Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu
Machu Pikchu
80 - Machu Picchu - Juin 2009 - edit.2.jpg
Map showing location of Machu Picchu in Peru
Map showing location of Machu Picchu in Peru
Shown within Peru
Location Cuzco Region, Peru
Coordinates Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.
Height 2,430 metres (7,970 ft)
Founded c. 1450
Abandoned 1572
Cultures Inca civilization
Official name Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu
Type Mixed
Criteria i, iii, vii, ix
Designated 1983 (7th session)
Reference no. 274
State Party  Peru
Region Latin America and the Caribbean

Machu Picchu (in hispanicized spelling, Spanish pronunciation: [ˈmatʃu ˈpiktʃu]) or Machu Pikchu (Quechua machu old, old person, pikchu peak; mountain or prominence with a broad base which ends in sharp peaks,[1] "old peak", pronunciation [ˈmɑtʃu ˈpixtʃu]) is a 15th-century Inca site located 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level.[2][3] It is located in the Cusco Region, Urubamba Province, Machupicchu District in Peru.[4]

It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley which is 80 kilometres (50 mi) northwest of Cuzco and through which the Urubamba River flows. Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often mistakenly referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas" (a title more accurately applied to Vilcabamba), it is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization.

The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of what the structures originally looked like.[5] By 1976, 30% of Machu Picchu had been restored;[5] restoration continues today.[6]

Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.[3] In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.

Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.


Hiram Bingham III at his tent door near Machu Picchu in 1912

Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire.[7] Its construction appears to date to the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93).[8] It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest.[7][9]

It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travellers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area.[10] The conquistadors had notes of a place called Piccho, although there is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city. The types of sacred rocks defaced by the conquistadors in other locations are untouched at Machu Picchu.[9]

The site may have been discovered and plundered in 1867 by a German businessman, Augusto Berns.[11] There is some evidence that a German engineer, J. M. von Hassel, arrived earlier. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874.[12]

View of the city of Machu Picchu in 1912 showing the original ruins after major clearing and before modern reconstruction work began.[5][6]

Although the citadel is located only about 80 kilometers (50 mi) from Cusco, the Inca capital, the Spanish never found it and so did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites.[9] Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over the site, and few outside the immediate area knew of its existence.

Hiram Bingham was an American historian and lecturer at Yale University, although not a trained archaeologist. In 1909, returning from the Pan-American Scientific Congress in Santiago, he traveled through Peru and was invited to explore the Inca ruins at Choqquequirau in the Apurimac Valley. He organized the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition with one of its objectives to search for the last capital of the Incas. He in fact, guided by locals, rediscovered and correctly identified both Vitcos (then called Rosaspata) and Vilcabamba (then called Espíritu Pampa), which he named "Eromboni Pampa".[13] However, he did not correctly recognize Vilcabamba as the last capital, instead continuing onward and misidentifying Machu Picchu as the "Lost City of the Incas", as his book titled it. Further expeditions focused on Machu Picchu, neglecting further investigation of Vitcos and Vilcabamba. Machu Picchu was built at the height of the Inca Empire, and thus features spectacular workmanship and a dramatic site, while the actual last capital of Vilcabamba was built while the short-lived remnant Neo-Inca State was being vanquished by the Spanish, and thus features crude workmanship.

Bingham asked a Peruvian farmer and innkeeper, Melchor Arteaga, if he knew of any ruins in the area.[14] The next day, 24 July 1911, Arteaga led Bingham and Sergeant Carrasco across the river on a primitive log bridge and up the Huayna Picchu mountain. At the top of the mountain they came across a small hut occupied by a couple of Quechua, Richarte and Alvarez, who were farming some of the original Machu Picchu agricultural terraces that they had cleared four years earlier. Alvarez's 11-year-old son, Pablito, led Bingham along the ridge to the main ruins.[15]

During Bingham's archaeological studies, he collected various artifacts which he took back to Yale. One prominent artifact was a set of 15th-century, ceremonial Incan knives made from bismuth bronze; they are the earliest known artifact containing this alloy.[16]

