Peru’s Lost Gem: The Inca Sanctuary of Machu Picchu
Engulfed by the dense Amazon Jungle and lost to the outside world for hundreds of years, Machu Picchu was one of the most important cities in the entire Inca Empire. Abandoned during the Spanish conquest of Peru, the true purpose of Machu Picchu still remains an enigma. Brought to the world’s attention in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, today, Machu Picchu is one of South America’s best tourist attractions.
The History of Machu Picchu
Thought to have been constructed around the middle of the 15th century, the true significance of the Inca citadel still baffles historians today. Built during the reign of Inca Pachacuti (1438 – 1471), the citadel was constructed at the height of the Inca Empire. It was abandoned less than 100 years later during the Spanish conquest of Peru, yet some historians believe this was due to an outbreak of smallpox. Machu Picchu was home to around 1,000 residents, yet the surrounding terraces and farm land was sufficiently large enough to grow crops for more than 4 times its population. There are many hypotheses to the true purpose of Machu Picchu including a trade hub, a prison, a place for the development of new crops and even just a royal retreat for the Inca hierarchy. There is very little written or recorded information about Machu Picchu or the Inca Empire, with many conclusions being drawn only from evidence found at the site.
Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu
Although many historians say that Machu Picchu was never actually lost but merely forgotten, Machu Picchu hit the headlines when the American explorer and Yale University lecturer stumbled upon the site in 1911. Although Bingham was on a mission to find the lost city of Vilcabamba – the last known strong hold of the Incas, he instead found Machu Picchu. On July 24, guided by peasant farmers, Bingham was led to the site where he got his first glimpse of the intricate network of stone terraces and buildings forming the ancient Inca citadel. La Casa Concha Museum, in Cusco’s historic centre exhibits original documentation and photos from Bingham’s expedition.
Getting to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is located on the edge of the Amazon Jungle, in a remote part of south-eastern Peru. The nearest city is the ancient Andean City of Cusco, which is some 4 hours away by land. There are no roads to Machu Picchu, and access by air was prohibited several years ago to protect the integrity of the citadel. Therefore, the only way to get to Machu Picchu is on train or by foot. Train services are operated by just 2 companies: Inca Trail and Peru Rail. Peru Rail offer daily services from Poroy (20 minutes outside of Cusco), and also from Ollantaytambo train station in the Sacred Valley. Inka Rail only offer services departing from Ollantaytambo train station. Adventure travellers can hike the Inca Trail, a challenging 4 days trek starting from KM82 in the Sacred Valley. Hikers on the Inca Trail are rewarded with incredible Andean vistas and the opportunity to visit other remote Inca sites en-route.
What to See at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is essentially spit into 2 areas – the agricultural and urban sectors. The agricultural sector is made up of extensive terraces, parts of which are fed by a sophisticated network of watering channels. The urban area consists of more than 200 hundred dry stone walled buildings, where steep narrow stairways interconnect dwellings. The urban sector also houses the Royal area, reserved only for the Inca nobles and priests. Notable attractions at Machu Picchu include the Temple of the Sun, the Caretakers Hut, the Intihuatana Stone and the three Windowed Temple. Huayna Picchu, the ubiquitous peak behind the citadel is also commonly hiked and offers incredible views of Machu Picchu and surrounding mountains. To have sufficient time to fully appreciate Machu Picchu, visitors should allocate one day minimum or longer if possible.
Staying the Night near Machu Picchu
The exclusive Sanctuary Lodge hotel is the only hotel located at Machu Picchu, with the remainder located 30 minutes below in the town of Aguas Calientes. Rooms at the Sanctuary Lodge start from around US$ 1,000 per night, but if you are looking for something a little more affordable a range of lodgings from backpacker hostels through to luxury accommodations can be found in Aguas Calientes. Making advanced bookings for accommodations near Machu Picchu is highly recommended. Aguas Calientes is only very small and has a limited selection of quality hotels. Accommodations can be overpriced and often don’t reflect the quality you would expect. Recommended hotels include the Inkattera Machu Picchu hotel, the Sumaq Hotel, the Hatuchay Tower Hotel and El Mapi Hotel.