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Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, Peru

GPS: -13.16294138124, -72.544528994684

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Built in the 15th century by the Inca Emperor Pachacuti, the lost city of Machu Picchu was abandoned only a century later by its inhabitants. This event coincides with the fall of the Inca Empire and then the Neo-Inca state of Vilcabamba in 1572 after the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in South America. When he came to power in 1438, Pachacuti transformed an Inca Empire of modest size into a prosperous and structured state around its capital Cuzco. He carried out several military actions brilliantly, established his supremacy over several hundred tribes and ended up controlling a vast territory between the Andes and the Amazon. It covers several reunified kingdoms and covers a total of six countries (part of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina). Left dormant in modern times, the royal domain of Machu Picchu was not rediscovered until 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, who studied and mapped it for the first time.

The location at the top of a rocky ridge, perched in the clouds of the Peruvian Andes at over 2,400 metres above sea level, makes Machu Picchu an exceptional site and a place of spirituality of the foreground. Meaning “old mountain” in the Quechua language, this Inca citadel is a marvel of architectural engineering. Hanging in the mist and surrounded by steep cliffs, it is divided into terrace cultivation areas, residential buildings and places of worship. The city has multiple vocations but their exact nature remains an enigma. They could be religious, ceremonial and astronomical as well as having an administrative function or being a place of trade within the empire. Some specialists believe that the site of Machu Picchu could also have served as a dwelling place for the Virgins of the Sun (vestals dedicated to the solar cult), as a secondary residence and resting place for the emperor, or as a retreat for high-ranking Inca officials during an external attack.

Developed in the Sacred Valley (Urubamba Valley and River) alongside many other Inca sites, the Machu Picchu is surrounded by a defensive wall. It separates the urban part of the city from agricultural terraces on several levels. Among its majestic ruins, the site has a total of 200 buildings and monuments built in dry stone (white granite). Most are devoted to Inti, the sun god for the Incas (the moon and the stars are among the other deities). These constructions stand in an exceptional state of conservation in a region yet subject to torrential rain, earthquakes and landslides. The Temple of the Sun is the most captivating building in places like its stones nested to perfection. This work makes it possible to calculate and predict with precision the summer and winter solstices. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a former royal path, remains the most picturesque route to reach the city on foot from Cuzco. By borrowing it, you will have the chance to cross extraordinary landscapes (mountain passes, valleys, rivers, tunnels, incas ruins…) before reaching the Urubamba Valley and glimpse the much desired citadel of Machu Picchu.

