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Lost City of the Incas: Exploring Machu Picchu's Treasures

As I sat on the bus from Aguas Caliente to Machu Picchu, I could feel the excitement building inside me. I had dreamt of visiting this mysterious site for years and the thought of seeing it at sunrise was almost overwhelming. Although I was travelling solo, I felt a sense of togetherness with the other passengers on the bus, as we all waited in line for a couple of hours before the first bus left — all of us anticipating the adventure ahead.

Machu Picchu is an ancient Incan site built in the 15th century but abandoned a century later during the Spanish conquest. The site was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian and explorer who was searching for the “Lost City of the Inca”. Setting up camp by the river, Bingham and his team were approached by a local Quechua farmer, Melchor Arteaga. Arteaga told the team about an old Inca complex up on a ridge near the camp and led the team to the site the following day.

Machu Picchu, of course, had never truly been lost, it had only been forgotten. Locals knew of its existence long before Bingham arrived, and many were growing crops and grazing livestock on the overgrown terraces. Today, Hiram Bingham is recognized as the “scientific discoverer” of Machu Picchu.

Most of the site was overgrown with vegetation and it took decades of sporadic work to uncover all the artifacts and structures. After extensive excavation and restoration work, Machu Picchu was finally opened to the public in 1948 and has since become one of the most visited tourist destinations in South America. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.

Ever since Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, various theories have been put forward as to Machu Picchu’s original purpose. Bingham believed that the Incas built Machu Picchu mainly for defence. Other archeologists believe it was primarily a religious site. More recent theories suggest that Machu Picchu was a royal estate for the Inca elite. It is clear that few people, other than servants, lived in the city full-time as it would not have been able to support more than 1,000 people. Construction was never fully completed, as the Spanish arrived and conquered the population before many of the buildings were finished.

The Sunrise

As I arrived at the site, I was struck by the sheer splendour of the location, even though I could not yet see the structures. Nestled high in the Andes mountains, the site is surrounded by lush greenery and stunning views. It's clear why the Incas chose this location for their city, as it is not only visually stunning but also strategically located for defence. I quickly located my guide in the mayhem of busloads of arriving tourists and we were soon climbing to the prime sunrise viewing area near the original entrance.

The Guardhouse is a small building near the entrance to the site that was used to monitor visitors and control access to the city. The guardhouse contains several rooms and an observation deck that provides stunning views of the surrounding mountains. This is where I was able to watch as the sun cleared the mountains and shone directly upon the city. It was well worth the 02:00 wake-up and bus line-up and was everything that I had imagined it to be.

My first glimpse of the sacred city. Although it was past dawn, the sun had not yet risen above the mountains. It was a bit chilly but I had on several layers and my anticipation was focused elsewhere. At first, there was just a thin line of sunshine on the very tops of the mountains.

And then boom! The sun flooded the site... and the temperature immediately went up about 10 degrees. Within an hour I was already getting sunburnt, even though I had applied strong sunscreen lotion. I got fairly crispy throughout the day. I was visiting in July, the Peruvian winter, so be aware that the sun is very strong at these high elevations throughout the year and plan accordingly.

Officially, only 4,000 people are allowed to enter Machu Picchu in a day, with a small portion of tickets allocated to the ticket office in Aguas Caliente for those who didn't pre-book. My guide said that number was often exceeded because tourist money is so important to the country and the locals. He was quite disgusted as all this traffic is causing damage to the site. The economic pressures following shutdowns for Covid and recent political protests have only increased since my visit.

Machu Picchu is separated into two distinct areas: the agricultural and urban sections. The ceremonial areas used for religious ceremonies and rituals are scattered throughout the city. To describe all the worthwhile things to see would take a novel and a lifetime, so I am going to cover those that I thought were most interesting.

As I explored the site, I was awed by the ingenuity of the Inca people. The architecture is truly remarkable, with many of the buildings constructed without the use of mortar. The stones were cut so precisely that they fit together perfectly, creating a tight seal. The stones are laid with a slight inward angle, allowing the structures to remain strong, even in face of the frequent earthquakes known to occur in this mountain zone. In 1950, the area was struck by a huge earthquake which destroyed almost all the buildings in the modern cities and towns throughout the Cusco region yet Machu Picchu sustained almost no damage.

Agricultural Section

The agricultural sector of Machu Picchu is a vast area that was used to produce food for the Incan people who lived in the city. This section of the site is on the western side of the city and is divided into several terraces that were used to grow crops such as corn, potatoes, and quinoa.

The Inca were masters of water management and created a network of water channels that were used to irrigate the crops and deliver water around the city. In my typical nerdy way, I spent a fair amount of time visually tracing the channels to follow how the water was moved around the area.

