The reason behind the construction of Machu Picchu is still debatable, although most archaeologists believe it was an estate built for Pachacuti, a ruler of the Kingdom of Cusco, and later, the emperor of the Inca Empire (1438-1471). The Inca Empire existed between the 13th and 16th century, centered in the Andean Mountains – Peru. The Empire occupied large parts of Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile, in addition to northwest Argentina and small parts of Colombia.
The city was built in the 1450s and abandoned 100 years later, at the beginning of the Spanish conquest. It is not quite known whether the inhabitants left the city, or died due to a contagious disease. Regardless, the city was unknown to the general public, until it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham, an American historian, in 1911.
Voted one of the seven new wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is one of the most visited sites of the modern world. The site includes two mountain hikes, Huayna Picchu (2,693 m – 8,835 ft) and Montaña Machu Picchu (3,061 m – 10,043 ft). Two groups are allowed on each hike per day, first group between 8:00-9:00 am, the second 10:00-11:00 am. Both hikes require a reasonable amount of fitness, although they are not too strenuous; it takes 90 minutes to get to the top. Each of these hikes require an extra ticket ($15/each), purchased in addition to the park entrance ticket, which is about $45.
The park entrance ticket includes the ‘Sun Gate’ hike, which is a less strenuous hike that takes 30-40 minutes, offering a breathtaking view of Machu Picchu. In addition, you can wander around the city of Machu Picchu with the initial park entrance ticket, if you don’t wish to hike any of the mountains.
Cusco is the closest large city to Machu Picchu, containing an airport, numerous accommodation and dining options. Travelers typically spend time in Cusco prior to heading to Machu Picchu. On the other hand, Aguas Calientes is the closest town to the park, where you can find facilities and services. The town is built at the base of Huayna Picchu mountain. Machu Picchu itself is not an inhabited city.
To Aguas Calientes
- Trekking, through Inca trail, takes 5-7 days. Note that the trail is closed every February for maintenance.
- By train, train leaves from Ollantaytambo, where the ‘Temple of the Sun’ is. So, in this case, you will need to take a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (2 hour ride), then take the train. The train is the most expensive option (about $140 roundtrip).
- By mini bus, most affordable option, however not the most convenient. Takes about 8 hours (to get from Cusco to Hidro Electrica, not Aguas Calientes), 6 of these 8 hours on zigzag roads. Bring travel sickness pills if you get sick easily from zigzag driving. After 8 hours you get to Hidro Electrica, which is a power station built about 6 km away from Aguas Calientes. The bus drops you off there and you have no choice but to hike the rest. The hike is easy and mostly flat; just travel light. The bus that takes you back to Cusco will pick you up from Hidro Electrica, so you will need to hike back after you’re done with Machu Picchu.
If you feel adventurous and want to go with the last option, here is how you should do it. Pickups are around 3 pm everyday, so in my opinion, if you want to enjoy Machu Picchu and hike one of the two big mountains without feeling rushed, you need to spend two nights in Aguas Calientes. First night will be crucial rest after the 8 hour bus ride and the 2 hour hike. The next day will be fully devoted to Machu Picchu, till 4 pm when the park closes. Afterwards, you go rest in Aguas Calientes, and the following day at noon start hiking back to Hidro Electrica, to catch the mini bus at 3 pm.
To Machu Picchu
One last piece of the puzzle, is getting from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. As mentioned earlier, Aguas Calientes lies at the base of Machu Picchu mountains, requiring some sort of ascend. Luckily, there is a bus option here (about $12/way) to take you up. Otherwise, you need to climb stairs for about 2 hours, just to get to the entrance. If you are willing to climb Huayna Picchu or Montaña Machu Picchu at the park, then I recommend the bus. You can take the stairs down at the end of the day, or take another bus down.