This article has been updated on April 6, 2021
Machu Picchu. Nearly everyone in the world knows how the iconic Incan ruins surrounded by steep majestic hills look in the picture. But how does it feel once you actually visit the site? Does it match one’s expectations? I mean that people sometimes get a bit disappointed once they initially reach certain destinations. For instance, some places could be simply a bit smaller than they’ve anticipated, plus there are always the weather conditions or perhaps a bit of overcrowding and overpricing that can partially ruin one’s experience. So how about Machu Picchu then? Is the actual site really that impressive as we imagine or is it a bit overrated? Could the weather and/or large crowds affect your experience?
Is Machu Picchu really that impressive or is it a bit overrated?
I’d say answering this question with a semi-bold statement: Machu Picchu is without any doubts a very impressive site, but the actual greatness of the site doesn’t necessarily need to match the actual visitor’s experience. In this post, we’re therefore going to look at the scale to what extent this could be the case of Machu Picchu. In order to help me to explore the overall experience of visiting the site, I thought of throwing in a little comparison with another iconic location-heavyweight that also happens to be ancient ruins located in the jungle: Angkor Wat.
FYI, this post will therefore mostly talk about the thrills as well as the potential downsides of your visit to the site. In case you were interested in more practical information, such as your options on how to get to Machu Picchu, how much will it cost you, things to know as well as what to do on the site outside the basic tour, please click here. OK, and now, before we’ll get on the subject of what to expect from your visit to Machu Picchu, let’s talk about some fact and a brief history of the site.
Some basic facts about Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Incan citadel, located 73 kilometres away from the former Incan capital Cusco, in the jungle of Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru. Given the local standards, its altitude of 2430 metres above the sea level is relatively low, more precisely it’s nearly 1km lower than Cusco for instance.
This popular UNESCO World Heritage site welcomes over 1,5 million tourists annually, ranging from nearly 2 thousand people per day in January up to a capped maximum of 2,5 thousand people daily, which makes it one of the most visited remote sites in the world.
While the site spans across a territory of 32,59 ha/km2, the actual popular ruins area, most people know from the iconic pictures is only 530 x 200 metres. It is made of 172 building ruins of various functions, ranging from baths and houses to temples. The site contains more than 100 separate flights of stairs, most of which were carved from one single slab of stone.
Incas further demonstrated their building skills by using the heavy granite rocks, with some weighing over 55 tons, while each stone was perfectly shaped to fit with its surrounding stones so that no mortar was needed. We’re therefore talking about precise ancient “Lego structures”, which have btw survived numerous earthquakes.
“Discovery” of Machu Picchu
In 1911 the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham went to Peru with a small team of explorers hoping to find Vilcabamba, the last Inca stronghold to fall to the Spanish. Bingham and his team travelled from Cusco further into the Urubamba Valley, where they’ve met a local farmer who told them large ruins located nearby. Rather than discovering the site, he was eventually led there by an 11-year-old boy, with the help of local police, so the story goes.
IMHO, it is therefore arguable whether a term “discovery” could be implied to the site that was never truly lost, given the fact that the locals always knew it was there unless “discovery” means when the first white Occidental man claims “I waz here“.
The irony is that in 1902, there was another man called Augustin Lizarraga, who literally engraved “I waz here” on the wall of one of the temples. Well, to be precise, he wrote: “Agustín Lizárraga, July 14th 1902″ but it doesn’t change anything about the fact that this was an act of rather self-centric and scientifically barbaric nature if you ask me.
But the childish silliness doesn’t end here. The thing is that years later, Bingham actually found the sign, which he failed to include in his memories. Was it to make him look like the one who “discovered” the site? That would be most likely the theory a local guide will share with you because Mr Bingham isn’t the most popular figure in the area.
The reason for his rather low popularity around here is rather simple. Back then, when Occidental explorers turn up at an “undiscovered” archaeological site, artefacts were excavated and taken away. In this case, over 5000 of them were brought to Yale University for “further inspection”. This inspection must have been very thorough because it took them over hundred years, which was a process accompanied by an ongoing custody dispute.
