Cusco, Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu - 6 Days
Machu Picchu is the 15th-century masterpiece of the Incas, whose empire stretched across western South America. The famous Inca ruins sit on an impressive mountain ridge 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level, overlooking one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. To witness Machu Picchu is to be in communion with the great Inca civilization. Let us take you there.
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Up to 2,500 people can visit the archaeological site of Machu Picchu each day. The best time to go is in the morning or late in the afternoon. There a fewer people around and it’s easy to find moments of quiet to take in the magical setting.
“Here men’s feet rested at night, next to eagles’ feet,” wrote the Chilean poet laureate Pablo Neruda in his ode to Machu Picchu. The Inca citadel in the sky was built under the reign of Pachacutec (Pachacuti) and then abandoned less than 100 years later. In the aftermath of the Spanish conquest in the 1530s, many Inca cities were destroyed. But Machu Picchu survived almost intact.
A trip to Machu Picchu is an unforgettable journey through the rise and fall of the Inca Empire. You’ll begin in Cusco and Sacred Valley, where South America’s greatest civilization was born. Then travel by train or hike the Inca Trail to reach the remote mountaintop citadel. Take time to admire Machu Picchu’s temples, dwellings, and storerooms; explore its maze of pathways; and climb some of its 10,000 steps.
Grab a map at the entrance gates to Machu Picchu. Climb the steep path up to the Guardhouse (Caretaker’s Hut), where you can take a classic photo of Machu Picchu with the peak of Huayna Picchu as a backdrop. From here, trails lead in 3 directions: to Inti Punku (the Sun Gate entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail), to the Inca Drawbridge, and to the Main Gate into the urban sector.
Literally, “the hitching post of the sun,” the Intihuatana (Sun Dial) sits atop a terraced pyramid above the Sacred Plaza. Two granite stairways lead to a platform where the stone sculpture is located. Its 4 corners point in the cardinal directions and align with the nearby sacred mountains. From the southern approach, the shape of the stone mimics the form of Huayna Picchu.
The principal temple exhibits the classic style of Inca religious architecture as refined in Cusco. The foundations under part of the structure have settled. Inca buildings rarely had any imperfections, which leads some theorists to believe that the temple was unfinished when Machu Picchu was abandoned.
Located on the Sacred Plaza, this structure features massive many-sided stones that fit together like puzzle pieces. The three large windows led Hiram Bingham to speculate that Machu Picchu was perhaps Tambo Tocco, the mythical three caves from where the first Incas emerged.
Also known at the Torreón or Great Tower, this temple encloses a rock outcrop or huaca. The semi-circular shape is rare in Inca architecture. During the June solstice, sunlight pours in through the south window to illuminate the stone. Below the temple, the Royal Tomb is a small cave with stone niches and polished walls.
The purpose of this building is not clear, but one theory says that it was a temple for acllas, women devoted to the cult of the sun. In the center of the room, two circular bowls, or "mortars," were carved directly from the bedrock floor. When water fills the mortars, they have a reflective surface and can be used for stargazing at night.
This temple includes massive carved stones and smaller fitted stones that form the shape of condor wings. Directly in front of the wings, a white bedrock stone was shaped to form the head, beak, and collar of the condor. Under the right "wing," there is a cave with stone niches.
A series of sixteen stone fountains run perpendicular to the main drainage channel that divides the urban from the agricultural sector. This is a stellar example of Machu Picchu’s sophisticated hydraulic engineering. Water from a natural spring was channeled 2,456 feet from its source near the top of Cerro Machu Picchu to 16 ritual fountains, the first of which empties at the doorway of royal complex and is directed to the urban area through a complex system of aqueducts.
How to get to Machu Picchu: Catch a train (from Cusco or the Sacred Valley) or trek to Machu Picchu on your own feet via the Inca Trail, Salkantay or other alternate trek.
What to pack: Carry a daypack with sunscreen, insect repellent, hat, refillable water bottle, extra cash, and a snack. Don’t forget to bring your entrance ticket and your passport! You’ll need both to enter Machu Picchu.
Weather: Officially, the Cusco and Machu Picchu region has two seasons: rainy and dry. But really, it can rain at Machu Picchu at any time of year, so bring a light rain jacket or plastic poncho just in case. Morning mists are common throughout the year, and usually lift by mid-morning. Rainy season runs from November to March and dry season from May to September.
Book your tickets in advance: You don’t want to travel all the way to Peru, only to find that tickets are sold out. Train tickets, Inca Trail permits, and Huayna Picchu tickets — all of these can sell out weeks and sometimes months in advance. Avoid disappointment and start planning out the details of your trip to Machu Picchu as soon as you have your travel dates.
