Machu Picchu

Wander around in the best kept Inca city in the world

Machu Picchu is the absolute highlight of Peru. This old Inca city is located at an altitude of 2,430 meters. The ruined city is one of the seven new wonders of the world and definitely worth a visit. These are the highlights of Machu Picchu. This article contains the best tips for your visit, transport and accommodations. So you can optimally experience this wonder of the world.

The Andes Mountains have long kept Machu Picchu out of world history. The Spaniards frantically searched for the City of Gold, but without success. Because of this, it is the most important remnant of the Inca civilisation. 

Discover the best tips about all the sights. So that you can optimally prepare for your visit. And how to avoid most other tourists. Because that is unfortunately necessary.

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The best tips for your visit

The terraces in the mountainside are world famous. And you may know Intihuatana and Intipunku. But who knows Winay Wayna? Or Putucusi? There's so much to see.

Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu, Peru ©Corno van den Berg

Huayna Picchu offers a perfect view of the city of Machu Picchu. You can walk around and visit the relatively unknown Temple of the Moon, which is located in the middle of the rainforest. Read how you can get your tickets for this unique excursion.

Read my article about Huayna Picchu


Intipunku at Machu Picchu.

The name Intipunku means the Sun Gate. This point is higher than Machu Picchu. This gives it an exceptional view of the city and the surrounding mountains. This is where most of the photos of the city are taken. It's actually the end of the Inca Trail, because the city is right here in front of you. It is still unclear what the purpose of the solar gate was. It may also have been nothing more than just the entrance to the city.

Intihuatana Stone

The famous Intihuatana Stone.

The name means Prison of the Sun, but why is not entirely clear. Intihuatana is located on top of a hill in the shape of a large monolith. Scientists think this is the usnu, the sacrificial altar found in all Inca temples. It may also have been used for rituals around the sun. Remarkably, the Incas have placed the stone in such a way that the sun on March 21 and September 21 does not give shade to the stone. According to the Incas, the stone contains a lot of sacred energy. Visitors who pray to Intihuatana are granted knowledge and visions. But only to those who are pure in heart.

Watchman’s Hut

A view of Watchman’s Hut in Machu Picchu.

The remarkable Watchman's Hut overlooks the agricultural part of Machu Picchu. Just after the entrance you will see this small building standing on a hill. You can clearly see how the terraces have been cultivated, but the most special thing is the overview of the entire city. Also look close to the hut, where there is a remarkable stone. According to archaeologists, it was used as a sacrificial altar. First explorer Bingham found a group of skeletons near the stone.

Terraces of Machu Picchu

The terraces are built on the steep mountain.

The Incas in Machu Picchu perfected terracing. What was earlier with the Moche Indians between 500 and 1000 AD. was to be seen. This made development and even agriculture possible on these hills. A large part of the city therefore consists of agricultural terraces. The water was led over all terraces via ingenious canals. Even now you can imagine how the drainage system must have worked.

Temple of the Three Windows

A visit to the Temple of the Three Windows.

This temple is named after its three large, trapezoidal niches. The Inca could look out over the surrounding mountains from the inside. This building probably had a ceremonial function. But which one is unknown, entirely in the style of Machu Picchu. It is clearly visible that remarkably large stones are used, as is characteristic of the Inca style.

Urban sector

The world famous Urban Sector in Machu Picchu.

The Urban Sector shows mainly simple houses, they probably belonged to local craftsmen. These houses were made of blocks of granite and attached to each other with cement (made of clay, among other things). The small windows that you can see here and there are also tapered, just like in many other places in Machu Picchu.

City Wall

The huge granite blocks in the City Wall.

The City Wall is found along all the buildings. The immense chunks of granite stand out, as with the other Inca monuments that have been found. Scientists still wonder how it is possible that a people who did not know the wheel (just like iron, by the way) could transport these kinds of stones. They were probably placed on tree trunks and slowly rolled to their destination. Quite a job in this mountain environment.

Temple of the Sun

Tempel van de Zon in Machu Picchu.

This massive semicircular tower with windows is reminiscent of the Temple of the Sun (the Koricancha) in Cusco. That is why it many people think this tower must be a Temple of the Sun as well.

The evidence is in the sunrise during the summer and winter solstices, which is the longest and shortest day of the year. Then exactly the sun falls in the windows. After which the Incas could predict, for example, the planting and harvesting. The tower is also called El Torreón. It is reminiscent of donjons, or medieval residential towers in many fortresses in Europe.

Palace of the Princess

The Palace of the Princess at Machu Picchu.

This intriguing building is located right next to the Temple of the Sun. Due to the fine workmanship and location of the temple, scientists believe it was a palace of an Inca princess, although nothing else is known about this. Remarkable is the window on the second floor that is exactly opposite the window in the Temple of the Sun. It is not entirely clear why.

Royal Tomb

The Royal Tomb is built in a cave.

Under the Palace of the Princess, a space has been carved into the rock, which, according to explorer Bingham, could have been a royal mausoleum. Even now, the shape looks a bit like a tomb. Although there is no real evidence for this, because bodies have never been found here. It is one of the many mysteries surrounding Machu Picchu.

