Machu Picchu is a magical place. There’s something about the energy that beams from the UNESCO site that is ancient, spiritual and addictive. From the first glimpses of the site, to your final vision, Machu Picchu is just as incredible as you could ever imagine. Whether it’s the strong energy in the quartz in the granite rock, or the amount of Gatorade you’ve been drinking that’s making you giddy, there’s no denying that Machu Picchu is a once in a lifetime experience. Here’s all you need to know about traveling to Machu Picchu.
History & Geography
Located in the south of Peru, Machu Picchu’s history is ancient and intriguing. Historians believe that Machu Picchu was built at the height of the Incan rule, in approximately 1450. Originally believed to be the palace or sacred religious site, as more detail are uncovered, the site actually served both of these purposes, plus many more. At the time, the Incans had dominated South America, ruling with an iron fist.
The site itself is perched high above the mountains, on top of and surrounded by giant peaks. Historians believe that many religious and sacred ceremonies took place on this site, drawing many connections to their links with the Sun.
The site was abandoned approximately 100 years after it was built, and historians are divided about the reason. Some claim that rumours of the Spanish invasion had reached the high Machu Picchu peaks and the people decided to flee, and some claim that a Smallpox outbreak occurred and the inhabitants were trying to prevent spreading by leaving. The mystery continues, as excavators and archaeologists still reveal hidden passageways, ruins and sacred sites.
How to get there
The best place to settle before you visit Machu Picchu is the city of Cuzco. It’s the central departure point, and also the best place to find everything you need before you experience Machu Picchu. There is plenty of accommodation, the city is packed with trekking stores, and there are some brilliant museums which are a fantastic starting point before you visit the sacred site.
Flights can be quite expensive to get to Cuzco, and you’ll definitely need to stop off in Lima, the capital of Peru. Unfortunately, the fastest way to get to Cuzco from Lima is flying, and the airlines have quite a monopoly on the flights. They can be very expensive, depending on the season you travel.
There are two different ways to access the site from Cuzco.
Trek the Inca Trail
There are plenty of trek options for the Inca Trail. You can do a one-day trek, or the original four-day trek, that covers the Inca Trail. Stepping in the same pathways as the ancient Incas is pure bliss. Imagining the Incas traipsing through the jungle, towards their sacred site on a religious pilgrimage is incredible. You also feel like you’re on a similar pilgrimage. Your first glimpse of Machu Picchu is through the Sun Gate; the site is spread out in front of you in all its magical glory. Sit on the edge of the rocky cliff, and gaze at Machu Picchu for as long as you want. It will fill you with emotions that you never thought were possible about a site like this. The advantage of treks and tours like these is that everything is booked and sorted out for you. All food and accommodation is included. It ranges from camping to hotels. Another advantage is that you actually arrive in the afternoon to Machu Picchu. This is very special, as there are hardly any tourists and you practically have the place to yourself. You will then be taken back again to Machu Picchu the next day for your tour.
By Train and Bus
If you don’t have much time, the train and bus system to get to Machu Picchu is extremely organized. You will first get from Cuzco to the town of Olly – this will take about an hour and a half. You can catch a taxi, or you can arrange a tour company to organize your trip. You will then catch the train from Olly to mountain town. The train ticket will cost about $65USD. It’s a fantastic experience, where you will get some food and drinks. The roof of the train contains glass panels, so you can gaze at the tops of the mountains as you follow the river through the valley. This takes about hour and a half. This small town purely services Machu Picchu, and contains an abundance of hotels, hostels, snack stores, and souvenir shops. It is wedged between the mountains, and has a raging mountain river that runs directly through the middle.
There are constant buses that take tourists up the mountain (about half an hour) to Machu Picchu. You can buy a ticket in the centre of town at a small kiosk, right next to the river, and under the bridge. Tickets will cost $12USD for a one way ticket to the site from the town. Bus tickets can be purchased just before you jump on. The first bus is at 6am, come any later and you will wait in a long line, even in the slow season. However, with the amount of buses that run, you won’t be waiting for long. The bus will drop you at the entrance, where you will find a toilet, a snack store, and a small restaurant. Don’t expect to be buying any souvenirs here. You will then enter Machu Picchu site.
