A detailed Machu Picchu travel guide: explanations, facts, information and pictures of all the highlights within Peru’s ancient Inca ruins.
Machu Picchu might just be the top bucket list item. Ever. The lost city of the Inca certainly appeals with picture perfects scenery. Unlike in 1911, when famous Hiram Bingham supposedly rediscovered Machu Picchu in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, it is no real problem getting there these days. Since the grounds of the ancient site are quite large and there are hardly any descriptions to be found, it pays off to prepare in advance.
I hope this article will be able to give you a good impression of what to expect. I tried to squeeze in as many Machu Picchu facts and information as possible, while still keeping it brief and entertaining. Feel free to skip a section or two, or ask any questions in the comments below. I am no archeologist – just an experienced traveler sharing his impressions.
All pictures were taken during my stay in May 2015. I wrote about my spectacular hotel here in case you are still looking for a hotel. If you are currently preparing a trip to Machu Picchu, it might also pay off to check out my article on the Dark side of Machu Picchu that will prepare you a bit for all the things you can expect at Machu Picchu, besides the (admittedly) picture perfect view.
Wondering what to pack for Machu Picchu? Check out my Machu Picchu packing list
Machu Picchu Facts
- GPS Coordinates: 13.1633°S, 72.5456°W
- Country: Peru
- Department: Cusco
- Province: Urubamba
- District: Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is precariously located on a very steep mountain. Yet for Peruvian standards the site is actually very low – only 2,420 meters above the sea level (read more about the height & risk of altitude sickness here). Coined as a New Seven Wonders of the World, there are only two entrance points into Machu Picchu: The main entrance and the Gate of the Sun. While the latter is reserved for those accessing Machu Picchu via the Inca trail, most of the maximum of the roughly ~4,000 people allowed to enter the ruins per day will take the main entrance (Note: there are plans to allow more visitors in).
A bus will take visitors on a precarious mountain road from Aguas Calientes (where the train station is located) to the top, and drop them out right in front of the entrance. From there you actually just have to follow the signs. There really is no way to get lost. Just follow the circular path around. In fact, there are guards all around Machu Picchu watching out for any errant visitors or any forms of misconduct (there have been a few naked..uh…transgressions lately).
Machu Picchu has been built around 1450 AD but was abandoned around the time the Spanish came to Peru. A huge portion of Machu Picchu has been restored, though it will probably always remain a ruin.
Ticket Options for Machu Picchu
There are a couple of different tickets options to enter Machu Picchu. As there is usually a bit of confusion around these, I listed all three options you got. You cannot, stress, you cannot get tickets for Huayna Picchu or Machu Mountain without a Machu Picchu ticket.
- Tickets for Machu Picchu
Adult: 152 Soles ( 46 USD)
Student & Children: 77 Soles (22 USD)This is the standard ticket. You will be able to see ALL the ruins, but you will not be able to climb any of the mountains around Machu Picchu.
Important: Starting from July 1st, 2019, you have to pick a 2 hour slot. You cannot stay in the ruins all day any longer. Read more here.
- Tickets for Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu
Adult: 200 Soles (60 USD)
Students & Children: 125 Soles (36 USD) Huayna Picchu is the impressive mountain behind Machu Picchu. With this ticket, you will see the ruins and be permitted to climb the “young peak”. Also, gives u access to the temple of the moon.
- Tickets for Machu Picchu & Machu Mountain
Adult: 200 Soles (60 USD)
Students & Children: 125 Soles (36 USD)Less popular than Huayna Picchu, but also less busy; Hiking Machu Mountain takes longer and there are no ruins at the top
3 Different ways into Machu Picchu
There is only one hotel directly in Machu Picchu (The Belmond Sanctuary Lodge). All other tourists have to stay in Aguas Calientes and then hike up to the Inca ruins (here’s a list of the best hotels near Machu Picchu). There are three different ways to do so.
