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Although it’s one of the most well-known archaeological wonders of the world, Machu Picchu still holds plenty of secrets and is on our shortlist of must-see destinations on any Peru trip.
Paul Walrath enjoying Machu Picchu – on the ‘Jaguar‘ trip
Machu Picchu is an enigma, some would say a paradox because it is known as both the best known yet least known about of the Inca sites. Since its discovery on July 24, 1911 by North American Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu has been considered one of the world’s greatest architectural and archaeological monuments, due to its extraordinary magnificence and harmonious structure. Machu Picchu is definitely one of the most fascinating sites in Peru.
At 2,400 meters above sea level, in the province of Urubamba, Machu Picchu surprises us because of the way its stone constructions are spread over a narrow and uneven mountain top, bordering a sheer 400 meter cliff into the Urubamba River canyon.
Why and how was Machu Picchu built?
Machu Picchu is a citadel shrouded in mystery, and to this day archaeologists have not definitively uncovered the purpose of this city of stone. The site covers an area of about one square mile, and stands in a region that the Incas considered to be magical, due to the meeting of the Andes mountains with the mighty Amazon river. When 135 bodies were discovered while exploring the site, 109 of which were female, some believed that Machu Picchu could have been a monastery where acllas (young girls) were trained to serve the Inca and the Willac Uno (High Priest). Others said it may simply have been an advance settlement for further expansions planned by the Incas. Perhaps the mystery may never be fully explained.
The surprising perfection and beauty of Machu Picchu’s walls, built by joining stone to stone without using any cement or adhesive whatsoever, has led to many theories developing around how the city was constructed as well. It is said that a bird by the name of Kak’aqllu knew the formula for softening rock but by command, perhaps by the ancient Inca gods, had its tongue torn out. Others say there was a magic plant that could dissolve and compress stone. Nonetheless, mysteries and myths aside, the obvious wisdom and skill of the city’s ancient builders – evidenced by Machu Picchu’s many squares, aqueducts, watchtowers, observatories and its sun clock – is quite clear.
Many people may be drawn to Peru by Machu Picchu, yet it is considered by many of our guests, to be just one of many of the ruins featuring on the “highlights reel”of their trip. See reviews to read more
How to get to Machu Picchu – One day or multi day trails
You can take a one day trip to Peru from Cuzco or Lima, and walk up to this citadel in the clouds high in the Andes, or you can take some time to get acclimatised and trek via several trails that lead to Machu Picchu, most taking around 4 to 5 days to complete. A lot of people begin their Peru trip with the intent of visiting Machu Picchu, but don’t know how much more there is to see and do in and around Machu Picchu.
After all, if you are going to Peru to experience a South American trip of a lifetime, why not learn about all the activities and other ruins there are to discover.
Popular activities on our Peru trips (including Machu Picchu):
- Hiking the Lares or Classic Inca Trail
- Exploring Machu Picchu – facts about Machu Picchu
- Hiking in the Amazon jungle
- Sea kayaking on Lake Titicaca
- Staying with a local family on Amantani Island
- Hiking Sacsayhuamán fortress
- Hiking and cycle in the Sacred Valley of the Incas
- Exploring Cuzco
- Cycling through Andean villages and La Raya Pass
- Hiking Amantani and Taquile Islands
You may be surprised at the number of activities you can do in Peru. In fact it’s a surprise to a lot of people that it is possible to enjoy these “non Machu Picchu focused” activities at all. Our philosophy is a little different to many tour companies, we believe that if you are going to travel all the way to a new country to experience a whole new culture, why not experience as many perspectives, local cultures and ruins as you can while you are there?
Obviously the most popular trail chosen by visitors wanting to visit Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail. Some people prefer the Lares Trail because it offers a much more immersive experience in Peruvian village culture. If you wants to experience some of the traditions and village life the early Inca’s enjoyed, you can stay with their descendants in one of the many villages along the Lares Trail.
If you want to hike the traditional route, take a sneak peak below at some of what the Inca Trail has to offer.
