Machu Picchu, Peru

Recently, I have been getting a lot of people asking me about Machu Picchu so I wanted to repost something I posted last April with a few changes. Machu Picchu is one of those places that just completely baffles you. It is hard to comprehend how this city came to be and even moreso: how it came be be lost. The “Lost City of the Incas” is so mysterious that if you choose to do the 4 day Inca Trail hike to get there, you will spend most of your time trying to figure out just how they got all of these rocks and stuff up the massive Andes Mountains. You can ask your guide but they can’t give you a definitive answer. Machu Picchu is an example of what a wonder of the world should be. It is mysterious, tough to reach, beautiful and captivating. In a word Machu Picchu is awesome.

Machu Picchu is 70 kilometers northwest of Cusco, on the crest of the mountain Machu Picchu, located about 2,350 meters above sea level. It is one of the most important archaeological centers in South America and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. From the top, at the cliff of Machu Picchu, is a vertical precipice of 600 meters ending at the foot of the Urubamba River. The location of the city was a military secret because its deep precipices and mountains were an excellent natural defense. Luckily for the rest of the world, it was finally discovered.

On July 24, 1911, Machu Picchu was brought to the attention of the West by Hiram Bingham III, an American historian then employed as a lecturer at Yale University. He was led there by locals who frequented the site. This explorer/archaeologist began the archaeological studies there and completed a survey of the area. Bingham coined the name “The Lost City of the Incas”, which was the title of his first book.

Bingham had been searching for the city of Vitcos, the last Inca refuge and spot of resistance during the Spanish conquest of Peru. In 1911, after years of previous trips and explorations around the zone, he was led to the citadel by Quechuans who were living in Machu Picchu in the original Inca infrastructure. Bingham made several more trips and conducted excavations on the site through 1915. He wrote a number of books and articles about the discovery of Machu Picchu.

All visits to Machu Picchu at some point leave from Cusco, which can be reached via a domestic flight from Lima, or international flight from La Paz, in Bolivia. Taking the tourist train from Cusco (which takes 3.5 hours to get to Machu Picchu), you have several options.

The most common way is to take the train to Machu Picchu in the morning, explore the ruins for a few hours and return to Cusco in the afternoon. Another option and the one I did is to hike the Inca Trail, on either a four-day or two-day version, both of which are controlled by the government. They require travelers to be reasonably fit. The trip takes a few days, and involves sleeping in tents. It is a tough hike but one of the most beautiful and rewarding experiences imaginable. It is the best hike in South America that anybody can do. Day 2 is a little tough but you can certainly persevere and reach your goal. One other thing that is better about the Inca Trail than just taking the bus or train is that you get to see a lot of ruins along the trail that are just as good and in some cases even better than Machu Picchu itself.

Another option is to stay overnight near the ruins themselves, rather than return on the same day. There are many hotels at nearby, yet dumpy, Aguas Calientes, but only one hotel at Machu Picchu itself-which I took a nap in their lobby. Buses run from Aguas Calientes to the ruins throughout the day, an 8km ride up the mountain (aproximatively 1.5 hours walk up a steep zigzagging dirt road).

Once you do finally arrive at famed Machu Picchu, you are in for a treat. It is as good as advertised. It is as mysterious when you are there as you think it is as you are getting to it. Usually it is cloud covered and very eerie looking. You will spend hours peering into centuries old rooms constructed by the Incas well ahead of their time. It is a really amazing place to just relax and take it in.

It is one of the new 7 wonders of the world, so take it in and realize how lucky you are to be there and see it before Peru starts severely limiting the amount of tourists and effectively limiting peoples ability to actually see this wonder of the world. Tourism has been a big problem so please practice responsible tourism at the site so everyone in the future can enjoy it as well.

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  1. U cannot beat MP at sunrise from the Sun Gate

  2. I did the hike in December and I couldn\’t agree more. Not only do I think this is something everyone should experience, but I highly suggest taking the time to do the 4 day hike. The 4 days you spend en route really add to the experience. A wise man told me that this is one of the most special places left in the world and it should be treated as such. They do limit the number of people up, so make sure you make reservations well in advance of your trip to Peru.

  3. I would also highly suggest the hike and to piggyback on end of Craig’s comment…in addition to booking in advance, book with a reputable company and (triple) confirm you have a permit to hike. We met some people who got to Cusco and their company basically said “whoops, didn’t secure your permit, you can’t hike.” I think they ended up hiking one of the other trails, but I haven’t heard anything about whether those trails are good/worth it/recommended.

  4. I agree with both Craig and Michelle on their points. I also wouldnt recommend staying in Aguas Calientes, there really isn’t much to see there. The springs are very dirty and the town gets old very quick. How many times can you see the same souveniers, very similar to Cuzco with all the stores having the exact same thing. Besides the train back to Cuzco is a disaster and you might as well get it out of the way so you don’t have to do it the next day. try to sleep because it moves very slow and tends to backtrack for some strange reason.

  5. Brooke Berendsen says

    Very informative article Lee! I’m exploring MP in April and I’m so excited! I chose the option to take the luxury train from Cusco. I tried to find helicopter flights that would take me to MP but helicopters are currently banned due to noise and pollution. Oh well. I’ll enjoy the journey either way! Kudos on the hike option. Although I’m physically fit I’m not a “rugged” traveler…LOL

  6. Fred Appleyard says

    I spent 3 weeks in Peru in 2010, and plan a second trip there this Fall, but I did not visit Machu Picchu, and don’t plan to visit it. I hate big tourist crowds and MP is being slowly destroyed by over-tourism. The Peruvian Government has had to place limits on the number of visitors to MP and how long you can stay there. I found other great Archaeological sites that see extremely few visitors, and had the entire place to myself more than once. I live in Florida’s most populous County, so I prefer to escape people when I travel.

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