Although local institutions initially welcomed the exploration supplementing knowledge about Peruvian ancestry, they soon accused Bingham of legal and cultural malpractice.[17] Rumors arose that the team was stealing artifacts and smuggling them out of Peru through the bordering country of Bolivia. (In fact, Bingham removed many artifacts, but openly and legally; they were deposited in the Yale University Museum.) Local press perpetuated the accusations, claimed that the excavation harmed the site and deprived local archaeologists of knowledge about their own history.[17] Landowners began to demand rent from the excavators.[17] By the time Bingham and his team left Machu Picchu, locals began forming coalitions to defend their ownership of Machu Picchu and its cultural remains, while Bingham claimed the artifacts ought to be studied by experts in American institutions, an argument that still exists today.[17]

In 1964, Gene Savoy did further exploration of the ruins at Espiritu Pampa and revealed the full extent of the site, identifying it as Vilcabamba Viejo where the Incas fled to after the Spanish drove them from Vitcos.[18]

In 1981, Peru declared an area of 325.92 square kilometres (125.84 sq mi) surrounding Machu Picchu a "Historical Sanctuary". In addition to the ruins, the sanctuary includes a large portion of the adjoining region, rich with the flora and fauna of the Peruvian Yungas and Central Andean wet puna ecoregions.[19]

In 1983, UNESCO designated Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site, describing it as "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization".[2]

Demystifying the discovery

Hiram Bingham glorified the discovery of Machu Picchu and much of its history. This came to light after his son Alfred discovered letters that his father had sent his mother in 1911. Early publications led many people to believe that Hiram had long sought the lost city of the Incas and found it after trekking through a hazardous tropical jungle. Actually, Machu Picchu was not a chief objective of the 1911 expedition, and Hiram was led to it on a 48-hour journey. The road to Machu Picchu was located next to a heavily populated farm region. Although Hiram often claimed that the paths to Machu Picchu were the most inaccessible in all of the Andes, his letters indicate that he used a modern road system and travelled to the region with ease. It is said that the original journey only took Hiram one and a half hours. Today, tourists can reach the ruins from the train stop in 15 minutes.[20]

Hiram also claimed that all the ruins were covered in dense vegetation, but unpublished photographs from the original journey, discovered by Alfred, show the ruins in a clear open space. The letters and photographs suggest that Machu Picchu was not isolated in wilderness, but was connected and populated by several indigenous families. Alfred also suggests that his father did not originally value his findings at Machu Picchu as he only spent one afternoon there. He only decided to further investigate the ruins after some prominent plantation owners told him they knew little of the location's existence.[21]

Human sacrifice, aliens and mysticism

There is little information on human sacrifices taking place at Machu Picchu. This can be attributed to the fact that many sacrifices were never given a proper burial and their skeletal remains have succumbed to the elements.[22]:115 However, there is evidence of retainer sacrifices. In these unique cases, human sacrifices were made to accompany a deceased noble in the afterlife.[22]:107,119 Animal, liquid, and dirt sacrifices to the gods were much more common. They were made at the Altar of the Condor and are still made today by members of the New Age Andean religion.[23]:263

Some New Age Andean cosmologists believe that aliens once inhabited the Cusco region and are responsible for building Machu Picchu's grand architecture. These views have been widely rejected by Peruvians as they feel their ancestors were capable of such technological and architectural feats.[23]:273–4


Map of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu lies in the southern hemisphere, 13.164 degrees south of the equator.[24] It is 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Cusco, on the crest of the mountain Machu Picchu, located about 2,430 metres (7,970 feet) above mean sea level, over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) lower than Cusco, which has an elevation of 3,600 metres (11,800 ft).[24] As such, it had a milder climate than the Inca capital. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Latin America [25] and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru.

