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Machu Picchu - One of the Most Mysterious Places on Earth

Machu Picchu - One of the Most Mysterious Places on Earth

History, Tourism, Tips, Weather Conditions, Mysteries...

Machu Picchu is an Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains in Peru, above the Urubamba River valley. Built in the 15th century and later abandoned, it’s renowned for its sophisticated dry-stone walls that fuse huge blocks without the use of mortar, intriguing buildings that play on astronomical alignments, and panoramic views. Its exact former use remains a mystery.


Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. Its construction appears to date to the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest

It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travellers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. The conquistadors had notes of a place called Piccho, although there is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city. The types of sacred rocks defaced by the conquistadors in other locations are untouched at Machu Picchu.

The site may have been discovered and plundered in 1867 by a German businessman, Augusto Berns. There is some evidence that a German engineer, J. M. von Hassel, arrived earlier. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874.

Although the citadel is located only about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Cusco, the Inca capital, the Spanish never found it and so did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over the site, and few outside the immediate area knew of its existence.

Hiram Bingham was an American historian and lecturer at Yale University, although not a trained archaeologist. In 1909, returning from the Pan-American Scientific Congress in Santiago, he traveled through Peru and was invited to explore the Inca ruins at Choqquequirau in the Apurimac Valley. He organized the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition with one of its objectives to search for the last capital of the Incas. He in fact, guided by locals, rediscovered and correctly identified both Vitcos (then called Rosaspata) and Vilcabamba (then called Espíritu Pampa), which he named "Eromboni Pampa". However, he did not correctly recognize Vilcabamba as the last capital, instead continuing onward and misidentifying Machu Picchu as the "Lost City of the Incas", as his book titled it. Further expeditions focused on Machu Picchu, neglecting further investigation of Vitcos and Vilcabamba. Machu Picchu was built at the height of the Inca Empire, and thus features spectacular workmanship and a dramatic site, while the actual last capital of Vilcabamba was built while the short-lived remnant Neo-Inca State was being vanquished by the Spanish, and thus features crude workmanship.

Bingham asked a Peruvian farmer and innkeeper, Melchor Arteaga, if he knew of any ruins in the area. The next day, 24 July 1911, Arteaga led Bingham and Sergeant Carrasco across the river on a primitive log bridge and up the Huayna Picchu mountain. At the top of the mountain they came across a small hut occupied by a couple of Quechua, Richarte and Alvarez, who were farming some of the original Machu Picchu agricultural terraces that they had cleared four years earlier. Alvarez's 11-year-old son, Pablito, led Bingham along the ridge to the main ruins.

During Bingham's archaeological studies, he collected various artifacts which he took back to Yale. One prominent artifact was a set of 15th-century, ceremonial Incan knives made from bismuth bronze; they are the earliest known artifact containing this alloy.

Although local institutions initially welcomed the exploration supplementing knowledge about Peruvian ancestry, they soon accused Bingham of legal and cultural malpractice. Rumors arose that the team was stealing artifacts and smuggling them out of Peru through the bordering country of Bolivia. (In fact, Bingham removed many artifacts, but openly and legally; they were deposited in the Yale University Museum.) Local press perpetuated the accusations, claimed that the excavation harmed the site and deprived local archaeologists of knowledge about their own history. Landowners began to demand rent from the excavators. By the time Bingham and his team left Machu Picchu, locals began forming coalitions to defend their ownership of Machu Picchu and its cultural remains, while Bingham claimed the artifacts ought to be studied by experts in American institutions, an argument that still exists today.

In 1964, Gene Savoy did further exploration of the ruins at Espiritu Pampa and revealed the full extent of the site, identifying it as Vilcabamba Viejo where the Incas fled to after the Spanish drove them from Vitcos.

In 1981, Peru declared an area of 325.92 square kilometres (125.84 sq mi) surrounding Machu Picchu a "Historical Sanctuary". In addition to the ruins, the sanctuary includes a large portion of the adjoining region, rich with the flora and fauna of the Peruvian Yungas and Central Andean wet puna ecoregions.

