Few people are lucky enough in life to get to see this incredible Inca treasure for themselves. Machu Picchu is not exactly on the beaten path, and certainly not somewhere that you can spontaneously bop down to for the weekend. It is a journey to get to, that is for sure. And that is one of the things that makes it so spellbindingly amazing. It is not cheapened by modern convenience. Nestled deep in the mountains of a country steeped in ancient culture an tradition, the journey to the top of this sacred mountain is as incredible as the space itself.
The Majesty Of Machu Picchu
Built and occupied by the Incas from the early 1400’s to the late 1500’s, this lost city is the crowning achievement of the Inca civilization. Totally unbeknownst to Spain during their conquests, Machu Picchu sat undisturbed until it was discovered in the early 1900’s.
Since that time many of the ruins have been reconstructed and the place has become a tourist sensation known worldwide, seeing an average of 75,000 visitors a year. The entire 125-square-mile national park is known as the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, which includes South America‘s most famous hiking trail, the Inca Trail, within its borders.
I first visited Machu Picchu in 2009, while on an archaeological dig during college. Sadly I did not excavate there, but rather was working in a small town called Pucara. I was with my family for a few weeks before the dig and it was actually by the grace/stubbornness of my mother’s gypsy spirit that we made it there in the first place: it was on her bucket list. (I should mention that this same wanderlust has already taken her around the world and back numerous times.)
How To Visit Machu Picchu
To hike or not to hike….that is the question
If you are still reading this, hiking the Inca Trail is probably on your bucket list and for good reason — no other architectural or historical site around the world can compare to this majestic, mysterious mountain city of the Inca and UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a good 150+ different tour companies and groups offering excursions to Machu Picchu, most of them located in Cusco. Along with that many tour companies come even more tourists.
Most tourists visit during the dry season in June-September — high season. If that’s when you will be visiting Peru, be sure to book your trek a couple of months in advance — both the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu see the majority of their annual visitors during these peak months.
Due to the extreme elevation differences of Peru and the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes, visitors should spend at least a day or two in Cusco upon initial arrival — if not more — before attempting to move on to the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary.
See More UNESCO World Heritage Sites
If you choose to go all in for the authentic Inca Trail hike, there two choices: the basic boring 2-day / 1-night package, or the ultimate 4-day / 3-night package. Which one you choose depends on:
- How much you love the mountains;
- Whether or not you are a photographer (the landscape shots offered on the longer trek are phenomenal!);
- How tight your wallet / schedule is strapped. Longer trips are definitely not for budget travelers 😉
Prices can vary significantly from place to place, but remember that you always get what you pay for — especially in foreign countries. You can expect to spend around $100/day for an adult participating in one of the Machu Picchu group tours (less for kids I’d assume, but I don’t have any of them) after ticket, fees, tips, etc. Additionally, there are also private tours available at a more hefty fee for luxury travelers
Climb a bit higher up to…
Machu Picchu Mountain
Of the few people on earth that make it to Machu Picchu, only a handful of those climb up past Machu Picchu. This plateau is known as “Machu Picchu Mountain” and is a great photo spot for something besides that same damn MP photo that everyone has 😂
We were crassly awoken by our alarm at around 4am on the morning of our ascension. You have to get to the bus station EARLY if you want to get your butt on a bus and make it up to the top by sunrise. Rubbing our eyes, we stumbled out onto the tiny cobbled streets of Aguas Calientes, a city with plenty of alpacas but not a single car (unless you count the buses that shuttle masses back and forth to the top of the mountain).
The stories were true. Even this early, the lines were crazy long. But we were on a mission. And very experienced at moving our way through crowds. A few elbows thrown here and there and voila! we were on our way.
The bus driver (like ALL other drivers in Peru) threw caution to the wind as a rule. The bus careened wildly up a series of impossibly tight switchbacks, and, if we weren’t awake before the drive, we certainly were now. Nothing like fear for your life to perk you right up.
Sunrise At Machu Picchu
After we surprisingly reached the upper parking lot in one piece, we were herded off of the bus, and hustled up to scout a viewing area. We didn’t have long to wait. The light was getting brighter, and the sun was only minutes away. I was practically pushing people out of the way of my camera’s viewfinder…I knew this was something that I did NOT want to miss, and I certainly didn’t want my visual memories of the experience to include large German tourists or a Chinese tour group with their flags.
In the end, the sunrise was so awe inspiring that I was lost to myself and almost forgot the supposed importance of digital memories. It was the feeling of knowing that you are witnessing something truly special, that few others get to see, and that you will only experience this one time in your life. There is nothing like that feeling. It was the most beautiful morning, the sun came up quickly as wisps of fog crowded through the high mountain jungle and across the dramatic green peaks. Pictures of Machu Picchu are incredible, but unless you are there in person there is no way to describe the scale of these mountains, and the drop offs that await you on all sides of this ancient getaway. I live for moments like these, I relish them, and I hold on to them to examine later when things get boring.
Later that day we witnessed tourists being stampeded by llamas. (How’s that for a closing note?)
Now let me leave you with a video from Machu Picchu. Not by me though. It is a short clip from the first season of An Idiot Abroad and if you have never heard of that show, I highly suggest you look it up. Anyone who loves travel will get a kick out of it….and at the same time probably be a tiny bit envious that it is not you on the all-expenses-paid journey but rather this strange funny little man named Karl Pilkington who is was ripped from his comfortable “bubble” at home and wants nothing to do with foreign travel…or everything anything out of his British tea-time comfort zone for that matter.