Machu Picchu offers more questions than answers. Why was it built? What purpose did it serve? Why was it abandoned? Very little of what we know about Machu Picchu actually comes from the Incas themselves because they never developed a writing system. Instead, the history of this ancient site is peices together from scientific research, decades of ethnographic research, and deep historical content.
1300 to 1500 AD – The Inca Empire developed as a city-state. Over the next two centuries, the Inca first co-existed with, and then absorbed neighboring ethnic groups. Cusco was established as the Inca capital city and they built foot trails to connect the different cities of their empire, expanding through present-day Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Colombia.
1450 AD – Construction for Machu Picchu probably began during the mid-14th century at the height of the Inca Empire during the reign of Pachacutec, the powerful 9th king.
Why was Machu Picchu built?
Most scholars agree that Machu Picchu was built as a royal estate. Others speculate the Inca city was a sacred center where the great political, religious and economic minds of the Inca Empire gathered.
How was Machu Picchu built?
The Inca didn’t use steel or iron tools, nor the wheel, to construct their city comprised of over 170 buildings, more than 600 terraces, thousands of stone steps, temples, and 16 fountains. Instead, they utilized simple materials such as stone, wood, and bronze. Granite stones were chipped, chiseled, polished and fit together with meticulous precision using no mortar. Rows of terraces were constructed along the mountainsides for support. Without them, Machu Picchu would have tumbled down, unable to withstand centuries of earthquakes and heavy rainfall. The genius of Inca design is further demonstrated by the aqueduct system they built to bring water to their terraces for irrigation and drinking water to its residents. See Machu Picchu sites for more details.
1527 AD – Internal strife weakens the Inca Empire. The death of Huayna Capac, the 11th Inca king, sparked a war of succession between his sons Huascar (based in Cusco) and Atahualpa (based in Ecuador). The civil war ended when Atahualpa’s generals occupied Cusco and captured Huascar.
1531 – 1533 AD – Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish troops arrived to the shores of present-day Peru. They devised the capture of Atahualpa in Cajamarca and later executed the Inca king, marking the formal end of the Inca Empire.
Why was Machu Picchu abandoned?
The Machu Picchu citadel was never finished. Some researchers believe the importance of the city gradually declined after the death of Pachacutec. Other theories speculate that the inhabitants of Machu Picchu fled in fear of the Spanish. Over the centuries, widespread knowledge of the city was lost to official memory, with the exception of some locals in the region.
1911 – American archeologist and Yale professor Hiram Bingham traveled to the Cusco region with a small team in search of the legendary town of Vilcabamba where rebel leader Manco Inca retreated to safety from Spanish troops. A local farmer told Bingham about the existence of abandoned ruins he called Machu Picchu. On July 24, 1911 locals guided Bingham up the mountain where he saw the citadel overgrown with trees and moss for the first time.
News of the “Lost Inca City” in Peru traveled like wildfire. Bingham believed that the Machu Picchu he chanced upon was in fact the lost Inca city of Vilcabamba. It wasn’t until after his death in the 1950s that what’s now believed to be Vilcabamba was discovered further west of the Machu Picchu citadel.
April 1913 – National Geographic published an article by Hiram Bingham detailing his first visit to Machu Picchu.
October 1948 – The zigzag road linking Aguas Calientes to the famous ruins was named the Hiram Bingham Highway.
1951-1977: Ongoing construction of the region’s railway connected Cusco to Santa Teresa (Km 129) in 1951 and Quillabamba (Km 172) in 1977. The train station for Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes exists along the track between Santa Teresa and Quillabamba.
1983 – Machu Picchu is inscribed as a UNESCO Historic Sanctuary.
2007– Machu Picchu is announced as one of New 7 Wonders of the World; along with Christ Redeemer statue in Brazil; Great Wall of China; the Taj Mahal in India; Roman Colosseum in Italy; Petra in Italy; and the Pyramid at Chichén Itzá in Mexico.
2011: Machu Picchu celebrated its 100th birthday after being rediscovery in 1911.
