Because it worked so well for the Salar de Uyuni post, and because I want you guys to know the answers to these potential quiz questions of the future, here are the essential facts of Machupicchu.
For the OCD among us, you can spell it a range of ways: Machu Picchu, Machupicchu, Machu Pikchu are all accepted. Good luck, copy nerds. The signs in and around Aguas Calientes consistently use the Machupicchu spelling, and I am compelled to go with that as its correct, as least most-widely accepted, use. I didn’t travel halfway around the world for you not to quote me on this.
Much of Machupicchu’s allure, indeed the allure of the Inca civilisation, stems from its as yet unsolved mysteries that archaeologists continue to conjecture their way through. The Incas are among the most intriguing past civilisations, speaking as they do to our fascination with the wild continent and the last few centuries’ obsession with gold.
The Spanish conquerors, whom the Incas called “the eaters of gold” because they seemed to have an insatiable desire for the precious metal, made their mark on Peru and its indigenous people with particularly thorough violence. And yet they never found out about Machupicchu, which is part of the reason why this site is still around for us to see today.
There are frequent murmurs that the Peruvian government will shut down this tourist site, as the foot traffic is eroding the peaks on which the estate is built. As it is, Waynapicchu is only accessed by 400 visitors per day. I’m saying, you should hurry if you want to see it.
The dude who “discovered” Machupicchu in 1911 – that is, introduced it to the West – was a USAmerican bloke from Yale University named Hiram Bingham. God, how I wish I had a name that rhymed! He was led up there by a Peruvian guide.
Of course, the site is much older than that, with estimates placing its construction around 1450.
The jury is still out what exactly the Incas used this site for, though these days consensus seems to have been reached that it was a place for Inca elite. There was an emphasis on agriculture, and there are sophisticated water-irrigation systems, and no reliable evidence that this was a military stronghold. There are loads of temples and slabs of rocks which I at first thought were sacrificial altars but which, it turns out, where actually time-keeping devices. Ancient calendars. There is a big residential area, too.
I was eavesdropping on a guided tour that day when I found out that only female human skeletons have ever been discovered here. I can’t find corroborating evidence online, but it might explain the agricultural sophistication of the site, and the lack of military endeavours.
Machupicchu perches at 2430m above sea level, 1000m lower than Cusco, which is 80km southwest of the site. The Urubamba River flows below it (the one we walked along on our mission to Aguas Calientes) and the climate is humid to very humid – in other words, tropical. This is where the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin meet. According to UNESCO, it “shelters a remarkably diverse array of microclimates, habitats and species of flora and fauna with a high degree of endemism. The property is part of a larger area unanimously considered of global significance for biodiversity conservation.”
And while Machupicchu itself is only about 600 years old, the surrounding valleys have been successfully cultivated for more than 1000 years.
These terraces made the cultivation of crops possible, funneled water to wherever it was needed, and also – probably – made it more difficult for enemies to sneak up unseen.
The site has undergone massive restoration efforts, efforts that continue to this day. Many of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed.
I can’t put it better than National Geographic does: Machupicchu is “a citadel of cut stone fit together without mortar so tightly that its cracks still can’t be penetrated by a knife blade.” Even more remarkable is that the Incas had no wheels, steel or iron at their disposable, adding to the significance and the enigma.
Also overheard on someone else’s guided tour: throughout the Inca city you’ll see different stone formations. This one (above) clearly has three intersecting polished dry-stone blocks. According to the guide, these were reserved for the elite, and if you the plebeian were to pass through a gate built in this fashion the punishment would be severe. The walls are coded.
More than a million people visit Machupicchu every year. It really is worth going early in the morning – crowds and heat make for a lethal combination.
The Spanish brought death in the form of direct attacks, abductions and plots that turned Inca against Inca. But they also brought disease. In 1572, the last Incan capital fell and their line of rulers came to end.
Llamas were domesticated animals, but the excellent preservation of the site makes it a safe haven for everything from ocelots to otters, spectacled bears and condors.