Machu Picchu is undeniably Peru’s premier tourist attraction and few visitors to the country fail to make their way to the hilltop ruins of the ‘Lost City of the Incas’. Almost everyone has seen pictures of the enigmatic ruins nestling on their perch on top of a mountain, surrounded by swirling wisps of cloud. However, not everyone is so familiar with the highlights and unmissable sights within the complex. Here are 13 things to do in Machu Picchu to make your visit worthwhile (in no particular order).
Note: Since Machu Picchu has seasonal weather, please do read our guide on the best time to visit Machu Picchu that can help plan your next adventure!
If you are staying at Aguas Calientes, you will need to wake early and queue for the bus, especially if you hope to secure tickets for Huayna Picchu. If you are feeling particularly energetic or you just want to beat the crowds, you can hike up to Machu Picchu. The route is more direct than if you take the bus and depending on how fast you go, it will take you between one to three hours.
Another reason to hike up to Machu Picchu is to catch the sunrise – although this is also possible if you take the earliest bus. Another bonus, you will be able to explore the ruins before the tour groups arrive. If this sounds exciting then why not check out this tour that is designed to catch the first rays in Machu Picchu? #InstagramWorthy
The Torreón is one of the most important buildings in Machu Picchu and is one of the finest examples of Inca masonry to be found. The Temple of the Sun is thought to have been used for astronomical observations in the past.
Another interesting sight in Machu Picchu is Intihuatana, a carved stone of religious importance that was used as an astronomical device by the Inca. The Quechua word Intihuatana is commonly translated into English as ‘hitching post of the sun’, reflecting the Incan belief that this stone kept the sun in place as it travelled across the sky.
One of the best things to do in Machu Picchu is visit the Principal temple. This is a site that demands to be visited as it is one of the largest buildings. Located off the Sacred Plaza, this is another example of the sophistication of Inca masonry techniques.
If you are lucky enough to have secured a place on the immensely popular Inca Trail, your first views of Machu Picchu after four days of tough trekking will be through Intipunku, the Sun Gate. This is the reward for all the hard work you put in arriving at the site and it is a fantastic way to catch your first glimpse of the mysterious Lost City of the Incas. However, if you are visiting Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, it is still worth climbing up to the Sun Gate to look down on the ruins from above. It takes around an hour to reach Intipunku.
The classic photo of Machu Picchu that everyone seems to take always features a large protrusion of rock rising up in the background. This rock is Huayna Picchu and it is possible to climb to the top of it for some of the best views of the site and the surrounding mountains. However, only 400 people are permitted to scale it per day, so you should reserve tickets well in advance. If you arrive at Machu Picchu very early in the morning, it can still be possible to obtain one of the last tickets but don’t count on it!
If you manage to acquire a pass to climb Huayna Picchu, you also have the option of a longer hike around the back of the rock which takes you down to the seldom-visited Temple of the Moon and the Great Cavern. These are not among the most spectacular sights at Machu Picchu, but the walk will give you some respite from the oppressive crowds that always throng Peru’s most famous tourist attraction. The hike to the top of Huayna Picchu, down to the temple and the cave and then back up will require at least a few hours.
One of the best and most popular spots for photos is from the restored Caretaker’s Hut. Climb up here for good views of the photogenic ruins below.
If you are not lucky enough to obtain a ticket for Huayna Picchu, another option is to climb Cerro Machu Picchu, or Machu Picchu Mountain. Lying on the other side of the ruins from Huayna Picchu, this is another of the very seldom-visited parts of the complex and you will find yourself looking down on the ruins from above with hardly anyone else around.
From the Caretaker’s Hut, follow the path that leads down to the Inca Drawbridge. A narrow and vertiginous staircase takes you down to a gap in the path that must be crossed by walking over logs placed there for the purpose. When the logs were removed, it would have been impossible to cross, and it is thought this is one way the city was protected from unwanted visitors. So dangerous was this path, in fact, that several years ago a tourist fell from here to his death. As a result, it is no longer possible to walk right down to the bridge.
On the east side of the site, you will find a fascinating jumble of cells both above and below the ground known as the Prison Group. Here, you can also see the Temple of the Condor, so named for the carving on the front, said to resemble the head of the giant bird.
One of the great achievements of the Incas was their ability to adapt the mountainous terrain of the Andes for agriculture. You can walk along the terraces at Machu Picchu to appreciate the techniques they employed to make the land there suitable for cultivation. This is also a quieter spot where you can seek a moment’s respite from the oppressive crowds of the main site.
Whether you arrive at Machu Picchu on foot after the tough four-day slog of the Inca Trail or on a bus from Aguas Calientes below, first impressions of the site seldom disappoint. After first taking in the breathtaking accomplishment of the ancient Incan builders, you can begin a more thorough exploration of the site to marvel at the architectural wonders on display. And, of course, search for the perfect spot for the obligatory selfie with the ruins of Machu Picchu in the background.
Visiting Peru for the first time? Check out some of the top things to do in Peru. Want to know what are the top treks in Peru? Here are some of the best treks as well as some of the best day hikes in Peru. If you are planning to stay near Machu Picchu and explore the region a bit more, check out these best hotels near Machu Picchu from budget to luxury.