The year at Machu Picchu is divided between wet and dry seasons, with the majority of annual rain falling from October through to April. It can rain at any time of the year.[24]

Machu Picchu is situated above a bow of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, with cliffs dropping vertically for 450 metres (1,480 ft) to the river at their base. The area is subject to morning mists rising from the river.[9] The location of the city was a military secret, and its deep precipices and steep mountains provided excellent natural defenses. The Inca Bridge, an Inca grass rope bridge, across the Urubamba River in the Pongo de Mainique, provided a secret entrance for the Inca army. Another Inca bridge was built to the west of Machu Picchu, the tree-trunk bridge, at a location where a gap occurs in the cliff that measures 6 metres (20 ft). It could be bridged by two tree trunks, but with the trees removed, there was a 570 metres (1,870 ft) fall to the base of the cliffs.

The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu,[9] with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides.[26] Two high-altitude routes from Machu Picchu go across the mountains back to Cusco, one through the sun gate, and the other across the Inca bridge. Both could be blocked easily, should invaders approach along them. Regardless of its original purpose, it is strategically located and readily defended.


The dawn mist lifts above the terraced structures
Terraced fields in the upper agricultural sector


The site is roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector, and into an upper town and a lower town. The temples are in the upper town, the warehouses in the lower.[27]

The architecture is adapted to the mountains. Approximately 200 buildings are arranged on wide parallel terraces around a vast central square that is oriented east-west. The various compounds, called kanchas, are long and narrow in order to exploit the terrain. Extensive terraces were used for agriculture and sophisticated channeling systems provided irrigation for the fields. Numerous stone stairways set in the walls allowed access to the different levels across the site. The eastern section of the city was probably residential. The western, separated by the square, was for religious and ceremonial purposes. This section contains the Torreón, the massive tower which may have been used as an observatory.[28]

Temple of the Sun or Torreon

Located in the first zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, their sun god and greatest deity.

The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower-class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simple houses.

The royalty area, a sector for the nobility, is a group of houses located in rows over a slope; the residence of the amautas (wise persons) was characterized by its reddish walls, and the zone of the ñustas (princesses) had trapezoid-shaped rooms. The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.

The Guardhouse is a three-sided building, with one of its long sides opening onto the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock. The three-sided style of Inca architecture is known as the wayrona style.[29]

Inti Watana stone

Inti Watana is believed to have been designed as an astronomic clock or calendar by the Incas
The sculpture carved out from the rock bottom of the sun temple is interpreted as "Water mirrors for observing the sky".[30] Tourist guides also talk about the "Eyes of Pachamama" (Mother Earth).

The Inti Watana stone is one of many ritual stones in South America. These stones are arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. The name of the stone (perhaps coined by Bingham) derives from Quechua language: inti means "sun", and wata-, "to tie, hitch (up)". The suffix -na derives nouns for tools or places. Hence inti watana is literally an instrument or place to "tie up the sun", often expressed in English as "The Hitching Post of the Sun". The Inca believed the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky. The stone is situated at 13°9'48" S. At midday on 11 November and 30 January, the sun stands almost exactly above the pillar, casting no shadow. On 21 June, the stone casts the longest shadow on its southern side, and on 21 December a much shorter shadow on its northern side.

Inti Mach'ay and the Royal Feast of the Sun

Inti Mach'ay is a special cave used to observe the Royal Feast of the Sun. This festival was celebrated during the Incan month of Qhapaq Raymi. It began earlier in the month and concluded on the December solstice. On this day, boys of the nobility were initiated into manhood by an ear-piercing ritual as they stood inside the cave and watched the sun rise.[31]

Architecturally, Inti Mach'ay is the most significant structure at Machu Picchu. Its entrances, walls, steps and windows are some of the finest masonry in Incan Empire. The cave also includes a tunnel-like window unique among Incan structures, which was constructed to only allow sunlight into the cave during several days around the December solstice. For this reason, the cave was inaccessible for much of the year.[32] Inti Mach'ay is located on the eastern side of Machu Picchu, just north of the "Condor Stone." Many of the caves surrounding this area were prehistorically used as tombs, yet there is no evidence that Mach'ay was a burial ground.[33]


The central buildings of Machu Picchu use the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were masters of this technique, called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many junctions in the central city are so perfect that it is said not even a blade of grass fits between the stones.

