Choose your Machu Picchu Tour
At a glance
Towering Andean peaks envelope the stone structures of Machu Picchu, creating one of the most breathtaking vistas in South America. If we take a closer look at the temples, water canals, and terraces of this ancient Inca city, new layers of beauty and understanding are revealed.
Construction of Machu Picchu likely began around 1450 AD under the reign of the ninth and powerful Inca King Pachacutec.
Very little of what we know about Machu Picchu actually comes from the Incas because they had no written language. Most scholars agree the mountaintop city was the royal estate of Pachacutec. Others speculate it was a sacred center.
Some questions may never be answered. But Machu Picchu remains as irrefutable evidence of the Incas highly advanced engineering and amazing stonemasonry. Before construction began, they surveyed the mountaintop site and built canals to carry fresh water to different sectors of the city. The terraces they dug into the sides of Machu Picchu were used to grow crops as well as a drainage system to control runoff and erosion. The Inca used bronze and stone tools (not steel or iron) to construct the stone walls of each building.
During the 1530s, Machu Picchu was abandoned (less than 100 years after its construction began) in the aftermath of the Spanish Conquest. Over the centuries the Inca city was lost to official memory with the exception of a few local families.
Then, in 1911, Yale history professor Hiram Bingham chanced upon Machu Picchu while looking for the legendary city of Vilcabamba where resistance rebel leader Manco Inca retreated to safety from Spanish troops. After years of silent existence, Machu Picchu was flung into the international spotlight.
Today the Inca ruins are a protected UNESCO Historic Sanctuary visited by nearly 1 million travelers each year. Check out our comprehensive timeline of the history of Machu Picchu from Inca times to present-day.
At a glance:
- The UNESCO Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu covers 80,539 acres (32,593 hectares). Its property includes the ancient ruins as well as surrounding peaks and valleys.
- Location: Machu Picchu is about 50 mi (80 km) east of Cusco
- Elevation: Machu Picchu’s main plaza: 7,970 ft (2,430 m)
- Climate: Mild subtropical forest
Machu Picchu, Nature & Conservation
In 1983, the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary was established to protect not only the archaeological site, but also the rare flora and fauna of the Andean cloud forest that surrounds it. The ancient city resides in a tropical region on the eastern slope of the Andes on the cusp of the Amazon jungle. Mild, humid temperatures and regular rainfall give life to thick green foliage and many flowers, including more than 300 species of orchids.
Entry to Machu Picchu is limited to 2,500 visitors each day. Low-flying helicopter tours over the ancient ruins were permitted during the 1990s, but are now strictly prohibited. Environmentalists say the vibrations from the rotors can cause irreversible damage and the loud noise scares away rare wildlife, such as spectacled bears. To maintain Machu Pichu’s picture-perfect appearance, park personnel carefully remove the mosses and lichens growing on the Inca stone walls and terraces in addition to restoring its trails.
Important sites within Machu Picchu offer clues as to what purpose the ancient city had in the Incas’ sophisticated understanding of urban design and astronomy.
Temple of the Sun & Royal Tomb
The Temple of the Sun is easy to pinpoint because it’s the only semicircular building in Machu Picchu. On the winter solstice (June 21st in the southern hemisphere), the southeast facing window of the temple aligns with the direction of the rising sun and illuminates the sacred rock in its center. This astronomic observation has led many scholars to believe the temple was used by high priests to honor Inti, the ancient Inca sun god.
Underneath the Temple of the Sun is a natural rock chamber known as the Royal Tomb. Hiram Bingham believed this site may have been the final resting place of Inca Pachacutec, although no human remains were ever found. The Inca carefully carved granite blocks and pieced them artfully together along the curvature of natural stone, blending into one creative masterpiece. Within this shallow cave are ceremonial niches on the wall.
The Sacred Plaza was an important religious center at Machu Picchu. Stone buildings border all but one of its side which opens up to a semi-circular lookout perch overlooking the valley and river below.
