When people know you’re “well traveled” they make assumptions. Rather than ask you, “Have you been to a particular destination” they’ll ask, “How did you like a place?” For years now that’s been happening with Peru and Machu Picchu. People assumed I’d been there, but I haven’t. I’m no stranger to South America, yet Peru always ended up on next year’s itinerary.
Due to the pandemic, travel is now pushed forward. However, Machu Picchu was in the planning stages when the pandemic began. Now it’s on hold. However, my trip planning was done and my interest in history and culture never stops! As I learn, I share, so thought it would be fun to write about some of the fascinating things I learned about Machu Picchu and lead you on this armchair tour of this extraordinary culture and destination. You might just want to add Peru and Machu Picchu to your post-pandemic bucket list of places to visit.
Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Incas
Since the pandemic still limits our ability to mosey too far from home, we might as well think BIG in our world of armchair world travel. And what grander journey to take than to Machu Picchu, Peru?
Machu Picchu is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1983) and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Part of its appeal is the mystery that surrounds Machu Picchu.
Some questions come to mind. Abandoned just 100 years after its construction, what was its purpose? Established hundreds of years ago in the 15th century, how did the Incas develop such advanced developments in engineering, agriculture, and astronomy?
Given my curious nature, I’ve been having fun learning about the background and history of the broader Inca Empire. I’ve found some beautiful images and fascinating videos to share with you.
Machu Picchu: A Few Fun Facts to Start With
- 1.5 million tourists visit annually (pre-pandemic). It’s 50 miles from Cusco.
- There are more than 600 terraces to keep the structures and mountainside in place
- The buildings and design are like a jigsaw puzzle of engineering
- Machu means “old” in Quechua and pikchu is “pyramid”: “Old Mountain” is the literal translation
- When the Spanish explorers and conquistadors came to South America, they fought the indigenous people and destroyed their civilizations. But luckily they never found Machu Picchu.
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Where Did The Incas Come From?
There were many aboriginal cultures in Central and South America before European explorers arrived. This Pre-Columbian era dates back as far as 7000 BCE, and includes the Maya, Aztec, and Inca cultures. In the Andes, early civilizations can be traced to 2500 BCE, as archeologists uncovered evidence of cultivation, textiles, and ceramics.
One trait of the Incas is that they could adapt to environmental extremes. They also took on the ideologies of the local people of the area. For example, they cultivated land in the Lake Titicaca region, at an elevation of more than 12,000 feet! The ancient Quechua language is still spoken by more than 10,000,000 people today in South America.
More About The Inca Empire
Back in the 1500s, the Inca Empire ruled most of South America. But the roots to the Inca Empire go back much earlier. Archeologists believe that the Incas grew out of the Wari Empire, which existed around 1000AD on the site of Chokepukio.
The Inca headquarters was in the Cusco area of Peru in 1250 AD. Before they were conquered by Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century, it’s estimated that between 6-14 million Incas lived in the area from Chile to Colombia.
The Incas controlled more than 1 million square kilometers of the region, and their society encompassed more than 100 social groups across the different regions. Inca groups lived on the coast of South America, in the pampas, mountains, and forests. Land they controlled includes modern day Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, and of course Peru. It’s estimated that the Inca Empire controlled between 6-9 million people at the peak of its power.
The size of their empire explains the creation of their sophisticated transportation routes, “city” planning, agriculture, science, and commerce. The Inca Trail is one of the most famous routes, which “paves” the path from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
The life and Empire of the Incas has been constructed through excavation of ruins, carbon dating, and other archeological methods. The Incas themselves had no written language; they conveyed their stories through songs, chanting, and paintings on wooden tablets.
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What Was The Inca’s Society Like?
Social groups consisted of the “ayllu” hereditary lineage system. These groups ranged greatly in size (from hundreds, to tens of thousands), regulated resources like land, and oversaw ceremonies including marriage.
The Incas believed in many gods. Their religious beliefs were deeply engrained in every aspect of their lives, including their system of government. This is one reason the Spanish conquistadors found them so threatening; they viewed the Incas as heretics, and knew they would be difficult to convert to Catholicism.
The Incas believed that their gods lived on both heaven and earth, and many had human behavior (like feeling love, hate, and compassion). The Incas worshipped many types of animals, as well as inanimate objects. They believed that the gods controlled nature, so it was essential to keep them happy (and prevent disasters).
They also believed that domesticated animals could protect them. These were called illas; they were miniature versions of animals made out of stone. These replicas were buried in barn areas or yards in the hopes of keeping their livestock healthy.