Getting around Machu Picchu: On the mountaintop aerie that is Machu Picchu, transportation options are limited. A shuttle bus will take you from Aguas Calientes town to the entrance gates of Machu Picchu. (The bus station is on the main road, across the river from the train station. Buses operate from 5:30am-5:30pm.) Once inside, be prepared to walk up and down steep stone stairs and dirt paths. You can also hike between Aguas Calientes and the Machu Picchu entrance, but the way is steep. Also keep in mind that there are plenty of hiking opportunities inside the sanctuary.
Trip extensions: If you’re the type of traveler that enjoys wild landscapes, Machu Picchu’s jungle setting will tempt you to go deeper into the Amazon. With daily flight connections to Cusco and Lima, a Puerto Maldonado tour makes for an easy add-on. If your mission is to visit the Wonders of the World, pair Machu Picchu with a visit to Iguazu Falls and the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Responsible travel: Thousands of tourists visit Machu Picchu every year, and the numbers are projected to increase. We all need to do our part to preserve and protect this wonderful place. Be sure to carry out all trash and be respectful of local culture and traditions.
Book a guided tour: A guided tour of Machu Picchu (usually 2-3 hours) is the best way to cover the main sights and get an insider’s perspective on the myths and legends of the Inca city. Balance it out with some free time to explore the site on your own.
Hike the Inca Trail: Trekking Peru’s most famous trail is at the top of many a traveler’s bucket list. You’ll follow in the footsteps of the Incas and get a chance to experience the dramatic ups and downs (literal and figurative) of this sacred pilgrimage route through the Andes.
Climb to the Sun Gate: If Inca Trail tickets are sold out, but you’re still keen to get a small taste of it, hike 30-45 minutes to the Sun Gate entrance (Inti Punku) where trekkers get their first glimpses of Machu Picchu. You’ll get great views of the Inca citadel along the way, and at the top, you’ll have a bird’s eye perspective of the surrounding cloud forest landscape.
Hike the mountains Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu: You need an extra permit to hike either one of the twin peaks that bookend the Inca citadel. Huayna Picchu is especially popular and tickets sell out fast. This trek is short and steep. At the very top, a seat carved from rock, called the “Throne of the Inca,” faces directly south to the apu Salkantay. An additional trail leads to the Moon Temple on the opposite side of the mountain. Montaña Machu Picchu is a great alternative if you can’t get Huayna Picchu. The trail is longer than Huayna Picchu and requires about 90 minutes to climb. The 360-degree views over Machu Picchu and the Urubamba River Valley are quite dramatic.
"The old Inca capital of Cusco, the breathtaking "Sacred Valley," and the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu are all overwhelming, each in their own right. But they can all be even more overwhelming after Peru-for-Less has done their trick of dressing them up a little for you."
Karl-Heinrich & Terttu Barsch (Orlando, Florida)
Traveled to: Cusco, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu
"Cusco and Machu Picchu were certainly the highlights of our trip. Even though we read books and have seen documentaries of the Inca Ruins, nothing prepared us for the immensity, lushness, and location of the ruin. Seeing the ruin as the morning mist cleared was so memorable."
Dave and Blanche (Colorado, USA)
Traveled to: Nazca Lines, Ballestas Islands, Cusco, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Puerto Maldonado
"We selected Peru For Less because of your willingness to individualize our trip to Cuzco and Machu Picchu for a great price. Little did we realize just how wise a decision this would turn out to be."
Janet and Karlene (Texas and Virginia, USA)
Traveled to: Cusco, Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is located 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Cusco. The ruins lie at an average elevation of 2,430 meters (7,972 feet) on the rocky saddle between two mountains, Huayna Picchu (2,720 meters/8,920 feet) and Machu Picchu (3,051 meters/10,009 feet), whose respective names in Quechua mean “young peak” and “old peak.”
Earthquakes, landslides, and heavy rains are common in this part of the world, but Machu Picchu has remained intact for more than 500 years. The engineer Kenneth R. Wright argues that the miracle of Machu Picchu lies not only in the beauty of its buildings, but also in the unseen engineering features that have guaranteed the site’s longevity.
Located at the juncture between the Andes and the Amazon, Machu Picchu has a climate that is neither as cold as the mountain highlands nor as steamy as the deep rainforest. Weather patterns at Machu Picchu can change quickly regardless of season. Average temperatures remain fairly constant throughout the year, ranging from 30º Celsius (upper 80º Fahrenheit) during the day 12º Celsius (50º Fahrenheit) at night.
