Machu Picchu was built by the Incas in the cloud forest around 1450 and was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest around a century later. It sits on a peak in the Peruvian Andes some 7,970 feet above sea level and 50 miles northwest of Cusco. One of the most interesting draws to Machu Picchu is that it stood unknown to the outside world until 1911 when it was brought to its attention by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.
You can freely hike up to the Sun Gate and all around Machu Picchu with your ticket into the park. If you want to explore Huayna Picchu and the Moon Temple you have to take an extra step. The number of people allowed to go through the gate to Huayna Picchu is even more strictly controlled then Machu Picchu with only 400 entries per day. You must arrive early at the park and then head straight to the gate where they hand out an additional ticket that allows you to go through. The first 200 people are allowed to go through instantly but they must return by 10am, and the remaining people must wait until after 10am. Both hikes area rated as difficult especially the one to Huayna Picchu which can become dangerous after rainstorms. If you are up for them, I would recommend them, particularly up to the top of Huayna Picchu.
Altitude: Machu Picchu is at a pretty high elevation for the common person and a lack of oxygen can be an issue. Now this wouldn’t really be an issue if your vacation simply required you to lounge at the pool, but this is Machu Picchu the whole point is to hike around and explore. The recommended course of action is to spend a good 24 hrs. taking it easy in either Aguas Calientes or my favorite Cusco and let your body start to adjust. If you plan on hiking the trail you might want to bump that up to 48 hrs. If your body is just not adjusting or you feel dizzy and disoriented, you might consider see a doctor and getting some oxygen. Another popular option and one that is used by the natives is to drink a cup of coca tea or mate de coca as it is locally known. Yes, this is tea made from the same leaves that some people use to create cocaine. *Do Not Attempt to Bring Any Coca Tea to the U.S.
Photography: Taking pictures at Machu Picchu can be challenging. You are at a city in the clouds, and those bright white clouds are going to play haywire with your exposure control. If you have a standard point and shoot camera you are going to want to try and get 70% city and only 30% sky or less. To assist some of the more fancy point and shoot cameras have the ability to activate a Neutral Density (ND) filter, which should buy you some extra leeway. Whatever you do though, do not take a picture straight into the sun; you won’t see much of anything. If you have the ability to add filters to your lenses, like with DSLR’s, you are going to want to pick up a graduated neutral density filter. This filter will allow you to tone down the sky while leaving the ground at good exposure.
There are 2 main options for visiting Machu Picchu.
1) You can hike along the Incan Trail in treks that can be as long as 7 days and enter the city through the Sun Gate. This is not a task to be taken without thought or prep, but it can be truly rewarding. You will need to book this through an agent and they will make the arrangements for you to enter the park; but you would still need to obtain your own entry into Huayna Picchu.
2) You can visit Machu Picchu on your own. Best option is to stay in Aguas Calientes, the closest town at about a mile away, which has daily buses up to the ruins. You will also need to purchase your tickets from the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre in Aguas Calientes. (Tickets Can Not Be Purchased from the Entrance to Machu Picchu)
Transportation: Machu Picchu is out of the way, and there is no road in or out of Aguas Calientes, only train tracks. Most people fly to Lima and then catch a regional flight to Cusco. From there you can take the train from the Poroy station just outside the city or you can take a bus/taxi to Ollantaytambo and then catch a train for the remaining distance. Trains from Poroy are more expensive and less frequent, so the majority of people venture to Ollantaytambo and take the more reasonable priced train. For additional info on trains from Poroy check here, and from more info on trains from Ollantaytambo check here.
RECOMMENDABLE: A Resounding Yes!!! Up close and personal exploration of one of the new Seven Wonders of the World is a can’t miss and the people of Peru are so warm and inviting.