As the most famous structure in the whole of Latin America, you’d think we would know more about Machu Picchu. But this ancient Inca citadel is shrouded in mystery. It lay hidden from the invading Spanish, who would surely have torn it to the ground, for hundreds of years, and was only rediscovered in 1911 by the explorer Hiram Bingham. Nowadays it is the main drawcard for the thousands of adventure travellers who flock to Peru every year. Tucked away in the mountains and perched precariously over a cliff edge, Machu Picchu deserves its title as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And although we don’t know a lot about it, we do know some things. Here are 10 facts about Machu Picchu which are sure to make you want to visit – if you didn’t already!
A historic tug of war
1. As mentioned, American explorer Hiram Bingham was the man who rediscovered Machu Picchu after hundreds of years of isolation. And it took nearly 100 years further for the artefacts which he recovered to be returned to Peru. They were held by Yale University, which maintained it owned them, whilst Peru insisted they had simply been loaned to Yale. This dispute was eventually settled in 2011, when Yale returned all of the artefacts to their homeland.
2. Although the Spanish conquistadors introduced their own language to Peru, many Andean locals continue to speak their native tongue to this day. It is known as Quechua and it is in this language that Machu Picchu is named. In Quechua, Machu means “old” and Picchu means a conical, solid structure, or “mountain”. So the site is known as Old Mountain in English, which makes sense given the spectacular mountain scenery which the citadel was constructed amongst.
3. Machu Picchu is famously known as the “Lost City” and as we now know, it is Hiram Bingham who is credited with rediscovering the site. But Machu Picchu was never truly lost. Plenty of local people knew of its existence; it was actually a local innkeeper called Melchor Arteaga who took Bingham to the site. Local Quechua farmers were even still farming the terraces when Bingham arrived!
Building ahead of their time
4. This is one of the most interesting of all the facts about Machu Picchu in this article. Machu Picchu was built by the Incas using a technique called ashlar. The stones used in its construction were cut so precisely that they fit together without the need for mortar. You can’t even fit a knife blade between the walls of the structures! (But don’t try this, you will get in trouble if you do!) These ancient walls have withstood hundreds of years of wind, rain, and even earthquakes.
5. There remains much debate as to what Machu Picchu was used for by the Incas. Some believe it was an important religious site, whilst others think it was a prison, or a sacred place where kings were crowned. However, most experts now believe it was a royal retreat, an escape for Inca emperors and nobles. In particular, Emperor Pachacuti, who ruled the Inca Empire from 1438 – 1471 is believed to have frequented the city.
6. Another mystery surrounding Machu Picchu is why it was abandoned. Although the Spanish conquistadors brought an end to the Incan empire in the mid-1530s, it is thought that Machu Picchu was abandoned before this time, around 100 years after it was constructed. There is some consensus that a smallpox epidemic caused the Incas to abandon the site, but there is little evidence to support this claim. Another mystery!
More ways to explore
7. You’ve probably heard of the famous Inca Trail, which is one of the best ways to arrive at Machu Picchu, following an incredible multi-day trek. But there are several lesser known hiking routes you can also take. The 5-8 day Salcantay Trail sees you pass from snow-capped peaks to lush jungle in a single day, whilst the much quieter Lares Trek ends in nearby Ollantaytambo, just a 90 minute train ride from Machu Picchu.
8. Machu Picchu’s high mountain location means that the site is shrouded in mist and cloud until around noon every day. This mist has given way to ghost stories over the years – many locals believe that spirits rise from the ground around Machu Picchu at night. As a result, many of the porters and other staff who live nearby sleep with a mirror to protect them from the ghosts!
A bustling metropolis in the clouds
9. Machu Picchu is bigger than you think. It is believed that up to 300 people lived there at any one time, and this number swelled to more than 1,000 when the emperor was in town. Machu Picchu is made up of more than 150 buildings, including temples, bathhouses and sleeping quarters. The Temple of the Sun is one of the most prominent buildings, and visitors can still see the ancient sundial.
10. You’ve probably seen many world wonders on TV or in the movies. Petra in Jordan has been used for Indiana Jones and Morocco’s Ait Benhaddou stars in Game of Thrones. But I bet you’ve never seen Tom Cruise fighting at the Temple of the Sun? Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft exploring the ruins? Vin Diesel racing around the mountainside? There’s a good reason for this. An Indian Bollywood film called Robot was once granted permission to film at Machu Picchu. And would you believe, a crane damaged part of the historic site. Never again!
If these interesting facts about Machu Picchu make you want to visit for yourself, then you’re in luck! With our range of Peru tours, you’ll enjoy a guided tour of the ancient citadel and plenty of time to explore. You’ll also take in the rest of the country, from the biodiverse Amazon Rainforest to the shimmering waters of Lake Titicaca and the ancient treasures of Cusco.