The iconic Machu Picchu Citadel is the most famous and well preserved Inca site of the Andean region. It sits on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley near Cusco, some 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level. In 1983 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2007 it secured its position as one of the all time greatest human constructions when it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is easily the biggest tourist attraction in Peru and has become so popular that the Peruvian government has had to limit visitors to 2,500 per day in order to help preserve the site.
If you have followed the Inca Trail your first experience of Machu Picchu will be the Sun Gate, a narrow notch high above the citadel. After that, whichever way you choose to arrive, all visitors enter the site at the main entrance where you must buy a ticket and can also pick up a map and a local guide. If you have come from Cusco you will probably be surprised to learn that Machu Picchu is actually 1,000 metres lower than the city you have just left. Constructed on dizzying, terraced slopes, the citadel sits on a saddle between two dramatic mountain peaks which make it seem even higher than it actually is. The glistening grey-white granite is enhanced by high contents of quartz, feldspar, silica and other minerals, natural parts of the 250 million-year-old rocks excavated by the Incas. Below the citadel sits the U-curve of the Rio Urubamba, framed in the distance by the snowy Andean peaks.
A path to the right of the main entrance will bring you to the thatched guardian’s hut. Close by is a carved funerary rock and graveyard. After crossing over the dry moat you will first come across the Temple of the Sun, or Torreon, a semi-circular, walled tower-like temple. The stonework here is particularly fine with blocks that fit seamlessly together and surround a natural boulder, below lies the Royal Tomb. Close to the Temple of the Sun are the Ritual Fountains, Nusta’s Bedroom and Royal Palace. In the centre of the citadel lies the Three-Windowed Temple, part of the central plaza which forms possibly the most spectacular and attractive section of the ruins. The temple’s large windows look east towards the mountains beyond the Urubamba river valley. Next is the Principal, or Main, Temple which boasts stonework even more impressive than the Temple of the Sub.
A short stroll uphill from here brings you to Intihuatana, a unique, carved rock over-looking the Sacred Plaza, the Huayna Picchu mountain peak and the Río Urubamba. Back in the plaza and opposite the Temple of the Sun are the Industrial Zone, Prisoner’s Area and House of Factories.
There are more spectacular views from the Huayna Picchu peak at the northern end of the site. It’s about an hour’s climb but rewards energetic visitors with panoramic views of the Andean countryside as well as providing an overview of the ruins below. If you are feeling particularly energetic The Temple of the Moon can be accessed from a track on the way back down. This stunning temple is hidden inside a grotto and has some of the best stonework in the entire site.