The history of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was likely build around the year 1450, during the glory years of the Inca Empire. In this period the Empire was ruled by the Inca’s Pachacutec Yupanqui (1438-1471) and Tupac Yupanqui (1472-1493).
Although the archeological site of Machu Picchu is very famous, about the original name and purpose of this city scientists are still not sure. Because the city wasn’t easy to reach and is surrounded by sacred mountains, the most accepted theory about Machu Picchu is that it was used as a holiday resort for Kings and other very important people. From the style of the rooms, it seems that there were more rooms for the royal and less for their servants. It’s estimated that the total capacity of Machu Picchu was to house 750 persons. Just compare this amount with the 2500 visitors Machu Picchu receives now on a daily base…
About 100 year after the start of the construction of Machu Picchu, the city was already abandoned. Likely this happened because the invasion of the Spanish conquistadores caused the death of most royal people, while others went in hiding.
Another explanation for the sudden abandoning of Machu Picchu is that its inhabitants died from smallpox, which the Spanish brought from Europa into Latin America. This although the Spanish never managed to find Machu Picchu.
In 1911 the American Explorer Hiram Bingham heard about an abandoned city in the mountains, surrounded by the Vilcanota Rivier. Bingham, who was working for the Yale University in the United States, was actually looking for the city of Vilcabamba. Supposedly this was the last refuge of the Inca’s, were they had taken their treasures to hide them from the Spanish conquistadores.
When Bingham arrived at the site of Machu Picchu he asked his local guide about the name of this city. However, his local guide spoke Quechua, the local language from the Andes and not much Spanish and no English at all. Therefor he didn’t understand the question. He told Bingham that the site was called Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain” and is actually the name from the sacred mountain behind the archeological site of Machu Picchu.
Despite that this site wasn’t the lost city of Vilcabamba that Bingham was looking for, he did immediately understand the importance of his ‘discovery’.
Bingham made many notes and several pictures of the site and took this information back to the Yale University in the U.S.A. Together they organized in 1912 a new expedition to Machu Picchu. Careful and with lots of patience they searched the archeological site for treasures and relics from its previous inhabitants.
They didn’t find any treasure, but managed to fill up 93 wooden crates with mostly ceramics, bones and a few silver and bronze objects.
It took a lot of effort to convince the Peruvian government to allow these crates to be transported to the Yale University in the U.S.A. and apparently they only managed to receive permission after they agreed that the objects would always remain property of the Peruvian State.
In the past years some of these objects have returned to Peru, but many remain in the U.S.A. The Peruvian government now accuses Bingham of stealing their archeological objects, which isn’t really fair if you consider that Bingham and Yale put all their time, money and effort in finding, cleaning and protecting these objects, without much help from the government. If Machu Picchu had been rediscovered by just any ‘gold-digger’, most objects would have been lost forever.
Some tips for visiting Machu Picchu:
Most people go to Machu Picchu from the little tourist town of Aguas Calientes (now officially called “Machu Picchu Pueblo”, which is located at 110 km from Cusco and at an altitude of 2000 m.
There are 2 ways to travel from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The most common route is by train, either from Poroy (just outside of Cusco) or from Ollantaytambo. From Poroy it takes about 3 hours by train to Aguas Calientes and from ollantaytambo, located in the Sacred Valley, it takes about 1h40 min. to travel to Aguas Calientes.
The train station in Cusco only has trains towards Puno.
There are only 3 railway companies. The cheapest is Inca Rail, the biggest is Peru Rail and the most expensive company is the Luxury Hiram Bingham Train (now owned by the Orient Express).
It is also possible to travel either by public transport or tourist transport in about 8 hours from Cusco to the village of Santa Teresa. From here you walk in about 1h30 min. towards the hydroelectric plant, which is located at the end of the railway from Cusco to A.C., but 12 km further and at the other side of the mountains. These last 12 km you can either walk along the railway, or take a train for about 25 US$. These last 12 km are also the last part from the Inca Jungle Trail.
The archeological site of Machu Picchu 8 km away from Aguas Calientes, at an altitude of 2400 m. it will take you about 1h30 to 2 hours to walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. First you follow the dirt road along the river, but after crossing the river you will follow a small pad. While the dirt road continues its ascent with long hairpin bends, the small winding trail has steeper ascent through the forest that covers the hills of Machu Picchu and cutting the edges of the hairpin bends.
