Machu Picchu is an Incan city surrounded by temples, terraces and water channels, built on a mountaintop. It was built with huge blocks of stone joined to each other without any mortar. Today it has been designated cultural heritage of humanity in recognition of its political, religious and administrative importance during the age of the Incas.
Planning a Trip:
The best time to visit Machu Picchu is between May and September, when the weather is dry. This is also the most popular time at the site, and tickets and trains can sell out far in advance. October through April are considered“off peak, as it’s rainy season, but crowds can be thinner.
As soon as you know when you want to go, book your tickets. You can buy tickets online through the official Machu Picchu portal. The online system can be tricky to navigate, however. Pay a little more and you can have an agency take care of tickets for you. Or you can pick up tickets in person in Cusco, but keep in mind that tickets sell out weeks in advance during peak season. Also, keep in mind, if you’re planning to hike the Inca Trail, your tour operator will take care of your tickets for you.
It’s possible to see the whole site in one (long) day; take the train in the morning, spend your day at the site and return that evening. If you want to climb one of the nearby mountains or be one of the first at the site in the morning, spend a night in AguasCalientes, the town at the base of the mountain. The town itself has plenty of tourist kitsch, with pizza parlors, souvenir shops and bars hawking three-for-one pisco sours. It’s also a good place to recoup or get a massage after an Inca Trail hike, but otherwise, there’s little reason to linger.
The easiest way to get to from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to take the train to AguasCalientes (the town located a few miles from the site). It’s a scenic 3.5-hour trip each way along tracks that run right along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley, with dramatic canyon walls on either side.
Some train tips:
- The so-called Cusco train station is actually in the nearby town of Poroy. It’s a cheap taxi ride, but give yourself at least an hour to get from central Cusco to the train station. Traffic in Cusco can be brutal and seemingly never-ending road work makes things even more congested.
- There are three train companies to choose from: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham train. The Hiram Bingham service is on a gorgeous train gleaming with brass and polished wood and includes a white tablecloth meal with wine during your journey. It’s also much more expensive than Inca Rail or Peru Rail, both of which offer comfortable passage on different types of trains—including ones designed with extra windows for an additional fee.
- Whichever train you choose, book as far in advance as possible. Tickets sell out weeks ahead in some months.
- If train tickets from Cusco are sold out, all is not lost. Try to buy a ticket to AguasCalientes that departs from the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or vice versa. Taxis and mini vans between Ollantaytambo and Cusco (just over an hour each way) are plentiful. If you have the time, plan an overnight in Ollantaytambo to check out the town, which still features many Incan-built streets and buildings, as well as the archaeological site of the same name. Arrive as early as possible to the site to enjoy sunrise light and beat the tour buses.
- If you do stay in Ollantaytambo, the Aranwa hotel comes highly recommended. It’s not luxurious, but the most charming hotel in Ollantaytambo is El Albergue. Located right at the train station, this petite B&B has Incan terraces right on the property. The current owners still farm the terraces as part of their organic garden.
History and Culture:
Embedded within a dramatic landscape at the meeting point between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is among the greatest artistic, architectural and land use achievements anywhere and the most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization. Recognized for outstanding cultural and natural values, the mixed World Heritage property covers 32,592 hectares of mountain slopes, peaks and valleys surrounding its heart, the spectacular archaeological monument of “La Ciudadela” (the Citadel) at more than 2,400 meters above sea level. Built in the fifteenth century Machu Picchu was abandoned when the Inca Empire was conquered by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. It was not until 1911 that the archaeological complex was made known to the outside world.
The approximately 200 structures making up this outstanding religious, ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural centre are set on a steep ridge, crisscrossed by stone terraces. Following a rigorous plan the city is divided into a lower and upper part, separating the farming from residential areas, with a large square between the two. To this day, many of Machu Picchu’s mysteries remain unresolved, including the exact role it may have played in the Incas’ sophisticated understanding of astronomy and domestication of wild plant species.
The massive yet refined architecture of Machu Picchu blends exceptionally well with the stunning natural environment, with which it is intricately linked. Numerous subsidiary centres, an extensive road and trail system, irrigation canals and agricultural terraces bear witness to longstanding, often on-going human use. The rugged topography making some areas difficult to access has resulted in a mosaic of used areas and diverse natural habitats. The Eastern slopes of the tropical Andes with its enormous gradient from high altitude “Puna” grasslands and Polylepis thickets to montane cloud forests all the way down towards the tropical lowland forests are known to harbour a rich biodiversity and high endemism of global significance. Despite its small size the property contributes to conserving a very rich habitat and species diversity with remarkable endemic and relict flora and fauna.