2012: The last shipment of more than 35,000 archaeological pieces Hiram Bingham had removed from Machu Picchu during his 1911-1915 expeditions were returned to Peru. These ceramics, stone objects, and skeletal remains were previously in custody of Yale University. Some of these artifacts are now on display in Cusco at the Museum Casa Concha (320 Santa Catalina Ancha, admission fee).
Today: Machu Picchu is the most visited attraction in South America. Since the 80s, the number of visitors has increased from the low 100,000s to an all time high of 1.3 million in 2013. The conservation of Machu Picchu is put front and center with tourism on the rise and a new airport being built in the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley winds through the eastern slopes of the Andes down to tropical mountain forests bordering the Amazon Rainforest. It’s here, some 50 mi (80 km) east of Cusco, that the Inca built Machu Picchu on a high saddleback ridge formed between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountains. Surrounding dome-shaped peaks covered in thick green vegetation rise to towering heights. Far below, the Urubamba River flows along the valley floor past Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu.
The Machu Picchu citadel rests high on a mountain ridge at 7,970 ft (2430 m) above sea level. Popular hikes go to the summits of Huayna Picchu (8,920 ft / 2,720 m) and Machu Picchu Mountain (10,100 ft / 3,080 m).
Located on the cusp of the Andes Mountains and upper Amazon basin, the mild subtropical climate of Machu Picchu is more humid than Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Day temperatures are warm and cool off, especially at night. Water never freezes at Machu Picchu. See Seasonal Info for more details.
Machu Picchu & Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is a common health concern for folks going to Machu Picchu. Everyone reacts differently, but severe reactions to high elevations are rare and hard to predict. Many travelers only experience minor symptoms, such as shortness of breath, headache, loss of appetite, or nausea, as a result of the altitude. Cusco and the Sacred Valley are at higher elevations than Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu Weather
Warm and humid during the day. Cool at night, though usually warmer than Cusco. Evening temperatures in the rainy season are warmer.
- Daytime: 68-80 F (20-27 C)
- Nighttime: 50-64 F (10-18 C)
Dry Season Vs. Rainy Season
- Dry season: April to October
- Rainy season: November to March
*Note that in this part of Peru, there’s no strict separation between the rainy and dry seasons. On the one hand, rain is possible at any time of year. On the other, even in the rainy season, clear blue skies are not uncommon after a rainstorm.
When is the best time to visit Machu Picchu?
- Travel during shoulder months (April, May, September, and October) for smaller crowds and generally good weather.
- The most popular time to visit Machu Picchu is during the dry season (April to October) when sunny blue skies are more common. June, July, and August tend to be the busiest months at Machu Picchu.
- Traveling to Machu Picchu during the rainy season (November-March) has benefits too. Of course there’s a higher chance of showers, but the ruins aren’t as crowded and flowers are in bloom.
Spanish is the official language of Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. Most hotel representatives, ticket sales operators, and staff aboard the train to Machu Picchu speak Spanish and English. Machu Picchu tours are conducted in many languages.
The currency of Peru is called the Nuevo Sol. Prices are abbreviated as S/.(# amount). The Sol circulates in small copper-colored 10, 20 and 50 centavos and larger 1, 2 and 5 coins. Bills are produced in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 Soles. There is only one ATM in Aguas Calientes and no ATM up at the Machu Picchu citadel. Some restaurants accept US dollars for payment and give you any leftover change in Soles (although the exchange rate might not be the best).
Tipping in Peru is accepted practice and a great way to show your appreciation. Of course, tip at your own discretion.
Tour guides & trekking staff tipping recommendations
- Half Day Tour: 10-30 Soles per person
- Full Day Tour: 20-60 Soles per person
* The tip ranges represent a total amount that varies on the number of people in your tour and can be divided amongst everyone.