Rainy season (November to March) brings frequent and unpredictable storms, varying from light drizzle to heavy downpours. Dry season (May to September) brings warmer daytime temperatures and cold nights. June, July, and August are also the busiest months at Machu Picchu. If you’d like to enjoy good weather and slightly smaller crowds, the shoulder months of April, May, and September are a great time to travel to Machu Picchu and Peru.
Note that the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is closed for maintenance in February, but Machu Picchu remains open to visitors arriving by train. Salkantay and other alternative trekking tours continue to operate.
Two events loom large in the history of Machu Picchu. First, its construction by the Incas. Second, the “scientific rediscovery” of the site by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Pre-Columbian Inca history: Construction for Machu Picchu began sometime in the mid-1400s. The Incas did not develop a writing system. They used khipus, or knotted cords, to record events. As a result, we know very little about what daily life might have been like at Machu Picchu 500 years ago.
Some guides will tell you that Machu Picchu was an allcahuasi built to house the Inca's chosen women, an agricultural experimentation center, or perhaps a prison. Most scholars of Machu Picchu now agree that the mountaintop city was the royal estate of Pachacutec, the ninth and greatest of the Inca emperors.
It is unclear why or when the site was abandoned. But in the tumultuous year after the Inca Empire was brought down by Spanish conquistadors, Machu Picchu somehow slipped into the shadows of memory.
We don’t know if European settlers ever visit Machu Picchu in the years after the conquest, but given the missionary zeal of Catholic priests and the insatiable thirst of treasure-hunting soldiers, the destruction or ransacking of Machu Picchu would have been a major event.
Historians have only been able to find scattered clues in colonial source documents. Although official accounts ignored or neglected the existence of Machu Picchu, local people remained cognizant of the site, its location, and its importance.
Machu Picchu in modern times:
Beginning in the late 19th century, explorers like Antonio Raimondi, Augusto Berns, and Agustín Lizárraga reached the site and placed it on maps, but their ventures were not widely publicized. In 1911, Yale history professor Hiram Bingham III traveled to Cusco and set out with a small crew in search of Vilcabamba, the legendary last refuge of the Inca rebels.
In the company of local guides and a Peruvian police officer, Bingham trekked up the side of a steep mountain and unveiled the first traces of what seemed to be “the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest.” It was noon of July 23, 1911, and the lost Inca city had been found.
Hiram Bingham was convinced that he had reached Vilcabamba. It was not until the 1950s that new explorations proved Bingham wrong. The real Vilcabamba was a different site located deeper in the jungle. But Bingham had made his mark and arguably changed the course of Peru’s history.
In 2011, Peru celebrated the 100th birthday of Machu Picchu. The centennial anniversary of Bingham’s "scientific discovery" also ignited controversy over the rightful possession of and guardianship over material artifacts that Bingham had excavated and shipped to Yale University’s Peabody Museum. After years of pressure from Peruvian officials, Yale finally agreed to return its Machu Picchu artifacts to Peru. These are now housed in the Casa Concha Museum in Cusco.
Lunch options at Machu Picchu: Please note that no food is allowed beyond the entrance gates to Machu Picchu. If you’re wondering where to eat at Machu Picchu, the easiest and cheapest option is to order a box lunch from your hotel. There is a baggage check outside the ruins where you can store a daypack with food and anything else you don’t want to carry during your tour.
Outside the ruins, there is a small cafeteria on a terrace below the entrance that serves fast food including sandwiches and snacks. The most expensive option is the excellent buffet lunch at Sanctuary Lodge which features Peruvian and international dishes.
Dining in Aguas Calientes: Aguas Calientes (Pueblo Machu Picchu) has plenty of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you’re spending the night before or after a Machu Picchu tour. Like most travel hubs in Peru, Aguas Calientes has pizzerias around every corner.
Chez Maggy (Av. Pachacutec) is a longstanding favorite for carb-loading on pizzas, pastas, and beer. For French-Peruvian fusion cuisine, the restaurant El Indio Feliz, receives consistent rave reviews on TripAdvisor, but it can get busy during dinner hours. For larger groups, restaurants such as Toto’s House (Av. Imperio de los Incas) provides buffet options so that your party can feast instead of waiting for food orders to trickle out. For something more upscale, Qunuq Restaurant at Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel and Cafe Inkaterra at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel are two excellent choices featuring inventive cuisine prepared with locally-sourced ingredients. Call ahead for reservations.