View of the residential section of Machu Picchu
Interior of an Inca building, featuring trapezoidal windows
Funerary Stone in upper cemetery

The section of the mountain where Machu Picchu was built provided several beneficial and detrimental factors. The Inca solved the detriments with local materials.

The most apparent detriment was the seismic activity due to the two surrounding fault lines. It made mortar and similar building methods nearly useless. Instead, the Inca mined stoned from the natural quarry at the site, lined them up and shaped them to fit together perfectly, making the buildings sturdier than mortar would. This allowed to construct the over 200 buildings atop the mountain. Inca walls have many stabilizing features: doors and windows are trapezoidal, tilting in from bottom to top; corners usually are rounded; inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms; and outside corners were often tied together by "L"-shaped blocks; walls are offset slightly from row to row rather than rising straight from bottom to top.

Another detriment was the heavy rainfall. To drain rain water and prevent mud slides, landslides, erosion and flooding, the Incas used terraces and stone chips. Terraces were layered with stone chips, sand, dirt and top soil, to soak water in and prevent it from running down the mountain. Similar layering protected the large city center from flooding.[34]

The Incas never used the wheel in a practical way, although its use in toys shows that they knew its principle. Its use in engineering may have been impractical due to the lack of strong draft animals, the steep terrain and dense vegetation. How they moved and placed the enormous stones remains uncertain, but the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes. A few stones have knobs that could have been used to lever them into position; it is believed that after placing the stones, the builders would have sanded the knobs away, but a few were overlooked.

Roads and transportation

As part of their road system, the Incas built a road to the Machu Picchu region. Today, thousands of tourists walk the Inca Trail to visit Machu Picchu each year. They congregate at Cusco before starting on the one-, two-, four- or five-day journey on foot from Kilometer 82 (or 77 or 85, four/five-day trip) or Kilometer 104 (one/two-day trip) near the town of Ollantaytambo in the Urubamba valley, walking up through the Andes mountain range to the isolated city.

The people of Machu Picchu were connected to long-distance trade, as shown by non-local artifacts found at the site. For example, Bingham found unmodified obsidian nodules at the entrance gateway. In the 1970s, Burger and Asaro determined that these obsidian samples were from the Titicaca or Chivay obsidian source, and that the samples from Machu Picchu showed long-distance transport of this obsidian type in pre-Hispanic Peru.[35]

3D laser scanning of site

In 2005 and 2009, the University of Arkansas made detailed laser scans of the entire Machu Picchu site and of the ruins at the top of the adjacent Huayna Picchu mountain. The university has made the scan data available online for research purposes.[36]


Tourist impact

Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both cultural and natural. Since its discovery in 1911, growing numbers of tourists visit the site yearly, reaching 400,000 in 2000.[37] As Peru's most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator, it is continually threatened by economic and commercial forces. In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants. Many people protested against the plans, including Peruvians and foreign scientists, saying that the greater numbers of visitors would pose a tremendous physical burden on the ruins.[38] Many protested a plan to build a bridge to the site as well.[39] A no-fly zone exists above the area.[40] UNESCO is considering putting Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage in Danger.[39]

During the 1980s a large rock from Machu Picchu's central plaza was moved out of its alignment to a different location to create a helicopter landing zone. Since the 1990s, the government has forbidden helicopter landings there. In 2006, a Cusco-based company, Helicusco, sought to have tourist flights over Machu Picchu and initially received a license to do so, but the government quickly overturned the decision.[41]

In recent years, Machu Picchu has experienced a multitude of issues of tourist safety. There have been several accounts of tourist deaths linked to altitude sickness, floods and hiking accidents.[42][43][44][45] It has also been noted that UNESCO has received harsh criticism for allowing tourists to go to the location even though there are high risks of landslides, earthquakes and injury due to decaying structures.[46]