- The Principal Temple is a three-wall structure that opens up to the northern border of the Sacred Plaza. Built along the top sections of its high walls are trapezoid shaped shelves. The large stone inside has the appearance of an altar. So many structures in Machu Picchu remain perfectly intact, which makes the crack running up the temple’s back wall so alarming. The foundation for the Principal Temple was inadequately prepared (a rarity in Inca construction) and an earthquake unsettled the stone wall during construction. Behind the Principal Temple, is a small stone structure known as the Sacristy. This mini-temple is believed to have been used by Inca priests before worship. The niches carved into the walls may have been used to place ceremonial objects. Of particular interest is the 32-angled stone at the door frame of the Sacristy.
- The Temple of the Three Windows sits on the eastern side of the plaza. Three unusually large trapezoidal windows give this building its name and overlook the mountainous skyline beyond. The exact purpose this religious temple served remains a mystery. But the evident diligence it took the Inca stonemasons to polish and piece together the temple’s enormous granite stones walls echo its importance today. Several pieces of smashed pottery were discovered underneath the temple that indicate they were likely broken here for ritual purposes. Niches for beams to support a roof were carved along the top part of the walls and show the temple was in its final stage of construction, but the project was left unfinished sometime during the Spanish conquest in the 1530s.
- The House of the High Priest flanks the south border of the Sacred Plaza. This is where that Supreme Inca Priest may have prepared for large public ceremonies performed in the large Central Plaza.
The Quechua word Intihuatana means a “place to which the sun is hitched,” which is a direct reference to the positioning of the rock structure at a high point within the Machu Picchu citadel, just up the hill from the Sacred Plaza. The Intihuatana was chiselled out of a larger piece of granite rock and presumably used for casting shadows for astronomical observations. The two largest sides of the Inihuantana stone point in the directions of the sunrise and sunset at the time of the solstices, thus indicating the beginnings of winter and summer in the southern hemisphere.
The precise astronomic observations the Inca made using Intihuatana were likely religiously motivated. In Cusco, the annual Inti Raymi celebration is modeled after the ancient festival in honor of the year’s new cycle of life. Inti is the name of the Inca Sun god. The annual festival is held on June 21st during the winter solstice when the sun is furthest from Earth to plea for Inti to return to his Inca sons, so their crops can grow.
Machu PIcchu Subtropical Climate
- Machu Picchu experiences a dry winter season (April to October) and a rainy summer season (November to March). Remember, the northern and southern hemispheres experience opposite seasons.
- Weather at Machu Picchu is unpredictable and changes fast.
- Machu Picchu is more humid than the Andean highland climates of Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
- Average temperatures from dry to rainy seasons don’t vary much. During the dry season, nighttime temperatures are generally cooler than those during the rainy season.
- Daytime: 68-80 F (20-27 C)
- Nighttime: 50-64 F (10-18 C)
When is the best time to visit Machu Picchu?
- The dry season is the most popular time to visit Machu Picchu when sunny blue skies are more common. June, July, and August tend to be the busiest months. Pack a hat, sunglasses, and sunblock for protection against the sun’s strong rays.
- The rainy season is low season for Machu Picchu. Of course, showers are more common during these months, so don’t forget a rain poncho or umbrella. What are the perks to traveling to Machu Picchu during the rainy season? Visitors enjoy less crowded conditions, the surrounding mountains are a beautiful vibrant green, and flowers are in bloom.
- Travel during shoulder months (April, May, September, October) for smaller crowds and generally good weather.
The Sacred Rock, also called Wank’a in Quechua, is a large granite monolith positioned just before the beginning of the footpath and checkpoint for the hike up Huayna Picchu. Towering up from its base, the top of the rock has been carved to mirror the silhouette of Yanantin Mountain across the valley from the citadel. For the Incas, the surrounding mountains were sacred spirits, or apus in Quechua, and many scholars believe the Sacred Rock was used for spiritual ceremonies. Other researchers theorize the site was used for astronomical alignment.
