As one of the designated “New Seven Wonders of the World” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu is on many a bucket list. And for good reason. The incredible stonework of the 15th century Inca citadel is truly remarkable, not to mention the position at the center of a breath taking mountain range, with iconic peaks at the exact east, south, west, and north positions. All sorts of mythology surrounds the site—no one really knows it’s original purpose, though most agree it to have been built by the formidable Inca emperor Pachacuti. (We’ll save you the history lesson; read more here.)
Though so remote it went undiscovered for centuries, the iconic ruin is now effectively a giant tourist trap—at least the town of Aguas Calientes is. Situated at the jungle floor along the sacred Willkanuta River, this small staging town is the only option for lodging when preparing to visit Machu Picchu. If you’re into dodgy 5-for-1 drink specials, this is your type of town. For everyone else, spend as little time there as possible.
At Machu Picchu itself, just past sunrise, we found a few moments to observe the mind-bending architecture and terraces before thousands more tourists arrived. By 6am cries of Jersey Shore types hyped on Inca Cola (the local equivalent to Monster Energy Drink) blended seamlessly with the emphatic cursing of young British lads and speaks of overweight midwestern.
Luckily we paid a hair extra for the opportunity to climb the hand carved stone steps up Huayna Picchu (the large sloping mountain in the background of most every Machu Picchu picture). An hour up and forty minutes down gives a solid idea as to the undertaking. Just 200-400 people are allowed up each day, and boy does each visitor have to earn it. Though only over a 1000ft of elevation is gained, most is on near vertical steps with sheer drops on at least one side. The shared misery and eventual elation at the top was enough to make the entire Machu Picchu experience well worth the effort to get there.