Surrounded by the Peruvian Andes, at 2430m altitude above Urubamba River stands Machu Picchu, one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in Latin America. The Incas built the citadel around 1450, and abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although its exact purpose still remains unknown, Machu Picchu was most likely a religious sanctuary and a residential area for the ruler Pachacuti. Considered a symbol of the Inca culture, architecture, and engineering, in 2007 the “Lost City of the Incas” was declared one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World.
Tips&Tricks: Machu Picchu remained hidden from the outside world until 1911. It was discovered by mistake through an archaeological expedition led by Hiram Bigham, a professor at Yale that hoped to find a different city, known as Vilacamba.
Our 12-day itinerary in Peru included lots of day trips and activities to discover highlights and hidden gems as the fascinating Historic Centre of Lima, impressive Incan ruins in Cusco, local communities in Sacred Valley of the Incas, breathtaking views of Machu Picchu, and the amazing wildlife that live in the Amazon Rainforest.
Although we planned the itinerary ourselves rather then book a pre-made travel tour, we chose a local agency to handle our reservations, including local guides to accompany us throughout our trip. We spent one night in Aguas Calientes at Casa Andina Standard Machu Picchu, located right in front of Aguas Calientes Train Station and only a 5 minute walk from the bus stop from which buses depart towards Machu Picchu. And because Machu Picchu is more than just incredible views, we knew that discovering the citadel with a professional guide will be an unforgettable experience. Together with Richard we explored hidden trails, learning so much about the history and rich culture of the Incas, listening to traditional music played on the flute or making offerings of coca leaves to the gods, just like his ancestors.
Top Guided Tours and Activities (our favorite choices)
How to get to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Surrounded by incredible views of the Andes, Aguas Calientes is the village located at the base of the mountain where the citadel was built. Also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, it lies on the banks of the Urubamba River and can only be reached by train from Ollantaytambo.
There are two ways to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Mountain: by bus or foot. The bus trip is only 10km long and lasts approximately 30 minutes. Usually in the morning there are long queues for both buying tickets and getting on the bus, so make sure to wake up early, as it can get extremely crowded, especially in the high season.
Tips&Tricks: If you are looking for an adventure, hike the fascinating Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Camino de Inka (Inca Trail)
One of the most beautiful trekking routes in the world is located in the Peruvian Andres, along some ancient Inca cities and absolutely spectacular landscapes between the clouds. Hiking the small network of roads that connects Cusco with Machu Picchu has become in recent years one of the most appreciated experiences in Peru.
To reduce the negative impact of tourism on the original structures, there is only a limited number of access permits which are sold once a year, in January, and can be purchased just through a licensed tour operator. Therefore, if you are planning to hike the 88km to Inti Punku (the entry point to Machu Picchu), you should plan your trip at least 12 months in advance.
Where to stay in Aguas Calientes (our favorite choices)
5 Places you should not miss during your trip to Machu Picchu
In a cloud forest surrounded by high mountain peaks, the Incas left behind over 700 buildings and elaborated agricultural terraces, many of them still perfectly intact today. It was recently discovered that Machu Picchu is positioned at the intersection of two tectonic plates, which is why its inhabitants may have been affected by significant seismic events. Therefore, the citadel was built using the (earthquake-resistant) technique of fitting stone blocks perfectly together without the use of mortar, known as Ashlar. Because of it, Machu Picchu is one of the best-preserved archaeological sites of its time. The city is divided into residential areas, sanctuaries, squares, platforms, walls, terraces made of extremely heavy granite blocks cut, polished and precisely combined by a civilization that never discovered the wheel.
Tips&Tricks: Due to the advanced engineering techniques of the Incas, Machu Picchu survived nearly intact for 500 years, abandoned in an area prone to earthquakes and heavy rains.
1. Inca Bridge
Often referred as a “secret entrance” into the citadel, the Inca Bridge of Machu Picchu is made of several logs (that could quickly be removed, to keep out unwanted visitors) placed across a wide gap in a very narrow mountain trail. Soon after the fall of the Inca Empire, this bridge was the Inca´s escape route in the Andes, when they abandoned the citadel. Yet, how an entire city managed to vanish without a trace in the mountains, is one of the unsolved mysteries of Machu Picchu.
The bridge can be reached within a 30-minute walk from the citadel, following the original Inca pavement along a steep cliff with breathtaking views over the Urubamba River and the Peruvian Andes.
Translated from the native Quechua language as “place to tie up the sun” the Intihuatana served as an astronomical calendar for the Incas. Carved from a huge stone block, the monolith is located at the highest elevation inside the archeological site (you need to climb 70 steps to get there), which is usually known as the Sacred Plaza.
Compared to other similar stones used for astronomical purposes found in South America, Intihuantana from Machu Picchu is the only one that has an inclination of around 13-degree angle. Twice a year, the sun stands almost directly above the altar creating no shadow at all. The structure is similar to a compass that functions as a clock to indicate the autumn and spring equinox. Important religious ceremonies were held here for ensuring a good harvest and prosperity.
3. Temple of the Sun
One of the most important and sacred temples at Machu Picchu is Temple of the Sun, a religious building used by the Incas to worship the sun. Unique due to its circular structure, the construction is shaped around a large granite stone and has trapezoidal windows positioned so that twice a year, during the summer and winter solstice the sun shines directly on the altar. Underneath the temple is a cave that possibly served as place of burial for the famous Inca emperor Pachacuti.
4. Temple of the Condor
As the largest flying bird in the Andes, the Incas considered the Andean condor a symbol of power and fertility. The Temple of the Condor is one of the most impressive construction at Machu Picchu and a symbol of how great the Incas were using rudimentary tools. The temple is made up of three granite rocks carved to look like an in-flight condor, and a small cave that was likely used for rituals. The head and the beak of the majestic bird can be seen in front of the temple, while its open wings are carved behind the cave entrance.
5. Main Temple
With an unfinished aspect that suggests its construction was never finished, the Main Temple consists of two lateral walls and one rear wall, with and a total of 17 trapezoidal niches used to keep Incas’ sacred objects. Located in an open area, archeologists believe that the temple was used for very important ceremonies, usually attended by many people.