So faraway and mysterious, or, at least, seen as such from our good old Europe, South America is replete with wonders that have taken the imagination of us, Europeans, for centuries. The ancient town of Machu Picchu is, certainly, one of those fascinating places, if not, by all accounts, the most famous one. Widely regarded as the most monumental and best-preserved Inca ruins in Peru, the Sacred City makes the list of New Seven Wonders of the Modern World, and rightly so. It has also become a must-see destination for all travel enthusiasts from across the globe.
That is why, it is no surprise that the number of visitors to Machu Picchu has skyrocketed over the past few decades, from mere 10,000 in the 1980s to the staggering 1,578,030 in 2018. The surge in interest has not been without some repercussions on the preservation of this archeological marvel. The citadel, originally built for a few selected members of the Inca elite, was not devised to receive a lot of people. The large uncontrollable crowds of tourists that flocked to the historic site for years have already caused some damage to the carefully restored ruins, prompting the Peruvian government to impose strict regulations and limit the number of visitors per day to about 5000 (already way above 2500 recommended by the UNESCO). Understanding the fragility of its structures makes the experience of visiting Machu Picchu even more valuable. The recently introduced rules also remind us that we should do it with respect and in a sustainable manner.
Machu Picchu During the Inca Period
Even after more than 100 years of extensive excavations and studies at the site, the place, known today as Machu Picchu, still hides a lot of secrets as to how and why it was created. Its original name remains a mystery. Most archeologists believe that the citadel was constructed as a royal estate for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti (or Pachacutec) sometime between 1438 and 1472. He might have used it as his winter residence to escape the harsh climate of Cusco in a milder rainforest environment. It must have also been an important religious center where the king worshipped Inca deities, in particular, their chief god, the Sun. It is estimated that only about 750 people lived there, most of them being religious specialists and craftsmen who focused on serving the emperor and maintaining the site.
According to one hypothesis, Machu Picchu was specifically constructed as a sanctuary to honor a sacred landscape from the Inca creation legends. It is surrounded by holy mountain peaks that the local Indians continue to revere until these days. The site is also quite isolated and accessible only through a few narrow paths, making it a naturally well-protected stronghold.
The Incas were keen observers of natural phenomena. They combined their astronomical knowledge, their mythological beliefs and the existing features of the surrounding mountains to build architecture that, on one hand, seamlsessly blended into the landscape and, on the other, helped them to track changes in seasons.
Thus, researchers have discovered that the most important buildings at Machu Picchu were directly related to the position of the sun, the moon and the stars in the sky, and were designed to detect summer and winter solstices. For instance, in the Temple of the Sun, the Incas made a special window to stream a beam of sunlight that formed a perfect rectangle atop of a granite slab during June solstices.
The ritual stone of Intihuatana (or the Hitching Post of the Sun), found at the summit of an artificially constructed pyramid above the residential terraces, was also aligned with the sun’s position during the winter solstice. It served as some kind of an astronomical clock, cut out of a single stone block.
The cave of Inti Mach’ay, the most significant spot at Machu Picchu, was hidden from daylight most of the year. The sunlight penetrated inside the cave only during several days around the December solstice when the Incas celebrated the Royal Feast of the Sun.
These are just a few examples of how the Incas designed architecture to be in sync with natural phenomena.
Construction of Machu Picchu
The engineering genius of the Incas also manifests itself in the construction techniques they used to make their buildings last through the centuries.
Machu Picchu was erected on top of two fault lines which cause a lot of seismic activity in the region. The Incas perfected the so-called ashlar masonry to render their buildings virtually indestructible during earthquakes. The walls, slanted slightly inwards, were laid out of neatly polished polygonal stone blocks cut to fit in without mortar so tightly that they only " jiggered" a little bit during seismic shocks and always came back into place once the tremblor was over. It is due to this clever construction method that the citadel has withstood mutliple earthquakes and we can admire it today.
Another recognizable feature of the Inca architecture is the trapezoidal shape of its doors and windows, which also rendered all their buidligs more resistant to seismism.
The system of stepped terraces equipped with an intricate irrigation system was built into the mountain slopes not only to provide better opportunities for farming. It also stabilized the rocky soil and prevented the town from landslides or floods.
What is also noteworthy, even though it remains hidden from regular visitors, is the fact that about 60 percent of the whole construction at Machu Picchu was done underground. Inca engineers invested a lot of effort into building solid foundations that would ensure the stability of the structures above the ground.
While walking around the citadel, you would also notice that the quality of stonework varies, depending on the importance of the building. The more sacred the structure was, the finer was the masonry. Temples and royal palaces were made of larger and more refined blocks. Whereas, administrative buildings and warehouses were made of smaller and more roughly cut stones.