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  • The historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu, symbol of Inca architecture (the site’s urban plan represents a bird) ; the breathtaking location of the site between mountainous slopes, rocky peaks and green valleys; the construction operator for the time with regard to the tools available; mastery of natural elements to tame the surrounding nature; the location of the site in an isolated area, difficult to access and defying the laws of gravity
  • The many monuments worthy of interest: the Sun Gate, the Temple of the Condor, the Main Place, the Room of the Three Windows, the Temple of the Sun (or Torreon), the Temple of the Moon, the Principal Temple, the Inca Bridge as well as the palaces, houses, fountains, interior courtyards, the network of alleys and stairways… ; the mysteries around the ritual stone of Intihuatana meaning “The Hitching Post of the Sun” (this altar marks the natural phenomenon of the equinoxes corresponding with the change of season during the winter solstice on June 21 of each year); the Sacred Rock of Roca Sagrada monolithic block (mountain-looking stone)
  • The remains well-preserved in the urban part of the site (ramps, doors and walls of stones perfectly nested granite blocks); the system for transporting a natural water source from the mountain and traces of old pipes; the wastewater disposal system in a cave at the foot of the site; the terrace crops in the form of huge stairs in the rural part (production of old corn, potatoes…) ; the old network of roads and trails leading to the city; the old writing and accounting system developed from knots on cords (called Quipu, it is the only language system attached to the Incas)
  • The beauty of a sunrise on the site of Machu Picchu; the mountain landscapes in lush vegetation; the surrounding jungle; the feeling of serenity emerging from the city perched between two Andean peaks
  • The ascent of the sacred summit of Huayna Picchu called the “young peak” (limited number of visitors, optional and difficult access at more than 2,700 meters above sea level); the magnificent panoramic views of the city lost from Mount Putucusi (2,560 meters above sea level)
  • The fortress of Ollantaytambo, the ruins of Runkuracay and the Inca Moray agricultural research centre to the east; the archaeological sites of Puyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna to the south; the Llaqtapata complex to the west; the Andean towns and villages of the Sacred Valley of the Incas (or the Urubamba Valley) to the north
  • The charm and proximity of the city of Cuzco, nestled at 3,400 meters above sea level (80 kilometres long distance)
  • Bus services and different train ranges to reach the little city of Machupicchu (formerly named Aguas Calientes) from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo (PeruRail, Incarail, Machu Picchu Train companies or the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury train)
  • The accessibility of the site all year round on reservation despite an increasingly threatened heritage by the tourist over-attendance of Machu Picchu
  • At its peak (mid-15th century), the military power of the Incas formed the largest army on the South American continent and its Tahuantinsuyu empire spanned thousands of kilometres. This territory corresponds to the largest pre-Columbian empire in South America. It included 10 million people led by nearly 40,000 Incas (the latter defined themselves as “Children of the Sun”).
  • In the late 1520s, a succession war plunged the empire into a civil war after the death of Emperor Huayna Capac. In 1532, with the support of the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Spanish navigator Francisco Pizarro landed in northern Peru accompanied by 180 mercenaries ready to do anything to enrich themselves. Despite their strong numerical inferiority, they succeeded in conquering the entire Inca Empire within a few years, but never discovered the site of Machu Picchu. They allied with rebel peoples and local tribes to take advantage of the disunity of the high Inca dignitaries ((relying on a prophecy, the latter naively believed at the beginning that Pizarro represented the creative god Viracocha before realizing their error which will be fatal to them). The Spanish invaders seized the big cities (Cuzco, Saqsaywaman, Quito, Lima) and captured the emperor Atahualpa whom they had executed in 1533. This event marked the decline and fall of the Inca Empire.
  • When the American Hiram Bingham (accompanied by Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer) discovered the intact but overgrown ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911, he thought he had uncovered the city of Vilcabamba la Vieja, the last Inca city to fall to the conquistadors in 1572. On the strength of this resounding discovery, Bingham obtained additional resources to return and study these remains for several years. He is said to have legally brought back with him tens of thousands of archaeological pieces at Yale University in the United States, on which he was financially dependent. Long claimed by Peru, these goods were returned in 2012 (it is not known whether these artefacts were given back in their entirety). Although he was the one who revealed the existence of Machu Picchu to the world, it is highly likely that Bingham (who would have inspired the character of Indiana Jones in cinema) was not the first European to have spotted this extraordinary heritage. According to researcher Pascal Riviale, this honorary title may ultimately go to Augusto Berns, a German who prospected for mines and woods in the area. In 1867, more than 40 years before the official discovery of Machu Picchu by Bingham, this railway contractor is said to have plundered the site with the complicity of Peruvian government officials who received part of the revenue generated by the sale of objects from the Inca citadel in return. It is also likely that some Peruvian families knew about Machu Picchu and continued to cultivate its agricultural terraces after the site was abandoned and the Inca Empire collapsed.
  • The section of the Inca Trail leading to the Machu Picchu site is one of the last vestiges of the Inca road system that existed at the time of the Incas. Known as Qhapaq Ñan (“royal road” in Quechua), this communication node stretched over more than 30,000 kilometres around the Andes to link the high provinces of Tahuantinsuyu to the capital Cuzco. New road segments leading to Machu Picchu are regularly discovered by archaeologists thanks to lidar (laser imaging, detection, and ranging by the air). To date, there are nine roads deserving the sanctuary at other sites in the area. This Inca road system includes control stations installed at regular intervals, the function of which is to control access. These routes were used not only for military purposes but also as a means of communication to transmit messages.
