With the exception of the U.S. Customs agent who greeted us at LAX, I think that just about everyone has heard of Machu Picchu. Located high in the Andes in southern Peru, these ruins have been recognized by UNESCO as a unique testimony to the Inca civilization that populated the region half a millennium ago.
Constructed in the mid-1400s, Machu Picchu was only inhabited for about a century before being inexplicably abandoned. The Spanish conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizarro, seemed to have overlooked the city on their quest to conquer the civilization and plunder its gold. Left to the elements for over four hundred years, this “Lost City of the Incas” was re-discovered by Yale anthropologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. In the past century, people from all corners of the globe have flocked in droves to witness firsthand this unbelievable Wonder of the World.
Current scientific opinion is that Machu Picchu was simply an ordinary city or outpost (albeit in a spectacular setting), and not a royal retreat like many theorists have proposed in the past. Also, although Hiram Bingham is credited with “discovering” Machu Picchu, it appears that it was not all that lost after all. The local people in the Urubamba Valley knew it was there and a few people were actually living there when Bingham arrived. Maybe they just weren’t quite ready to share it with the world?
One of the biggest surprises to me was Machu Picchu’s complete isolation. It takes a really long time (over multiple modes of transportation) to get there. It’s no wonder it remained hidden for so long. Another shock was how large the complex is. Most people only know the famous “postcard view” like the one shown above. What you don’t consider is that there are 360° of panoramic vistas and this is only one small part of it. To actually be at the ruins in person is undoubtedly an unforgettable experience.
So, in order to share the magic that is Machu Picchu, below is a photo essay displaying some of my favorite shots from my once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Let me warn you though: pictures don’t do it justice. Whatever impression you might have in your head about Machu Picchu is only a fraction of the sublime beauty and awe-inspiring reality of this ancient city.
Click on the music player below to enjoy some typical Andean music like what we heard on the train to Machu Picchu.
Many visitors to Machu Picchu opt to hike the Inca Trail, a four-day adventure following in the steps of the Incas from five hundred years ago. If you’re not up for this challenge, you can take the train from the Ollantaytambo Station, located at the west end of the Sacred Valley (El Valle Sagrado) about forty miles from Cuzco.
PeruRail offers three classes of service to Machu Picchu: the budget-friendly Expedition train, the glass-roofed Vistadome train, or the luxurious five-star Hiram Bingham train.
As part of our escorted tour with Gate 1 Travel, we opted for the upgraded Vistadome Train. The journey to the town of Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, takes about an hour and forty-five minutes from Ollantaytambo. With windows in the train’s ceiling, passengers are rewarded with awesome views of the towering Andes along the picturesque journey.
Many of the surrounding mountains are dusted with snow year-round. You’ll even spy glaciers capping some of the peaks. The train ambles alongside the Urubamba River, which runs through the Sacred Valley and eventually dumps into the Amazon River.
Most people don’t realize that as you travel to Machu Picchu you’re actually descending in elevation. Cuzco is situated at just over 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) and Machu Picchu is located at 7,970 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level. As the train snakes through the Andes, the vegetation grows more and more dense and tropical. Machu Picchu is located in a cloud forest and sees upwards of 118 inches (3 meters) of rain annually.
The end of the line is Machu Picchu Pueblo, also known as Aguas Calientes, a town teeming with souvenir shops, cheap hotels, and restaurants catering to tourists. There are also some hot springs (with rudimentary facilities) for visitors to soak away their aches from the journey.
From Machu Picchu Pueblo, visitors next board a small bus for a harrowing drive up switchbacks to the top of the mountain where the ruins are located. There are no guard rails so if you have vertigo I recommend keeping your eyes shut!
Do you see the trains at the bottom of the hill?
At the park’s entrance, visitors must show their tickets as well as their passport, to verify identity and prevent ticket fraud. Above are a couple of the signs and designations of Machu Picchu.
The Incas built these expansive terraces for agricultural purposes. It’s believed they grew a wide variety of crops here, including potatoes and corn, which are native to Peru.
Llamas and alpacas were introduced to help maintain the grounds (and for good photo ops.)
Spectacular views can be had from just about any angle. Everything seems almost primeval, like stepping back to the beginning of time.
This is part of the Common District, where the average citizens lived. At one time, wood beams and thatched roofs covered these stone buildings.
With its perfectly constructed stonework, the Temple of the Sun is one of the highlights at Machu Picchu. During the winter solstice, the sun aligns through the window to a stone alter in its interior. Archaeologists believe that it could have served as an astronomical observatory as well. Unfortunately, entrance to the temple is no longer permitted due to safety concerns.
This perspective shows much of the north and eastern sides of Machu Picchu, with the towering granite monolith, Huayna Picchu, in the background.
The Incas were ahead of their time with their use of symmetrical stonework in their building techniques.
This area is known as the Temple of the Three Windows, even though it appears that there would be five windows when completed. Or, it’s possible that the two niches on the sides were for storage.
The stonework in the Royal Sector is much more refined than in the surrounding buildings. The blocks are perfectly fitted without the use of mortar. It almost looks like a movie set.
Water still flows from a nearby mountain spring into Machu Picchu. The Incas created an elaborate system of channels connecting sixteen fountains, where the people could gather water for their homes. Because of the immense amount of rain that falls each year, drainage gutters were built to rid the city of excess water too.
This is the Temple of the Sun as seen from above. At the valley floor, you can make out the Urubamba River as it wends its way through the canyon.
Huayna Picchu is the name of the towering granite peak that overlooks Macchu Picchu to the north. It’s possible to hike to the top, just allow yourself plenty of time.
Huayna Picchu is terraced in the same way as Machu Picchu. These terraces were built to shore up the mountainside and as foundations for buildings.
At the top left is Intihuatana, the “Hitching Post of the Sun” as well as a building that Hiram Bingham named the Sacristy. The jumble of rocks in the foreground is what remains of the site’s quarry. Macchu Picchu was built from the top down—the stones were mined from the mountain itself, then brought down for construction.
These terraces are located on the west side of Machu Picchu and were likely used as foundations to help support the structures above.
A few of the buildings have had thatched roofs added to give visitors a sense of what Machu Picchu might have looked like five hundred years ago.
Here’s the classic “postcard” shot that everyone’s familiar with. We were fortunate to have absolutely perfect weather for our visit. Actually being there and taking this photo allowed me to tick off one of the top things on my Bucket List.
Below are two “miniature” photos I took of Machu Picchu:
Here are some tips to enjoy Machu Picchu:
Have you been to Machu Picchu? What were your thoughts? Feel free to comment in the section below!
Michael Figueiredo is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, California. When he’s not gallivanting around the world, he’s enjoying the laid-back lifestyle and perfect weather of Southern California. So far he’s visited forty countries and territories on five continents. His goal is to see at least one new country every year! . Read more from this author