Rediscovery of Machu Picchu
Archeologists believe that Machu Picchu was abandoned sometime around the Spanish invasion, although the conquistadors never reached the Sacred City. This is another reason why the citadel was able to survive until these days relatively unscathed.
For centuries, the site of worship was left prey to the surrounding jungle. It was known only to a few local Quechua families, living nearby.
There is some evidence suggesting that the first European missionaries and adventurers arrived at the site around the 1860s and there were map references to the place as early as 1874. However, it was American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham III who claimed the “scientific discovery” of Machu Picchu when he was guided there by a local farmer in 1911. Bingham was searching for Vilcabamba, the last Inca capital, and believed Machu Picchu, the name used by his guide, to be the one. However, it was later proved that another city, also discovered by Bingham on the same journey deeper in the jungle, was the real Vilcabamba. Anyhow, with the support of Yale University and the National Geographic Society, the explorer returned to the site for clearance and excavations twice, in 1912 and 1915, and published a book “Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru” in 1922.
When Bingham first set his foot at Machu Picchu, the city was completely overgrown by the jungle. Only a few houses and terraces were used by the local families for farming. It has taken decades for archeologists to clear and restore the ruins so that we can enjoy the classic postcard view today.
For the record, this is how Machu Picchu looked when Hiram Bingham III first laid his eyes on the site in 1911.
And this is how Machu Picchu looked after the first excavation in 1912.
The carefully restored ruins were first open to the public in 1981. In 1983 Machu Picchu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since then, a general public interest and tourist numbers have grown to such an extent that now, after escaping natural disasters and destruction by the Spanish, the greatest wonder of the Inca civilization has become threatened by its own overdevelopment and volume of visitors.
Planning a visit to Machu Picchu
Due to the popularity of the ruins and the limited access, it is best to plan your visit to Machu Picchu in advance. Particularly, during the high season which lasts from June to September.
Currently, there are two ways to reach Machu Picchu as a tourist.
The Classic Inca Trail
A more traditional one is for people who love the mountains, enjoy trekking, or like to spice up their travels with a bit of adventure. It is walking the famous Inca Trail, one of the most popular and hard-to-get-to treks in the world. This trek takes about 3-4 days to complete and follows the same ancient road the Incas paved so that their king could reach the Sacred City from Cusco.
Today, you can only enter the trail with an officially registered guide. Due to a very limited number of permits (only about 200 tourists per day), you do need to book this trek with an authorized travel agent well in advance. If you want to learn more information about this option, you can read my article about my personal experience on the Classic Inca Trail and how to prepare for it here. It is an adventure of a lifetime and I highly recommend it. There is also a lighter version of the trek, a 2-day Short Inca Trail, which is, probably, not so eventful but it is less physically demanding than the Classic route.
However, if the Inca Trail is no longer available for your dates, you can consider an alternative Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu which can offer some stunning landscape views as well.
Travelling to Machu Picchu by Train
The second travel option to Machu Picchu is for those who prefer comfort or do not have enough time to follow the Inca Trail. In this case, you travel by train and visit Machu Picchu in 1-2 days, depending on the travel arrangements you make.
The overall, door-to-door, journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu takes about 3-4 hours one way and requires a change of transport as there is no direct train from Cusco City Center to Machu Picchu available to foreign tourists. However, you can consider three options of getting to Aguas Calientes, the town, nearest to Machu Picchu, by railroad:
- taking a train from Poroy station, a 20-minute taxi ride from Cusco. This train will take you to Aguas Calientes in about 3 and a half hours.
- taking a train from Ollantaytambo, a town located in the Sacred Valley 40 km away from Cusco. Ollantaytambo is also known for the impressive ruins left from another Inca settlement, which I recommend you to explore as well if time permits. In this option, a shuttle bus picks you up in Cusco and drops at the main station in Ollantaytambo where you board the train to Aguas Calientes. This trip also lasts, overall, for about 3 and a half hours.
- taking a train from Urumamba, a town located in Sacred Valley 53 km away from Cusco.
Once you arrive in Agues Calientes, you can get on a bus which will take you to Machu Picchu's entrance, located at the top of the mountain, in 15 minutes. Bus tickets (USD12 one way) are purchased separately. Alternatively, you can challenge yourself by hiking to the top of the mountain. The hike takes about 30-45 minutes.
Whichever way you choose, your journey to the most famous Inca ruins begins in Cusco, itself a former Inca capital and an important colonial center during the Spanish rule. It is highly recommended to spend a few days there, visiting the city’s multiple historical sites and museums, and letting your body adjust to the high altitude before going to Machu Picchu. Cusco is located in the mountains at 3400 m above sea level, whereas Machu Picchu is at 2430 m, a less hazardous elevation. Yet, do not neglect the need for acclimatization to avoid the effects of altitude sickness during your entire stay in the Cusco region.