In 1983, UNESCO designated Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site, describing it as "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization."


Getting There

Most travelers enter Peru via Lima's Jorge Chávez International Airport. From here you catch connecting flights or book ground transportation to the highland city of Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire. Cusco boasts numerous cultural attractions and serves as a base for excursions to Machu Picchu, which lies 75 miles northwest. You can take buses or taxis to the train stations at the neighboring towns of Poroy and Ollantaytambo. Peru-Rail operates daily train service from these towns to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the Machu Picchu sanctuary. Train rides take several hours each way. Shuttle buses depart frequently from Aguas Calientes for the entrance of the Machu Picchu sanctuary. Alternatively, you can get to Machu Picchu from Cusco by hiking the Inca Trail. This intense hike takes four days to complete. Myriad tour outfits in Cusco offer guided treks. It is illegal to hike the trail without a registered guide, so you must make trek reservations in advance. A shorter Inca Trail route also exists for those with time constraints or physical limitations, consisting of just two days rather than four.

Places of Interest

The entire Machu Picchu complex is fascinating, but a handful of spots stand out as highlights. These include the Caretaker's Hut, the Temple of the Sun, the Royal Tomb, the Sacred Plaza, the Temple of Three Windows, the Sacred Rock and the Hitching Post of the Sun. You may also wish to hike up the rough path to Huayna Picchu peak, which looms above the main complex. It takes more than an hour of climbing to reach the top, but you are be rewarded with stunning panoramic views and access to the Temple of the Moon at the summit.

Hotel Accommodations

You can make the trip to Machu Picchu from your hotel in Cusco early in the morning, returning to the city by train later in the afternoon after touring the ruins. Or you can opt to stay overnight in the immediate vicinity of Machu Picchu to extend your time at the ruins. Numerous hotels offer lodging in the town of Aguas Calientes, both for budget backpackers and upscale clientele. Upscale accommodations can be extremely expensive, and even the low-end hotels have relatively high prices compared to the rest of Peru. Frommer's advises you to book your lodging well in advance if visiting during the peak tourist season of June through August.

Climate Considerations

The high tourist season in Machu Picchu runs from June through August, coinciding with the dry season in the Peruvian highlands. This is technically winter here, but conditions are sunny and dry. Winter temperatures are mildly warm in the day and bitterly cold at night. In contrast, the summer season spans December through March. Summer is the rainy season, and torrential downpours make it particularly hard to hike the Inca Trail. Dangerous mudslides are also common in the rainy season. Fodor's Travel Guide recommends visiting Machu Picchu during the fringe months of autumn (April, May) or spring (September, October) when the climate is relatively decent and the throngs of tourists are thinner.


Caretaker's Hut and the Sun Gate

Immediately inside the entrance of the Machu Picchu sanctuary there is a small path leading up to the left. This path takes you to the Caretaker's Hut above the main grounds. The breathtaking views of Machu Picchu from this elevated vantage point make it worth the strenuous hike. Slightly farther up from lies the Sun Gate, or Intipunku. Two stones tower over a crevice in the mountain. It is here that the Inca Trail officially ends, and this is where you can take postcard-style photos with that layout of Machu Picchu and the distant peaks in the background.

Huayna Picchu

Another alternative for panoramic views of the grounds is hiking up Huayna Picchu. Huayna Picchu is the looming peak that juts over the main grounds in most of the pictures found in tourist brochures. Only 400 people are allowed to climb the steep and perilous trail each day, according to Andean Travel Web. You have to get to the tiny sign-in booth at the base of the peak early to ensure permission to hike. It takes a little more than an hour to trek to the summit. The ruins of the Temple of the Moon sit on the side of the summit, offering shade from the blazing afternoon sun of the Peruvian highlands.

Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun sits at the bottom of a stone staircase in the main grounds of Machu Picchu. This ancient temple features a rounded tower with seamless construction and a lofty window that aligns with the sunlight of the winter solstice in June. Entry is not permitted to this temple, according to Frommer's travel guidebook, but you can still get a good look at the structure while passing through the central complex.

