Machu Picchu, Cusco – Peru

Machu Picchu (literally, “old peak”) is a ruined ancient Incan town high on a mountain ridge in Peru. One of the most atmospheric and mystical sites in the world, it is located among spectacular mountain scenery about 6,750 feet above the Urubamba Valley. Machu Picchu has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is the end point of the most popular hike in South America: the Inca Trail.

Machu Picchu, Cusco - Peru

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Machu Picchu History

It is generally thought that the city of Machu Picchu was built by the Sapa Inca Pachacuti starting in about 1440 and was inhabited until the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532.

Archeological evidence combined with recent work on early colonial documents indicates that Machu Picchu was not a conventional city, but rather a country retreat town for Incan nobility (similar to the Roman villas). It is estimated that a maximum of only about 750 people resided in Machu Picchu at any one time, and probably only a small fraction of that number lived in the town during the rainy season and when no nobility were visiting.

It is still unknown exactly what role the site played in Incan life. But it was clearly a remarkably well hidden place, and well protected. Located far up in the mountains of Peru, visitors had to travel up long valleys littered with Incan check points and watch towers.

Remarkably, the Spanish conquistadors missed the site, and the Inca city remained hidden until the 20th century. On a wet day in 1911, Yale scholar Hiram Bingham travelled up the slopes with a few companions from an expedition. He met some local peasants, who told him about ancient ruins that covered the area. He went to see them, and found the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu.

In 1913, the site received a significant amount of publicity after the National Geographic Society devoted their entire April 1913 issue to Machu Picchu. Bingham made several more trips and conducted excavations on the site through 1915. He wrote a number of books and articles about Machu Picchu; his account, Lost City of the Incas, became a bestseller.

In 2003, some 400,000 people visited Machu Picchu, and UNESCO has expressed concern about the damage this volume of tourism is causing to the site. Peruvian authorities insist that there is no problem, and that the remoteness of the site will impose natural limits on tourism. Periodically, proposals are made to install a cable car to the site, but such proposals have so far always been rejected.
What to See

The site was probably chosen for its unique location and geological features. It is said that the silhouette of the mountain range behind Machu Picchu represents the face of the Inca looking upward towards the sky, with the largest peak, Waynapicchu, representing his nose.

The Inca believed that the solid rock of the Earth should not be cut, so they built this city from rock quarried from loose boulders found in the area. Some of the stone architecture uses no mortar, but rather relied on extremely precise cutting of blocks. Some of the spaces between the stones are so tight that not even a credit card will pass through them.

The ruins on Machu Picchu consist of a large palace and temples to Incan deities around a courtyard, with residential buildings for support staff. Entrance is at the southern end of the site, where there is a ticket office. From there, visitors are free to wander through the ruins at leisure, beginning with the agricultural precinct on the southern terraces.

There are no signs on any of the structures, which contributes to the atmosphere of antiquity, personal discovery, and harmony with the natural environment for which Machu Picchu is so beloved. To help identify the ruins, guidebooks and maps are available at the entrance. The names of the structures are the English names given by Bingham, which in many cases do not correspond with the actual uses of the buildings.

A 20-minute walk uphill to the left inside the entrance leads to the House of the Terrace Caretaker and Funeral Rock, which provides the famous and very photogenic view over the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Near the south end of the city is the magnificent Temple of the Sun, whose walls are fine examples of precise Inca masonry. The temple is astronomically aligned. On the winter solstice (June 22 in the southern hemisphere), sunlight streams in a small trapezoidal window and illuminates a flat granite stone that was probably an Inca calendar. At night, the same window provides a view of the constellation Pleiades, an Inca symbol of crop fertility.

The Principal Temple has perhaps the best masonry on Machu Picchu. The stones of its three walls are precisely cut and fitted together without mortar. A small building next to the temple, dubbed the Sacristy, may be where priests prepared themselves for ceremonies.

The Temple of Three Windows is a three-walled building reached via a stone staircase. Its east wall is cut from a single piece of rock and pierced with three trapezoidal windows.

Further on is Intihuatana, the “hitching post of the sun” whose exact purpose remains a mystery. This sacred stone column was a common feature in Inca cities, but the Spanish destroyed most of them as objects of idol worship. This is therefore one of few to survive, since the conquistadors never made it to Machu Picchu. Nearby is a sacred rock that echos the shape of the mountain range behind it.

At the north end of the site, the Temple of the Condor is built in the shape of a condor, the Inca symbol of heaven.

Spectacular views from the north side of Machu Picchu can be had from Wayna Picchu (also spelled Huayna Picchu), a mountain peak that overlooks the ruins. The climb takes 90 minutes and is dangerous after wet weather. Even in good conditions, it is not for the faint of heart when it comes to heights. The path is open 7am-1pm daily and only 400 visitors are allowed to climb each day.

Machu Picchu, PERU

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Getting There

Many buses leave Cuzco for Machu Picchu and there are frequent trains from Cuzco to Aquas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. Buses from Aquas Calientes bring tourists to the ruins. It is also possible to take a helicopter from Cuzco.

One of the many advantages of hiking the scenic Inca Trail is that you can enjoy Machu Picchu in relative solitude before the busloads of tourists show up around 10am.

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For many visitors to Peru and even South America, a visit to the Inca city of Machu Picchu is the long-anticipated highpoint of their trip. In a spectacular location, it’s the best-known archaeological site on the continent. This awe-inspiring ancient city was never revealed to the conquering Spaniards and was virtually forgotten until the early part of the 20th century. In the high season, from late May until early September, 2500 people arrive daily. Despite this great tourist influx, the site manages to retain an air of grandeur and mystery, and is a must for all visitors to Peru.

The site is most heavily visited between 10am and 2pm. June through August are the busiest months.