In 2011, the Peruvian government however filed a lawsuit and Yale finally agreed to complete the repatriation. One way or another, Bingham began the process of popularising the site globally, which eventually led to many important archaeological discoveries about Incas as well as to the current mass tourism in the whole region.
A very brief history of Machu Picchu
History-wise, some archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), some say that it was a spiritual centre. Our guide noted an interesting periodical reference that the site was thriving during the same period when Leonardo da Vinci worked on his famous Mona Lisa painting (1503).
When it comes to what was the main function of the citadel, there are several theories. For example, Bingham believed that the place was a sanctuary for the Virgins of the Sun, others thought that the site functioned as a coronation place, a prison or as a trade hub. The modern-day archaeologists however believe that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate for emperors and other high-born members of Incan society.
Machu Picchu unfortunately didn’t exactly enjoy some extremely long occupancy. The site was abandoned approximately 100 years after its construction, around the time when the Spanish began their conquest of the Incan territory in the 1530s. It is believed that the conquistadors never found, nor they knew of the existence of the citadel, and that’s apparently the reason why it’s so well preserved – because it wasn’t destroyed by the occupants.
There are also other theories why the 1000-1200 occupants left the citadel, such as a smallpox outbreak on the site and so on. Whatever the reason for Machu Picchu‘s abandonment, the site was left to the mercy of the jungle up to the early 20th century until Bingham began the process of its journey to world fame by publishing a 1913 article in National Geographic.
And what does the name Machu Picchu actually mean? Based on the local indigenous Quechua language, the name of the site is often interpreted as “old mountain”. FYI, in case you wanted to know more about the site’s history, please note that I’ll upload a link that will provide more details at the bottom of this post. Now, let’s get on the subject of the actual visitor’s experience of visiting the site.
Thrills, chills and potential downsides of visiting Machu Picchu
Unfortunately, over the years, together with the massive evolution of commercial aviation transport, Machu Picchu become yet another site that has been transformed from being a unique and magical place into a busy money machine instead.
Upon my January visit, which is btw one of the less busiest months of the year, we climbed up towards the top of the site and I’ve seen exactly nothing of the site or other visitors. However, when the weather cleared about 90 minutes later after we’ve reached the top, the tourist density per square metre was similar to Prague‘s Charles Bridge at noon, except that because the path to the top is curvy, it looked like a massive ant highway made of people.
FYI, for the most part of the Machu Picchu tour, the visitors are required to stay on one single one-way path only, which made it look like a giant endless Uroboros snake made of people, as you can see in the pictures below. This path takes the visitors from the entrance to the top of the site, where you are given more freedom to walk around to enjoy the iconic view of the citadel, which most people recognise from the iconic pictures of the site.
From here, you then have to re-enter the “Uroburos path” again to walk down to the ruins area. In practical terms, we are talking about a steep narrow path made of uneven ancient steps, that hosts quite a high density of tourists at about a density of 1-4 people per square metre.
I understand that it’s natural that such iconic places are visited by large crowds because they are special. However, at the same time, I believe that the local authorities should re-evaluate their understanding of the terms: capacity, safety and preservation, at least by re-checking its actual meaning in the dictionary every now and then…
To give them some credit, in 2011 they have capped the maximum amount of daily visitors to 2,5 thousand, because they used to squeeze up to double the number of people to the site but even with these numbers, it still appears to be on the edge of any reasonable health and safety regulations, from visitors as well as from the site’s preservation perspective.
However, it appears that the local authorities have a different idea. With a plan for the new terminal at Cusco‘s International Airport, the future visitor’s experience looks to become even busier. The local authorities came up with a strategy that each group will need to stay with their guide for the entire duration of the tour, from the entrance to the exit. The guides will then be responsible to leave within a time window given to each group.
To be honest, overcrowding is not unique for Machu Picchu only. I mean, turning the tourist attractions into claustrophobic nightmares became a global phenomenon lately. Some cities, such as Barcelona and Venice have been battling with the phenomenon. For instance, Venice‘ town hall is trying to come up with some solutions of limited day passes.
