What is Machu Picchu? Exploring Peru

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Machu Picchu sits at an elevation of about 2,400 meters (or nearly 8,000 feet) within the Urubamba Province of Peru. Most people have heard of Machu Picchu, it's considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.


But if you ask those same people about it's significance, history or location many will be less familiar. This is fair - in part because Machu Picchu is relatively hard to reach unless you're a native of Peru.


On top of this remoteness, we've had to infer much of Machu Picchu's history and significance since the Inca didn't have a written language.


Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu at sunrise

So what's the deal with Machu Picchu? Why is Machu Picchu considered a modern wonder of the world? How do I get there and is Machu Picchu worth visiting?



Continue reading as we dive into these questions and provide highlights from my recent visit to the ruins of Machu Picchu!

 

What is Machu Picchu?


Machu Picchu is believed to have been built in the mid 1400s, potentially as a royal estate for the Inca ruler at the time or as a place of worship. The ruins boast elaborate farming terraces that allowed the Inca people to farm the otherwise difficult mountain terrain.


Inca ruins at Machu Picchu
Huayna Picchu as seen from a doorway inside Machu Picchu

The well preserved structures contribute to Machu Picchu's popularity. The Inca have a reputation for being masters at building structures out of stone. If you look closely at the doorway above you can see how perfectly cut and situated the stones are that formed this structure.


While some restoration efforts have surely taken place, it's incredible to believe that over half a millennium later many of these structures are still standing.


Quarry at Machu Picchu
Large stones at the quarry area

A substantial amount of stone was required to build Machu Picchu. Archaeologists believe the stone used to build Machu Picchu likely came from a quarry situated at the top of the mountain. The location of Machu Picchu would've made it difficult to import stone from other parts of Peru.


Machu Picchu ruins
A less commonly photographed angle of Machu Picchu ruins

When it comes to real estate it's always about location, location, location and the Incas nailed it on this one. Part of what makes Machu Picchu so spectacular is it's location saddled between the mountains of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain.


Machu Picchu Farming Terraces
Farming terraces at Machu Picchu

The rugged mountain terrain that makes the ruins so breathtaking to walk through is the same terrain that helped protect these ruins from the Spanish.


Many other Inca sites throughout present day Peru were pillaged by the Spanish when they first arrived. Machu Picchu's location allowed it to stay hidden from foreign invaders.


Caretaker hut at Machu Picchu
Views of the Caretaker Hut (also known as the Guardhouse)

After spending centuries hidden from most of the world, Machu Picchu was thrust into the international spotlight by Hiram Bingham in 1911.


Bingham would lead an expedition to excavate and explore the ruins. Initially Bingham's expeditions were welcomed - until he was later accused of smuggling artifacts back to Yale and the USA through Bolivia. While he claims to have done so legally, locals were not happy to see artifacts associated with their culture taken from the sites.


Be sure to check out my video Machu Picchu Guide on YouTube - experience the ruins first hand!

While Yale had resisted returning the relics to Peru for many years, in 2011 an agreement was reached to return them. Many can now be viewed at the Machu Picchu Concha House Museum in Cusco.

 

How do I get to Machu Picchu?


First off I'm operating under the assumption that you'll be using Cusco as a base camp for exploring Peru. Cusco is an amazing place to explore on its own, but it also serves as the best jumping off point for other regional attractions such as Rainbow Mountain, Pisac, The Maras Salt Mines and Moray.


During my trip to Peru we had time to visit all of these sites except for Rainbow Mountain. The latter three can be done in the same day.


From Cusco you'll either be taking a train or hiking to Machu Picchu. The latter is quite involved, so let's talk about train logistics first.


Ruins of Machu Picchu
Views descending into the ruins

You'll either want to take a train from Cusco (specifically from Poroy Station) or Ollantaytambo. Poroy is your closest option and you'll want to budget 45-60 minutes of driving to reach the station.


Ollantaytambo is further, but depending on when you book this may be your only option if Poroy tickets are already sold out.


We returned through Ollantaytambo and while we didn't have time to spend there, the town looked really cool. In hindsight I wish we would've spent a day in Ollantaytambo. If your schedule allows it, I'd at least budget some time to walk the streets and do some shopping.



The goal from either station is to reach the town of Aguas Calientes which sits at the base of Machu Picchu. Ideally you'll arrive to Aguas Calientes the day/night before your planned visit to Machu Picchu. This will allow you to spend one evening exploring Aguas Calientes.


After spending a night shopping and checking out local restaurants (there are plenty of both) you'll have the option to wake up early and catch the first shuttle bus up to Machu Picchu. You will need to buy a bus ticket in advance, which can be done in Aguas Calientes.


Here's a link to a guide from Ticketmachupicchu.com that I found helpful for purchasing tickets. The bus ride isn't too long from here, maybe 20-30 minutes. The drive involves navigating some rather sketchy Peruvian mountain roads, if you aren't a fan of heights I'd avoid the window seats!


