For the vast majority of people, Machu Picchu is the principal feature of any holiday in Peru. With its name meaning “old mountain” and coming from the mountain to its south, it was originally constructed by the Incas in the 15th century, going undisturbed by the invading Spaniards and falling into disrepair. It was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, a professor of Latin American studies at Yale University. It retains many of its original features to this day and is one of South America’s most impressive sights as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Machu Picchu sits in a saddle betwixt two lushly-forested peaks, 7,970 feet above sea level. Its elevation could be to make it less prone to the landslides that are highly common in the valley below and allow a clear view of the three different valleys, which would have been strategically useful. Of course, the views garnered from the site are most beautiful, and the Incas would have appreciated them just as much as you will.
Machu Picchu’s inaccessible location only serves to highlight its impressiveness. It covers 116 square miles, while the state of Liechtenstein is only 62. Unless you are walking the Inca Trail, one of the 10 best trekking trails in the world, a train from Cuzco or the Sacred Valley will deposit you in the valley below, whereupon you take a bus along the windy road that cuts into the side of the mountain.
You can partake of the city’s streets, temples, staircases, delicate gardens and complex system of aqueducts. Entry costs around £37. It is wise to stay overnight at Machu Picchu or the nearby village of Aguas Calientes to enable you to return to the site in advance of the multitudes of day trippers. Almost 2,000 people come every day.
Two of Machu Picchu’s most striking features are the Intihuatana stone and the Royal Tomb. The Intihuatana stone is a carved pillar with a square stone base whose corners point to the four cardinal points – north, south east and west. It shows when the equinoxes occur. The Royal Tomb is believed to be where sacrificial and burial rituals were performed, and over 100 skeletons have been found there.
Knowledge of Machu Picchu remains sketchy despite scores of studies. Much speculation has been made as to its function. Early in the 20th century, US osteologist – one who studies skeletons – George Eaton declared the skeletal remains found to be 80 percent female and Bingham speculated that Machu Picchu was a city for chosen women with a temple dedicated to the Virgins of the Sun, a holy order devoted to the Incan sun god, Inti.
Now, however, the work in 2000 of John Verano, an anthropologist then employed, like Bingham, by Yale, has shown the gender breakdown to be 50/50. The Andean people are generally shorter and less muscular than the European and African skeletons with which Eaton would have been more closely acquainted. Eaton believed that those skeletons that were of children were the product of “indiscretions” by the virgins.
Machu Picchu could have escaped the Spanish because the large numbers of natives working for them and willing to aid them in any fashion were unaware of its existence. This was perhaps because its was one of the royal estates of Pachacuteq in the middle of the 15th century and would have been abandoned after his death. Alternatively, it could have been known only to the Inca elite.