The defining memory of most Peru vacations is the moment upon reaching the lookout point known as the Watchman's Hut, the starting point of all Machu Picchu tours, where the staggering beauty of this world-famous citadel is finally revealed in its glorious setting, hidden within the clouds atop a jungle-clad mountain.
By far the most convenient way to visit Machu Picchu is with a provider of Peru vacation packages, but for the most adventurous and those with a decent grasp of Spanish, it's possible to find your own way there and track down a guide on the day.
Since its re-discovery in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American explorer working for Yale University, Machu Picchu has become the stuff of legends; an iconic image in the minds of millions, with all its connotations of adventure, exploration and mythical ancient history.
Surprisingly though, the reality of Machu Picchu is much more down-to-earth. Recent archeological investigations have suggested that the site was not a center of spiritual and religious importance, as was previously assumed.
In fact, some archeologists are now suggesting that Machu Picchu was originally intended as a center of learning, a kind of Inca University or better yet, a grand and very elaborate holiday resort for the empire's nobility.
Nevertheless, it remains undisputed that Machu Picchu is one of the best preserved, most intriguing, and jaw-droppingly beautiful archeological sites in South America and the entire world.
Part of the citadel's allure has always been its inaccessibility, located deep within Peru's Sacred Valley, surrounded by unforgiving mountains and plunging valleys complete with dense sub-tropical forest and gushing rivers.
Thankfully, accessing the site these days is much easier, not least due to the train line which was extended to the modern town of Aguas Calientes at the mountain base.
Most visitors are keen to arrive at Machu Picchu as early as possible, and although the first bus ($14 return) departs at around 5:30am, the keenest are in the queue from as early as 3am.
Taking things this seriously is probably only worthwhile if you intend to climb Machu Picchu's sister mountain, Huayna Picchu on the same day: entrance is limited to 400 people per day and tickets sell out very early. Otherwise, aim to be in the queue from around 5am and you'll still be able to make an early bus and catch the citadel before most of the crowds arrive.
Before reaching the ticket office you'll find a number of guides ($15-20 for 2.5 hours) most of who tend to be very professional and knowledgeable, although the standard of English can be inconsistent. Information inside the site is non-existent, and for this reason alone, consider booking your trip in advance with a Peru tours operator with a guaranteed standard of tour guide.
Most guided tours last for around two and a half hours and will include a comprehensive circuit of the site. You'll start at the Watchman's Hut, which offers the best views of the site (the ones that are on all the postcards) before making your way towards the northern, and highest, edge of the citadel where some of the most important relics remain: the Temple of the Three Windows, the main temple, the Intihuatana (sun rock) and the Sacred Rock, all of which line the central, grassy main plaza.
Recent progress in the field of astro-archeology has revealed a great many new lessons in the nature and layout of Machu Picchu, and your guide will be able to point out some of the many alignments of these important points with the stars and the solar system.
Of particular significance are the points on the surrounding mountains that align with the citadel during important solar-phases, including the summer and winter solstice.
In addition, along the opposite mountain ranges to the south, you'll be able to see the last stages of the celebrated Inca Trail, as it leads down from the Sun Gate towards Machu Picchu itself.
Once your tour is complete, you have the option to walk the 'wrong way' up the Inca Trail towards the Sun Gate, where you'll be rewarded with a different (and much less crowded) perspective on the site.
Alternatively, you can make the short hike to the Intipata, or Inca bridge, around 45 minutes away from Machu Picchu. The bridge is constructed along the face of a cliff and offers some stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Unfortunately the bridge itself has been closed to the public for safety reasons.
If you have the time, consider sticking around for the rest of the day, and relax in one of Machu Picchu's quieter corners. There is just one thing as impressive as sun-rise over the citadel: sun-set.
While visiting Machu Picchu, be sure to remember the following considerations:
- The citadel is a protected site of significant historical importance. For this reason strict restrictions exist on what can be taken into the site, including plastic bottles, metal-tipped walking poles and large backpacks (these can be stored at the ticket office for $.50)
- On-site services including toilets, food and drinks are non-existent and outside the ticket office, the prices are high. But you are permitted to bring your own food and drink in a small day-sack.
- Peak visiting time is from around 10am to mid-afternoon. Before and after these times, the crowds are much thinner, and the queues for the return bus journey are much shorter.