Well preserved ruins at Machu Picchu
Many of the structures at Machu Picchu are extremely well preserved

So I mentioned hiking as an option. There are two popular treks that wind through the surrounding mountains which eventually dump you off in Aguas Calientes. These two adventures are known as the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek.


The more popular Inca Trail was closed during 2020 due to COVID but as of July 15th 2021 should be reopened.


Ruins at Machu Picchu
Walking through the ruins offers visitors many different vantage points of the area

My brother and I opted for a 5-day Salkantay Trek to reach Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. The operator we chose for this excursion was Alpaca Expeditions. You can check out their website and Salkantay Trek itinerary at the link I provided.


Looking for tips to save on airfare? Check out a full post I wrote on the subject here!

They handled our logistics, which involved shuttling from Cusco to near Humantay Mountain, where we started our trek. We hiked in the Andes for 4 days before arriving at Aguas Calientes on the last night. The fifth day was spent exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu.


Salkantay Trek cabins
Our accommodations the evening before beginning the Salkantay Trek

I'd highly recommend attempting either the Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail if you have the time and physical endurance for it. The build up to reaching Machu Picchu made the experience that much more memorable.


During our trek we visited Humantay Lake, crossed the Salkantay Pass, made coffee from scratch at a local coffee farm (read about that here!), camped overlooking Machu Picchu at Llactapata and so much more! I plan on posting about our Salkantay Trek eventually so be sure to check back often!



Our experience with Alpaca Expeditions was excellent and I'd recommend them without hesitation. After shuttling to Humantay Mountain you'll hike the entire way to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu (with the exception of a bus ride to the top).


Planning a visit to Peru? Don't forget to check out my video guide which highlights some of the top experiences we tried around Cusco!

Our return trip involved taking a train to Ollantaytambo where a small van awaited our arrival to take us back to Cusco. The entire trip was well organized and allowed us to focus on taking in the beautiful Andean scenery along the way.

 

Is Machu Picchu Worth Visiting?


Simply put, Machu Picchu is well worth visiting. I can't tell you how many times I've looked through old photos of trips I've been on and thought to myself 'wow, these pictures just don't do it justice' and Machu Picchu is the perfect example of that times a thousand!


Man looking over Machu Picchu
My brother taking in the views of Machu Picchu

The well preserved Inca ruins at Machu Picchu would be interesting on their own, but what really makes this place special is the setting. Everywhere you look - mountains.


The surrounding landscapes are so vast and beautiful it reminded me of the first time I set eyes on the Grand Canyon. It's a lot to take in and the only proper way to experience it is to go there yourself.

 

Tips for visiting Machu Picchu


Here are a list of general tips when visiting Machu Picchu:


  • There are no bathrooms past the entrance, use them near the ticket window before you enter and plan on holding your business for 2-4 hours while you explore the ruins.


  • Tickets for Huayna Picchu & Machu Picchu mountains must be purchased in advance and sell out quickly. These hikes looked very challenging from the ruins, even coming from someone who just wrapped up the Salkantay Trek. I can be a wuss sometimes, but yeesh, they look steep!


  • Small bags are allowed in the ruins - but if you have a larger hiking backpack you might be asked to check it near the entrance for a small fee.


  • Like other places in the mountains weather can be difficult to predict and temperatures will vary widely depending on time of day. Be sure to dress in layers.


  • On a related note - pack sunscreen. The high mountain sun can be brutal.


  • ARRIVE EARLY! I can't stress this enough. We caught the first bus from Aguas Calientes (which I believe left at 5:30am). First this meant we didn't have to wait in any lines to enter. Arriving early also gives you an opportunity to catch the sunrise. This will also cut down on the number of other tourists you're competing with for photos!


  • Budget 2-4 hours to explore the ruins. I suppose you could breeze through the ruins in as little as 2 hours, but I'd suggest taking your time. We explored the ruins for a little over 3 hours. If you plan on eating at the restaurant (located near the ticket window before you enter) or hiking one of the mountains you'll need to budget additional time.


  • My current understanding is that you are in fact required to have a guide when visiting Machu Picchu. If you came without one, no need to worry. There were numerous locals near the entrance offering up their services (for a fee of course). I'm not sure if later in the day guides are harder to come by.


  • Drones aren't welcome at Machu Picchu.


Views of Huayna Picchu
The ruins of Machu Picchu should definitely be on your bucket list!

Did we miss anything important? Shoot us a message on Instagram to let us know!

 

Looking for more ideas on what to do in Peru?


I briefly mentioned earlier in this post my love for Cusco. The city has so much to offer both on its own and as a central jumping off point for other destinations in Peru (check out our full Peru Travel Guide). If you have time to kill in Cusco you should consider checking out the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman.


Man overlooking Cusco
Views at Sacsayhuaman overlooking Cusco

Consider the ruins of Sacsayhuaman a warm-up for your eventual visit to Machu Picchu. The ruins are interesting, but what really steals the show at Sacsayhuaman is the panoramic views of Cusco which sits in the valley below. Interested in learning more? Continue reading the full post here!


I hope you found this guide helpful. I love hearing from readers so don't forget to drop a comment below!