Machu Picchu by bus
Starting from 5:30 am buses leave from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. The ride takes about 30 minutes. This will cost 24 USD for a round trip.
Hiking into Machu Picchu
From Aguas Calientes there is also hiking the trail up to Machu Picchu. This option is for free and will take you 60 to 90 minutes covering 400 meters of altitude.
Taking the Inca Trail
There are many treks into Machu Picchu. The classic Inca Trail takes 4 days (25 km) and will cost you around 500 USD depending on the agency you choose. You need tickets and an official guide. You cannot go on your own. People who take one of these treks, will enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate (see below) and then stay for a night in Aguas Calientes after the tour through Machu Picchu.
Here’s my full guide on how to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco and beyond. If you are looking for the cheapest (but also slowest) way to get to Machu Picchu, read my special guide on how to take the bus.
Weather in Machu Picchu
The weather in Machu Picchu is pretty constant throughout the year in terms of temperature & humidity. During the daytime, you can expect temperatures around 25° Celcius throughout the year.
Rain, however, is a different matter. While there is hardly any precipitation from May to August (dry season), it rains so much between November and March that parts of the ruins actually sometimes close down. The Inca Trail and the climb up to Huayna Picchu are always closed in February for maintenance work.
What you will see on your tour through Machu Picchu
There are a lot of different distinct sites within Machu Picchu and I thought it would be a good idea to present you with a visual tour. You might not remember it all, but even if you just remember a bit, it will add a lot of depth to your visit.
The House of Guardians
You will start your walk around Machu Picchu on a narrow pathway that will soon branch off to the left on a somewhat steep incline. To the left, you have the chance to visit the Gate of the Sun (Intipunku) and Machu Mountain (more on those later). Moving onwards, the House of the Guardians will appear at the very top of Machu Picchu, offering the first and also best view on the ruins.
Here is where the iconic picture of Machu Picchu is taken. You really can’t miss it, because there is a sign actually telling you to take a picture. Watch out for selfie sticks and be patient if you want a picture without strangers on it.
But what is the House of the Guardians? Well, technically speaking, you are not inside Machu Picchu here, but outside the city walls. Hiram Bingham thought this structure had been manned by pickets and so coined it the House of the Guardians, even no written or oral record hints at the actual usage.
Either way, it remains a fact that this is your best view on Machu Picchu. So do look for a nice place to sit and enjoy the scenery. Obviously, you can come back at any time later on, but since the weather can change rather quickly, rather be safe!
The place where you are standing is sometimes called the agricultural sector because there is little else than terraced fields (spectacular as they may be). The House of the Guardians or sometimes also called Watchman’s hut stands at the top of it all.
The Funerary Rock and the cemetery
Right behind the House of Guardians, you will find the so-called Funerary Rock. Human remains have been found in this area, indicating that it might have been used as a funeral site. All this is speculation without facts since no written records exist.
This is why calling the area behind the Funerary Rock “The Cemetery” might be a long shot. Machu Picchu, however, was a huge Inca country estate and this place at least had the looks of a cemetery the site must have had. Some of the rocks show carvings (looking like drainage). There has been a debate about whether this site has also been used for sacrifices (human and/or animals).
The main gate & the urban sector
Looking down on Machu Picchu from the House of Guardians you cannot miss a big staircase. This is the Main Stairway of Machu Picchu and it follows the city wall of Machu Picchu. Inca history hasn’t been pretty and this citadel was also built for protective reasons.
Follow the path down and enter the city proper through the Main Gate. You will first see the urban sector, where the common citizens had been living. Houses here were rather small and narrow and once thatched with straw under wooden beams.
Do note the architecture and how stones have been set rather simple, as opposed to royal houses and temples you will see later on your tour through Machu Picchu.
If you look to the right you will not only a have a beautiful view of the valley below, but also see a quarry. Machu Picchu has never been finished and in this place, you can clearly see that. Just why it has been abandoned before it was finished remains unclear. Before the Spanish defeated them, the Inca Empire suffered from a succession war and lost almost 2/3 of its population to a tragic smallpox epidemic. Maintaining Machu Picchu probably had been just too expensive.