Temple of the Condor
The Temple of the Condor is a prime example of how the Incas used natural rock formations to extract spiritual meaning. Using two granite boulders resting as angles for the bird’s outstretched wings, the Inca placed stones on the ground for its head and neck feathers and enhanced the temple with stone walls. Some scholars speculate the head of the condor was used as an altar. A mummy was found in the natural cave chamber underneath one of the condor’s wings, suggesting the site was likely used for burial purposes.
Why did the Inca create a temple about a condor? Why not a puma? In Inca mythology, dualities such as heaven and earth, male and female, and sun and moon, etc. reflected harmony in the universe. When a people die they believed their spirits traveled from the lower realm to the upper realm on the wings of a condor. The Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu honors this belief.
Chamber of Mortars
The Chamber or Mortars, also called Water Mirrors, are two bowl-like stones on the floor. When filled with water, they cast a reflection of the sun, moon or stars overhead. Some scholars believe this was a ceremonial site.
The Central Plaza is a lowset grassy opening that separates the Sacred Plaza and Intihuatana to the eastern urban sector on the other side of the Machu Picchu citadel. It was likely used as a place for the city’s inhabitants of gather during important ceremonies and celebrations. Today Machu Picchu visitors can follow a foot trail around the perimeter of the plaza, but walking across the green field is reserved for resident llamas who graze here to their heart’s content. The view of Huayna Picchu from the plaza affords a spectacular look at the terraces and stone temples clinging to the steep mountain face near its summit.
Inca Gates & Checkpoints
Sun Gate (Inti Punku)
The Sun Gate is the longstanding spiritual entrance into the Machu Picchu Citadel. Long ago, people traveling along the footpath from the Inca capital city of Cusco and other Sacred Valley outposts to Machu Picchu. After their long journey, they would pass through the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku, and then make their descent into the city. Today trekkers follow in the Incas footsteps along the iconic 4-day Inca Trail and enter Machu Picchu at sunrise through the same gate. It’s also possible to visit the Sun Gate from within the Machu Picchu archaeological complex (aka if you don’t do the hike). The short hike there from the main citadel follows a well marked trail and offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscapes.
The Main Gate leading into the Machu Picchu citadel, not to be confused with the Sun Gate, separates the agricultural terraces with the urban stone structures. At the main gate, the city wall dips down the hillside and is paralleled by a stone staircase and trench for water drainage. Holes and rings carved into the doorway suggest large beams once crossed a door covering the entrance for extra security. The large granite stones of the main gate frame the sacred Inca peak of Huayna Picchu as you walk into the citadel.
The Caretaker’s Hut, also known as the Guardhouse, is a simple stone structure with a restored thatched roof to mimic the traditional Inca method. Perch high atop a terraced hill, the sweeping view over the Machu Picchu citadel flanked by Huayna Picchu is one of the best. Not far from the Caretaker’s Hut is Funerary Rock (or Ceremonial Rock). This granite outcrop, formed with steps, niches, and a flat surface, was likely used by the Incas for mummification before burial ceremonies.
The Inca Bridge is apart of a foot trail looping around the backside of Machu Picchu Mountain that leads to the citadel. Some people speculate it was a secret route to the ancient city. The Inca Bridge is composed of long planks of wood spanning a wide gap in the narrow stone path. Today, the bridge is in poor condition and crossing it is forbidden for safety purposes. It’s a short hike to view the Inca Bridge along a fairly level trail which begins at a check-in point past the Caretaker’s Hut.
Inca Engineering Sites
Rows of terraces drape the steep slopes around the Machu Picchu citadel. To construct them, the Inca cut into the mountain sides and built rock retaining walls to hold layers of gravel, sand and soil. These terraces were used to grow crops and simultaneously ensure proper drainage and control erosion of the city. A canal runs through the city’s agricultural sector, but includes no turnouts to water the terraces, which suggests there was sufficient rainfall to sustain the crops grown by the Incas without using irrigated water.
Stairway of Fountains (or Ceremonial Baths)
Pulling water from natural rain-fed springs on the north face of Machu Picchu Mountain, the Inca built a system of canals to carry water to the city’s agricultural and urban sectors. At the centerpiece of their intricate hydraulic system is the “Stairway of Fountains” through with water continues to flow. Beginning at the residence of the king, these 16 fountains are linked together by stone channels and cascade down the mountain. The Inca used aryballos (typical clay water jugs in the Andean region) to collect water from each fountain for daily use.
