Machu Picchu was constructed in the 1400’s, and may have been intended to be the palatial estate of the ruler–or Sapa Inca–Pachacuti. The site was quickly abandoned during the Spanish conquest, and was forgotten by the world for centuries.
Hiram Bingham, an American historian, brought the site to the world’s attention in 1911, and Macchu Picchu quickly became a major tourist site. Much of it has been restored, and the restoration work continues.
Some historians believe that Machu Picchu was a religious site. Evidence of sacrificial offerings has been found, and some of the stone buildings at the site have carved niches that Inca used for religious purposes.
The site is strategically located in a saddle between two high mountains, and it is bordered on three sides by the Urubamba River. The river and the altitude combine to form a thick cover of fog, especially in the morning. The Incans terraced some of the surrounding mountains, and had enough land to grow more crops than they actually needed. Natural springs provided a constantly-fresh source of water; and these factors, combined, rendered Machu Picchu very easy to defend.
Machu Picchu is separated into an Urban Section and an Agricultural Section. The Urban section boasts temples, private residences and parks, and an impressive rock-carved irrigation system provided drinking water and supplied the beautiful fountains scattered throughout the site. Most structures were built with in typical Incan style, with rocks cut to order and then assembled without any mortar. The Incas also developed strategies to keep their homes from collapsing in the event of an earthquake.
Machu Picchu was built at the peak of Incan culture. The site was probably chosen because of its proximity to mountains that had astrological significance to the Incan people.
Machu Picchu was probably abandoned in response to the Spanish conquest, as its people either fled or were decimated by smallpox. Spain had a fortified settlement about 50 miles away, but never found the site. This is significant, because it means that Machu Picchu offers a pure glimpse of Incan culture without any European influence.
The site was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, who noted that native peoples were still living in some of the buildings. National Geographic featured Machu Picchu in their magazine a few years later, arousing further interest in the site.
How To Get There:
Are you up for a trek?
Cuzco has the nearest airport, and the city is the main arrival point for travelers to Machu Picchu. Getting to Machu Picchu is a bit trickier. Most people go by train. There are two main options: The VistaDome Railway meanders over mountains and through the heart of Inca country, offering spectacular vistas. If you’re returning to Cuzco for the night, though, you’ll have just four hours on-site before the train departs. The Hiram Bingham offers a leisurely trip complete with brunch, afternoon tea and entertainment, and returns after six hours spent on-site.
If you’re fit, and want adventure, you can walk the Inca Trail. It typically takes 4 days to make the 28- mile trek through lush jungle and past native villages. Government-enforced restrictions currently allow tour groups only in an effort to prevent destruction of the environment.
There is a road—of sorts! By all reports it’s more of a dirt path that twists and winds up steep mountainsides with no guardrail between the unwary tourist and a long plunge. Travelers are advised to avoid it.
Peru recently restricted entry to Machu Picchu to 2,500 people a day. Travel agencies advise people to buy their tickets in Cuzco, since they are no longer always available at the site.
Where To Stay:
Many tourists return to Cuzco for the night, but you’ll be able to fully explore the ruins if you stay near Machu Picchu. The Incaterra Machu Picchu is an upscale hotel located in a private park in the rain forest. Perks include birding and ecological hikes, plus the usual amenities, but the cost can run up to $500 a night.
The Plaza Andina Machupicchu is more affordable at up to $100. The décor isn’t stylish, but the staff is helpful and the rooms are clean and well-appointed.