Machu Picchu Destination Guide
Machu Picchu is an extremely picturesque and magical destination and a rich storehouse of Incan history. One of the topmost destinations of Peru, if not the world, Machu Picchu still surprises most tourists with its splendour. The ruins of this marvellous city are located near Cusco and they were discovered in the early twentieth century.
Described as one of the most comprehensive ruins, and an important archaeological site of South America, a visit to Peru will be incomplete without a visit to Machu Picchu.
Use this Machu Picchu Destination Guide to plan what you want to see and do during your Machu Picchu holiday. A perfect way to do this is by taking one of the Machu Picchu tours and activities that can be booked through our site. Each has been designed to give you the best opportunity to experience Machu Picchu like a local. Be sure to check out some general information about travelling in Peru in our Peru Country Guide.
Things to See & Do in Machu Picchu
Follow the links to the right or scroll further down the page for details on some of the many interesting tourist attractions in Machu Picchu:
Being one of the most renowned symbols of the pre-Columbian Inca Empire, the Machu Picchu Peak towers 2,430 metres above sea level. The town of Machu Picchu was built by the Incan ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. The town has about 200 buildings, most of which were used as residences. Besides residential buildings, other structures include storage structures, public buildings and temples. The main buildings here are the Intihuatana, the Room of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Sun. The buildings have polygonal masonry and their solid walls are made of dry stone. This is a typical characteristic of the late-Incan architectural style.
The architecture is such that the structures are cleverly designed to blend into their surrounding landscape. That is why stones are a common material of construction and you will find water flowing via stone channels and cisterns. The houses have thatched roofs, trapezoidal doors and unique windows. Some houses have two storeys and you have to climb on to the second floor using a ladder.
Although not imperative, a guided tour of Machu Picchu will give you a deeper insight into the history, culture and geography of this ancient city. If you start early or go nearer the closing time, you can steer clear of the huge crowds that throng to the site each day. Buses start plying as early as 5:40 AM. An added benefit of an early start is the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful dawn that gently lights up the buildings here. The sunshine becomes stronger and sharper as the day progresses.
Below are the major sites within the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu:
Gate of the Sun
The Gate of the Sun can be accessed via the royal path, which is still in pretty good shape. A stroll around the fortress will take you approximately 45 minutes and is thoroughly enjoyable. If you happen to stay at Aguas Calliente, you can be here early enough to enjoy the sunrise.
Temple of the Sun
The temple is located close to the summit of the main city. Its stonework is truly remarkable. You will come across several stonewalls across the city, most of which are essentially rough stones held together with mud. Many buildings however, reflect far more sophisticated stonework where the stones are fitted seamlessly. The temple has deployed this brilliant technology coupled with great architectural expertise. You can observe the intricate stonework on the sides of the temple as you climb down the stone staircase on to the main plaza.
Intihuatana is one of the many ritualistic stones seen in South America. Intihuatana has its roots in science as well - the stones are arranged in such a way that they point at the sun during the winter months. This site is also called the ‘hitching point of the sun'. For instance, on the equinoxes of 21st March and 21st September, the sun shines directly above the pillar casting no shadow. Researchers believe this site could have been erected as an astronomical clock or calendar.
Temple of the Three Windows
This is located towards the west of the main square. It is considered to be very sacred and is famous for its mighty walls and three trapezoidal shaped windows through which sunlight streams in and illuminates the sacred plaza.
Look for the stairs to the sacred plaza and they will lead you to the Main Temple. Three buildings surround the square and the Main Temple is located at the northern end of this square.
The tour guides might tout this as a temple but this site is believed to have had a dark and gruesome past. A chamber that lies between the wings of the condor has grooves and niches that are believed to have held manacles to secure prisoners. The torturer may have walked along the walkway behind and whipped the prisoners. The large pit underneath was probably where their blood drained off. There is however, no concrete proof to substantiate this legend. The condor was an Incan symbol of justice with cruel undertones. Today, many believe that this gory past is disguised into a more savoury tourist experience!
Huayna Picchu is a mountain in Peru and is also called Wayna Picchu. It soars over Machu Picchu and offers stunning views of the area. The hike up the hill is steep and sometimes treacherous. It takes an hour to ascend and another to descend. Since some sections are slippery, steel cables (a via ferrata) provide some much needed support. You must wear the right hiking footwear for these trails. Near the summit, there is an extremely narrow passage or cave. If you party has any elderly members or pregnant women, or if you or anyone else is mortified of heights, it is best not to embark on this trek.
Aguas Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu and the best baase for exploring the sacred Incan city. It is located 6 kilometres away, and about a 1.5 hours walk, although buses also take you to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes has many hotels and restaurants for tourists, as well as natural hot baths, which give the town its name ("hot waters" in Spanish). Located in Aguas Calientes on Av Pachacutec, these hot springs are a natural sauna. A 7 to 8 minute walk from the main square will take you to the hot springs, which are the ideal way to relax after a long tour or trek to Machu Picchu.
On a bright and clear day, plan a hike to Huayna Picchuor the Young Mountain. The near vertical climb is exhilarating and the view from the summit - stunning. You can also consider the three- to five-day trek along the Inca Trail, which culminates at the 500-year-old Gate of the Sun. The Incas built several mountain trails but this was known as the ‘royal highway', winding 100 miles through Urubamba or the Sacred Valley, which was the cradle of the Incan civilization. Trekking the Inca Trail is the ultimate way to reach Machu Picchu and a truly wondeful adventure.
If you like solitary walks, you can walk to the Moon Temple (Templo de la Luna) and the Great Cave (Gran Caverne). Though it is a long and adventurous walk with several ladders along the way, you will enjoy the serenity. Another visit-worthy spot in the lush forests around Machu Picchu is the Mandor waterfall, truly a treat for the weary soul. An equally thrilling attraction of Machu Picchu is the Drawbridge. This trail begins at the Building with Ten Windows located to the south of the Citadel of Machu Picchu, and is one of the most dangerous trails in the city.
You will come across several incredible sights in Machu Picchu that point to how the Incas lived in such topography. Terrace farming was used to cultivate the more than 200 species of plants and herbs used for food and medicine. If you closely explore the ancient buildings and run your fingers across the walls, you will notice how seamlessly they built the massive stonewalls. So skilfully are the stones joined together that they have survived the wear and tear brought on by time and natural disasters with almost no cracks.
These mines have been supplying the Andean population with salt for thousands of years. The salt mining continues even today as it did several centuries ago. The mine was created by a stream that runs through the mountain. Melted snow feeds the stream and the water carries the salt from a huge salt deposit located inside the mountain. The Incas noticed these deposits and created several drying ponds to indigenously collect this saline water. The salty water is collected in the drying ponds and the hot Peruvian sun sets to work evaporating the water and leaving the salt behind. The workers then collect the salt in bags and carry the 130-lb bags up the steep hill to transport it to other destinations on mules or more commonly today, on trucks.