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Hidden between the tops of the Andes mountains are the majestic ruins of the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu. The palaces, squares and temples of Machu Picchu are situated at an altitude of 2,430 metres and were built around 1440. A visit to this ‘new’ wonder of the world, one of South America’s most popular attractions, is essential when you travel to Peru.
Machu Picchu is situated in the Urubamba Valley. The name Machu Picchu means ‘Ancient Peak’ in Quechua, the language of the indigenous people. The closest city is Cusco, which used to be the capital of the ancient Inca empire, and it is easily reachable from Lima by air. From here there are various ways to visit Machu Picchu, a very popular tourist destination. Booking in advance is required as the number of tourists allowed to visit a day is limited to protect the site.
The construction of Machu Picchu started around 1440, as ordered by emperor Pachacuti. Nobody is certain what its function was. It may well have been accommodation for the emperor and his court, while the location seems to have a spiritual significance. The city is completely surrounded by the Urubamba, a river sacred to the Incas, and the many temples underline the religious character. The Incas abandoned the city around 1530. The Spanish colonists never discovered Machu Picchu; it wasn’t until 1911 that the American Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the Inca complex.
The temples and palaces of Machu Picchu were built from huge blocks of granite which are typical of Inca architecture. It’s remarkable how meticulously the blocks were carved; it is literally impossible to get a needle in edgewise.
A great example is the Temple of the Sun. This ruin is located at the highest point of the city, the Torreón. The Incas worshipped the sun as their most important god, and the higher the tower, the holier the place. This temple is also where most rituals were performed.
The Inca Trail is one of the most popular walking routes in Latin America. This is the route that the Incas had to take to reach Machu Picchu. The longest trail is 88 kilometres and will take you through the stunning landscapes of the Andes. Most people reserve four days for the adventure, and hikers can camp along the route. Be prepared: due to the thin air in the mountains, you have to be in good shape. As the number of hikers allowed is limited, booking in advance is required.
Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes
Machu Picchu can also be reached in a more comfortable way. The village of Aguas Calientes, also known as Pueblo Machu Picchu, is situated just 2 kilometres from the Inca city and has a rail station. The train ride from Cusco takes some 3.5 hours with wonderful views of the Andes on the way. Book your train tickets in advance; especially in the months between May and September it is extremely busy.
Machu Picchu is not only impressive for its Inca palaces and temples – the surroundings are equally stunning. The fauna is quite special. In addition to the typical llamas and alpacas, which were already part of the agricultural tradition of the Incas, you may see spectacled bears, hummingbirds and the Andean cock-of-the-rock (the national bird of Peru) in this part of the Andes. Remember to look up as well to see condors hunting their prey.