The Main Temple of Machu Picchu
As you follow the meandering path through the urban sector (do explore the grannies and niches!), you will ultimately end up at the main temple of Machu Picchu. This square probably served as a staging area for important rituals and gatherings. It is often called Sacred Plaza.
Machu Picchu has probably been a ritual center and not so much a real city (unlike Cusco or Pisac). The main temple consists of huge walls that have once been perfectly set. You can clearly see plenty of niches in the walls. Once sacred objects (huacas) would have been placed here. Imagine golden figurines depicting the gods, but also mummies of important ancestors.
The temple, quite clearly, lacks the fourth wall. Just why remains unclear. Some experts think by intention, others see it as further proof that Machu Picchu was never finished. Some believe there is a little sacristy attached to the main temple (on the backside), where a small sleeping pallet made from stone can be seen. I am not sure if this theory can withstand sound archeological proof but do judge for yourself.
The Temple of the Three Windows
Right next to the main temple, you will find another big highlight within Machu Picchu: the Temple of the Three Windows. The temple is insofar very significant because it holds inscriptions from Agustín Lizárraga and his three followers dating back to July 1902. Almost ten years before Hiram Bingham “rediscovered” the site.
The Temple of the three Windows has also only three walls and originally must have had 5 windows. Massive as they are, they represent the underground world, heaven and the here and now. The large monolith in front of the windows also has three levels. This sacred rock was used for rituals, much like an altar.
The Intihuatana (Intiwatana) Stone
The Intihuatna is perhaps the most significant ritual site within Machu Picchu. Behind the Sacred Plaza you will see an artificial hill, sometimes referred to as a pyramid. Abutting the hill you will find an open chamber with a worn down stele of the utmost importance: The Intihuatana – the stone to tie the sun.
The Intihuatana is a mixture between an altar and an astronomical device. The ingenious stone will cast absolutely no shadow on the day of the solstice. Different angles and levels also made it possible to predict equinox and other important astronomical events. The four corners of the stone are pointing in the four cardinal directions, hinting at impressive knowledge (read more about the Intihuatana here)
It is believed that rituals were being held here. The astronomical function was probably more important, though. In an area where torrential rains frequently cause landslides, predicting seasonal weather patterns ensured the survival of the crops. We do, however, not know exactly what the full extent of the Intihuatana was.
Important Machu Picchu fact: The Spanish razed all the know Intihuatanas (e.g in Tipon; read about the spectacular water gardens of the Inca here). So the one in Machu Picchu is the only one left intact.
The Main Square
Threading down the path from the Intihuatana pyramid, you cannot fail to notice the flat expanse of picture-perfect lawn. This square was probably used for important rituals. You will find a larger version at Sacsayhuamán in Cusco (which is the center stage for the famous Inti Raymi festival each June),
The main square more or less divided Machu Picchu into different sectors. It is believed that high ranking Inca took residence in the area close to the important temples, so directly in the vicinity of Inithuatana and the Sacred Plaza.
The Sacred Rock
Crossing the main square you will soon come towards a little outpost. Two thatched roofs are crowded around a huge slab of natural rock. Insiders call it the Sacred Rock, though whether it really was a ritual site remains unclear. The architecture strongly resembles the one around the Sacred Plaza, meaning two buildings (though of cruder masonry) with only 3 walls facing a central stone.
The Sacred Rock with its 3 meters of height marks the north-most point inside Machu Picchu. Perhaps the most significant fact: This area is the portal towards Wayna Picchu, a mountain the Inca probably revered at this site, thinking it contained one of the higher spirits (apus). If you bought tickets for getting the best aerial view of Machu Picchu, this is where you will have to start.
