We’ve visited the Machu Picchu archaeological site in Peru twice. Here’s what we learned along the way so you can make the most of your own trip to one of the most iconic travel destinations in South America.
First (and second) impressions of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, which means Old Peak in the Quechua language, was constructed at 7,970 feet (2,430 meters) on a mountaintop which the Incans flattened. It was finished around 1450 by an Incan ruler named Pachacuti and includes around 200 structures where as many as 750 people lived. The whole place was abandoned about 100 years after completion when the Incans fled the Spanish who never did find Machu Picchu.
More than 3/4 of the site has been excavated revealing huge plazas and some masterful stone construction, sometimes using stones weighing 50 tons. A number of buildings are archaeoastronomical structures which allowed the Incas to star gaze and track the movements of the sun (which was a god to the Incans) in order to predict crucial things like when to plant and when to harvest crops which they grew on 14 acres of painstakingly terraced hillsides. Other buildings were occupied by Incan royalty and their servants.
There are 16 stone fountains at Machu Picchu delivering diverted water to the entire complex. More than 170 bodies were discovered buried in natural stone caves beneath the site. This place has been called a citadel, a sanctuary, and a royal hideaway and it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
We entered Machu Picchu for the first time on July 24, the same date that Hiram Bingham entered the site for the first time in 1911 (more about him below). For us, it was the culmination of a 5-day Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure with Mountain Lodges of Peru.
The Peruvian government says entrance to Machu Picchu is capped at 3,000 people per day, but local guides gave us the “yeah sure” face when we asked them about that. During our first visit to the site we waited in line for about 15 minutes (not bad) then entered in a wave of people that felt a bit like the elbow-wielding surge at the gates of a general admission concert.
To control the flow of so many people, the site has distinct one-way traffic circuits that must be followed. From the entrance, most people start by climbing up to the Guard House to see some upper terraces (trails to the Sun Gate, Machu Picchu mountain and the Incan Bridge head out from near there) and get good views down onto the citadel, or the center of the city.
From there, the circuit drops down into the heart of the city which you enter through the Main Gate, past an area where enormous rocks were quarried, walking past fountains, the Sun Temple, and royal living quarters. Then the circuit takes you into the Sacred Plaza which includes the Main Temple and the Temple of the Three Windows. From there, you’ll pass the massive Intihuatana carved stone. Toward the end of the circuit, you pass the Condor Temple. At this point, you can exit the site or climb back up to the terraced areas if you want to spend more time at Machu Picchu.
Things still get log-jammed at some of the highlights of the site like the Sun Temple, with its elegantly curved wall, and the spectacular condor carving which masterfully incorporates an existing boulder to suggest wings while a carved stone depicts the head and body of the bird. It’s like ancient modern art.
During our first visit to Machu Picchu, we spent part of our time on the sloping, rocky trail up 750 feet (228 meters) to the so-called Puerto del Sol (Sun Gate). Hiram Bingham named the Puerto del Sol but experts have since determined that this entrance to the site, which is also called Intupunku, was not positioned with regard to the sun. Sun or no sun, you get great views from above Machu Picchu, and the mile-long (1.5 km) walk (each way) is pleasant.
Another worthy excursion is the 15-minute walk to the Incan Bridge area where you can see a cliff-side trail made by the Incans which include a wooden “bridge” section which could be removed, thus preventing anyone from accessing the site from that direction. Some believe this was the original Inca Trail entrance to Machu Picchu.
The second time we visited Machu Picchu we entered via the Sun Gate at the end of a 4-day Inca Trail trek with Apus Peru Adventure Travel Specialists. We were already familiar with the basics. Luckily, our guide Herbert Saldivar was able to go above and beyond the basics.
Herbert told us, for example, that conquered people were brought to Machu Picchu for months-long stints of labor as a kind of tax. He pointed out a half-buried Incan cross which becomes a full cross when the sun hits it just right, casting a shadow on the ground depicting the buried half of the cross.
Herbert also pointed out a section of wall where even our untrained eyes could see a distinct change in the quality of the stonework as the wall moved away from royal areas and into more common areas of the site. In an area with shallow divets carved into stone floor which were filled with water to create pools for stargazing, he recalled visiting another archaeoastronomical element of the site when he entered Intimachay (which means Cave of the Sun) with its window which was used to track the progress of the sun to predict the summer solstice (this building is closed to visitors).
Some people claim that Machu Picchu is an energy center and we saw a few people meditating on grassy areas near big rocks which is an entirely different way to experience the site.