Naked tourism is recent trend to the dismay of Peruvian officials. In several incidents, tourists were detained for posing for nude pictures or streaking across the grassy fields of Machu Picchu. Peru's Ministry of Culture has denounced these acts for threatening Peru's cultural heritage. Cusco's Regional Director of Culture has increased surveillance to crack down on naked tourism.[47]

January 2010 evacuation

In January 2010, heavy rain caused flooding which buried or washed away roads and railways to Machu Picchu, trapping more than 2,000 locals and more than 2,000 tourists, who were later airlifted. Machu Picchu was temporarily closed,[48] but it reopened on 1 April 2010.[49]

View of Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu, showing the Hiram Bingham Highway used by tour buses to and from the town of Aguas Calientes

Entrance restrictions

In July 2011, the Dirección Regional de Cultura Cusco (DRC) introduced new entrance rules to the citadel of Machu Picchu.[50] The tougher entrance rules were a measure to reduce the impact of tourism on the site. Entrance was limited to 2,500 visitors per day, and entrance to Huayna Picchu (within the citadel) was further restricted to 400 visitors per day, in two allocated time slots at 7am and 10am.

In May 2012, a team of UNESCO conservation experts called on Peruvian authorities to take "emergency measures" to further stabilize the site’s buffer zone and protect it from damage due to tourism-related development, particularly in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, which has grown rapidly.[51]

Cultural artifacts: Dispute between Peru and Yale University

In 1912, 1914 and 1915, Bingham excavated thousands of artifacts from Machu Picchu—ceramic vessels, silver statues, jewelry, and human bones—and took them to Yale University in the United States for further study, supposedly for 18 months. Yale kept the artifacts until 2012, arguing that Peru lacked the infrastructure and conditions to care for them. Eliane Karp, an anthropologist who is married to the former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, had accused Yale of profiting from Peru's cultural heritage. Many of articles were exhibited at Yale's Peabody Museum.

In 2006, Yale returned some of the pieces but kept the rest, claiming this was supported by federal case law of Peruvian antiquities.[52] On 19 September 2007, the Courant reported that Peru and Yale had agreed on the return of the artifacts. The agreement included a joint traveling exhibition and construction of a new museum and research center in Cusco advised by Yale. Yale acknowledged Peru's title to all the objects, but would share rights with Peru in the research collection, part of which would remain at Yale for continuing study.[53] On 19 June 2008, National Geographic Society's vice-president Terry Garcia was quoted by the daily publication, La República. "We were part of this agreement. National Geographic was there, we know what was said, the objects were lent and should be returned." On 21 November 2010, Yale agreed to return the disputed artifacts.[54] The third and final batch of artifacts was delivered November 2012.[55] The Yale artifacts are now permanently exhibited at La Casa Concha ("The Shell House") close to Cusco's colonial center. Owned by the National University of San Antonio Abad Del Cusco, La Casa Concha also features a study area for local and foreign students.

Panoramic photograph of Machu Picchu, looking towards Huayna Picchu
Panoramic photograph of the residential section

In media

The 1954 film Secret of the Incas by Paramount Pictures with Charlton Heston and Ima Sumac was filmed on location at Cusco and Machu Picchu, the first time that a major Hollywood studio filmed on site. Five hundred indigenous people were hired as extras in the film.[56]

The opening sequence of the 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God was shot in the Machu Picchu area and on the stone stairway of Huayna Picchu.[57]

Machu Picchu also is featured prominently in the 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries, a biopic based on the 1952 youthful travel memoir of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.[58]

The NOVA television documentary "Ghosts of Machu Picchu" presents an elaborate documentary on the mysteries of Machu Picchu.[59]

Contemporary multimedia artist Kimsooja used Macchu Picchu as the primary setting for the first episode of her film series Thread Routes, shot in 2010.[60]

The song "Kilimanjaro" from the 2010 South Indian Tamil film Enthiran was filmed in Machu Picchu.[61] The sanction for filming was granted only after direct intervention from the Indian government.[62][63]

See also


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