Wayna Picchu is often called the Stairs of Death, because the way up is almost vertical, without any handrails or other security measures. If you want to know what it’s like or prepare your visit, make sure to read my extensive article on climbing Wayna Picchu.
The Industrial Sector
Following the circular path through Machu Picchu, your next step will be the industrial sector and its many factory houses. Know then, that this is again only a hypothesis. Some mortars were found in this area that might have been used for grinding dyes, essential for pottery or weaving.
Some archeologists believe, however, that these “mortars” were in fact cup holders, or rather jar-holders. The ferment maize-beer is still popular among the working class (in case you are interested: I got to sample it on my trip to the Maras salt mines) and would have been stored in pointed vases. Maybe they also were only water basins.
Behind the extensive industrial zone of Machu Picchu, you will find a set of houses crouching over the abyss below. The central piece is a giant rock that looks a bit like a Condor. The buildings almost got the feeling of a labyrinth, which is why they are often referred to as the Prison.
In reality, it probably was another ritual site, one that might have involved the sacrifice of animals and humans. The Condor-god (Apu Kuntur) is still being worshiped in the whole Andean region until this day (culminating in a festival called Yawar Fiesta). So this was another important temple often called the Temple of the Condors.
The Royal District and Palace
Taking the stairs further uphill, you will get to the inner sanctum of Machu Picchu. Here you will enter a cluster of perfectly built houses known as the royal palace. Both the perfect masonry and the vicinity of the Temple of the Sun make it very probable that this is where the Inca king and his family resides on their stays in Machu Picchu. It is, in all earnest not particularly large.
Do not forget, however, that Machu Picchu was not the center of the Inca Empire. That was Cusco. Machu Picchu was probably just one of the many royal estates around the country and (contrary to what you might think) not a site of great importance.
Small ritual fountains and a tomb can be found in this area as well. Everything is very, very close together. The fountains, however, do not work anymore. The source has been cut off. Only during heavy rains water can be seen trickling down.
The Temple of the Sun
Right next to the Royal Palace you will find the temple of the Sun. The semi-circular building is quite small in proportions. If you want to see the main temple of the Inca Empire, you would have to go to Cusco. The Qurikancha has truly outstanding proportions, even though not all of its former glory remains (find it among the many highlights of my article on things to do in Cusco). Still, mummies and golden objects would have been found here in Machu Picchu as well.
Attached to the Temple of the Sun is a small building often called “Nusta’s Bedroom”. This might have been the house of the high priest.
The Fields and Granaries
After the temple of the sun, you will exit the city of Machu Picchu through the city wall entering a sweeping series of terraces. These terraces were built to perfectly drain the heavy rains and keep the crops and soil in place. If you happen to experience Machu Picchu during one of these downpours, you will quickly realize that the ancient system is still working.
Neither pathways nor fields are bogged down. It will only take a couple of minutes for them to dry afterward. Quite a marvelous feature! If you were to cut through one of these terraces (as archeologist did), you would find many different layers of gravel and soil. God alone knows how long it took the Inca to figure out this system.
At the end of your tour through Machu Picchu, you will see a couple of granaries. Their roofs have been restored to give you a proper impression of how they once must have looked like.
And with these granaries ends the classic tour through Machu Picchu. There are a couple of more highlights you really should not miss. As you are only allowed to enter the ruins with a guide (starting from July 1. 2017) I hope he will be able to point them out to you. There are three different circuits you can choose from. Previously your ticket enabled you to leave the ruins once, but that is no longer possible. So, do go on the toilet before you enter!
Behind Machu Picchu, you will see two prominent mountains. Wayna Picchu and Huchuy Picchu, the latter being the smaller one to the left. Special tickets are needed to gain access to these. If you are a fit hiker and not scared of heights, you really should consider checking out the fantastic view of Machu Picchu from up there (as you can see the decline is almost vertical).