Urban Section

The residential sector of Machu Picchu is located at the highest point of the city and includes buildings that were used for both residential and administrative purposes. We entered this area through Puerta Principal, the original entrance gate. This is where we started to really explore the site.

The residences closest to the gate on this upper street were likely occupied by important people such as high-ranking officials, religious leaders, or members of the royal family. There is much unknown about Inca society because they did not have a written language and because of the deliberate destruction of Inca society by the Spanish occupiers.

The Intihuatana Stone is a ceremonial and sacrificial stone on the upper terrace. It was used by the Incas for astronomical observations and religious ceremonies. The word Intihuatana means "hitching post of the sun" in Quechua. The Inca used the stone to "tie" the sun to the earth.

Look for the small platform nearby, which is believed to have been used for sacrifices. The guide told us that animals were regularly sacrificed at the winter soltice, but after an earthquake, when the Inca knew they needed to up their game to please the gods, children were chosen. They were given strong beer and coca leaves to chew. Once they were in a stupor, the children were suffocated. “No violence," said our guide.

The expansive Palicio Real (Royal Palace), home of the Inca ruler and his family, would have had an unobstructed view across the main plaza and beyond across the valley. The important temples were close with direct streets from the Palace, demonstrating how religion and politics were closely connected in the Inca world. The palace includes a courtyard, living quarters, a ceremonial room and the only private bathroom in the kingdom.
El Templo del Sol (The Temple of the Sun) is a circular structure, dedicated to the sun god Inti, that was used for religious ceremonies. The temple was designed so that the sun shines directly on the altar during the summer and winter soltice. Visitors can still see the impressive stonework that was used to construct the temple, including the intricate carvings on the walls. There is a small working stone fountain nearby, but don't drink the water... it isn't potable!

Also, look for a small door near the Temple that leads to an underground chamber. These chambers were used for a variety of purposes, including storing sacred objects and mummified remains.

El Templo de las Tres Vertanas (The Temple of the Three Windows) is located in the central part of the site and contains three large windows that look out over the surrounding mountains. The building is believed to have been used for religious ceremonies and to watch the movement of the sun.
Another ceremonial building is El Templo del Cóndor (The Temple of the Condor) in the western part of the city. It is shaped as a condor with its wings spread wide as if to soar over the mountains into the clouds and beyond. The Inca used the symbols of the Condor (the heavens), humans (the earth), and snakes (the underworld).
The Acllahuasi (meaning House of the Chosen Ones) was where girls and women were educated and cloistered. Each province in the Inca Empire was required to choose girls between the ages of 8 and 10 who were beautiful and free of physical defects. Here, they were taught the religious rites, preparation of sacred foods, and weaving. After two years of instruction, the girls could decide whether to return home or to continue their education toward becoming priestesses. Those who didn't become priestesses may become servants of the Royal House, teachers of new girls, or perhaps awarded as prizes to favoured warriors and nobles.
The main plaza, the Plaza Principal is the large grassy area in the heart of the urban area. I was thrilled to be greeted by a group of llamas. The llama is, and continues to be, an important part of Incan culture and is used for a variety of purposes, including wool and meat.

These llamas roam freely and are officially the property of the Peruvian government. They are not confined in any way but the steep stairs and mountain pathways tend to act as natural fencing.

Today, the llamas at Machu Picchu are a popular attraction for visitors, who often take pictures. It's important to note that while the llamas are used to human interaction, visitors should always respect their space and avoid touching or harassing them. Some guides were encouraging their group to offer cakes and sandwiches to ensure Instagram-worthy photos but this should be avoided, not only for the animal's health but also to avoid the llamas becoming dependent upon humans for survival.

Piedra Sagrada, also known as the Sacred Rock, is a large boulder located in the main plaza of Machu Picchu. This impressive monolith is carved with intricate designs suggesting it held a sacred function for the Incan people. The rock is carved with several niches and channels that were likely used to hold offerings or pour liquids as part of the ceremonies.

Additional Hikes

These hikes are add-ons to your entry ticket and must be booked in advance. Since the number of hikers is strictly limited, most spaces are booked 4-6 months in advance.

Machu Picchu Mountain

I separated from the group as I had a timed entrance for a hike up Machu Picchu Mountain. My guide pointed out a "secret" (tour guide and staff) shortcut and suggested I use that to save time and a lot of steps. Without this shortcut, I would have been required to return to the ticket office area and re-enter to follow a different pathway.