The Incas believed in reincarnation. Though human sacrifice may have existed, it is probably exaggerated.
Quirikancha, located in Cusco, was the main temple of the Inca Empire. It was the main site of the Inti Raymi sun festival. The temple also was where the Incas kept their mummified bodies of emperors from years past.
Focus on Machu Picchu
Although South America has many Inca ruins, Machu Picchu is by far the best preserved and most fascinating.
The Machu Picchu complex is a vast stone city in the sky. Visitors experience the dizzying terrain and spectacular sites, breathing in the same oxygen and standing on the same plot of earth as our Inca ancestors.
The Incas intentionally chose the location of Machu Picchu. It’s high in the Peruvian Andes (more than 7700 feet above sea level!) and surrounded by the Urubamba River. From their lofty mountain home, the Incas could keep track of what was happening in the Urubamba Valley below.
Archeologists believe Machu Picchu was part of the palace compound of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, who ruled the empire from 1438-71. Excavations throughout the 1900s revealed that the site was probably a royal retreat.
Other scholars believe it was a religious sanctuary. The city was constructed in the shape of a Condor, sacred Incans symbol.
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The Man Who Uncovered Machu Picchu
Yale Professor Hiram Bingham is credited with discovering Machu Picchu in 1911. A scholar on the Inca Empire, he was the first archeologist to begin cite excavation, funded in part by the National Geographic Society.
Bingham was from a missionary family and was particularly interested in studying cultures. He was especially interested in Latin American history. As a young man he hiked the same trail through the Andes as Simón Bolívar, and he also trekked through areas of Peru and Argentina.
Bingham served as a History professor at Yale from 1909 to 1924. At Yale he received a tip about Machu Picchu and raised the funds to conduct an expedition. Bingham made several expeditions to explore and excavate parts of Machu Picchu (in 1912 as well as 1915). Imagine his feelings of awe when he first laid eyes on the spectacular ruins!
Bingham’s research on Machu Picchu and other Inca sites paved the way for future historians and archeologists to unravel the mysteries of this time period and people.
Perhaps I should mention a more recent controversy. In his various expeditions, Bingham “acquired” a good many artifacts from Machu Picchu and he donated them to Yale University. According to the Machu Picchu Gateway:
“In 2012, one year after the 100th anniversary of Machu Picchu’s scientific discovery, all the artifacts excavated by Bingham team’s and shipped to Yale University’s Peabody Museum, were finally returned to Peru. These artifacts are currently on display at Casa Concha (Machu Picchu Museum) in Cusco.”
Back to the Wonders of Machu Picchu
One the many wonders and mysteries of Machu Picchu is how well the ruins have been preserved. When Professor Bingham arrived at the site in 1911, the complex aqueduct system was still used by the local Indians. Plazas, terraces, cemeteries, and other buildings have remained intact. Even the thousands of carefully sized stone blocks in the paths and walls have withstood the test of time.
As Professor Bingham and his team of archeologists visited Machu Picchu, they noted extraordinary achievements in building design, “city” planning, and construction (to name a few). The Incas used a construction technique called “Ashlar,” using precisely cut stones made of granite. They did not use iron tools, pack animals, or wheels. Even though Machu Picchu is located on top of two fault lines, it is remarkably stable. Even after earthquake tremors, building stones might shift, but they remain in place.
Machu Picchu is also known for its study of astronomy. Twice a year the sundial at Intihuatana accurately charts the equinox.
There are a variety of structures in Machu Picchu (more than 140), ranging from warehouses, temples, houses, fountains, and even a prison. Given the mountainous terrain, it’s not surprising that there are more than 100 stairways connecting the buildings and paths. Some feature more than 100 steps—carved out of one granite block!
The city itself could hold anywhere from 750 to 1,000 people, though historians believe it required more than 5,000 people to build Machu Picchu.
It’s not too soon to contemplate your first post-pandemic travel destination……after all, we’ll be traveling again one of these days and hopefully sooner than later!
If this voyage has whet your travel appetite, you might start planning now.
Most travelers fly to Cuzco and stay a few days to get used to the high altitude. From Cuzco, you can take a narrow-gauge railway trip (a day from Cuzco). More daring and athletic tourists hike the Inca Trail to access the ruins.
In any case, whether Machu Picchu ends up on your “real” travel bucket list, or a virtual adventure, it remains a remarkable site and testimony of the wonders of human creation.
Have you visited Machu Picchu? Feel free to share your impressions!
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