Machu Picchu & Quechua Beliefs
The Inca didn’t simply chose the location for Machu Picchu for the breathtaking views. In Inca mythology, natural forms and materials, including Andean peaks, are holy and have a life. Many structures within the site where built to honor their beliefs and the sacred mountain spirits, or apus, that surround the citadel. There is no written documentation from Inca times since they didn’t have a system of writing, but many of the cultural practices of the Inca live on through their descendants, the Quechua people.
The Inca built a pathway from the main citadel at Machu Picchu, up to the summit of Huayna Picchu (or Young Mountain in Quechua) which is believed to have been a place of worship for high priests. Among temples and terraces atop Huayna Picchu, a carved rock formation called the “Throne of the Inca” faces directly south to the apu Salkantay. Apu Salkantay is one of twelve sacred apus, or sacred spirits, who serve as protectors of the Quechua people and their crops and livestock.
The Sacred Rock is a large polished monolith rock resting upon a pedestal just before the checkpoint for the Huayna Picchu hike. An offset triangular shape was carved into the top of Sacred Rock and mirrors the formation of Putucusi Mountain behind it. Although the specific purpose for this site has been lost to time, locals today continue to pay homage to their mountain spirits by leaving coca leaf offerings.
At the Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu, two large boulders create the bird’s expanded wings and stones laid out on the ground make its head, beak, and collar. The Inca believed that when a person died their soul was carried to eternity on the wings of the condor. Present-day Quechua beliefs continue to honor this animal who connects them and the cosmos.
In present times, Machu Picchu continues to be a spiritual haven for the Quechua people and travelers from all over the world respect its otherworldly essence.
How to get to Machu Picchu
Transportation options to Machu Picchu are limited. There is no road that goes all the way to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu, so you cannot take a bus or car there.
Train to Machu Picchu
Most travelers take the train to Machu Picchu. There are various morning and evening departure times to chose from as well a different train classes, from first-class luxury to budget-friendly options. Each passenger is allowed one carry-on luggage no more than 11 lbs (5kg) because space aboard the train is limited. While visiting Machu Picchu, many hotels offer complimentary luggage storage where you can leave a separate bag filled with belonging you won’t need for this leg of your trip.
Ask your travel advisor what train route works best with your customized travel itinerary.
||Poroy Station-Machu Picchu Station
||Ollantaytambo Station-Machu Picchu Station
Urubamba Station – Machu Picchu Station
In Cusco, passengers board the train at the Poroy Station (a 20-minute taxi ride from the city plaza). The railway from Cusco winds through a narrow gorge before dropping into the Sacred Valley . The train makes a stop in Ollantaytambo to pick up more people and then continues along a stretch of track hugging the Urubamba River through lush green foliage to Machu Picchu. Exclusive railway service to Machu Picchu is operated by PeruRail from the Urubamba Train Station at the Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado.
The Machu Picchu train station is centrally located in the town of Aguas Calientes near the artisanal market. To get to Machu Picchu, you need to take a 20-minute bus ride (ticket required) up the hill to the citadel’s entrance gates or hike up. The bus station in Aguas Calientes is a few blocks from the train station.
Machu Picchu train tickets are in high demand during peak season (June, July, August) and regularly sell our several days in advance. Waiting to purchase your tickets in Cusco is not recommended as the desired dates and times you want may not be available.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is the most popular trek in South America. Its trail goes through high Andean passes and past lesser-known Inca sites. The grand finale of this 4-day adventure unfolds as trekkers enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate for sunrise. There’s also a 2-day Inca Trail for trekkers on a tighter schedule.
4-day Inca Trail at a glance:
- Distance of hike – 26 mi (42 km)
- Trailhead – Km 82 of the railroad tracks
- Highest Point of Trail: 13,780 ft (4,200 m) above sea level as Dead Woman’s Pass
- You must be accompanied by a professionally qualified guide.
- You can hire a porter to carry your personal backpack along the trail. Pack animals, like mules and llamas are not permitted on the the trail.
- The Inca Trail is closed each February for annual maintenance.
