A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. These Incan ruins are South America’s most visited tourist attraction. Below you will find key facts that will make your adventure planning easier and more comprehensive. Click here to review all tours and Inca Trail hikes.
Best Time To Visit Machu Picchu
The best time to visit Machu Picchu is from May to September. During this time of the year, it rains very little in the Andes area. Yes, it is the Peruvian winter, but temperatures in the Cusco, Sacred Valley and the ruins area do not fluctuate too much during the day.
Second best time to visit the famous citadel are the months or last March, April, October and November. During these months, you will experience some rain, but might get lucky and have uninterrupted sunny days during your trip. For sure try to avoid December, January, February (lots of rain in February) and early March. Regardless of the rain, Christmas and New Year holidays are popular times to visit the ruins. Lastly, South Americans travelers tend to visit the citadel during the rainy season as it is their summer vacation time Make sure to check out our top 10 Machu Picchu tours and Peru travel itineraries.
Aguas Calientes Train Station at Machu Picchu Town
At a distance of 800m east of the train station of Aguas Calientes, is the town of Machu Picchu, there are underground hot sulfur springs that bubble up from the rocky ground at varying temperatures. The especially-built pools at this resort are the basis of its use as hot mineral baths. The average temperature of the water runs from 38ºc to 46ºc. There are also changing rooms, bathrooms and a small snack bar.
Getting to the Machu Picchu Ruins
There are 70 miles of railway line between the city of Cusco and the station of Puente Ruinas. The trip starts in the station of San Pedro in Cusco, zig-zagging up the Picchu mountain until it reaches the highest point, a spot called “El Arco” (the arch), in the northwest part of the city. The route then descends to the villages of Poroy, Cachimayo, and lzcuchaca until it reaches the Anta plains, an extensive cattle area. It climbs down the gully of Pomatales before descending to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, arriving at the station of Pachar. The route then crosses the Urubamba River to the right bank and arrives at the station of Ollantaytambo – a train station for those boarding the train in the Sacred Valley.
History of Machu Picchu
One cannot pinpoint the first to populate these lands, as it was a time of occupation rather than foundation. Machu Picchu was visited by explorers well before Hiram Bingham, although with little success. These included Antonio Raymondi, the Count of Sartiges and Charles Wiener. Other visits included one in July 1909 by the Santander brothers, whose inscription can be found carved into the base of the Temple of the Sun. At the same time, Peruvian explorers Enrique Palma, Augustin Lizárraga and Gavino Sánchez arrived at the citadel by the route of San Miguel.
The railway line runs parallel to the river in winding loops that follow the riverbed. From here one can see the typical vegetation of the upper jungle, which climbs up to the top of the steep mountain range that forms the Urubamba Canyon. The train passes through the Chilca train station from where one can see the snowcapped peak called “Veronica”. With a height of 5,750 meters (18,975 feet) above sea level, it is the highest peak in the Urubamba range. The train stops at Kilometer 88, where the Inca Trail begins.
The train then continues on its way, passing through the station of Pampacahua and the town of Aguas Calientes, located at Kilometer 110. When the train line comes up against a wall of imposing granite mountains, it then plunges into two tunnels before arriving at the station of Puente Ruinas. From here, minibusses take the travelers up 8 kilometers of roads to the tourist hotels. The entry control to the Inca citadel is done near the hotel.
The citadel is divided into two sectors: the agricultural (terracing) and the urban, where there are main squares, temples, palaces, storehouses, workshops, stairways, cables and water fountains which run through both sectors, which measure 20 and 10 hectares respectively. It is clear that the architectural design was based on Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire. Machu Picchu was built according to its natural surroundings, with its constructions following the natural curves and dips and rises in the land. The archaeological excavation that took place after Bingham discovered the ruins showed the land was previously given granite foundations with little surrounding soil. The agricultural and urban sectors are split by a dry ditch, the result of a geographic fault line. The following chapters describe the most important constructions in each sector.