Hiram Bingham and the politics of Machu Picchu
Hiram Bingham III was not an archaeologist. He wasn’t even an anthropologist. He was a South American history professor at Yale University who developed an obsession with the Incans. After visiting the Choquequirao archaeological site, he returned to Yale and organized a university-sponsored return to Peru in 1911 to find the Vilcabamba/Espiritu Pampa archaeological site where the Incans are believed to have made their last stand against the Spanish.
A funny thing happened along the way. A local told Bingham about a nearby site he really should see. Focused on Vilcabamba, he was reluctant but finally followed locals to the Machu Picchu site where he claimed to have “discovered” a “lost city.” Neither was true since locals were aware of the site’s existence and its location and explorers from Cuzco may have been at the site in 1901, a decade before Bingham. So, it’s much more accurate to say Bingham “re-discovered” the site or, better yet, that his was a “scientific discovery” since Machu Picchu was never lost.
Machu Picchu wasn’t Bingham’s goal, but the site fascinated Bingham who returned in 1912 to excavate parts of the site and came up with a bunch of armchair theories about its use and significance, many of which have since been debunked by actual archaeologists. Peru spent years petitioning for the return of thousands of artifacts Bingham sent to Yale. Visit the Machu Picchu Museum in Cuzco to see the 366 pieces that Yale returned in 2011. Bingham did eventually make it to Vilcabamba/Espiritu Santo as well.
There are a few plaques commemorating Hiram Bingham near the entrance to the site, but also look for a rock at the base of the Sun Temple that’s been inscribed with the names of Enrique Palma, Gabino Sánchez, and Agustín Lizarraga, the Peruvians who explored the site a decade before Hiram got there.
Challenges at Machu Picchu
In the late ’90s, a cable car from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu site was proposed but it was opposed by UNESCO (which cited fears that a cable car would ruin views and increase visitation to unsustainable levels) and environmentalists. At the time of writing, a new cable car project is being proposed as the steep dirt road from Aguas Calientes to the site, which is called the Hiram Bingham Highway, continues to deteriorate under the wheels of the buses that continually bring tourists to and fro.
Cable cars aside, UNESCO has expressed concern about site management issues like the number of visitors and waste management and even placed Machu Picchu, temporarily, on its list of endangered sites in 2015.
Machu Picchu know-how
There are no bathrooms inside the Machu Picchu site. You can exit the site to use the pay bathrooms near the main entrance and re-enter–but only once.
Large backpacks and bags are not allowed inside the site. You can check them, for a fee, near the entrance.
Drones are not allowed at Machu Picchu or anywhere within the massive Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary which surrounds the site.
Food and drinks (except water) may be confiscated at the entrance.
A guided tour of the site is going to take at least two hours. Be prepared with walking shoes, hat, sunscreen, etc.
Walking sticks or trekking poles are only allowed if you can demonstrate that you need them and your poles must have rubber tips to minimize damage to the site.
You can get a Machu Picchu stamp in your passport at a small kiosk near the entrance.
You will need a separate permit if you want to hike up Huayna Picchu peak or Machu Picchu peak which jut up on opposite ends of the site like bookends.
We have been told that the Manuel Chávez Ballón Museum, about a mile out of Aguas Calientes on the road to the archaeological site, has a worthy Machu Picchu collection. However, we never made it there so we can’t personally vouch for it.
If you don’t want to take the bus to and from the site (US$12 each way, cash only) you can walk along the dirt road and shortcut trails that go up or down 1,280 feet (390 meters) between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. The roughly 90-minute walk is steep in sections and the bus traffic makes conditions very dusty on the road.
Find out how to get your Machu Picchu ticket and other vital information in our story about visiting Machu Picchu for Travel + Leisure. Note that since this piece was published new rules have been introduced at the site and two of them will directly impact your visit. Now all visitors must have a guide. They are available for hire at the entrance and we’re told prices are around 65 soles (about US$20) for a small group. Also, entry tickets are now good for morning or afternoon entry only. Visitors are no longer able to enter in the morning and again in the afternoon. During our second visit, there also seemed to be a lot more guards patrolling the site which is a good thing since we witnessed a lot of people invading roped off areas and sitting and climbing on walls during our first visit when guards were few and far between.
There’s even more information about Machu Picchu in our post about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and in our complete round-up of all of the ways you can travel to Machu Picchu (there are more options than you think).
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about Archaeological Sites