Temple of the Condor

The shape of the Temple of the Condor.

In this temple you can see how skilled the Incas were at working stones. The Temple of the Condor shows (as the name implies) a condor in flight. The millions of old rock formation has been worked by the Incas to resemble a bird with spread wings. On the lower part of the temple you can also see the head and neck. Although you also need some imagination for this. A mummy has been found in a small niche, but its meaning is unclear.

Temple of the Moon

The Inca built the Temple of the Moon in a different way.

The Incas also built a number of complexes on the Huayna Picchu mountain. Including the Temple of the Moon. Remarkably enough, at the back of the mountain. At the top you can also see some buildings and small terraces. This place in particular gives scientists the idea that Machu Picchu was (also) an astronomical observatory. Even though a rock can be seen here, which is carved in the shape of an altar. So it has also been a place of sacrifice.

Many tourists are only here for a few hours. A shame, because Machu Picchu and its surroundings have a lot more to offer. As you can see below. And don't forget to photograph a llama in Machu Picchu.

A llama at Machu Picchu.

Aquas Calientes

Aquas Calientes is the closest village to Machu Picchu. The distance is only 6 kilometers. The village is often referred to as Machu Picchu Pueblo today. The village is located around hot springs. It is remarkable that the Spaniards have (probably) discovered these sources, but not Machu Picchu. In the village you can get all kinds of information about trips, excursions and of course food, drinks and a place to sleep.

Accommodations at Machu Picchu

Most tourists spend the night in Aquas Calientes, this town can only be reached by train or on foot via the Inca Trail. It is also called Machu Picchu Pueblo mainly by the local residents. Every day, dozens of buses take tourists to Machu Picchu.

View the best accommodations in Aquas Calientes

There is only one hotel that is located next to Machu Picchu. It is a luxury hotel, but it offers unique opportunities to visit the Inca city. The famous Sanctuary Lodge is very pricey, but also unique.

Watch the Sunset from Intipunku

Those who hike the Inca Trail will pass Intipunku, or the Sun Gate. From here you have a sublime view of the city and the surrounding mountains. But even those who do not hike the Inca Trail can walk to this viewpoint. And see how the sun rises the city from the darkness in the early morning. And try to capture it in a photo.

Visit Machu Picchu at Night

Officially it is prohibited, but guests of the Sanctuary Lodge are able to visit the great city at night. After all, the city is at walking distance, so sunset and sunrise are easy to experience from here. Besides, it will be less crowded. When the sky is clear, the moonlight will give the city its very own atmosphere. It is more than worth the costs of the luxury hotel.

See the Shape of the Condor

Do you see the condor?

Some scientists believe the Incas were capable of building Machu Picchu in the shape of a condor. This, despite the extremely difficult location and the differences in altitude. The figure of an enormous bird of prey with wings spread out, including the neck and head is only visible from higher locations.

One of the best locations is the top of Huayna Picchu, but it is also visible from the Intipunku. You decide for yourself whether this is a coincidence or not. Keep in mind that the Inca capital Cusco, has the shape of a mountain lion …

Experience the Solstice on December 21

When the sun rises over the mountains in the morning of December 21, the rays drop precisely in the windows of the Temple of the Sun. Is there anything better than waiting for this moment, while the landscape awakens? This phenomenon is becoming more and more popular, so slowly more people are joining this.

The Unique Location of Machu Picchu

The location is almost unreal. Between the steep mountains with the splendid names Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu lies a complete city, neatly draped across a couple of hills, at an altitude of 2,438 meters. It is situated between lavish vegetation, with the Urubamba River flowing down in the valley.

In the middle there is a large, 40 hectare block of houses, temples, storage buildings, irrigation terraces and stairs. It is a human masterpiece and standing on the Huayna Picchu you can see that the whole was built in the shape of an enormous condor, the largest bird in the world. At least, this is what some people claim.

Sunrise at Machu Picchu.

New rules for Machu Picchu as of July 1, 2017

Machu Picchu was for centuries untraceable to humans, but Machu Picchu is now almost overrun. The old Inca trail (the now famous Inca Trail) protected the city for a long time, but nowadays you can even take a bus to the old city.

As of July 1, 2017, new rules apply to Machu Picchu. This is to better regulate the access flow. Machu Picchu is very popular in the morning, only 35% of the visitors go in the afternoon. Every visitor must adhere to the new rules.

The New Rules

1. Until now Machu Picchu was only open until 4 PM. From 1 July 2017 this will be until 5.30 pm.

2. There are two "shifts" for visitors: in the morning (between 6:00 AM and 12:00 PM) and in the afternoon (from 12:00 PM to 5:30 PM). So you can only go in the morning or in the afternoon.

3. You are required to have a guide. This applies to both individuals and groups.

4. There is a long and a short walk. The long walk brings you deeper into Machu Picchu.

5. There are mandatory directions how to walk. You can no longer walk around freely, at most in a few places. And, walking back is not allowed, I noticed that security guards pay very close attention to that.

6. In addition, some parts are only open in the morning or only in the afternoon. This is to spread the number of visitors.