Purchasing Tickets to Machu Picchu
You can book tickets for Machu Picchu in advance through a registered travel agent or at the official website of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. There are also official ticket offices in Cusco and Aguas Calientes where you can buy tickets for the citadel several days before your visit. Remember you will not be able to buy a ticket at the citadel on the day of your visit.
As of 2019, the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu costs USD50 (or 150 soles) for foreign nationals. In addition to visiting the citadel, you can also choose to climb one of the nearby mountains, Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu. They offer breathtaking views at the citadel from above but require 2-3 additional hours and an extra physical effort. The number of tickets available for the mountains is limited to 400 per day each and they get sold out very quickly. So, it is one more reason for early booking. The combined ticket Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu costs USD65 (or 200 soles).
Entrance and Visit Regulations at Machu Picchu
Bear in mind that, due to new rules, all entrance tickets are now time-specific and you will only be able to enter the citadel within an allotted time. So if you have bought a ticket, let’s say, for 8 am, you should make sure to be at the gate between 8 am and 9 am. Otherwise, they won’t let you in. Furthermore, your visit is now limited to a maximum of 4 hours and re-entry is not allowed unless you have a ticket for Huayna or Machu Picchu too. Climbing these mountains does not only guarantee you unforgettable “bird-eye” views of the citadel but also allows you to stay longer and re-enter the site once.
We chose to ascend the Huyana Picchu and did not regret it, despite it being a rather steep and, at times, dangerous climb. The awe-inspiring panorama that opens up at the top of the mountain, which soars 300 m above the citadel, is worth all the effort. Besides, it is also home to the Temple of the Moon, one more ritual site that makes an integral part of the archeological complex of Machu Picchu. It lies a bit hidden behind the rocks near the top of the mountain but the arrow signs will guide you there. As a bonus you can also visit Huchuy Picchu mountain, which is Huyana Picchu's smaller sister, found just a few meters away. It also offers a few beautiful views of the town.
One more rule that you will have to abide by since the beginning of 2019 also requires or, rather allows, you to enter Machu Picchu only accompanied by an authorized guide. Whether you a fan of guided tours or prefer to explore on your own, you will have to follow your guide during the first hour of your visit. However, this is not, necessarily, a bad thing as a well-informed local guide can tell a lot of interesting facts about the ruins and give you the points of references much better than a book, and in a more exciting and lively manner. You can hire a guide on your arrival at the entrance to Machu Picchu, or, alternatively, book a guided tour with one of the numerous travel agencies located in Cusco or Aguas Calientes.
At the end of your guided tour you will have some time left to walk around the site on your own. In my personal experience, it is really worth staying at Machu Picchu longer and doing a bit of exploration by yourself. The city comprises over 200 buildings and counts over 3000 steps. It consists of two sectors, the argricultural terraces and the urban area, which is also divided into two parts, with temples and royal residence located in the upper part of town, and the common areas, found in the lower part of town. So you can easily spend the whole day climbing the terraces and wandering in the intricate labyrinth of passages and houses. Of course, the top terraces offer the most breathtaking views that we are used to seeing in the photos. However, strolling along the streets of the lower town and imagining how people used to live there back in the 15th century is itself a captivating experience. So, do not rush to the exit once the guided tour is over. Take your time and let the magic carry you away into a different epoch when people lived in harmony with nature and worshipped the stars and the planets as their gods.
Whether you get to Machu Picchu by modern means of transport or walk your way along the traditional route in the mountains, visiting the Sacred Inca City is a one of a kind experience that you should do at least once in your lifetime. It reveals the immense scope and grandeur of an ancient civilization that possessed unique knowledge and skills. The quick downfall of this civilization due to deliberate extermination by Europeans led to the irrecoverable loss of large amounts of information about their culture. However, Machu Picchu has miraculously preserved and carried to these days, at least, some parts of the Inca cultural heritage.
From our modern perspective, some of their ways and habits might seem weird and brutal. Yet, they also show us how much the Incas knew about the natural phenomena and how connected they felt through this knowledge to their environment and the whole universe. Some of their engineering skills continue to puzzle modern scientists. For example, how they managed to transport and cut huge stone blocks with such precision, yet, without having iron tools or a wheel, remains a secret unsolved until today. Nonetheless, their accomplishments at Machu Picchu also demonstrate us the level of technological prowess that the Incas already had at the time. For this reason, they are also an excellent illustration that our modern civilization is, in no way, superior to the ancient civilizations of the past, or that some cultures are “inferior” to others. In historical perspective, they all attest to the ingenuity and greatness of a human spirit and all equally contribute to the advancement of a human race.