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Published On: Thu, Aug 28th, 2014

The Wonders of a Machu Picchu trek

Covering five square miles 7,972 feet up in the Andes Mountains, the city of Machu Picchu, which means “old peak” in the Andean Quecha language, is one of the premier archaeological sites on this planet. It is the most-visited tourist attraction in Peru and Machu Picchu treks and tourism are one of the country’s leading industries.

City of Machu Pichu photo/Keokan via wikimedia commons

City of Machu Pichu photo/Keokan via wikimedia commons

Machu Picchu is believed to have been built circa 1450, whereupon it thrived for a century. After that, only some locals were aware it existed until Yale archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, came upon it in 1911 with the assistance of a local farmer. Three families of farmers were living there. It is possible that the German businessman, Augusto Berns, found it in 1867 or an engineer named Franklin observed the ruins from a far mountain in 1904.

Bingham’s 1948 work, Lost City of the Incas, is the definitive book about the city, despite containing many archaeological suppositions that have since been proven false. Bingham’s title was wrong, for one: the “Lost City” is actually Vilcabamba, the hidden capital to which Incas escaped when the conquistadors arrived in 1532. Bingham devoted most of his life to contending that Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba were the same, but this is now known to be untrue.

Lying in humid, sub-tropical forests, Machu Picchu is a protected habitat for ferns, palms and some endangered species that include the spectacled bear, the only bear native to South America. A fair number of full-time local guides have never once seen this animal. The sanctuary near Ikaterr’a Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is acknowledged to be one of the best places to catch a glimpse.

The building blocks of which Machu Picchu is constructed often weigh more than 50 tons but are so precisely sculpted and fitted together that even a thin knife blade cannot be inserted between them. No cement or mortar was used. It is still not known how such large rocks were transported. The Incas did not use wheels, draft animals or iron tools.

One of the primary functions of Machu Picchu was as an astronomical observatory. The Intihuatana (“hitching post of the sun”) stone is a precise indicator of the dates of the two equinoxes and other major celestial periods. This stone hitches the sun at the two equinoxes, and not the solstice as some tourist literature and New Age books would have you believe. At noon on March 21 and September 21, the sun is close to being directly above the pillar, so there is no shadow. The sun “sits with all his might upon the pillar” and is “tied” to the rock. At these times, the Incas would conduct ceremonies nearby.

Legend has it that if a sensitive person places their forehead against the Intihuatana stone, they can see the spirit world. Intihuatana stones were the Incas’ most revered objects and were systematically sought and destroyed by the Spaniards. Whenever one was broken, the Incas held that the gods of that place died or disappeared.

Compared to other national parks, one of the most unusual features of Machu Picchu is how little information about the ruins is supplied, although this keeps the place uncluttered. The best port of call for information is the Museo de Sitio Manual Chávez Ballón, at the end of a long dirt road close to the base of Machu Picchu, about half an hour’s stroll from the closest town and railway station, Aguas Calientes. Displays in English and Spanish tell of how and why Machu Picchu was built, including why it is located where it is.

If you visit Machu Picchu, it is best not to do so between 11am and 3pm when there are hordes of people. Later on, you will be more likely to encounter meditative types. The benefit of an early start is that you can be one of the 400 people permitted to scale Huayna Picchu (“young mountain”). In this case, you should check that your travel insurance covers you for treks at altitude.

A trip to Machu Picchu is the ideal blend of adventure, culture and history. While much-hyped, it is not overhyped. The experience will be unforgettable.

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  1. Mia Gordon Kiwi Adventurer says:

    Its very true that its weird visiting such an ancient place with so many people around you, not to mention llamas and alpacas keeping it so manicured, it looks like the Queens gardeners have been hired for the job! I love Machu Picchu, it has such a mystical feel about it that you really can’t describe with text! Our guides told us all about the local legends, kept us listening intently so not to miss the next tidbit about the Incas and what they think the buildings were for. So many theories, but its more interesting when you have locals telling you about it from their experience (made it even more magical I have to say). Thanks for the reminder of how amazing this place is!

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