Inca stonemasons used the underlying granite rocks on the high mountain ridge to build Machu Picchu, thus eliminating the uphill transport of each heavy block. Today the large granite boulders scattered round the rock quarry offer important insight about how the Incas constructed Machu Picchu. Using knives and crowbars made of bronze and hammerstones, they took advantage of natural fractures in the granite to chip away each brick. Etched into the flat surface of “Serpent Rock” are several snakes – a detail easily overlooked if you’re not paying close attention.
- Take a Guided Tour: The best way to explore Machu Picchu is in the company of an expert guide who can explain the importance of different urban and agricultural sites. It’s easy to overlook the asserted significance built into the design of sacred temples and brilliant Inca engineering features if you don’t know exactly exactly what you’re looking for. Our expert guide will make sure you don’t miss the highlights and happily answer any questions you have during the tour. Private and group walking tours of Machu Picchu are available daily and last between 2-3 hours.
- Independent Exploration: The natural beauty surrounding Machu Picchu is as much an attraction as its stone temples, living quarters, and terraces. Compliment your guided tour of the ruins with plenty of time to explore the sites at your own pace and take photos. Pick up a map of the different sites of Machu Picchu at the entrance gates.
- Go for a Hike: The trails to the Sun Gate and the Inca Trail are free hikes that you can do with a general Machu Picchu entry ticket. To do one of the longer, more difficult hikes up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain you need a ticket. See Travel Tips section from more information, or talk with your travel advisor for more information.
Machu Picchu Tickets
Talk with your travel advisor about booking your ticket(s) early – especially for busy June, July, and August travel dates – because space is limited. Only 2,500 Machu Picchu tickets are available each day. There are three different types of Machu Picchu tickets to choose from;
- A general entry ticket grants you access to all of the important archaeological sites. You can also do the free, short hikes to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge.
- A general entry + Huayna Picchu ticket grants you access the important archaeological sites and entry to do the Huayna Picchu hike. At the time of purchase, you have to choose between the 7:00-8:00 hr time slot or the 10:00-11:00 hr time slot to begin. You can also do the free, short hikes to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge.
- A general entry + Machu Picchu Mountain ticket grants you access to important archaeological sites and entry to the Machu Picchu Mountain hike. You can also do the free, short hikes to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge.
How to get around the Machu Picchu sites
Machu Picchu is open daily from 6:00 – 17:00 hrs. You can tour the sites of Machu Picchu with an expert guide or independently. Either way, exploring the archaeological complex involves a lot of walking up and down stone steps through the urban and agricultural sectors. Take your time navigating between the different sites, rest when needed, and drink plenty of water. If you bring hiking poles to Machu Picchu, make sure they have protective rubber tips.
Altitude sickness is a common health concern for travelers visiting the Andean region of Peru. Everyone react differently when traveling from sea level to a high elevation destination. Severe reactions to the altitude are rare and hard to predict. There’s no foolproof way to prevent minor symptoms of altitude sickness such as headache, loss of appetite, nausea, and shortness of breath. But there are measures you can take to help you acclimatize with more ease. Drink plenty of water and eat light meals. It’s a good idea to spend a couple days and avoid physically demanding activity the first couple days at altitude.
What to pack
- Entry ticket and original passport
- Plenty of water and snacks
- Comfortable shoes for exploring the ruins
- Jacket or fleece for warmth
- Sun protection (hat, glasses, sunblock)
- Rain jacket or umbrella (especially during the rainy season)
- Insect repellent or wear long pants and sleeved for protection against mosquitos
What is a typical tour of Machu Picchu like?
You can either book a group or private tour of Machu Picchu. Our expert guide will take you on a walking tour (between 2 to 3 hours long) through the important archaeological sites. Along the way, they will tell you about different purposes scholars
How much should I tip my tour guide?
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.