The great Lost City of the Incas
Located at 2,430 metres (8,000 ft), this UNESCO World Heritage site is often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, is one of the most famous and spectacular sets of ruins in the world. Machu Picchu is a major tourist attraction in South America. It is also the end point of the most popular hike in South America, the Inca Trail.
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Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its main buildings are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows, located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu.
Concern about overuse leading to erosion has led the Peruvian government to place a limit on the number of people who may hike this trail per season. As a result, advance booking is mandatory. A maximum of 200 people, including guides and porters, are permitted a day.
To See & Do
You don’t have to hike, as there are also bus and train options. Many recommend hiking to it if you are physically able, you’re immersing yourself in the world of the Incas much more by traversing the same path they did hundreds of years ago. Visit numerous other ruins along the way and the sense of pride you’ll feel once you reach Machu Picchu on foot will be well worth any of the harder sections of the trek.
There are many places to see and explore. Taking a guided tour does provide a deeper insight into the ancient city, its uses, and information on the geography of it.
- Sun Gate – if you’ve just arrived via the Inka Trail, this will be your first experience of the ruins. Others can backtrack from the ruins along the trail and up the hill. From here you can see back down each valley offering excellent views. It’s a fairly strenuous hike (probably 1-1.5 hours each way) but well worth it. If you catch the first bus from Aguas Calientes and head straight here you may be able to reach it in time for sun to peak over the mountain and through the gate.
- Temple of the Sun – Near the summit of the main city, the stonework on the temple is incredible. Look closely and you will see that there are a variety of stone walls throughout the city. Most are rough stones held together with mud, the common stone walls found throughout the world. But many buildings or parts of buildings are done with the more distinctive and impressive closely-fit stonework. The temple is the absolute pinnacle of this technology. Observe it from the side, descending the stone staircase in the main plaza.
- Intihuatana – A stone carved so that on certain days, at dawn, the sun makes a certain shadow, thus working as a sun dial.
- Temple of the Three Windows
- Main Temple
- Temple of the Condor – The tour guides will try to tell you that this was a temple, but look closely: between the wings of the condor is a chamber with grooves cut in the stone to secure manacles, a walkway behind where a torturer may walk to whip the prisoner’s backs, and a scary looking pit to let the blood of prisoners drain. Clearly the condor was a symbol of cruel justice, but a sanitized version is told for the benefit of middle-aged tourists and their children.
There’s a few great hikes involving a bit of legwork. Do make sure that you’ve taken the time to acclimate to the elevation either in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes for a couple days.
- Wayna Picchu. Towering above the north end Machu Picchu is this steep mountain, often the backdrop to many photos of the ruins. It looks a bit daunting from below, but while steep, it’s not an unusually difficult ascent, and most reasonably fit persons shouldn’t have a problem. Stone steps are laid along most of the path, and in the steeper sections steel cables provide a supporting handrail. That said, expect to be out of breath, and take care in the steeper portions, especially when wet, as it can become dangerous quickly. There’s a tiny cave near the top that must be passed through, it is quite low and a rather tight squeeze. Take care at the peak, it can be somewhat precarious, and those afraid of heights may want to hang out just below.The entire walk is through beautiful landscape, and the views from the top are stunning, including birds eye views over the whole site. There’s also a few ruins near the top. If visiting these ruins, you’ll see a second way to start making your descent down the mountain, along some very steep and shallow steps…. these steps are a bit dangerous if wet, but the hike may be well worthwhile. This hike is one of your best bets for getting away from Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu crowds.Tickets to Wayna Picchu have to be reserved beforehand – ask the tour company with which you are going to Machu Picchu to reserve this for you. you have to pay to climb Wayna Picchu. 2012: cost ~15$
- If you have some time at hand, or long for a sparkle of solitude, you can also walk to the Moon Temple (Templo de la Luna) and the Great Cave (Gran Caverne). It’s a long walk and adventurous hike involving several ladders. Some may find that the sites aren’t really rewarding, but unexpected wildlife can be seen (wild spectacled bears have been reported). This hike is also quite interesting because partway through you leave behind the mountain terrain and enter a more conventional forest. The caves can be reached either by hiking down the trail from the peak of Waynapicchu (which includes some semi-harrowing but fun near-vertical descents) or by the split from the main Waynapicchu trail (look for the sign that says Gran Carvern). Remember that it is much easier to descend from Waynapicchu than to ascend from these temples. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks for this long hike. The hike from the summit to the caves and back to the checkpoint takes about two more hours.
The Lost Inca Civilization • Locations & Activities