Machu Picchu, Peru | UNESCO World Heritage Site

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machu picchu | peru | cuzco | andes | inca trail | bwd vacations

I have been fortunate to travel to many incredible places, both for work and on vacation. Undoubtedly, one of the most impressive sites I have seen was Machu Picchu. It is not just the archaeological site that brings back incredible memories with its history and tales. It was much more. The train journey there, the spectacular rain forest location and the fantastic views I still remember vividly today.

The citadel, often incorrectly called the “Lost City of the Incas”, is probably the most famous Inca monument. Even so, the complex of palaces, squares, temples, and homes remains a mystery. Whether it was a religious site, military stronghold, or just a retreat for the wealthy continues to divide scholars.

Today, Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and receives almost 1.5 million visitors each year.

Since creating Introduction to Peru by bwd vacations, I’ve received numerous questions about the archaeological site and its region. So, let us let’s go through some of the more commonly asked ones.

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Machu Picchu: The citadel is built on terraced layers
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Machu Picchu: Llamas & Alpacas roam the archaeological site

Where is Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu is in south-eastern Peru, about 80 km (50mi) from the regional capital of Cuzco. It lies between sharp peaks, Machu Picchu (“Old Mountain”) and Huayan Picchu (“New Peak”) in the Andes Mountains 2430 m (7,972 ft) above sea level. The citadel sits high above the Urubamba River, which flows 610 m (2000ft) below as it cuts its way through the Sacred Valley.

What does Machu Picchu mean?

In the local Quechua language, ”machu translates to ”old” or ”old person” whilst “”Picchu” means ”pyramid” or ”peak”. As a result, many people refer to the site as the “old mountain” or “old peak”.

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Why was Machu Picchu built?

Many people are still trying to discover the secrets that Machu Picchu holds hidden in the tropical forests of the Amazon basin. The most widely held belief is that it built as a royal estate and religious sanctuary for his family and the Inca nobility.

Construction began around 1450, with most historians believing the Inca emperor, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, built the site to celebrate a successful military campaign. The Incas used the estate for almost 80 years before abandoning it to deal with the Spanish Conquistadors’ arrivals.

How did they discover Machu Picchu?

Because of its remote location, the Spanish never found Machu Picchu. It was not until 1911 when the American historian Hiram Bingham III, with some local farmers help, discovered the site and brought international attention.

Bingham, a Yale University professor, was looking for a city known as Vilcabamba, from which the last Inca rulers led their rebellion against the Spanish invaders. The title, the “Lost City of the Incas”, was the name given to Vilcabamba and often mistakenly given to Machu Picchu. The reason being, after his discovery, Bingham spent most of his life arguing that Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba were the same places.

“For the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I do not know any other place in the world that compares to it.” ~ Hiram Bingham III

It wasn’t until after Bingham’s death in 1956 that they found the real Vilcabamba, built in the jungle 80 km (50 min) to the west. Today, many people claim that Machu Picchu was never lost. Although Bingham was the first westerner to lay eyes on it, the local people knew its location; they even lead him there. When Bingham arrived at Machu Picchu, three farming families were living there.

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Machu Picchu: The most popular way to climb to the citadel is by train
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How was Machu Picchu built?

Almost 200 structures make up this unbelievable religious, ceremonial, astrological and agricultural centre.

The Incas built Machu Picchu in a classical Inca style using polished dry-stone walls. They were masters of the ashlar technique, in which they cut stone blocks to fit together tightly without mortar. The stones are so accurately cut and wedged that it’s impossible to insert a credit card in between.

This technique was essential as Peru is a seismically unstable country. Earthquakes are common, and Machu Picchu is built on two fault lines. When an earthquake hits, locals say the stones “dance” and “bounce” before falling back into place. If it weren’t for this building style, Machu Picchu would have collapsed long ago.

The Inca achievements in building Machu Picchu are impressive. Not just the construction of buildings, the landscape engineering is also fantastic. More than 700 artificial terraces preserved soil, grew agriculture and included an extensive water distribution system. This system also conserved water and limited the soil erosion on the steep slopes.

All the Inca’s engineering achievements become even more impressive when you realise that they did it without iron, steel, or the wheel.

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Machu Picchu: A traveller wearing traditional Peruvian dress

What are the highlights?

The site contains many highlights, but four structures stand out for me; Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Inti Mach’ay and the Temple of the Three Windows.

Intihuatana

The Intihuatana stone, or the hitching post of the sun, is one of many ritual stones found throughout South America. They are stones aligned to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. The Incas believed the stone held the sun in its place and its path in the sky.

Temple of the Sun

It is also known as “Torreon”; it is a semi-circular temple built in an area where the nobility lived. It gets its name from similar buildings found in Cusco and Pisac. The Incas used the temple for ceremonies to pay tribute and give offerings to the sun. Some believe that the building may also have served as a royal tomb as only priests could enter.

Inti Mach'ay

Inti Mach’ay is a cave used to observe The Royal Feast of the Sun. The festival, celebrated in the Incan month of Qhapaq Raym, initiated young noble boys into manhood. The initiation included an ear-piercing ritual as the boys stood in the cave to watch the sunrise.

For many, Inti Mach’ay is the most influential structure at Machu Picchu. Its entrance walls, steps, and windows being some of the finest masonries in the Inca Empire.

The Temple of the Three Windows

The temple is a hall measuring 10.6 m (35 ft) long and 4.2 m (14 ft) wide, with three stunning windows. The windows, the largest known in Inca architecture, are constructed with polygonal windows and built into one wall.

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Machu Picchu: The higher you go, the better the views
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Machu Picchu: The incredible views on all sides

Machu Picchu today

The reason the Incas abandoned the site is as much a mystery as the site itself. Theories vary from leaving to fight the Spanish to plague or lack of water. The most common belief is the inhabitants fled the Spanish army, fleeing to safer retreats. They took their most valuable possessions and destroyed the Inca trails connecting Machu Picchu with the rest of the Inca Empire. Subsequently, the city was left untouched, lost in a dense Amazon forest for more than five centuries.

Recently, archaeologists have reconstructed many of the buildings to give the visitors a better idea of how they were initially. At present, a little more than 40% of the site has been restored, with the restoration process still ongoing.

Today the citadel is one of South America’s most significant archaeological sites and a must for anyone visiting Peru. bwd vacations offer a fantastic 10-day experience, Introduction to Peru. An excellent and well-paced itinerary has overnight stops in Machu Picchu, Lima, Cuzco, and Lake Titicaca. Beautiful hotels, regional dining, local experiences, and ample free time create the perfect way to visit Peru and Machu Picchu.