I guess that only time will show where this is all going but I’m afraid that it will mean getting even the remaining magic from the place away. I mean that any sense of serenity was already rare during my visit in 2019, but if they’ll squeeze even more people in…
As you might have experienced it yourself already, many eager selfie-taking visitors could be very inconsiderate, especially if they cross 1/2 of the planet and pay expensive entry to see some attraction. The problem is that the more people there are, the worse the vibe could become because it sometimes only needs one arsehole to screw the whole vibe then.
At Machu Picchu, I witnessed some extreme forms of people being inconsiderate arseholes. It’s wasn’t just the classic when someone steps in front of your camera when you’re taking the picture to take the picture himself. There were also few semi-dangerous instances of overtaking older people on the steep narrow paths, which put the less mobile people at risk a little.
Thankfully, except those few, all the incidents I’ve experienced at Machu Picchu, and there was quite a few of them during my tour, were mostly harmful only by increasing the general irritation of the crowd. However, at points, it felt like that some people were not far from starting fights over the perfect spots to take their selfies from.
The Angkor Wat comparison
As you could learn in our more practical piece about Machu Picchu, your visit to the site from Cusco would cost you somewhere between $100 and $650+. In comparison, the temples of Angkor will cost you $72 for a 3-day pass, plus hiring either a pushbike ($1/day) or a tuk-tuk ($15/day), meals and accommodation, is considerably cheaper in Cambodia and SEA in general.
In addition to that, the Temples of Angkor occupy a much larger area because we’re talking about a former city of a decent size, which gives it extended “exploring” potential, hence the 3-day tickets. I mean only the outer walls of the Angkor Wat temple itself are twice as large as the built area of Machu Picchu.
One thing that was objectively a little more bearable in Angkor was overcrowding. Not that it wasn’t present, the most popular spots were very busy but you could find your way around it and more importantly, you could wander inside the complex and find quieter spots rather easily. If I had to pick only one of these two sites, I’d personally pick Angor but that’s an entirely pointless statement because who would be ever forced to make such a choice?
The surrounding nature
In my humble opinion, the surrounding nature that boasts of steep majestic hills boosts the attractiveness of the Incan citadel a lot. Without any disrespect intended, I personally believe that without the surrounding nature and the Incan “mysteriosity”, Machu Picchu would only reach the average levels of excitement of – let’s say – any large-ish site of ruins in Europe.
To be objective, the temples of Angkor, with its recently discovered massive LA-sized area also receive help from nature, but its contribution to the overall level of excitement here is not as significant as it is in the case of Machu Picchu, because the buildings are much bigger and more preserved/restored.
But let’s be honest, comparing sizes and the levels of how the surrounding nature boosts the overall impression is pointless because it’s all a part of a bigger picture, which we all feel inside us once we visit such locations.
So how does it feel to visit Machu Picchu?
the site itself and the overheated tourism are two different things after all
IMHO, Machu Picchu is a truly beautiful place and under certain circumstances, it could deliver a truly breathtaking experience. However, because the local tourism machinery does a great job at maximising the number of visitors with extreme efficiency a visitor doesn’t get most of the magic, the site would otherwise offer. In spite of these downsides, I am not convinced enough to claim that Machu Picchu is overrated. When you think about it, the site itself and the overheated tourism are two different things after all.
You have probably worked out that I am personally not a big fan of classic sheep mass-tourism places, which worked against making my experience at Machu Picchu perfect. To be objective, I must say that that if you don’t mind crowded places and if you’ll catch good weather, you’ll have a splendid time 😉
As for myself, I humbly admit that at its worst, there were points during my tour when I was looking forward to getting it over and done with, especially when I headed for the descent from the top, where the guards marched us unto the “funnel” to carry on walking on the “Uroboros path” on our way down from the top of the citadel.
I should however say that for the most part of my visit, I was rather excited being there and I’ve even had some mind-blowing moments, especially when I was allowed to leave the “Uroburos path” and find the less busy spots, such as a trail to reach either Sun Gate or Incas Bridge, which was brilliant.