Hike to Machu Picchu on the ancient Inca Trail
The Inca Trail between the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River and the mysterious abandoned citadel of Machu Picchu is one of the world’s classic treks. Climbing out of the river valley, crossing rugged mountain passes over 13,000 ft high, the trail winds through the Andes, passing numerous significant Inca ruins en route before descending through the Sun Gate to the silent stone city of Machu Picchu. To hike the Inca Trail is a thrilling experience and a great privilege. You need a permit from the Peruvian government to set foot on it, and there are strict limits on the number of permits issued each year. If you join a guided tour like the ‘Jaguar‘ trip, these permits are all take care of for you.
But the Inca Trail is much more than a great hike. It is one small portion of an incredible network of such trails crossing high mountain ranges, bleak deserts, and raging Andean rivers, tying the Inca Empire together. At its peak expansion, Tahuantinsuyo (or The Four Corners as the empire was known) extended from what is now southern Colombia in the north, to central Chile in the south, covering a distance of about 5500 km (3400 mi). To rule such a vast domain, the emperor, or Inca, forged a remarkable communications system of approximately 18,600 miles of trails, paved through much of its length, stepped where need be, through tunnels where necessary, and using gossamer suspension bridges built of straw ropes to cross rivers unfordable in the wet season.
The roads served to move the conquering Inca armies, and were generally wide enough for a minimum of two warriors to travel abreast. A system of runners stationed at rest houses known as tambos sped messages along the roadways, much like the Pony Express mail of the old American West. The Inca, at his empire’s capital in Cuzco, could receive news from far away Quito as rapidly as a letter crosses between the two cities in today’s mail.
As remarkable as this highway system was in the days when it was built, used and maintained, it is an astounding testimony to its construction that so many segments remain serviceable today, after half a millennium of neglect. Clearly the Inca highway system ranks as one of the greatest engineering achievements of pre-industrial man.
The full Inca Trail is approximately 40km long. Spread over 4 days, this amounts to about five hours walking per day, although you can walk at your own pace – you are not forced to walk with your group the whole time. It is not a difficult walk, although there are a couple of high passes, and a steep climb on the second day, so a basic level of fitness is required.
“This was our second Active Adventures trip and while we went to Peru mainly to see Machu Picchu, I feel it was only a fraction of the fun we had during our trip. For me, hiking at 14,000+ feet, climbing rocks via ferrata to go zip lining was an awesome experience despite being very prone to altitude illness (we got there a day early and I was fine by the second day) and having a hubby who is very afraid of heights. Machu Picchu was magnificent but I really enjoyed the less crowded Incan and pre-Incan sites we visited more because we had them nearly all to ourselves. Our tour leader Jhayro and another local guide Daniel (who we had for 3 days in Peru) also made our trip extra special being so friendly and fun to be with both while leading us on adventures as well as during meals and on the bus.
The food we had in Peru was excellent and that is coming from someone who is usually viewed as a picky eater with a fussy stomach. My hubby, who is a much more adventurous eater than I, tried alpaca and guinea pig and both were surprisingly good (yes, I tried them too!). After a couple days, we were used to not drinking the tap water or flushing paper down toilets so neither were a big deal. In fact, when we were in Quito, it seemed strange to be able to do so!
For the Galapagos portion of our trip, we were led by Jose since our scheduled guide Pablo couldn’t be there due to a family emergency. Jose was very knowledgable about the local geology, flora, fauna and variety of other things and with several in our group being (former) teachers or scientists, we sure did ask a lot of questions. The unique wildlife of the islands was the primary reason I wanted to visit and I loved seeing Galapagos turtles again as I’d not seen them since I was a child back in the 60’s (I remember riding on some in a zoo which I know now was so wrong!). It was my first time seeing marine iguanas and blue footed boobies in the wild and I also enjoyed seeing a variety of other creatures that are in other places but we don’t see very often, even living in Hawaii which has very similar geology.
Like Hawaii, each of the Galapagos Islands was different and it was interesting to see how they varied. The different forms of transportation we used to get from island to island were also adventures in themselves: 2 hour ride on a speed boat and an hourish ride on a teeny prop plane!
The only thing that was not quite what we expected with this trip was that some of the activities listed on the Galapagos Island itinerary we did not get to do. Nevertheless, the trip was fantastic and being probably my one and only trip to South America, it will always be remembered.”
Shirley Pratt – Hawaii, United States
Iguana, May 2016
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