Temple of Three Windows

Nearby, the Temple of Three Windows fronts one side of the Sacred Plaza. The Temple of Three Windows displays astounding craftsmanship, featuring trapezoid windows carved out of stone. Each window looks out over the Urubamba Gorge.

Hitching Post of the Sun

Also of interest is the Hitching Post of the Sun, or Intihuatana. This carved-rock formation resembles a sundial shaped like the Huayna Picchu mountain peak. Once used as an astronomical calendar by the Inca, this carving lies up a flight of stairs on the fringes of the Sacred Plaza.

Sacred Rock

The Sacred Rock can be found down in the lower terraces of the complex. Experts suggest that the chamber housing this formation once served a communal meeting area, according to Frommer's. Local legend contends that the Sacred Rock holds a secret energy force. Tourists can place their hands on the rock in an attempt to tap into this mysterious power.

Temple of the Condor

The Temple of the Condor opens up in the lower section of the ruins. Massive condors often can be seen soaring over the Andes Mountains, and it seems fitting that the Inca sculpted a large chunk of stone in the birds' image. The formation depicts the spreading wings of a condor, showing the reverence Machu Picchu's original inhabitants had for this rare bird.

 Things You Should be Aware Of:

Weather Conditions

Although equatorial South America is known for steamy rainforests, the high altitude of Machu Picchu makes for much milder temperatures. The average temperatures range between 50 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit with only slight variations throughout the year. The subtropical region has an annual rainy and dry season, but Machu Picchu is almost always surrounded by fog in any weather. November to April is the rainy season, although daily short showers are common most times of the year. Peak tourist season corresponds with the dry season in July and August when the nights are cool and the days are generally dry. January and February are the rainiest months, and many people visit the area in November and April to avoid the heaviest crowds.


Although it is tempting to travel to Machu Picchu at the heaviest part of rainy season, there are a few things to consider. The Inca Trail is closed the entire month of February because of possible hazardous conditions. Although other routes are open, roads and passes may be closed suddenly because of landslides and flooding.

Machu Picchu's Mysteries

by National Geographic

Although the archaeological discovery of Machu Picchu came nearly a hundred years ago, historians are still unsure of the function of this ancient Inca citadel.

The Inca had no system of writing and left no written records, and archaeologists have been left to piece together bits of evidence as to why Machu Picchu was built, what purpose it served, and why it was so quickly vacated.

By Kelly Hearn and Jason Golomb

"On the morning of July 24, 1911, a tall lecturer-cum-explorer from Yale University set off in a cold drizzle to investigate rumors of ancient Inca ruins in Peru. The explorer chopped his way through thick jungle, crawled across a "bridge" of slender logs bound together with vines, and crept through underbrush hiding venomous fer-de-lance pit vipers.

Two hours into the hike, the explorer and his two escorts came across a grass-covered hut. A pair of Indian farmers walked them a short way before handing them over to a small Indian boy. With the boy leading the way, Hiram Bingham stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century—and what was named in 2007 as one of the new seven wonders of the world: Machu Picchu.

What Bingham saw was a dramatic and towering citadel of stone cut from escarpments. Fashioned by men without mortar, the stones fit so tightly together that not even a knife's blade could fit between them. He wondered: Why? By whom? For what?

Certainly, what he saw was awe-invoking. Contemporary Peruvian expert Luis Lumbreras, the former director of Peru's National Institute of Culture, describes "a citadel made up of palaces and temples, dwellings and storehouses," a site fulfilling ceremonial religious functions.

Machu Picchu is formed of buildings, plazas, and platforms connected by narrow lanes or paths. One sector is cordoned off to itself by walls, ditches, and, perhaps, a moat—built, writes Lumbreras, "not as part of a military fortification [but&91; rather as a form of restricted ceremonial isolation."

The Wrong "Lost City"

Bingham's discovery was published in the April 1913 issue of National Geographic magazine, bringing the mountaintop citadel to the world's attention. (The National Geographic Society helped fund Bingham on excursions to Machu Picchu in 1912 and 1915.)