If you want to hike towards Machu Picchu, we recommend to start around 4:00 am and to take a headlight or flashlight with. Take also your own drinks and food with, because at Machu Picchu everything is very expensive…
If you don’t want to walk up, you can also take the most expensive bus within Peru. This bus costs 12 US$ for a ride of 20 min. up to Machu Picchu and 12 US$ again to drive back from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes. There are about 24 busses, with 26 seats each and they departure when full. The first busses leave Aguas Calientes from 5:30 am in the morning and at that time there will already be a long line of people waiting to go up, so at least the first 20 busses will departure quickly.
Also the busses back from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes leave when full, with the last bus departing from Machu Picchu at 18:00 h.
The archeological site of Machu Picchu opens at 6:00 am and closes at 18:00 h. The best times to visit the site are between 6:00 am and 10:00 am, when it still isn’t too busy and between 15:30 h and 18:00 h, when the low sun casts beautiful shadows over the archeological site.
Please keep in mind that the archeological site of Machu Picchu has a maxim limit of 2500 visitors a day. In high season, between May and September, they reach this max. amount each day, so it’s better not to wait too long with buying your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu. Also it isn’t possible anymore to buy your tickets at the entrance of Machu Picchu (to avoid long lines), therefor it is best to buy your ticket (128 Soles) already in Cusco, or at the very latest in Aguas Calientes.
If you want to know if there are still tickets available for Machu Picchu, Huayana Picchu and/ or the Classic Inca Trail, you can visit their official website: www.machupicchu.gob.pe Students with an international ISIC student card, receive a 50% discount on the ticket price.
Important: at the actual entrance of Machu Picchu and also the Inca Trail you will have to show your original passport. You are also not allowed to bring food and your big backpack (max. size is 25 liter) into the archeological site. You can leave all this at the guarded storage next to the entrance, where you pay 5 Soles for the whole day.
When you enter the site you get a stamp on your ticket, which allows you to enter the site 3 times, between 6:00 am and 18:00 h. This is important to keep in mind, since there are also No toilets on the whole site of Machu Picchu.
Just after the entrance, on your left hand side, you find a small office where you can get a map of the archeological site. You can also put a stamp of Machu Picchu in your passport.
At the entrance of Machu Picchu you will also find several guides, which you can hire for a tour around the site. A common price is between 35 to 60 US$ for a tour of just over 2 hours, depending on the quality of the guide.
Another idea is to buy in Cusco or Aguas Calientes for about 10 US$ a small book that explains you short about the highlights of the archeological site. This way you can explore the site in your own pace and avoid having to follow the crowd. If you still want to know something more about some of the most interesting highlight, you can just stop a few minutes at the interesting constructions and listen to the explanation of one of the guides who is there with his group. Don’t follow the guide, they don’t like that.
After arriving on the site it’s recommendable to first turn to the left and follow the trail towards Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) and the Care Takers Hut, from this last spot you have a great view over the archeological site of Machu Picchu.
After taking in the amazing view, you can go down on the very last bit of the original Inca Trail and enter Machu Picchu through its original old main gate.
If you want to climb one of the 2 famous mountains, Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain, 2720 m), or Machu Picchu Mountain (Old Mountain, 3082 m), then you will usually have to book this far ahead. On daily base they allow on each mountain only 400 visitors.
Note: It isn’t possible anymore to buy separate entrance tickets only to climb one of these mountains. You will now have to buy your entrance to one of these mountains directly together with your entrance ticket of Machu Picchu. The price of Huayna Picchu together with the archeological site, or the Machu Picchu Mountain together with the archeological site is around 152 Soles.
It is not possible anymore to climb both of the mountains on the same day and it also isn’t possible anymore to hike the Classic 4-days Inca Trail in combination with climbing one of the mountains.
More information about the different Inca Trails you can find on: Selection of Inca Trails
Because the Huayna Picchu Mountain has steep trails with some deep abysses, this trail isn’t recommendable for people with vertigo. Also because the trails are small, the group of 400 visitors is split up in two groups of 200 each. One group leaves between 7:00 and 8:00 am and one group leaves between 10 and 11:00 am.
