World Travel GuidesMachu Picchu, Peru

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Machu Picchu, whose name means "Old Peak" in the native Quechua language, is regarded as the fabled "Lost City of the Incas". It is the most famous pre-Columbian city of the Inca Empire, and is inscribed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco, which described it as "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization".

Machu Picchu is located 2430 m (7,970ft) above sea level, over the Urubamba Valley, in Peru, about 70 km (44 miles) northwest of Cusco. The first Westerner to confirm the existence of Machu Picchu was the archaeologist Hiram Bingham III, in 1911. Bingham was an American historian who was attached to Yale University. Learning about a lost city of the Incas, he went to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, to look for the ancient city. He was supported by Yale and the National Geographic Society. In Cuzco, he got in contact with Quechuan Indians who belong to the native tribe that succeeded the Incas. These people brought him to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu was not an abandoned site, at least, not in its entirety. Although the majority of its population died of the epidemic within a hundred years of its construction, there were remnants that survived. So when Bingham arrived in 1911, he found that people were still living there.

Bingham proceeded to do an extensive survey of the site, returning to it again and again, between 1911 and 1915. He described his work at Machu Picchu in a bestseller book entitled Lost City of the Incas, which he published in 1948, over thirty years after his discovery.

Machu Picchu at sunset
Martin St-Amant-Wikipedia

The world first knew of Machu Picchu after the National Geographic Magazine devoted the whole of the April 1913 issue on it. Although Hiram Bingham is credited with having rediscovered Machu Picchu, he wasn't the first Westerner to see it. Scholars claim that other explorers have arrived there earlier as early as 1901.

The site of Machu Picchu is certainly unique and breathtaking. The silhouette of the mountain range behind Machu Picchu is said to symbolise the face of the Inca (that is to say, the ruler of the Inca people) looking upwards to the sky, while the largest peak, Huayna Picchu (Young Peak), symbolises his pierced nose. The cliff where Machu Picchu is located makes a 600m vertical drop to the Urubamba River below. Surrounding it are jagged cloud-covered peaks that create a kaleidoscope of light and shadow over the cliffs.

Ruins of Machu Picchu
Martin St-Amant-Wikipedia

What is visible today at Machu Picchu, apart from the panoramic scenery, are the ruins themselves which can be divided into three precincts, the Sacred District, the Elite District and the Residential District. Within the Sacred District are the important religious structures, such as the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows, all dedicated to the sun god, Inti. The Elite District has homes for the priests and nobility, including the residence of wise persons and a zone for princesses. The Residential District has warehouses and homes for the common people.

Machu Picchu was built around 1460, when the Inca civilisation was at its peak. It was used for only 100 years before it was abandoned, most likely because a smallpox epidemic wiped out its population. This happened before the Spanish conquistadores arrived, and they didn't even know of the existence of Machu Picchu, even though it was just 80km (50 miles) from Cuzco, the Inca capital.

A caracara taking off at Machu Picchu
Ville Miettinen

There are several hypothesis as to the purpose of Machu Picchu. Hiram Bingham thought that it was the birthplace of the Inca. Another theory maintains that it is a nerve center controlling the economy of conquered regions. Recent scholars believe it to be the property of the Inca ruler Pachacuti. The site chosen for Machu Picchu may be due to its position relative to the surrounding landscape, which includes sacred mountains.

The Inca perfected their wall-building technique, called ashlar, to such a high degree that their walls are made of blocks of stones that are fit together without the use of mortar. All counted, there are 140 constructions at Machu Picchu, including the houses, parks, and so on. As the site is in the mountains, steps are necessary. A complex irrigation system ensures that the houses receive a continuous supply of running water channeled from a holy spring - the order of flow is dictated by the significance - or holiness - of the recipient.

Mist over Machu Picchu
Allard Schmidt

The importance and fame of Machu Picchu had snowballed over time. In 1981, Peru declared the 325 sq km area surrounding Machu Picchu as a "Historical Sanctuary". Two years later, it was inscribed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. Then, on 7 July, 2007, it was voted as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. On a more dubious note, Machu Picchu was also added into the 100 Most Endangered Sites list by the World Monuments Fund in 2008, largely over concerns the unbridled tourism was having a detrimental effect on the environment. Among the issues of concern include a poorly sited tram and the construction of a bridge, both of which designed to bring in more tourists.

Tourists visiting Machu Picchu

Getting there

The most popular way to reach Machu Picchu is to take the train from Cusco. The train terminates at the Puente Ruinas station. From there, take a bus to Machu Picchu. One can explore the ruins for a few hours and then catch the bus/train back to Cusco.

If you have more time to spare, the second option is to take a train to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the bottom of the valley adjacent to Machu Picchu. As a marketing effort, the increasingly touristy Aguas Calientes have since been renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo. Peru Rail ( runs train services connecting it with Cusco twice a day. The journey takes 4 hours. Aguas Calientes is all geared up to support tourists visiting Machu Picchu. Hence the only public transport you will meet are likely to be the buses going to or from the ruins. It is just a tiny town, so you can cover it on foot, though there isn't really much to see.

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