To hike the Inca Trail, you must reserve your permit in advance. Only 500 people can be on the trail each day, which includes out-of-town trekkers and persons of the professional trekking teams. In the high season from May to October Inca Trail permits should be bought 2 to 6 months in advance.
Options for Machu Picchu hotels range from 5-star luxury resorts to backpacker dorms and everything in between.Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, operated by Orient Express, is the only hotel up on the mountain next to the ruins. All other accommodations in Aguas Calientes are concentrated in the tiny town that has sprung up around the train station. Popular hotels book up quickly so be sure to make reservations as soon as you know your Peru travel dates. We use these hotels as our preferred choice.
Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel
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.
El MaPi Hotel
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.
Casa Andina Standard Machu Picchu
Prolongacion Imperio de Los Incas E - 34, Aguas Calientes
The newest addition to the Casa Andina Standard brand offers modern and comfortable accommodations to guests seeking a quality Machu Picchu hotel. Located on the banks of the Vilcanota River and adjacent to the Aguas Calientes train station, the hotel enjoys a top location for easy access to the Machu Picchu ruins.
Rupa Wasi Lodge
Calle Huanacaure 105, Aguas Calientes
Budget-friendly and wholly comfortable, the excellent Rupa Wasi Lodge provides a scenic setting that will nicely round out any Machu Picchu tour. Perched on a hill above the bustle of the main streets, this small hotel boasts wood architecture, panoramic windows, and outdoor balconies that create a sense of immersion into the surrounding forest. With just three suite rooms and two standard rooms, the friendly staff is able to provide caring hospitality to all its guests. The attached Tree House Restaurant is amongst the best eateries in town and also prepares boxed lunches if you’ll be spending the day exploring the spectacular Machu Picchu ruins.
See all Machu Picchu Hotels
Where To Eat
Eating options outside the entrance gates to Machu Picchu are convenient, though limited and pricey compared to restaurants in Aguas Calientes. The other option is to plan ahead and pack some food in your daypack.
- Machu Picchu Snack Bar: Off to the right hand-side of the entrance, the snack bar (with outdoor seating) is a convenient place to grab a bite to eat. Food options include sandwiches, empanadas, burgers, and pizzas.
- Lunch Buffet: Tinkuy Restaurant at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is a nice place to escape the crowds of Machu Picchu and enjoy a buffet-style lunch. Choose from an elaborate spread of international or Peruvian food options. The hotel’s sit-down Tampu Restaurant is also open for breakfast (5:30-9:00 hrs), lunch (12-15:00 hrs), and dinner (18:30-21:30hrs).
- Take a box lunch: There are box lunches for sale at a number of cafes and hotels in Aguas Calientes. Many include a sandwich, snacks (nuts, cereal bars, or fruit), and a drink.
What is included in a Machu Picchu tour?
Private and group tours for Machu Picchu are available. Your guide will take you on a 2-3 hour walking tour to the main attractions, tell you about the legends and myths of the ancient site, and answer your questions. Enjoy the rest of your day at Machu Picchu exploring and soaking in the marvelous views on your own. A private tour can be customized based on a traveler’s own preferences.
How much should I tip my tour guide?
Tipping is a great way to show your appreciate for a job well done. The amount of tip you leave is up to your discretion. For a guide that has done an excellent job, we recommend tipping 10-30 Soles per person for a half day tour and 20 – 60 Soles per person for a full day tour. These tip ranges represent a total amount that varies on the number of people on your tour and can be divided amongst everyone.
What is bimodal transportation to Machu Picchu?
Bimodal transportation to Machu Picchu is a combination of bus and train service offered during the region’s rainy season. The railway between Cusco and Ollantaytambo closes during this time because heavy storms can cause flooding or landslides along the tracks. So, bus service is first offered from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and then passengers board the train for the rest of their trip to Machu Picchu. The dates for bimodal transportation to Machu Picchu varies each year. If you buy round trip train tickets between Ollantaytambo (in the Sacred Valley) and Machu Picchu, then bimodal transportation does not apply to your travel itinerary.