I was both excited and nervous as I signed in at the trailhead. Only 400 hikers are allowed daily, so I felt privileged to be one of the few who would have this experience. As I started up the mountain, I soon realized that this was going to be a tough hike, especially in the heat. Worse, I also realized that I had nudged my camera into video mode while climbing and had drained my battery significantly! I was grateful that I had my phone and iPad camera for backup.

I took my time climbing and enjoyed exchanging greetings and chatting with other hikers as we all encouraged each other. I made frequent stops, not only to catch my breath but to simply drink in the views.

The views were spectacular but I still had the rest of the Sacred City to explore. As I looked back into the ruins, I marvelled at the size and complexity of the city. I am amazed that the Inca had the knowledge and skills to build this (and other Inca sites) without all our modern tools and technology.

La Puerta del Sol

Not many people go to the Sun Gate so it is a great way to get away from the crowds. This is the entrance that the multi-day Inca/Salkantay hikers approach. The hike takes about 45 minutes. It is uphill, but nowhere as steep as the stairs to Machu Picchu or hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain!

The Sun Gate itself is small, but the views of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains are spectacular. I enjoyed just sitting to one side trying to imprint the view on my brain.

Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu is the famous peak in the back of every iconic Machu Picchu photo. I did not hike this but those who have report breathtaking views down onto the main Machu Picchu ruins, and several ruins and a temple. The official guide refers to it as a challenging hike with steep slopes and narrow paths clinging to the side of the mountain. Only 200 hikers are granted access daily.

Practical Information

Machu Picchu is open from 06:00 am to 17:30 pm, and tickets must be purchased in advance. The cost of a ticket varies between $62 - $87 USD, depending on whether you want to include additional hikes and a museum visit.

It's also important to note that the altitude at Machu Picchu can be challenging for some visitors, as it sits at over 2,400 meters above sea level. Check out my hints on how to deal with altitude sickness.

Protection of the site under UNESCO criteria while still allowing tourists access is a priority for the Peruvian people. There have been many campaigns to expand tourist services and access, often in very controversial and potentially damaging ways -- including a brief period of time when a helicopter pad was installed in the middle of the main plaza! As a result, rules are constantly evolving and should be double-checked before arrival. The rules for 2023 include the stipulation that all must be led by a tour guide in groups of up to 10 people per guide. Re-entry to the site is not permitted. Toilets and water fountains are not available past the front gate so if you need to use a toilet, you will not be permitted to return. Visits are limited to 4 hours. If you wish to do one of the additional hikes, you may prefer to return the following day (you don't need a guide the second day but will have to show your previous ticket and supply your guide's name). Afternoons on site are usually quieter.

Having said that, on my visit under the same time limit, I stayed for over 6 hours. Since I did the Machu Picchu mountain hike, I was separated from my guide and group and was able to meander along at my own pace without any questions.

My visit to Machu Picchu was an unforgettable and deeply interesting experience. The history and beauty of the site are truly remarkable, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit.

... and just for a wee bit of fun, here's a flipped view where you can see the "Old Man of the Mountain"


Thanks for meandering with me! I'd love to know your thoughts and feedback in the comments below. Help support the blog by sharing the link with a travelling friend or on your social media, Become a member/subscriber to get notified of new content and access to our members' discussion group.


Apr 03, 2023

I would love to visit Machu Picchu one day and ideally hike the trail to the citadel. I watched a documentary on it and the actual city is much bigger and takes a couple of days to truly explore. There was even an observatory for stargazing and various defence mechanisms to cut of the routes into the citadel when under a potential attack. So from your post I understand you did a day tour to the site? How did you find a guide? Did you go through a tour organiser or did you find the guide yourself? As far as I know Machu is back open again this year but I do fear it may close again due to the…

Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Apr 03, 2023
Replying to

The concern about the political unrest is very real but the need for tourism is huge for many of the locals in the Cusco region so it's a difficult decision to make right now. I was able to do a full day (new rules are half days). I booked my guide with my advance reservation, although others got their guide at the entrance.


Mar 30, 2023

Thanks for sharing your impression as well as for providing us an extensive guide to discovering one of the worlds most beautiful landmarks - Machu Picchu. I dream to see it one day and perhaps discover something new about myself and Machu Picchu, forgotten but not lost.

Jan -

Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Apr 02, 2023
Replying to

It is truly a magical place that needs to be seen and experienced to truly appreciate.


Such a fantastic post! Your pictures are stunning and you provided so much detail (and your writing is beautiful). We still have not rescheduled our canceled trip from 2020 but I hope to get it back on the calendar soon!

Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Mar 27, 2023
Replying to

Thanks! I appreciate the positive feedback! I just finished reading your blogs on Bali -- I'm heading there in 2 weeks!

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