Discover 7 Best Kept Secrets of Machu Picchu
Nestled high in the slopes of the Andes, the ruins of Machu Picchu continue to reveal the mysteries of the Inca Empire. While the archaeological site draws scores of visitors to Peru annually, here are 10 lesser known secrets hidden beneath its layers of history.
1. It isn’t actually the Lost City of Inca
When the explorer Hiram Bingham III encountered Machu Picchu in 1911, he was looking for a different city, known as Vilcabamba. This was a hidden capital to which the Inca had escaped after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532. Over time it became famous as the legendary Lost City of the Inca. Bingham spent most of his life arguing that Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba were one and the same, a theory that wasn’t proved wrong until after his death in 1956. (The real Vilcabamba is now believed to have been built in the jungle about 50 miles west of Machu Picchu.) Recent research has cast doubt on whether Machu Picchu had ever been forgotten at all. When Bingham arrived, three families of farmers were living at the site.
2. It’s not stranger to earthquakes
The stones in the most handsome buildings throughout the Inca Empire used no mortar. These stones were cut so precisely, and wedged so closely together, that a credit card cannot be inserted between them. Aside from the obvious aesthetic benefits of this building style, there are engineering advantages. Peru is a seismically unstable country—both Lima and Cusco have been leveled by earthquakes and Machu Picchu itself was constructed atop two fault lines. When an earthquake occurs, the stones in an Inca building are said to “dance;” that is, they bounce through the tremors and then fall back into place. Without this building method, many of the best known buildings at Machu Picchu would have collapsed long ago.
3. Much of the most impressive stuff is invisible
While the Inca are best remembered for their beautiful walls, their civil engineering projects were incredibly advanced as well. The site we see today had to be sculpted out of a notch between two small peaks by moving stone and earth to create a relatively flat space. The engineer Kenneth Wright has estimated that 60 percent of the construction done at Machu Picchu was underground. Much of that consists of deep building foundations and crushed rock used as drainage.
4. You can walk up to the ruins
A trip to Machu Picchu is many things, but cheap is not one of them. Train tickets from Cusco can run more than a hundred dollars each, and entry fees range from $47 to $62 depending on which options you choose. In between, a round-trip bus trip up and down the 2,000-feet-high slope atop which the Inca ruins are located costs another $24. If you don’t mind a workout, however, you can walk up and down for free. The steep path roughly follows Hiram Bingham’s 1911 route and offers extraordinary views of the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, which looks almost as it did in Bingham’s time. The climb is strenuous and takes about 90 minutes.
5. There’s a great hidden museum of the beaten path
The excellent Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballón fills in many of the blanks about how and why Machu Picchu was built, and why the Inca chose such an extraordinary natural location for the citadel. First you have to find the museum, though. It’s inconveniently tucked at the end of a long dirt road near the base of Machu Picchu, about a 30-minute walk from the town of Aguas Calientes.
6. There’s a secret temple
Should you be one of the lucky early birds who snags a spot on the guest list to Huayna Picchu, don’t just climb the mountain, snap a few photos, and leave. Take the time to follow the hair-raising trail to the Temple of the Moon, located on the far side of Huayna Picchu. Here, a ceremonial shrine of sorts has been built into a cave lined with exquisite stonework and niches that were once probably used to hold mummies.
7. It may have been the end of a pilgrimage
A new theory proposed by the Italian archaeoastronomer Giulio Magli suggests that the journey to Machu Picchu from Cusco could have served a ceremonial purpose: echoing the celestial journey that, according to legend, the first Inca took when they departed the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca. Rather than simply following a more sensible path along the banks of the Urubamba River, the Inca built the impractical but visually stunning Inca Trail, which according to Magli, prepared pilgrims for entry into Machu Picchu. The final leg of the pilgrimage would have concluded with climbing the steps to the Intihuatana Stone, the highest spot in the main ruins.