Make sure that you leave the entire day to visit the site. After a tour, you’ll want some time to actually sit on the grass and take in the incredible site. Bring some chocolate (or your celebratory snack of choice) and soak up the glorious energy.
Tours of Machu Picchu
If you arrive through a tour company via the trek, you will receive a guided tour as a part of your tour. However, if you only arrive for the day, there are plenty of tour guides at the entrance to assist you and offer a professional tour. There’s no need to worry about fake tours or being ripped off, these guides are provided and trained by the government, and are very knowledgeable.
The tour will last around 3 hours, so ensure that you’re prepared, with water, sunscreen and some food. On the actual site, there are no souvenir stores, no food stores and no toilets. To access all of these facilities, you must exit the site and go back to the entrance. There are toilets, a small restaurant and it’s where the bus departs and drops you off. You can go back into the site afterwards – so hang onto your ticket.
A tour is highly recommended – as they give you some incredible pieces of information that you simply can’t find yourself. They will guide you through each of the ruins, and will point out important traditions, cultural rituals and provide insight into this fascinating culture. You’ll learn theories about how the Incas cut the gigantic rocks and the way the Incas put the rocks together (without mortar). You’ll learn about how pilgrims came from all over South America to visit the site, bringing a rock from their hometown as an offering and present for their arrival.
Tips for Visiting
Ensure that you’re wearing comfortable shoes, as there are plenty of stairs and levels to navigate. You also have the option (you’ll pay extra) to climb either Huyanaman mountain or Machu Picchu mountain. The first takes about an hour and a half and is extremely rigorous. It offers incredible birds eye views of Machu Picchu, and it’s the famous mountain in the background of the Machu Picchu site. The latter is much smaller and is behind the site. It also offers wonderful views and doesn’t take as long, around half an hour. You can arrange these with any tour agency in Cuzco.
You can also take the hour long hike up to the Sun Gate, where you’ll see Machu Picchu from a distance. This really is a stunning site, and doesn’t cost anything. You don’t need to climb mountains to see Machu Picchu in all its glory though. If you walk up to the top of the site, you will find a small hut, called the ‘guard hut’. You’ll know it’s the one because of all the tourists. It’s where you’ll get what’s called the classic shot, the one of the site of Machu Picchu with the tall mountain in the background. Absolutely breathtaking. Be prepared to wait in line!
There are some very strict restrictions on the actual site. No ‘jumping’ pictures are allowed, and you must be extremely respectful of the site. There are guards that are positioned in certain spots, and that roam around to make sure that tourists don’t break these rules. The rules were only set in place recently, before the year 1997, when tourists could even camp on the grounds. There are also very strict rules about exactly which stones you can touch. There are some areas where you can sit down on the rocks and enjoy the view. You must also carry out all of your rubbish, there are no bins on site – but you there are plenty at the entrance and exit.
In the morning, there is almost always a light fog that covers the site, and just as often, it’s raining. Please bring a raincoat and umbrella. The fog does lift in the late morning, close to lunchtime, and the mountain will be revealed and Machu Picchu will open gloriously. Keep this in mind when booking, as you will want more time to get photos after the fog has lifted.
Please ensure that you leave enough time to acclimatize to the altitude in this region. The best way to do this is to spend at least 3 nights in Cuzco before you embark on your Machu Picchu journey. The city sits 3,600m above sea level, and you will need the time for your body to adjust. You’ll find that even walking up small hills will leave you breathless for the first few days. This will make it much easier when going to Machu Picchu, which is only 2,600m elevation.
If you’re really suffering, you can always chew the famous cacao leaves. All the locals drink cacao tea, chew the leaves and highly recommend them. You can buy them anywhere in Cuzco. There are also prescription tablets that can help you called Diamoz. Ask your local travel doctor before you leave home for a prescription.
In the future, the daily access to the site will be split in two – a morning and afternoon session. This is to ensure that maximum amount of tourists can enter the site. Please keep this in mind when booking, and do some research about when this regulation will start. Machu Picchu is truly enchanting; you will love every second of this World Wonder. Take plenty of photos, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.