Exploring Peru: Machu Picchu
Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors make the trek to the Cusco region of Peru to partake in beautiful Machu Picchu tours. For many, it is a bucket list destination, and for good reason. The name (in English) means “old peak”, a sobriquet as fitting as it is straightforward: stretching nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, the site traces its history back to the 15th century. Whether you’ve already booked your Peru tour, or you’re still playing with the idea, we’ve got everything you need to know about this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
History of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was built in the middle of the 1400s, and is believed to have either been a royal estate or the location of religious ceremonies. This period was the height of the Incan empire, whose influence was prominent on the western coast of South America. Some archeologists believe that it was a base of operations for Pachacuti, an emperor who lived from 1438-1472 who was in large part responsible for growing Cusco from a small hamlet into a significant region.
Located just 50 miles from Cusco itself, the citadel nevertheless managed to elude the notice of Spanish invaders. However, it appears to have been abandoned around the time of the invasion, just a century after it was built. Some historians have attributed this mysterious desertion to an epidemic of smallpox, which would have forced residents to move on in hopes of retaining their health.
Because it was deserted, and never became part of the Spanish conquest, the site became overgrown and went completely ignored by most people for centuries. While locals knew of its existence, it was essentially anonymous to the wider world. It wasn’t uncovered until 1911, by an archeologist named Hiram Bingham, who was looking to find Vilcabamba, the final Incan stronghold to be conquered by Spain. During his search, a local farmer informed him of some ruins that he might find interesting. A small group of peasants led him through the dense growth, and Bingham made one of the most important geological discoveries of the 20th century.
An elated Bingham wrote a book about his find, entitled “The Lost City of the Incas”, which quickly became a bestseller. Interest in this enigmatic link to the past was swift and widespread, and people the world over were eager to learn more about, and make treks to, the famous old peak.
About the peak
Most of the structures in Machu Picchu are constructed in the traditional Incan style, using polished dry-stone walls. The temples are contained in the upper part of the town, whereas the warehouses are in the lower section. Those who built the citadel adapted their architecture to nature’s, and the walls, terraces and ramps blend seamlessly into the face of the mountain on which they are situated.
There is a special area for royalty, a group of houses dotted in rows over one of the slopes. These dwellings are notable for their reddish walls, and trapezoid-shaped rooms.
The layout also reveals a sophisticated understanding of irrigation, and both the stonework and and terraced fields demonstrate a culture that was employing well-advanced engineering techniques. Despite being situated in the midst of a tropical mountain forest, the 15th-century Incans were able to build a complex societal hub that draws interested visitors even to this day.
Visiting the peak today
Many of those visitors walk the Inca Trail, a road that was built to lead directly to the out-of-the-way site. About 26 miles long, it reaches a peak altitude of about 13,800 feet. Thus, most tours of Machu Picchu start in or near Cusco, and are undergone over a period of several days. Considered a moderate hike, the trail allows travelers to see some of the most beautiful natural panoramas in South America.
When they arrive, tourists can explore some of the region’s most ancient religious artifacts, including the semicircular Temple of the Sun. It is especially breathtaking during the summer solstice, at which time the sun shines through a temple window and is illuminated by a mountain peak.
Other iconography includes the Inti Watani, an important ritual stone, and the Temple of Three Windows, a site of ancient religious significance.
Designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu has quickly become Peru’s most-visited attraction. Start planning your adventure to this iconic site today.