The Control Gate
This is made up of a three-walled room with a view with several windows, which can be found in front of the main gateway. There is a go panorama from here of the agricultural and urban sectors and the surrounding landscape. It is a good idea to take photos from this angle as it gives the visitor a good view of the complex.
In every Inca city, the dead were buried on the outskirts of the town, which is where in this case Cusco archaeologists found human remains. In the upper part, they also found sculpted stones that belong to the area, which indicated the Incas used the stones to make offerings to their gods. On this same piece of ground lies a granite boulder sculpted with steps. But the most striking feature is that it is pierced with a ring, the purpose of which is unknown. This ritual boulder is very similar to that of the ñusta-hispana in the Vilcabamba I ruins. In the upper part, one can see a body-shaped spot as if people had been placed on their backs.
While the agricultural sector is cut short by a dry ditch, one can see a long stairway that leads to the front gate.
This sector houses the most important constructions of any Inca city, where one can appreciate the talent, effort and quality of the pre-Hispanic builders, as the constructions are entirely made of granite, a very hard rock that is different from that used in Cusco. The city is U-shaped. In the northern section, there is the great religious sector containing the temples, to the South there are the houses and workshops on platform terraces that Bingham called the Military Group. The main buildings in the Urban Sector are the following:
Temple of the Sun
This construction is shaped like a semi-circle and built on solid rock, an existing granite block shaped to blend with the natural curves, with a diameter of 10.50 meters (34.65 feet). It is composed of highly polished polyhedrons. There are two trapezoidal windows in this building with protruding knobs at every comer, and on the north side, there is a carefully-sculpted door with bored holes in the doorjamb, very similar to the Qoricancha temple in Cusco. The Spanish historians relate there were once gold and precious jewels encrusted in the door. To the West of the temple, there is a rectangular patio with nine ceremonial doorways alternating with prism-shaped studs.
There is a stone located on a hill made up of several terraces. The visitor can gain access to the stone via 78 well-crafted steps. At the end of the staircase, one enters an open patio with walls equally well-sculpted, and where one can see an upper platform where there is a granite rock sculpted into three steps. In the central part, one can see a rectangular prism that is 36cm high and which is pointing from North-West to South-East. Its four corners are directed to the four cardinal points. The Intiwatana had specific functions: it measured time (the solstice and the equinox) by using sunlight and shadow and also served as an altar. In Quechua, “Inti” means “sun” and “Wata” means “year”, thereby giving us the meaning of a solar year observatory.
The sacred rock, located in a four-sided spot flanked by two three-sided rooms, features a monolithic rock sculpture that is 3cm (1.2 in.) high and 7m (2.77 in.) wide at its base. The pedestal, which is approximately 30cm (11.88 in.) high, resembles a feline. From another angle, It looks like the profile of a mountain near Machu Picchu. It is possible that this cluster of constructions, together with two “Wayranas”, or three-sided rooms, were used for rituals.
Three Windows Temple
It is located West of the main square and has a large rectangular floor. Its name comes from the fact its main face has three windows and two blind bays. Together with the main temple, this is the most impressive architecture in all of Machu Picchu. The enormous polyhedrons have been carved and joined with millimetric precision. In front of the Wayrana-style construction, on the large doorjamb next to the central column that holds up the roof, there is a sculpted lithograph with carefully polished molds and flat parts.
The temple is located North of the Sacred Square, very near the Temple of Three Windows. It is built of three walls and is 11m long and 8m wide.
Doors are a common sight in Machu Picchu and especially in this sector. They vary in texture, size and architectural style that set them apart from each other, although all have the same trapezoid shape. Some only have one doorjamb and lintel, and some have two. Some doors are simple and others have different security mechanisms such as stone rings, central trunks and other mechanisms which served to tie together beams to make the doors more secure.