  • The monuments of Machu Picchu, considered as a model of urban planning, are built using a dry stone masonry technique. In addition to having managed to move, cut and polish a phenomenal quantity of stones on a steep terrain, the builders did not use a mortar to assemble them (there is no binder between the stones). They did not use animal traction or metal objects in the construction. These stones were extracted from a quarry on the spot and consisted of erratic blocks detached from the rocky walls of the mountain. The walls and buildings of the city are made of a 250 million year old magmatic rock (granite). As hard as concrete, the stone blocks were probably cut and shaped by the Incas with hematite (a mineral material composed mostly of iron). According to Jean-François Bouchard (an archaeologist specialising in Andean civilisations), the Inca dignitaries had found a way to mobilise as many people as possible on the site and complete it in the shortest possible time. In fact, they converted the time worked by the people into a contribution to the empire’s taxes.
  • The city lies on a zone of faults composed of a large amount of already fractured rocks which the Incas used brilliantly to construct their buildings. These faults also helped them take advantage of their environment, particularly in terms of collecting rainwater and snow melt (water sources were considered as sacred). The Incas had developed an extraordinary water management system that not only provided the inhabitants with drinking water but also to protected the mountains from landslides (the mountains were revered by the Incas). Underground drainage in the foundations and retention walls under the terraces have kept the buildings intact for the last five centuries (this system stabilised the soil on the slopes). The terraced cultivations were equipped with a rainwater filtering system to avoid flooding. Carved into the mountainside, they were lined with guanos (natural fertilisers made from bird droppings) to make the land cultivable in an environmentally friendly process and a technique that the Incas mastered to perfection. It is likely that the subtropical climate around Machu Picchu was used to produce coca (known as the green gold of the Incas). The leaves of this plant were used for religious, ritual and medicinal purposes by the Andean populations (their natural properties favour life at high altitude).
  • The inhabitants of Machu Picchu (estimated between 500 and 700 people) imagined a water management system from a natural source located less than a kilometre from the city. They thus enjoyed abundant and high quality water. This rainwater, naturally filtered by the mountain, was transported thanks to a very efficient hydraulic system. Pipelines made of cut stone blocks supplied a total of 17 fountains in the city of Machu Picchu at a continuous flow of 150 litres of water per minute (approximately 200,000 litres of water per day).
  • The city of Machu Picchu was made up of separate districts where several social classes lived separately. The elites (leaders, nobles, priests) lived in the upper part while the people (artisans, servants, peasants) resided in the lower part near the agricultural terraces.
  • Even if many mysteries still surround the Machu Picchu site, its astronomical function is no longer in doubt. The recent discovery of an observatory confirms the presence of high-precision astronomical instruments. It allowed Inca priests to observe with precision the sun position, the solstices, the equinoxes and the Pleiades (stars in the Taurus constellation) in order to know the appropriate moment to proceed with the seeds and the harvests.
  • The public is unaware of a large part of the Machu Picchu site. In fact, 60% of the city is underground and many vestiges remain little visible in the immense terrain which surrounds the sanctuary.
  • Machu Picchu is visited by around one million visitors per year, a figure much higher than that recommended by Unesco to limit the impact of humans on its environment. In future years, the number of tourists in Urubamba Valley could explode due to the project to build an international airport in Chinchero, launched by the Peruvian government. Criticized by archaeologists and part of the population, this airport would serve the sites of the Sacred Valley of the Incas including Machu Picchu and Cusco. According to forecasts, it could welcome 6 million tourists in 2023.
  • The number of visitors to access Machu Picchu being limited to 2,500 people per day, it is strongly recommended planning your trip several months in advance and to reserve your ticket online.
  • Remember to confirm your reservation within 48 hours before your visit, otherwise it will be automatically cancelled. Visitors are allowed to enter the Citadel no later than one and a half hours before the time indicated on the ticket (it is forbidden to change the name, document number, date or time on the admission ticket).
  • Prefer to visit the site early in the morning, at 6 am, before the arrival of the first groups of tourists.
  • If you dream of joining Machu Picchu on foot, reserve your place with an accredited guide to hike the Inca Trail from Cuzco (120 kilometres or 4 to 6 days of walking at an altitude of up to 4,200 meters in places). Otherwise, it is possible to stop at Ollantaytambo to appreciate the many Inca treasures of the Urubamba Valley before joining Machu Picchu by train (stop in Aguas Calientes, the locality closest to the Inca city).
  • Do not forget your raincoat even in dry weather (the weather is extremely changing and the region is subject to heavy precipitation).

Where to eat

  • La Boulangerie de Paris
    (Franco-Peruvian breakfast)
  • Cala Tratoria
    (copious and varied)
  • Tampu Restaurant
    (gastronomic cuisine)

Where to go out

  • Patacancha Valley
    (cradle of the Quechuas)
  • Choquequirao
    (the other Machu Picchu)
  • Salt ponds of Maras
    (on a mountainside)

Where to sleep

  • Panorama B&B
    (masterful views)
  • The Green House Peru
    (in the middle of the Sacred Valley)
  • Belmond Sanctuary Lodge
    (at the entrance to Machu Picchu)

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