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Located in the Andes Mountains, Machu Picchu is the ruins of a 15th-century Inca city. The Incas built it around 1450, at the height of their empire, but abandoned it a century later during the Spanish Conquest. UNESCO declared Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site in 1983. It was also chosen as one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World” in an internet poll, along with sites such as the Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza and Petra.
I visited Machu Picchu as the culmination of an Inca Trail Trek. But if you’re not a serious hiker, don’t worry – there are many options for you to experience this amazing destination! Read on for history and what to see when you’re there, plus for day-trippers, how to book tickets and get there.
Machu Picchu Haphazard Rating: 2 of 5. Add two ambulances if you opt for the Huayna Picchu hike.
To See: Inca ruins; llamas; one of the new 7 wonders of the world
To Eat: Restaurant at the park entrance; Tinkuy Buffet Restaurant at Sanctuary Lodge
When to Go: May – September is the busy dry season; the rainy season beginning in October will have greener scenery
We entered Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate and posed for photographs. Then we exited at the main gate for a quick snack, bathroom break, and to store our hiking poles. I was allowed to keep one of mine, because my legs were wobbly and cartoony after 4 days of hiking.
Machu Picchu History
Although known locally, Machu Picchu remained undiscovered by the Spanish during the colonial period. Some speculate that it was deserted because the occupants fell ill to a smallpox epidemic brought by the Spanish conquistadors. For this reason, it is often called “The Lost City of the Incas.” Machu Picchu remained unknown by the world at large until American historian Hiram Bingham found it in 1911. He returned later for expeditions to excavate the site and wrote a book about his experiences.
Most historians believe that Machu Picchu was a vast estate for Incan nobles. Others believe that it, and the Inca Trails that surround it, made up a trade hub and religious route.
What to See
Machu Picchu was built in the classic Inca style, with most buildings constructed of dry stones cut to fit together without mortar. In recent years, many buildings have been reconstructed to give visitors a better idea of what the site originally looked like.
The ruins sit between two mountains, Machu Picchu (the larger) and Huayna Picchu. Visitors have the option to hike the mountains with the purchase of an additional ticket. Be aware, though, that many Inca Trail trek companies will not arrange this because of the steep trail conditions. The mountains afford a higher vantage point of the site and surrounding Urubamba River valley.
The site’s construction, irrigation system and terracing demonstrate the Inca civilization’s knowledge of architecture, engineering and agriculture. Machu Picchu’s terraced hillsides were fed by an advanced irrigation system in order to grow crops. The same system of spring channels also supplied water to fountains throughout the town. Machu Picchu was built in several sectors: areas with temples for worship, houses for nobility, zones for farming, and houses for common people.
The Inti Watana stone is an astronomical calendar whose name roughly translates to “the hitching post of the sun.” Incas believed that the stone held the sun in its path. Important buildings at the site include the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the Royal Tomb.
Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)
Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Pueblo (town), is home to hotels, restaurants, shops and the hot springs that gave it its name. The springs themselves have mixed reviews. After our Machu Picchu visit, we boarded the bus back to Aguas Calientes.
Although we skipped the springs, I did treat my sister and me to a massage following our trek. It was possibly the best decision of my life. The shower before the massage was nearly worth the price, but the massage itself was one of the best I’ve had. After 4 days of trekking, my leg muscles were so tight that the masseuse actually couldn’t bend my legs back from a straight position! I recommend a massage even if you’ve only spent the day at Machu Picchu. Your legs are sure to be tired if you did the optional Huayna Picchu or Mountain hikes. Treat yo’ self!
After a late lunch and massage, said goodbye to our trek guides. Then we boarded a train in Aguas Calientes back to Cusco. Although we were all exhausted, we enjoyed the train. Its skylight windows allowed you to see the scenery along the route.
The Inca Trail Trek pushed my entire group to the limits of our physical abilities. We returned to Cusco and the same hotel where we had stayed at the start of the trek. It honestly seemed like an eternity since then! We claimed our larger bags from the hotel’s storage and all settled into our rooms for long-awaited showers and naps.
That evening, our group reassembled at the Mariott hotel near the main square for a celebratory post-trek pisco sour. At first, I felt mostly relief that I had survived. But as I looked at my fellow trekkers from all over the world, I started to feel a sense of accomplishment. This feeling grew over the next few weeks. I also worried that I might needa BOGO sale for two new knees, but that part passed.
As I returned to daily life, I found that I had a new perspective when meeting challenges. Although I’ve always been tenacious, my immediate response became that there was NO WAY getting through anything could be as hard as my trek. This yoga pose? I can hold it. Our office building is on fire? We’d better go look for open real estate.
Hiking the Inca Trail was the hardest four days of my life, but it changed it forever.