To the South of the complex, between the Temple of the Sun and the Royal Palace, the area houses a series of water fountains, the only sources of the vital element for the residents of Machu Picchu. The first three water fountains or “Paqcha” in Quechua, have been extremely well sculpted. The architectural structures in this area are basically sculpted rock to which are added other decorations such as the spillway and the side walls. This beautiful finish is due to the harmony existing between the Temple of the Sun and the Royal Palace. These fountains were fed by underground water and carried via a canal to be used for the irrigation of crops.
The enormous leaning block of stone that holds up the Temple of the Sun has a large crack in its bottom part, which has been exceptionally skillfully decorated and furnished to be later used as a tomb. It was also a site of worship and offerings to the mummified bodies of the main authorities. In the doorway, it shows a carving portraying the symbol of the goddess Mother Earth. In its interior, there are niches, monolithic pillars and other accessories used for religious means and to attend the mummies.
There are four main squares at different levels, but share the characteristic of being rectangular in the classic Inca style, interconnected by sunken stairways in the parameters of the terraces. The main square is the largest, which just like the main squares in all Inca cities, had religious and social functions. The fourth open area is a square flanked by terraces with their respective access ways, similar to the 1,000 B.C. Chavin culture. On July 14, 1911, Hiram Bingham arrived together with a team of Yale University specialists in topography, biographies, geology, engineering and osteology, led by local inhabitant Melchor Arteaga. They asked him about the city, and he told them it was located on top of an old peak (“Machu Picchu” in Quechua).
Later, in 1914 Hiram Bingham returned to the site with economic and logistic backing from Yale University and the U.S. Geographic Society with the specialists mentioned above, whose report was published and made available around the world with the title “The Lost City of the Incas”. In the original map, Bingham carved the area into sectors according to the four cardinal points. Some names have remained the same, but 76 years after the discovery of Machu Picchu, scientific studies carried out by archaeologists from the archaeological foundation of the National Cultural Institute as well as delegations of foreign scientists, have provided valuable conclusions about the use and functions of the buildings. These were based on archaeological excavations and the architectonic relations between the buildings with similar construction across the vast Inca empire. The periods of occupation have been broken down into the following, based on historical accounts, construction style and ceramics:
- Initial (up to 1,300 A.D.)
- Classic (up to 1,400 A.D.)
- Imperial (up to 1533 A.D.)
- Contact or Transition (1533 to 1572)
It is located in a subtropical zone, or dense wood, the reason why the climate is mild, warm and damp, with an average year-round temperature of 13C during the day. One can perceive two distinct seasons during the year: the rainy season from November to March, which is a time of heavy rains. Visitors are advised to dress accordingly during this season. The dry season from April to October brings on higher temperatures. This season is also preferred by travelers planning to visit Machu Picchu.
Typically, guided tours start on a path that leads from the bus terminal. The path, built on purpose for tourism, enters the citadel in the section that houses a cluster of rooms near the outer wall. The path continues through a terrace to gain access to the agricultural zone before arriving at the urban area. Please click here for a complete list of Machu Picchu tours.
The archaeological complex is located in the department of Cusco, in the Urubamba province and district of Machu Picchu. It is perched on the eastern slopes of the Vilcanota mountain range, a chain of mountains curtailed by the Apurimac and Urubamba Rivers (great white water rafting). At latitude 13º7′ South and longitude 72º34′ West of the Greenwich Meridian, the ruins are located at a height of 2,350 meters (7,710 feet) above sea level (main square).
Hours of Operation
The sanctuary is located at the top of a small mountain next to the village of Aguas Calientes. All the available hotels except for the Sanctuary Lodge are located at the village. The ruins are open from 6:30 AM to 5:30 PM (last admission at 4:00 PM). There is a mini bus service from the village to the entrance of Machu Picchu that runs daily every 15 minutes from 6:00 AM to 4:30 PM. The last mini-bus back to the village is at 5:30 PM.