Machu Picchu in the morning.

History of Machu Picchu

The city of Machu Picchu was never found by the Spaniards. They however did find parts of the famous Inca Trail. In total, the Incas built about 20,000 kilometres of trails. This is a magical place, at any time of the day.

Anyone walking around here will notice it. There are still plenty of question marks about Machu Picchu. For instance, what was the role of the city? And why it was built in this particular spot? This is also the region of one of the most well-known hiking trails in the world, the Inca Trail.

Hiking to Machu Picchu. ©Corno van den Berg

The mountains of the Andes have long kept Machu Picchu out of world history. The Spaniards frantically searched for a "golden city", but in vain. Making this the most important remnant of the Inca civilization. Even if there are still plenty of question marks. For example, about the role of the city, and why it was built on this very spot. This place also hosts one of the most famous hiking trails in the world; the Inca Trail.

The Meaning of Machu Picchu

The name speaks for itself: Machu Picchu means Old Mountain in Runa Simi, a language referred to as Quechua by those who don’t speak it. The Incas proved they had vision, building the city in the mountains the way they did. At the time, Machu Picchu could only be reached by way of a 160 kilometer pathway out of Cusco, the Inca capital. The path runs straight through the mountains, which is why the Spaniards believed it to be just a connecting route.

In fact, this is understandable, because in those days, the Incas had over 20,000 kilometers of hiking paths, running through the mountains, across the plains, along the coast and through parts of the dense rain forest. The paths ran through an enormous region connecting Colombia, western Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, central Chile and northern Argentina with each other. An unprecedented achievement.

Inca women selling souvenirs at Machu Picchu.

Did Hiram Bingham Discover Machu Picchu?

For a long time it was believed that American historian Hiram Bingham was the first human being after the Incas to have seen the city, during an expedition in 1911. Bingham studies the Inca trails in the city’s surroundings and stumbles on it by coincidence. At first, he doesn’t realise this is a city, as everything is overgrown with plants and grass. The find of what possibly is the Lost City, becomes instant world news and places the Inca civilisation on the map, all in one go.

However, the story appears to be different. In June 2008, an American amateur archeologist claimed that not Bingham was the first human after the Incas, but the German gold-digger and trader Augusto R. Berns. According to the archeologist, it is apparent from both American as well as Peruvian documents, that Berns discovered the city in 1867.

In fact, the German plundered it, surprisingly enough, with the consent from the Peruvian government. The civil servants did demand ten percent of the winnings, though. Scientists are surprised, this possibly means that the city was much richer than was initially thought. 

Scientists assume the city stems from the 15th century and that this area was inhabited until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1532. It’s not clear what really happened to the city and why it was eventually left behind, deserted. Scientists disagree on the purpose the city served, but considering its location at high altitude in the mountains, it probably wasn’t just an ordinary city.

New Theories

The most accepted theory is that Machu Picchu served as a kind of leisure estate for royalty and nobility and that the blood-thirsty Spaniards indirectly destroyed the city by killing all the people in high positions. The city is sometimes also seen as a religious place where the gods were worshipped. Some believe this to be the Lost City, about which many legends arose through the ages, a city of gold. But where is all that treasure?

Others claim this was a fort that served to protect the Inca Empire. However, because of the location, this is almost impossible. The city may also have been the terrain of workers who cultivated coca leaves here; it is surrounded by many age-old plantations. Still, the question remains: why was it deserted? Recent research proved that the city had been one huge observatory, possibly for the Sun-Worship, although it might just as well have been for the three essential components of life (Sun, Water and Earth). Scholars have not come up with much more than that.

More Discoveries

Machu Picchu consists of two parts, each of them lying around a hill. One part was probably used for residential purposes, while the other was intended for ceremonies. Many tourists come here with a guide, to try and understand the complexity of the city, but also to experience its riches. Machu Picchu is often included in a tour of Peru, where it is often scheduled for just half a day, while you actually need a full day at least. In fact, you really should see a sunset and/or sunrise here.

The view over Rio Urumbamba.

Scientists continue to look for evidence. All things considered, it is also very well possible the city was not inhabited for more than 100 years and that it was rather insignificant. Possibly, the entire Inca civilisation did not even exist for over 100 years. What does this say about all that the Spaniards destroyed on their raids through South America? Or will there be more remarkable discoveries in the future?

Best Time for Machu Picchu

The dry season runs from April to October. In fact, this is the only time to visit the city. Throughout the rest of the year you can expect so much rain that roads are blocked and the area is inaccessible. There will also be limited visibility due to the constant clouds.

The months April and May are relatively quiet when tourists are concerned. July and August can be extremely busy. However, during these summer months you stand the best chance of having nice weather. Which means the best views. In September it is again quieter at Machu Picchu.

Visiting Machu Picchu

Most tourists take the train to Machu Picchu. They get off in the town of Aquas Calientes, simply because the train does not go any further. The mountains are too steep. From the city, take the bus up to the entrance.

Or, you can hike the Inca Trail. So that you automatically end up at Machu Picchu. There is another option: The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. it's an alternative Inca Trail, which I personally like more.

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