official website is terrible. Apart from web design that was already dated in the 90s it requires flash and is only viewable in IE. On top they implemented a really weird purchase process. Essentially, you have to log in the web site three times:
- Get a temporary reservation.
- Pay for the temporary reservation using the reservation code provided in the limited available time frame (I think a few hours).
- Get the ticket and print it. You will not get a hardcopy.
It's not impossible but tricky. I had a full week where the site would not work in even the oldest IE. I probably would have given up had it not been for this useful guide on how to buy Machu Picchu tickets.
When you buy your ticket you are presented with several options:
- You can come in the morning shift (6:00h to 12:00h) or the afternoon shift (12:00h-17:30h). As of now the morning shift is not kicked out, so if you plan to spend the full day, this would be the best option.
- At additional cost you have the option to also reserve a hike up Wayna Picchu or Montana Machu Picchu. I hiked up Wayna Picchu. While the overall site is limited to 2500 visitors a day, the hikes are limited to 800 in total.
Afterwards you can buy your train ticket. Again, these may run out, so I would buy this as soon as you have your Machu Picchu ticket. The two providers are PeruRail and Inka Rail. More below.
Most travelers heading to Machu Picchu will pass through Agua Calientes, the exception being hikers. There are very few kind words I can find for the place. It’s overpriced and the quality of both restaurants and hotels sucks. They know that nobody is coming back or staying for more than a night anyhow, so why bother? It’s a pity, as I could envision staying in this magical landscape longer if they upped the ante a bit, i.e. improve the service quality and add a few more trails, e.g. along the river or into some other mountain range.
As it stands, I think I would recommend Els' approach. Stay in Ollantaytambo and take the first train into town and the last out.
Getting to Agua Calientes
Agua Calientes is only accessible via train. There are two lines, one from Ollantaytambo and one from Santa Teresa. The total amount of visitors that can be ferried in and out is thereby physically limited. This helps managing the crowds a lot.
You can reserve the train tickets online with PeruRail or InkaRail. Bear in mind that due to hikers ending their trails in Machu Picchu the return trains are fuller. Be sure to schedule at least one train ride during day time to take in the spectacular mountain gorge.
For the main line between Cusco, Ollantaytambo and Agua Calientes, my recommendation would be to connect in Ollantaytambo. I see little value added traveling by train from/to Cusco if you can just take a cab (80-100 Soles) or collectivo (10-20 Soles) to Ollantaytambo. Continuing by train on to Cusco is significantly more expensive than a cab ride would be, especially if you can share the costs. And in most cases the train only continues to Poroy, so you still need to pay for a cab ride (40 Soles).
The side line from Santa Teresa is primarily for locals. There seem to be busses running to Santa Teresa that some travel agencies use. I also met a few travellers who mentioned hiking along the tracks as budget option to get to Aguas Calientes. I would not recommend such an approach.
Getting Into the Site
From Agua Calientes you can either walk the 8km up the mountain or take a bus (24 USD return). Walking has the benefit that you can be at the gate the very second it opens and potentially have the site for a few seconds for yourself. But this may be a fool’s errant. The busses operate quite efficiently with the first arrivals scheduled before the park opens. Even I who stood in line since 4:30h (aim for 3:30h if you really want to be on the first bus) and got on the 10th bus or so made it up around 6:00h.
Personally, I would take the bus up and then check if I want to walk down or not. The site is large and you will be walking a lot in any case, so why spend your energy already on the ascent? If you don’t want to walk down and still would like to take in some of the magical scenery, you can also just walk from the city to the bridge given you a few nice views along the way.
One more practical remark: The return ticket is not cheaper than two singles, so you can just buy the single. In any case get the ticket up (single, return) the evening before, so you can directly enter the bus queue.
While I appreciate a site that is kept pure, i.e. no markets and souvenir shops everywhere (thinking of you, Chichen-Itza), Machu Picchu takes the idea too far. There aren’t any restrooms within the site. There is no cafe and no shop selling water. So come prepared, empty your bladder before entering and hope and pray that this suffices. As a guy, you can also try to find a quiet corner ...
Lonely Planet also claimed that bottled water, walking sticks and large backpacks are banned on site. This was not enforced, so ignore it for the time being. If they start enforcing the luggage rules, you can deposit it at the entry (in and outside). In my case I listened and got pretty thirsty from all the hiking in the site.
Again, I appreciate a site that is kept pure. But to put in some safety measures would be appreciated. The trails have limited rails and most edges have non. So mind your step. Fortunately, the level of deadly incidents seems fairly limited.
The hike up Wayna Picchu was spectacular. It took me 30min and you get great views (see picture) of Machu Picchu. Admittedly, the trail could use some rails and some proper safety measures. But unless you are really afraid of heights, you should manage the climb.
While You are There
Connecting from Cusco to Ollantaytambo provides ample opportunity to see some sites of the Sacred Valley. My recommendation would be to negotiate with a cab driver to take you to the sites of Maras and Moroy on your way to Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo itself is very interesting, spefically the fortification. From what I have seen here, I feel that the area has loads of WHS potential.
One of the greatest world heritage sites, Machu Picchu is one of the true manmade wonders. The location is stunning, and the ruins are in excellent condition. However, like the review below there is cause for concern. Part of the problem is Peru is full of incredible Inca and pre-Inca cultural sites. Yet the majority of these sites are relatively unknown, this contributes to Machu Picchu being viewed as the only must-see site in Peru.
Peru has had little success within the world heritage program recently only gaining 3 inscriptions in the last 20 years. For a country that is extremely rich in cultural and natural heritage this is suprising. Raising the price for visitors to Machu Picchu seemingly has not managed tourist numbers, nor has the remote nature of the site. Beyond establishing reservations to the site itself, limiting the number of visitors (which may still be required), the only solution to me seems to be promoting exciting alternatives. Promotion of Peru's various pre-Inca cultures is something you just don't see. Qhapac Nan could be a great alternative to the traditional visitor experience in Peru. I look forward to its inclusion on the world heritage list.
Nevertheless, Machu Picchu is probably not in as much danger as it may seem. First, the site is indeed huge, even with a large amount of tourists I never felt crowded. Secondly, the site is well maintained, and the buildings are entirely built from quarried stone, or built on natural rock. This makes the site largely immune to the large tourist flow.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
This is certainly a wonderful place, however I have grave misgivings about ever visiting again.
I don't need to describe the majesty of the place, many have done that before me so I want to outline a few problems and issues.
Firstly, the cost. M.P. has become an out-of-control money making scheme. The return train ride costs a minimum of $60. The bus from Aguas Calinetes a ridiculous $15, and the site itself an incredible $40!
Secondly, the site is under grave threat from tourism. Because of the vast amounts of money being made from visitors to the site there is not control over numbers. I arrived at about 7am, and the place was relatively empty, but by 10am it was totally overwhelmed. There must have been thousands of people there, and sadly not all respected the place properly. I saw several people climbing over the ruins, which just astounded me. At this rate the place will fall apart in 10 years.
Thirdly and finally, Aguas Calinetes has no development plan and is out-of-control. The worst part of it is the fact that the town's waste is all dumped in the Urubamba River.
So, yes M.P. is a fabulous place, but think hard before visiting.
It was totally amazing and beautiful. The animals were so amazing and exotic. Any person could just stand in awe at the site because of its brilliance.
One of the most beautiful settings in the world. Wonderfully preserved and you are allowed to explore most everywhere. Stay at the base of the hill to save money.
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Deforestation, the risk of landslides and unchecked urban development.
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