A Traveller’s Guide to Machu Picchu

April 7, 2015

It’s a bucket list staple for many of us, and with good reason: Machu Picchu, in Peru, is pretty breathtaking. This unusual mountain city, built by the Incas, dates back to the 15th century and has stood the test of time – today it’s protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Millions of visitors explore it each year, and here’s why you should join them.

American explorer Hiram Bingham accidentally discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. Nobody knows exactly why the site was created, but we do know it was abandoned before the Conquistadors could find it, and only a few families lived there when Bingham arrived. Locals referred to it as ‘machu‘ (old) ‘pikchu‘ (mountain) in Quechua language.

Machu Picchu Terraces and Huayna Picchu Polly_Allen

How to Reach Machu Picchu

You can’t trek the Inca Trail independently anymore, but you can join a four day group trek with porters and guides to help. The easier option, which I took, involves catching a Peru Rail train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to the nearest town, Aguas Calientes, or you could upgrade to the luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham Train, recommended by Condé Nast Traveller. Stay overnight in town so you can start early the next morning.

Hop on a bus from Aguas Calientes to the main entrance. Buses run regularly from 5:30am, though some tourists prefer to hike the route, crossing switchbacks on the road and taking stone steps up to the citadel.

Machu Picchu Urban Area Polly_Allen

What to See

Make the most of Machu Picchu by hiring a tour guide with a group, then exploring on your own afterwards. The citadel is surreal and a bit overwhelming, with the urban sections, the agricultural terraces and the Royal Sector to see.

Some areas are easy to spot, like the Main Square or the Temple of the Three Windows (self-explanatory!), but others are less obvious, like the Temple of the Condor, where guides will point out the rough condor shape in the rocks. The Inca Bridge is removed from the crowds and worth the walk, not least to check out the steep drop below. Don’t miss key sights like the Temple of the Sun and, if you’ve got time, the Sun Gate (an additional hike!).

Machu Picchu Inca Bridge Polly_Allen

The classic photos you see online are normally taken from Huayna Picchu (also spelt Wayna), the mountain opposite, which involves a pretty extreme trek. Only 400 people can climb per day, so book in advance, or arrive early, to nab a 7am or 10am slot. If you can’t get a ticket, use the vantage point from the Caretaker’s Hut at Machu Picchu.

Visiting Tips

  • High season is between May-September and the rainy season lasts from November-April. Bear in mind the Inca Trail closes every February for restoration.
  • Book your tickets online and in advance using the official website, as only 2,500 people can visit each day. Prices start from 128 soles.
  • Bring your passport – it’s used as ID, and you can get it stamped on the way out.
  • There’s a restaurant at the entrance, but I’d recommend carrying water and snacks with you – just clean up afterwards!
  • Stick to the paths and don’t climb on any sections of the ruins.

Ultimately, Machu Picchu lives up to the hype and you won’t be disappointed when you tick it off your bucket list!

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  • Reply Sabrina April 7, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Great article! I would just add to take plenty of mosquito repellent, there sandflies up there will otherwise eat you alive!

  • Reply John @ TravelerLife April 7, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    Nice article on Machu Picchu! A lot of good information in there that makes me want to climb it even more! I find it particularly interesting and mysterious that no one knows exactly why the site was created. I wonder what the conspiracy theorists out there think haha. Thanks for the information!

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