Standing on a mountain ridge 2430 metres above sea level in the Cusco Region of Peru, lies the ruins of Machu Picchu, a citadel for the Inca Empire at the height of its power. Hundreds of thousands of travellers worldwide visit Machu Picchu each year to see witness its incredible location and archaeological beauty.
Whether you’re making the trek by hiking the legendary Inca Trail, or enjoying the sights on the train journey from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, you’re in for a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience at the end. Let’s take a further look at the history and journey to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu Facts
- Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century (around 1450) but abandoned in 1572 due to the Spanish Conquest, where the Inca Empire was eventually conquered.
- The Spaniards never did manage to find Machu Picchu, and it wasn’t until 1911 when a local farmer took Hiram Bingham – an American historian and explorer – to the former Inca capital.
- Evidence suggests that the site was used as a religious, ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural centre for the Inca Empire.
- At the time Machu Picchu was built, the Inca had no iron, steel or wheels, which makes the construction of the citadel even more remarkable, where huge and heavy rocks needed to be navigated up steep terrain.
- Machu Picchu consists of roughly 200 structures spread out over the site, divided into an upper and lower section, which seperates the residential and agricultural parts of the city.
- There are still significant global mysteries of biodiversity and unique species high up in the eastern slope of the Andes mountains, where tropical forests envelope the area.
What Is Machu Picchu
At the peak of their power, the Inca Empire constructed a sophisticated city high up in the mountains, that had intricate and complex systems in place including agricultural terraces, an astronomical apparatus and an extensive water distribution network that is still used to this day.
Machu Picchu is divided into two sections – an upper section which consisted of terraced fields for farming, and a lower section which consisted of different districts of residential buildings and temples for religious and ceremonial purposes.
Some notable monuments include:
- Inti Watana stone – A ritual stone that’s believed to have been designed as a calender or a sundial. In an impressive feat of astronomical understanding, the stones directly align with sun’s position during the winter solstice (read more about it here).
- Inti Mach’ay – A special cave where boys of aristocracy were initiated into manhood by getting their ear pierced as they watched the sunrise from within the cave, known as the Royal Feast of the Sun.
- The Temple of the Sun and The Room of the Three Windows – Buildings dedicated to the Incan sun god and their greatest deity, Inti.
Where is Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is situated on a mountain ridge approximately 2430 metres (7970 ft) above sea level, in the Cusco Region, Urubamba Province, Machupicchu District in Peru.
The entire site is located above the Sacred Valley of the Incas (also known as Urubamba Valley) – a valley in the Andes of Peru – which is believed to have been the heartland of the Inca Empire.
How Old Is Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu was constructed around 1450, when the Inca Empire was at the peak of their power. A little over a century later in 1572, the site was abandoned as a result of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
Fortunately, the Spaniards never did discover Machu Picchu, so they were not able to pillage or destroy it like they did to many other sites.
Who Built Machu Picchu and Why?
To this day, there are still mysteries surrounding the construction of Machu Picchu. What we do know is that it was built by the Incas, with most archaeologists believing it was to serve as grounds for the Inca emperor Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438-71), and subsequently Túpac Inca Yupanqui (1472-93).
Since the Inca had no written language, there were no records as to why they initially built the site and how the citadel worked. We can only speculate.
The sheer engineering feat of not only Machu Picchu, but other structures built by the Incas still baffles experts, since they had yet to discover strong and constructive materials such as steel and iron, and the wheel was never used for practical purposes.
So, that begs the question:
How exactly did the Incas transport thousands of giant stones almost 8000 feet up in the mountains?
The answer to that is still uncerntain, but one theory is that hundreds of men were used to push the stones up inclined planes.
Agricultural terraces layered with stone chips were used to increase the land accessible for farming, and to also drain the rain water from heavy rainfall to prevent mud slides, erosion and flooding.
The entire system was so well planned that when the site was re-discovered in 1912 by Hiram Bingham, it was still intact. You can read more about Inca architecture here.
How to Get to Machu Picchu
There are two methods of getting to Machu Picchu – the long and hard way, or the short and easy way.
The Trek Across the Inca Trail
For the fit and adventurous, you may want to hike the 26 miles (43km) legendary Inca Trail (part of the extensive Inca road system), where you’ll come across amazing scenes of mountains, a cloud-forest, the alpine tundra, a subtropical jungle, and remnants of the Inca Empire in the form of paving stones, ruins and tunnels.
There are three routes to take, which each have their own difficulty level:
- Mollepata – The longest of the three routes and has the highest mountain pass. It ends up connecting with the Classic route.
- Classic – The most popular trail begins at kilometre 88 or 82 (the distance along the railroad from Cusco), which normally takes approximately 4-5 days for the trek.
- Two Day / One Day Inca Trail – The least strenuous and low altitude route begins at km 104 along the railroad from Cusco.
It’s mandatory that you join an organised tour if you plan on hiking the Inca Trail for safety and regulation reasons. The Mollepata and Classic trails requires an ascent above 13,800 feet that may result in altitude sickness, so it’s advised that you stay in Cusco (the city sits at 11,200 feet above sea level) for a couple of days prior to the trek for your body to acclimatise.
The Train Journey
If you prefer to take in the scenery enroute to Machu Picchu without the long trek, then you can take the 3.5 hour train ride from the city of Cusco to Machu Picchu via Peru Rail (http://www.perurail.com/).
After taking in the surroundings of the Urubamba River Valley during your train journey, you’ll arrive at Machupicchu Pueblo (aka. Aguas Calientes), the town which offers the closest point to Machu Picchu.
You can then spend the entire afternoon to explore the historical site and return later that evening. Alternatively, if you wish to spend an entire day exploring Machu Picchu instead, you can stay in Machupicchu Pueblo for a night or two, then set out to the site early the next morning.
There are two options to get up to the citadel of Machu Picchu:
- You can walk 6 kilometers (which should take no longer than one hour).
- …or you can take one of the buses that departs the town every 15 minutes.
When is the Best Time to Visit Machu Picchu?
The question is, do you want to avoid the rain or avoid the crowds?
Though of course, it can rain at anytime, the raining season starts from October to April. If the idea of being soaked and trailing in wet weather displeases you, then you may want to avoid visiting Machu Picchu during these months.
The peak season for tourists runs from July through to August. Bear in mind that if you plan on hiking the Inca Trail during peak season, you may want to purchase a permit at least 6 months in advance as only 500 non-transferable permits are issued each day, and they often sell out fast.