High in the Peruvian Andes, the ancient Inca Trail of Machu Picchu is now a well-trodden path, as beloved with excitable 18-year-olds as it is with thrill-seeking pensioners. But even with the crowds, it defies all expectations. The mist, lush green vegetation and steep, stony walls are straight out of a fairytale. The ancient 24 mile (29 kilometres) trail takes around four days to clamber across thanks to its winding trail and altitude sickness-inducing heights. It’s easy to forget that this must-visit destination was only really ‘discovered’ a century ago. So, how much do you know about this awe-inspiring city? Here are seven interesting facts about Machu Picchu in Peru. We’ll bet you’ve only heard of a few of them.
Interesting Facts About Machu Picchu in Peru
1. No one really knows why it was built…
… Or why the Incas abandoned it.
Machu Pichu isn’t as old as you might expect, it was built in the mid-15th or early-16th century, around the same time Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa. The style of construction suggested it was a palace complex, probably for the ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. During the early 20th century, excavations revealed dozens of female skeletons, suggesting it had been a sanctuary for the Virgins of the Sun, an elite Inca group. However, at the start of the 21st century, researchers found male skeletons too. Historians and archaeologists now think it may have been a royal retreat for ruling Incas.
It was abandoned a century after it was built. Some claim there was an outbreak of smallpox, introduced by Western travellers. The lack of water could have been a factor too.
2. The Incas were incredible masons
It’s widely agreed that the Incase were some of the best masons in the world – and Machu Pichu is one of its finest examples. The entire city was built in a sort of ‘puzzle lock system’, with a technique called ashlar. Stones are cut precisely to fit together without the use of any mortar. You couldn’t even fit a knife blade between the stones. This means it’s earthquake-resistant too, despite sitting in between two fault lines. During an earthquake or a tremor, the stones will ‘dance’ but they can’t crack or fall. Cusco suffered huge earthquakes during 1650 and 1950 when the Spanish churches crumbled. All of the Inca foundations stood firm.
There are over 150 separate buildings, including homes, baths and temples across Machu Picchu. Each of its 100 sets of stairs is built from just one slab of stone too – each slab weighs well over 30 kg.
3. You’ll have to walk through a ‘cloud forest’ to get through it
Sounds pretty fantastical, doesn’t it? They may look like rainforests, but the forests up to Machu Picchu are technical ‘cloud forests’ due to the fact that they prominently feature a layer of dense fog at the canopy level. The heavy fog filters sunlight and provides underlying foliage with a source of water since the cloud condenses on the tree’s leaves. It’s all very damp, but also creates an incredibly unique ecosystem. Apparently, there are thousands of orchids in the cloud forests of Peru, as well as an unknown amount of flora and fauna that has yet to be discovered.
There are actually ten animal life zones from the lower dry forests to the mountain peaks of Machu Pichu. Plus, to get to it you’ll need to emerge from a cloud.
4. It was also an astronomical observatory
We may never know its exact purpose, but we do know that it was deeply connected to the stars. Astronomy was important for the Inca civilization, due to the importance of agriculture. They built pillars on mountains and hills overlooking Cusco strategically, so that when the sun rose and set they knew at which altitude to plant.
The complex worked as an early astronomical observatory. Its sacred Intihuatana stone accurately indicates the two equinoxes and twice a year, the sun sits directly over the stone creating no shadow.
5. You can run a marathon here
The Inca Trail is hardly a walk in the park, but you could push your heart rate even further and try the Machu Picchu Marathon. Since 1996, thrill-seekers (sadists) have been taking part in the 26.2-mile (30 kilometres) marathon, climbing over two mountain passes, along the original stone-paved trail and up to an elevation of 10,000′. A local tour agency organizes the race, with participants expected to complete it in under 12 hours instead of three to four days. The current record stands at four hours.
6. It’s one of the only preserved Inca cities
Thousands of Inca sites were lost to the Spanish conquest, but the Spanish Conquistadores never made it to Machu Picchu. It’s likely because the Incas had already abandoned the site before Spanish soldiers arrived in Cusco in the 1530s. With no local Incas to inform them about the site, they had no reason to look for it. Its location also saved it, since you couldn’t see it from below.
Today, it’s one of the continent’s best-preserved Inca sites.
7. But it’s not the legendary ‘Lost City of the Incas’
The explorer Hiram Bingham III is widely credited for finding the incredible site in 1911, but it’s likely that others had stumbled upon it as much as 40 years before him. Regardless, when he did find it, he thought he’d finally found the ‘Lost City of Incas’, from which the last Inca rulers led a rebellion against Spanish rule until 1572. He wrote a book all about it, but this theory is no longer accepted. Vilcabamba, the real ‘Lost City of the Incas’, is believed to be about 50 miles west of Machu Picchu.