It’s as much the mystery as the marvels of engineering and architecture that puts Machu Picchu on travel wish lists. For more than 100 years, scholars have wondered: Why did the Incans build this complex of buildings? Why did they abandon it after using it only about 100 years. Where did they go? And why was there no evidence of its existence?
In the summer of 1911, a child from a nearby village led American archaeologist Hiram Bingham (the real Indiana Jones) to a place where the walls, terraces, stairways and ramps were built into an ancient landscape. More than 150 buildings are arranged by function: city, farms, residences, royal housing and sacred.
The experts at South America Odyssey can answer all your questions and assuage any concerns. We’re just going to point out a few aspects of the trip based on our experience.
How to get there
The most popular way of getting to Machu Picchu is the bus from Aguas Calientes at its base, drivers deftly navigating the hairpin turns of the switchback road that zigzags up the mountain.
If you want about an hour’s hike, there’s a path up the side of the switchback road. Follow the shuttle bus and you’ll see the start of the path.
You can hike the Inca Trail that runs along sections of the roads built by the Incans. There are trails with various levels of difficulty. All require camping along the way. The 4-day/3-night Inca Trail hike is the most memorable and is also the most difficult.
When to go
The best time of day to begin your exploration of Machu Picchu is when it opens at 0600 and is less crowded than any other time of day (though still crowded enough—no way to escape that). The first bus leaves Aguas Calientes at 0530. The second best time is mid-afternoon when the other tourists are making their way back down the mountain.
The best of time year to go is April/May and September/October. October through April is the rainy season (although you can expect showers any day any month), and it’s most crowded in June, July and August.
While you’re there
Huayna Picchu looms behind the site of Machu Picchu. It’s a strenuous climb, but possible for anyone with an average degree of fitness. For many, it is the highlight of the trip for the breathtaking and all-encompassing view of Machu Picchu. A separate ticket is needed to climb and must be booked in advance.
The Sun Gate hike is an hour and a half, moderately difficult hike each way with stunning views of the site.
The Temple of the Moon, not yet fully excavated, is a 90-minute hike in the shade.
Intimachay is a hidden cave that you will pass on the way back from the Temple of the Moon. The Incans built a “magic window,” that lets light in only when the summer solstice and winter solstice occur (around June 21 and December 22, respectively.)
Altitude sickness is a real possibility. It’s best not to drink alcohol nor exert yourself until your body has acclimated. Also, consume lots of water and tea. If you have medication for altitude sickness, silently thank your doctor and take it. You may be advised that chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea will prevent altitude sickness. Could be. I repeat, take the medication.
Layering your clothing works best. It’s cool in the morning and hot in the afternoon. No matter how the weather looks or what the forecast is, have a rain poncho with you.
The compromised ozone layer over Peru plus the altitude equals an extremely strong sun. Wear a hat and keep replenishing your sun block.
The best tip I can give you is to go. The huge numbers of visitors are deteriorating the site that has withstood nature’s onslaughts for more than 500 years. The day will come when not all of the site is accessible and/or restrictions will be prohibitive.
This post is sponsored by South America Odyssey