UNESCO deemed it a World Heritage Site in 1983 and in 2007, it was voted as one of the new Wonders of the World. Machu Picchu is the most visited tourist attraction in Peru and if you’re planning a visit, keep these ten things in mind prior to your trip.
1. Welcome to the Jungle
One of the first things that surprised me most was the topography of Machu Picchu. Outside of the cleared areas of the site, the surrounding area is a jungle. Trees are everywhere, as well as insects, birds, and a few arachnids. If you plan to hike the trails, bring enough water to replenish yourself from the heat and humidity.
2. Remote Location
The Spanish never set foot on this great wonder simply because they didn’t find it. Tucked between the Andean mountains, the Incas decided to build this city in the jungle covered valley. Scholars still debate about the strategic reasoning. Some say it was due to the astronomic significance of the surrounding mountains, while others believe that it was a test site for the civilization’s intent to expand towards the jungles of the Amazon.
3. The Old Mountain
Machu Picchu literally means old mountain in Quechuan, the prominent language of the natives living within the region. The main citadel we now collectively refer to as Machu Picchu was actually named after the northern mountain peak overlooking the main valley. No one knows to this day what the original name of the city below is.
4. An Unfinished Site
Parts of Machu Picchu were unfinished because the Incas abandoned it when they felt the imminent threat of the Spanish conquistadors. Some parts of the citadel, particularly those on northeastern part, near the quarry site remains unfinished. Comparing them to the well-formed houses and agricultural terraces below will give you a greater appreciation of the ingenuity of the Incas.
5. Hire a Guide
Unlike most touristic sites, Machu Picchu has no information about the ruins, so in order to truly enjoy and capture the importance of this sacred site, hire a local guide. Many of them are available near the entrance, but it is better to book through travel agencies or directly through travel websites. Many tourists who only come for a day find themselves following the crowd. A guide will ensure that you get through all the key spots and even take you to some of the off beaten tracks that only locals will know about.
6. Best Time of Day is at Dawn
Machu Picchu is at its best early in the morning, just before the sun rises above the mountains and gives the main city an extraordinary orange glow. The site is quiet with very few tourists. Llamas and alpacas freely roam the site and the temperature remains relatively pleasant. I was fortunate enough to catch the sunrise at Machu Picchu and it was nothing short of magical. If you have the opportunity to do so, I highly recommend it.
7. Machu Picchu: A Sacred Site
The Peruvian government and the regional authorities in Cusco are dead serious about the importance of Machu Picchu to their culture. The main entrance and checkpoint has a huge signpost indicating that Machu Picchu is a sacred site and that it deserves utmost respect from locals and tourists alike. There are plenty of guards patrolling the site and during my visit there, I saw, on more than one occasion, visitors being escorted out for disrespecting the boundaries set around sacred locations. Consider yourself warned.
8. Take Your Time
Those who come to Machu Picchu just for several hours will not even begin to graze the site’s best bits because of its massive size. Plan at least four to five hours to truly get a grip and experience the most out of this great wonder. The highlights will take approximately three hours to cover and if you are still up for it, take one of the shorter hikes to get a different view and perspective of the main site. You can also opt to continue climbing upward to Huayna Picchu. Machu Picchu opens at 6am and closes at 5pm. Stay overnight at Aguas Calientes (Machupicchu) to cut down on travel time.
9. Vacation Spot
Many scholars agree that the main purpose of Machu Picchu was a retreat for nobility and other prominent individuals. The agricultural and commercial parts were created to sustain the workers who resided there during the building process. The archeological evidence suggests that no more than 500 people were living there at one point. That is a small proportion considering the size of the empire at the time it was built. It supports the theory that it was merely a temporary retreat.
10. Beyond the Main Machu Picchu Site
The best views of Machu Picchu often come from the road less traveled. Take one or more of the many trails that will take you to mountain peaks and help you discover the beauty of the surrounding area. Just keep in mind that in the Peruvian Andes, flat surfaces are rare, so prepare to hike.