If I was to compare my experience with some other location-heavyweights, I should say that I’ve experienced stronger mind-blowing feelings in other places. For instance, as opposed to Machu Picchu, which at its lowest points I wanted the experience to be over, the Angkor or even the busy Iguazú Falls and Perito Moreno Glacier experiences literally punched my senses and excitement levels and wanted them to last longer.
But then, the level of my Machu Picchu buzz could have been just as well determined by the fact that I’ve visited Peru as a part of a long trip across Latin Americas, after 6 months on the road, while Angkor was only part of a 6 weeks trip. I mean that people are a bit “hungrier” to see attractions on a few weeks long holidays as opposed to in the middle of a long journey across the continent, after visiting so many amazing places such as Patagonia, Buenos Aires, Bolivian Salt Flats and many more…
Do I have any practical tip on how to get around some of these little annoyances? Well, except trying to go there as early as possible, try to get some tips from your guide, who’ll you’ll most likely meet a night before your tour. These guys know a lot of tricks on how to enjoy the site better. Whatever you do, if you do have a little problem with overcrowding, try your best not to let the irritation get you and ruin your experience 😉
Useful and interesting links
General info, tips, transport and so on
- Things to do at Machu Picchu and how to get there: Quaint Planet‘s practical information-packed post about MaPi about your options to reach the site from Cusco, prices, tips on what to do outside the basic tour and so on…
- Machu Picchu: official gov page of the site with more info, ticket reservations, Inca trail permits, history and so on…
- Machu Picchu: Wiki’s page with more details about the citadel
- Peru Rail website tickets, reservations, info and so on
History, curious facts and so on
- History of Machu Picchu: Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on Machu Picchu
- 10 Secrets of Machu Picchu: Mark Adams lists 10 curious less known facts about Machu Picchu for National Geographic
- Discovery of Machu Picchu: Agustín Lizárraga vs Hiram Bingham controversial story on machupicchu.org
Have you ever wondered how do iconic places look from the other side?
To entertain you a bit after such a long text, here’s a reversed view of the site. I mean that I took a picture from ‘the inside’ of the iconic Machu Picchu photo of a place where the photographer would have to stand to take that classic shot of the site…
Other popular destinations and activities nearby
Cusco and Sacred Valley
A major tourist hub former Incan capital doesn’t need much introduction. Things to do in and around the city, safety tips, where to stay, where to go out and more could be found here. Only 25km away from Cusco, Sacred Valley. We’re talking about more Incan history, many many more ruins and stone terraces, all set in a beautiful and very scenic Urubamba Valley.
Read more about the popular charming location listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the second most populated city in Peru Arequipa here on Wikitravel.
If you are in the region, do not miss out on visiting Lake Titicaca. From Cusco, it only takes about 8 hours to get there by bus or 10,5 hours on a post-1920’s train. As for Titicaca, we’re talking about a stunning lake that also happens to the largest in South America and 18th in the world. As I’ve mentioned above, it also plays an important role in Incan mythology as well as general history, which is still very present nearly everywhere around the lake. Read more here, in case you were interested.
Bolivia’s Sucre and La Paz
In case you were heading further south, you’ll be only about 4-5 hours from one of the Bolivian capitals La Paz that is certainly worth a visit for numerous reasons. Heading even further south would take you to the other, less buzzing but more pretty Bolivian capital Sucre. Read more details about those two cities here, in case you were interested.
Death Road bike Tour
Fancy descending from 4650 to 1200 metres above sea level in one day on a pushbike? And doing that through a stunning valley with breathtaking views? Well, those are the perks of the bicycle tour organised by multiple agencies from La Paz. In case you were wondering about the word “Death” in the nickname there, yes it does hint at danger. At some point, until its closure, Yungas Road was one of the deadliest roads in the world, with 200–300 commuters were died in accidents each year. The bike tours are however much safer than the traffic in the past. In case you wanted to find out more details, please click here.
Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats
Arguably the most popular attraction in Bolivia as well as one of the most surreal and incredible places I’ve ever visited is Uyuni Salt Flats, the world’s largest salt flat with an enormous area of more than 10 000 km2 (3 900 square miles). Read more details here, in case you were interested.