Hotels at Machu Picchu: Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, operated by Orient Express, is the only hotel up on the mountain next to the ruins. All other Aguas Calientes hotels are concentrated in the tiny town that has sprung up around the train station. Options range from 5-star luxury resorts to backpacker dorms and everything in between. Popular hotels book up quickly so be sure to make reservations as soon as you know your Peru travel dates.
Kilometer 110 Via Ferrea, Aguas Calientes
The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is a naturalist’s haven. Conveniently nestled in the verdant Andean cloud forest, this lovely hotel is the perfect place to catch a glimpse of the astonishing flora and fauna of the region. The eco-friendly hotel resembles an Andean village and is comprised of charming white-washed cottages decorated with modern indigenous art as well as authentic pre-Columbian artifacts. With a commitment to indulging the whims of its guests, this luxury hotel expertly combines nature and comfort to create a one-of-a-kind Machu Picchu experience. Try some regional dishes at the excellent restaurant overlooking the Urubamba River.
Av. Pachacutec 109, Aguas Calientes
Ideally located near the Aguas Calientes train station and close to where the buses depart for the short ride to Machu Picchu, the recently renovated El MaPi Hotel is perfect for travelers who want to catch the sunrise over the ruins. The modern and stylish hotel aims to be the best in its category and offers great value services and décor. It also boasts beautifully landscaped gardens and a hot tub where guests can relax at night with a cocktail after a delicious dinner.
Avenida Imperio de los Incas s/n, Aguas Calientes
Travelers looking for convenience and a touch of luxury during their Machu Picchu travels will be pleased with this excellent hotel. Situated just 650 feet from the train station, this wonderfully appointed establishment boasts 31 fully-equipped and tastefully decorated rooms. Each accommodation features wooden furnishings, a large bed covered with comfortable bed linens, and some rooms even feature breathtaking views of the river. Three walls are an immaculate white, while one wall is left a natural exposed brick to give the room an elegant but rustic appeal. Andean art adds the finishing touch to the room. All accommodations come with internet, an LCD screen cable TV, and air-conditioning, while the hotel itself serves guests with a restaurant, bar, sauna, and gym. Guests cannot ask for more modern convenience and comfort during their Machu Picchu vacation.
What’s the altitude at Machu Picchu? Machu Picchu is at lower altitude than Cusco. Compare Machu Picchu’s 2,350 meters (7,710 feet) of elevation to Cusco’s 3,300 meters (11,150 feet). It’s a big difference and many people who experience symptoms of altitude sickness in Cusco, report feeling much better on arrival to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.
When is the best time to visit Machu Picchu? For clear skies and great views at Machu Picchu, visit during the dry season (May to September). However, note that June, July, and August are the busiest months and the sites gets especially crowded between 10am and 2pm. If you can only travel to Peru during the rainy season (November to March), don’t worry. Day-to-day weather is highly unpredictable, but it rarely rains all day long. If time and budget allows, plan for 2 days at the site to improve your odds of getting good views. Keep in mind that the rainy season does bring higher risks of transportation delays. In these situations, travel insurance can save the day and a lot of money.
How can I buy Machu Picchu tickets? You can buy Machu Picchu tickets online at http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe or in person at the Ministerio de Cultura offices in Cusco. Or save yourself some time and potential frustration (honestly, buying tickets can be a pain!) and find an authorized travel company to do it for you. If you plan to buy a tour package to Cusco and Machu Picchu, entrance tickets are usually included in the price, but double check with your travel agent to make sure.
What is bimodal transportation? For travelers who opt to take the train between Cusco and Machu Picchu, PeruRail offers “bimodal transportation,” in this case meaning transport by bus and train, between the months of January and May. This is the rainy season in the Andes, when heavy storms can cause landslides or flooding along the rail tracks. Bimodal transportation was developed by PeruRail as a way to reduce the risk of weather-related delays in getting to Peru’s famous Inca ruins. Passengers begin the first leg by bus from Wanchaq station in Cusco, transfer at Pachar station in the Sacred Valley, and continue the journey by train to the terminus at Aguas Calientes station. Bimodal transportation does not affect passengers traveling between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.
Travelers can explore 4 hiking trails around Machu Picchu. Read more about each trail to determine the best option for you.
Machu Picchu is one of those places that makes the top 10 of almost every bucketlist. It’s not just the ruins that call curious travelers from nearly every corner of the world, but also the robust, beautiful landscapes and endless.
The proposed construction of a new airport located in the Sacred Valley could have profound effects on tourism traffic to Machu Picchu. Read more about the benefits and controversies.
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