Bingham believed he had found Vilcabamba, the so-called Lost City of the Inca where the last of the independent Inca rulers waged a years-long battle against Spanish conquistadors. Bingham argued for and justified his conclusions for almost 50 years after his discovery, and his explanations were widely accepted.

What Bingham had found, however, was not the lost city, but a lost city.

In 1964, adventurer Gene Savoy identified ruins and proved that Espiritu Pampa (in the Vilcabamba region of Peru, west of Machu Picchu) was the lost city that Bingham had originally sought. Ironically, Bingham had actually discovered these ruins at Espiritu Pampa during his 1911 trek. He uncovered a few Inca-carved stone walls and bridges but dismissed the ruins and ultimately focused on Machu Picchu. Savoy uncovered much of the rest.

So what then was this city that Bingham had revealed? There were no accounts of Machu Picchu in any of the much-studied chronicles of the Spanish invasion and occupation. There was nothing to document that it even existed at all, let alone its purpose.

Bingham theorized that Machu Picchu had served as a convent of sorts where chosen women from the Inca realm were trained to serve the Inca leader and his coterie. He found more than a hundred skeletons at the site and believed that roughly 75 percent of the skeletons were female, but modern studies have shown a more reasonable fifty-fifty split between male and female bones.

Bingham also believed that Machu Picchu was the mythical Tampu-tocco, the birthplace of the Inca forefathers.

Modern Theories

Modern research has continued to modify, correct, and mold the legend of Machu Picchu. Research conducted by John Rowe, Richard Burger, and Lucy Salazar-Burger indicates that rather than being a defensive stronghold, Machu Picchu was a retreat built by and for the Inca ruler Pachacuti. Burger has suggested it was built for elites wanting to escape the noise and congestion of the city.

Brian Bauer, an expert in Andean civilization at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a National Geographic grantee, says Machu Picchu—which was built around A.D. 1450—was, in fact, relatively small by Inca standards and maintained only about 500 to 750 people.

One thing is certain, says Bauer, archaeological evidence makes it clear that the Inca weren't the only people to live at Machu Picchu. The evidence shows, for instance, varying kinds of head modeling, a practice associated with peoples from coastal regions as well as in some areas of the highlands. Additionally, ceramics crafted by a variety of peoples, even some from as far as Lake Titicaca, have been found at the site.

"All this suggests that many of the people who lived and died at Machu Picchu may have been from different areas of the empire," Bauer says.

As for farming, Machu Picchu's residents likely made use of the grand terraces surrounding it. But experts say these terraces alone couldn't have sustained the estimated population of the day and that farming most likely also took place in the surrounding hills.

Dr. Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, has spent years studying ceremonial Inca sites at extreme altitudes. He's gathered information from historical, archaeological, and ethnographical sources to demonstrate that Machu Picchu was built in the center of a sacred landscape.

Machu Picchu is nearly surrounded by the Urubamba River, which is revered by people in the region still today. The mountains that cradle the site also are important sacred landforms. "Taken together, these features have meant that Machu Picchu formed a cosmological, hydrological, and sacred geographical center for a vast region," Reinhard says.

Machu Picchu Today

In September 2007, Yale University agreed to return to Peru some of the thousands of artifacts that Bingham removed to Yale to study during his years of exploration and research. These items will go into a new museum that the Peruvian government has agreed to build in Cusco.

Being named a modern world wonder is a mixed blessing for the people of Cusco, the former center of the Inca world and the closest city to Machu Picchu. The site is a source of national pride for Peru, as well as a valuable tourist attraction. However, with an increase in international interest comes an increase in pollution, a need for hotels and other facilities, and the need to protect the lost city that the Western world didn't know existed.

It's highly unlikely that researchers will find an archaeological smoking gun that will definitively identify the purpose and uses of Machu Picchu. Scientists, however, continue to excavate and rebuild the site. Modern scientific advances, such as those that re-identified the gender of the skeletons that Bingham found, could help uncover clues to reveal the reasons for its construction, the activities that took place there, and its subsequent abandonment."

Watch the video below. You will be delighted with the magic of this place.

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Machu Picchu - One of the Most Mysterious Places on Earth


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