Machu Picchu: the most iconic site of Peru

Vanesa Zegada | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Just by watching an image of Machu Picchu, it is easy to understand why it is the most iconic site of Peru. But what is hidden behind the beautiful postcard image that we all know? Let’s widen our knowledge about this incredible place in the following lines!

We might feel like Machu Picchu was recorded in history since the Spanish conquest, but the truth is that its existence was known only by the inhabitants of the surroundings until not long ago.

Carbon-14 dating revealed that Machu Picchu was built approximately in the year 1450. It had many inhabitants, and it is believed that all of them were from the superior social class of the empire. A curious fact is that the citadel was abandoned nearly a hundred years after being built.

During the Spanish conquest, there were tales and legends about cities hidden by nature, filled with gold, precious stones and knowledge. Countless European explorers lost their lives in the pursuit of these captivating sites. Was Machu Picchu one of those places? Probably. Was it found during the Spanish colonization? The answer is no. Spanish conquerors never found Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu, which means “Old Mountain” in the Quechua language, was, in fact, built on the top of a mountain, and it is not possible to observe it from below. Therefore, the Spanish conquerors could have even passed below it without finding it. This fact allowed the citadel to remain intact to the present days, compared to many other Inca cities that were partly or totally destroyed.

© iStock/yuriz

Hiram Bingham, a North American archaeologist, was obsessed with finding a place called Vilcabamba, the lost city of Incas, which Inca governors would have used as their refuge during the Spanish invasion. Instead, in 1911, he was guided by a local farmer to a site that the local guide referred to as Machu Picchu. Even if there is evidence showing that Machu Picchu was found already in the 19th century, Bingham was the first to impulse its scientific research, with the support of Yale University and National Geographic.

The purpose of the city is still uncertain. It is believed that it could have been a retreat for nobility, a ceremonial site, a military base or a connection between Cusco and the jungle. Still, probably the most impressive aspect of Machu Picchu is its location. Only by being there and after crossing the surrounding cloud forest you will understand what I am writing about. A city that survived the past centuries, including several earthquakes, was built on top of a mountain, at 2430 meters above sea level, surrounded by other mountains and wild nature. Hundreds of terraces, also used as an agricultural technique, served as a support of the citadel's terrain. The buildings were erected with polished stones, with a precision that allowed the city to stand up until our days. All this was done without the aid of modern machinery… not even with the use of wheels!

© iStock/Polhansen

In order to get to Machu Picchu, you must first reach Aguas Calientes town. There is no highway to the town. Instead, there are two options: walking or taking a train that departs from Ollantaytambo or Cusco. Once in Aguas Calientes, there are two options to Machu Picchu: walking way up or taking a bus.

The most adventurous ones can take the 4-to-8-day walking trails that finish in Machu Picchu and pass through other regional attractions.

As expected, Machu Picchu has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and also voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Though, due to its degradation, it was declared a place in danger. That is why the entry has been restricted to 2000 to 2500 daily visitors. Therefore, it is recommended to book in advance.

The entry ticket gives access to the citadel of Machu Picchu. Nevertheless, two mountains can be climbed once inside (additional entrance tickets are needed): Huayna Picchu Mountain and Machu Picchu Mountain.

For both mountains, the entrance is restricted to 400 people per day. The top of Huayna Picchu Mountain is at 2720 meters above sea level, and the way up and down takes from 1.5 to 2 hours. Machu Picchu Mountain is even higher. With 3051 meters above sea level, it takes 2.5 to 4 hours to go up to its peak and back. The view of the citadel and the surrounding is impressive from both!

© iStock/dimarik

Back down, the citadel is divided into several functional areas. The Temple of the Three Windows and the Intihuatana (that indicates the cardinal points and might also be connected with the solstices) are two of the most important structures.

© iStock/namchetolukla

During the rainy season (December to March), Machu Picchu can get partly covered by fog, and its stone paths can get slippery. I strongly recommend wearing trekking shoes, even especially if you are taking any of the mountain trails.

Many people get intense feelings while visiting Machu Picchu, the most iconic place of Peru. It is definitely a must-do while in the country, being a place capable of leaving people speechless with its touch of mystery and wonder.

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