Something that most people don’t know about the Huayna Picchu Mountain is that there is a temple ‘hidden’ on the back side of this mountain. This temple is called Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon). Its build half into a cave and accessible from a trail that starts just after the top of the Huayna Picchu Mountain. After going over the huge rock at the top, most people will go down to the right side, but you will also see a small white sign with the word: “La Caverna” (the cave), that points to the right. If you follow this trail for about an hour, mostly downhill, you will get to Templo de la Luna.
From the temple it takes another hour, mostly steady up along a different trail with some great views, which reconnect halfway with the normal trail that goes to the top of Huayna Picchu.
If you only climb the Huayna Picchu, then it takes about an hour steep up (2400-2720 m) and about 45 min. to go back down. If you also want to visit Templo la Luna, then you need about 3h30 till 4 hours for the whole visit.
The Machu Picchu Mountain also opens at 7:00 am. Because there is more place on this mountain, the visits are not split in 2 groups. Still it’s recommended to start early with your climb. The mountain is higher (3082 m), but the trail is less steep. It takes about an hour and 30 min. to get to the top and 75 min. to go back down. The views along the way are great and depending on the season, you can also find several special orchid species along the trail.
If you want to know if there are still places available on the famous 4-Days Inca Trail, or to climb the Huayna Picchu Mountain, you can have a look on this official website: www.machupicchu.gob.pe --> click the link “consultas” then --> “camino inka” and select a month to see availability.
Two other interesting hikes you can make from the site of Mach Picchu and which you (still) don’t have to book in advance are; A visit to the Inti Punku Sun Gate. It takes about 45 min. steady up to reach Inti Punku. It is the last gate of the official Inca Trail and from here you have a great view over the site of Machu Picchu and the mountain range behind!
The other interesting visit is to the so called Inca Bridge. This small trail and partly restored wooden bridge used to be the back entrance to Machu Picchu. The bridge isn’t special, but the trail provides good views over the Vilcanota River and the back of Machu Picchu.
If you want to save the 12 US$ bus ticket from Machu Picchu back to Aguas Calientes you can use the backpackers trail through the forest again (75 min.) Just before arriving at the bridge you will pass by the museum of Machu Picchu. This museum isn’t really worth its 20 soles entrance fee, since most of the information and pictures can be found on the internet and/ or have been told to you by your guide in the Sacred Valley or at Machu Picchu.
Some interesting facts about Machu Picchu:
- The archeological site of Machu Picchu is located within the official nature reserve of Machu Picchu. This reserve covers about 32.000 hectare rainforest and cloud forest at altitudes between 2000 and 4200 m altitude. Within this nature reserve you can find several special orchids and when lucky you might even encounter a spectacle bear!
- In the year 2000 the well-known Peruvian beer company Cusqueña received permission to film one of their commercials on the archeological site of Machu Picchu. However, during the recordings one of the cranes that carried a heavy camera fell down on the ceremonial Intihuatana rock and broke off a small corner. High fines and even time in prison were demanded, but it isn’t clear what punishment the received.
- The only movie ever to receive permission to film on the archeological site of Machu Picchu is the Indian Bollywood Movie: Endhiran This movie was released in 2010 and belongs to one of the most expensive Bollywood movies ever.
- In 2007 the archeological site of Machu Picchu was elected one of the 7 New World Wonders.
- Researchers of UNESCO and other international conservation organizations have discovered that the archeological site of Machu Picchu is slowly sinking. This sinking is caused by different reasons, including the tunnels under the site, the instable grounds during raining season and the huge amount of visitors the site receives daily. To monitor the movements of the archeological site scientists have now stretched a thin wire across the main square of Machu Picchu.
- In 2011 UNESCO finally obligated the management of Machu Picchu to limit the daily amount of visitors. The official maximum amount should have been 1750 visitors a day, but the management of Machu Picchu (under pressure of the British Belmond and several other international hotel chains), managed to raise this max. amount up to 2500 visitors a day.
- Since 2014 there have been official conversations between UNESCO, the Peruvian government and several hotel chains about changing the visitor regulations of Machu Picchu. One of the ideas is to regulate the visitors of Machu Picchu in three groups of 4 hours. The first group between 6:00 am and 10:00 am, the second group between 10:00 am and 14:00 h and the last group between 14:00 h and 18:00 h. If these regulations are going to be accepted then they are also going to regulate these visits into groups of max. 20 persons each with their own guide. Visitors without a guide will then not be allowed anymore, so my recommendation is to try to visit Machu Picchu as soon as possible, before these new regulations might take place…