There are few places on earth that can hold a candle to the spectacle that is Machu Picchu. Ranked as one of the 7 Wonders of the World, this awe-inspiring site does not disappoint those who make the long trip into the rainforests of Peru and up the hairpin turns of the mountain to reach the former home of the Incas. It’s incredible just how massive the entire site is—it covers two mountains, after all—and chances are that if you only give yourself half a day at Machu Picchu you will leave wishing you could have explored more of it.
The typical day starts off bright and early with a bus ride from the town of Aguas Calientes up to the base of Machu Picchu, which takes about half an hour. There may be light, drizzling rain as you step off, and take in the fog that clouds over the lush, green mountains surrounding the site. A beautiful (and expensive!) lodge is the last thing you’ll pass before heading through the gates into the epic Lost City.
To actually get to the site, you’ll walk for about 10 minutes up a series of steps and pathways. It’s worth it though: there are few things in life as indescribable as the first moment you lay eyes on Machu Picchu, which seems even more mystical as it peeks out from behind the hanging, puffy clouds. You will surely stop here to take loads of pictures, but keep in mind there will be countless opportunities to get unobstructed shots throughout the day, so don’t go crazy at the beginning!
You might also have to make way for the many llamas who graze the site, who unapologetically push wide-eyed tourists aside.
Touring the Ruins
Most tourists visit the site as part of a group, which includes a guide to lead them through the Lost City. They’ll point out interesting spots like the sundial or burial grounds while explaining Inca history. However, a big joke is that you get a different story depending on which guide you get—so don’t bet the family farm on their version! Tours usually take a couple of hours, and will lead you down into the ruins and through them, stopping numerous times along the way. Different groups shuffle to get past each other, while straining to hear their guide over the din of explanations being given in countless languages around them.
After that history lesson, you’re free to explore the site for the next few hours—and trust me when I say you will need every minute of it. A popular pick is to head to the Inca Bridge which takes about an hour round trip, or walk 45 minutes to the Sun Gate which is the traditional end of the Inca Trail and has beautiful views of the valley below. En route, you’ll come across grassy plateaus where tourists are sprawled out, enjoying a perfect view of Machu Picchu while resting their weary feet. Remember all those pictures you want to take? This is a great spot to do that! But if there’s one thing you can’t afford to miss, it’s a hike up Huayna Picchu.
Hiking Huayna Picchu
Huayna (also called Wayna Picchu) is that mountain you see in the famous pictures behind the ruins, and only 400 people per day are allowed to explore it. As such, ensure you get a permit (about $10) before arrival, which will determine when you climb. Hikers leave between 7 and 8 a.m., or 10 and 11 a.m., and the journey takes two to three hours round trip. I’m not going to sugar coat it: it’s a tough climb. But keep in mind that we passed seniors and families with young children who were braving it, so really anyone can do it!
As you ascend, you’ll navigate narrow pathways that are either dirt or steps fashioned out of rock. There are also guardrails in many places to help hoist climbers up, and a number of spots where you can stop and take in the breathtaking view of the ruins, lush greenery and swollen, brown river below. This is one of the best places to take in the sprawling spectacle of Machu Picchu.
Once you near the very top it gets a little dicey, with pathways that are on the edge of sheer cliffs, or small caves that you’ll need to shimmy your way through. But once you get to the highest point…wow.
Standing on that very top boulder with everything stretching out below you literally makes you feel like you are on top of the world. It is an incredible feeling, and an even better vantage point! Without a doubt, it is an experience you will remember for the rest of your life.
Once you manage to pry yourself away from the scene and walk all the way back down the mountain, you can grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants at the base or get in the looooong queue for the bus back to Aguas Calientes. While the day can’t last forever, you will have enough memories to last a lifetime.
Get there early!
Dawn is the magic hour on the mountain, where the mist and fog hang in the air, clouding the ruins. Not only does this make for some fantastic photos, but there are also WAY less people around. Early birds get to enjoy the scene in relative quiet, and the pathways won’t be clogged with slow-moving tourists. Get there are early as possible, as the window of time before the morning rush is quite limited.
Use the washroom before
The only washroom on the whole site is at the base where the buses drop people off, near the restaurant (make sure you have small change on hand). This can present quite the problem after you’ve been hiking around the grounds for hours (or are on the top of Huayna Picchu like I was!), especially since you have to go all the way back down and out to get to the bathroom. Don’t even try tucking away in some inconspicuous spot instead—they don’t exist.
Bring your passport
It is crucial that you bring your passport to Machu Picchu, as you will need to present it at the gate with your ticket. The bonus of this means you can add a stamp to it—yay! The place to do that is at a little table that has been set up on the left-hand side, as soon as you pass through the main gate.
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