Some Inca structures can be found at the top, though their significance is lost down in history and I really could not find any sustainable facts or information. It is a very scary hike, but equally as rewarding. If you are looking for good pictures, do climb the smaller mountain, since Wayna Picchu is actually some 300 meters higher and you will need a very good telephoto lens to get decent pictures from up there.
Inti Punku (The gate of the sun)
The Inti Punk or Intipunku is one of the outposts of Machu Picchu. It has once been the main entrance of the citadel and probably was a military checkpoint. On top of that, it also was a ritual site, because the sunrise over Machu Picchu can be seen from here, and only from here.
Being some 2,745 meters high, it takes about 30 to 40 minutes to reach it from the main entrance of Machu Picchu. Apart from the last 100 meters, the road is following a very moderate incline. If you are not too fit, but still want to see Machu Picchu from above, this would be your best chance to do so.
Travelers taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (something I really do not recommend; more on that later) will enter the ruins through the Intipunku as their very first stop – usually around sunrise. Since Machu Picchu is frequently hidden in morning mists, it is a rare day to actually see the sunrise from here.
It thus might be advisable to check out Intipunku after you toured Machu Picchu proper and skip trying to see the sunrise from here. Just decide spontaneously depending on the current weather. If there is rain or heavy fog, there really is no point in hiking to the Intipunku, because the site itself is rather unspectacular (as you can see).
The Inca Bridge
Another way to Machu Picchu (one that is not open anymore) is via the Inca bridge. A small path is branching away from the House of the Guardians and will lead you via a jaw-dropping hike to a very small bridge.
The bridge itself is really nothing more than a few wooden blanks. In days past you were able to cross it, but out of obvious security concerns that is no longer possible. I absolutely have to stress that you should not suffer from vertigo if you plan to see the Inca Bridge. It takes about 15 minutes of fast walking to reach it and every single meter you will face a vertical drop of 500 meters with only a small handrail.
Inca Trail (Camino Inca)
Last but not least a few words about the Inca Trail. Most travelers will arrive via train to Aguas Calientes and then take the bus up to Machu Picchu. You can, however, also opt to hike the original Inca trail on 4 or 5-day itinerary.
The fun part about it: Along its 104 kilometers you will cross a host of other Inca ruins and cross the Peruvian cloud forest with its many animals and plants. You will also ascend to approximately 4,200 meters of altitude before you descend into Machu Picchu.
These days the Inca trail is better described as a business. The government actually had to regulate the traffic there, because it sometimes felt like a highway. So you actually have to get tickets to walk there and they are severely limited. Still, you will by no means be the only one on the trail.
I wrote a little article on the times it takes to hike the different trail options and Machu Picchu in General. Check it out here.
I do not recommend taking the Inca Trail, even though most people there will have a great time. Why? First of all, it’s crowded, it is considerably expensive, but above all, it really offers nothing unique. Ancient ruins can be found all over Peru, and there are certainly better hikes to be found as well.
It’s a tourist product and one that will only reveal touristy things. Rather plan your trip directly to Machu Picchu and use the spare time to explore the rest of the country – you certainly won’t regret it. With 5 days you could go to Lake Titicaca. Check out my Peru itinerary to see what is possible even in 2 weeks.
Last thoughts in my Machu Picchu guide
Having toured Machu Picchu multiple times I can only attest: It is a New World Wonder. The site is nothing short of spectacular. I might have written about the Dark side of Machu Picchu, but above all Machu Picchu will deliver upon its promise.
One of the Machu Picchu facts that seldom surfaces: The site actually has only little historic relevance. At the end of the day, it was just a royal country estate some 500 years old. I grew up in a house that was almost twice as old and still intact. It is the beauty of the location, along with the crumbling ruins that will captivate you. It is also reminiscent of all the things the South American people lost after the Spanish invaders conquered them. Absolutely do go! And don’t forget to check out my Peru packing list. Won’t do to leave important items at home, eh?
I hope my rather lengthy guide was able to fill in some blanks around all the important Machu Picchu facts. Any questions left? Let me know in the comments below!
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