It is popularly known that Machu Picchu, hidden in a mountainous landscape located northwest of Cuzco (Peru), functioned as a royal property or a place of great religiosity, of a sacred nature for the Inca leaders, whose civilization was practically annihilated during the 16th century. because of the Spanish conquest. For hundreds of years, until the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911, the existence of the abandoned citadel was a secret known only to local peasants. The archaeological complex extends over 8 km and has more than 3,000 stone steps that join its different levels. To this day, hundreds of thousands of people trek through Machu Picchu each year, braving vast crowds and complicating geographic and climatic conditions to catch the sunset over its towering stone monuments and marvel at the mysterious splendor of one of the most famous man-made wonders in the world.
The Inca past
Historians believe that Machu Picchu was built at the height of the Inca Empire, which dominated western South America during the 15th and 16th centuries. Its estancias are estimated to have been abandoned 100 years after they were built, around the time the Spanish began their conquest of the powerful pre-Columbian civilization in the 1530s. Despite matching dates, there is no evidence that the estancias conquerors arrived or attacked the citadel located on top of the mountain; based on these facts, some have suggested that the desertion and abandonment of the residents occurred because of a smallpox epidemic that invaded the area.
Many current archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu served as a royal residence for Inca emperors and nobles. Others theorize that it was a place dedicated to religious worship, pointing out its proximity to mountains and other geographical features that the Incas considered sacred. In the years since Machu Picchu became known to the world, a multitude of alternative hypotheses have emerged, which scholars have also interpreted as a prison, a center of commerce, a station to test new crops, a place of retirement for women or a city dedicated to the coronation of
kings, among many other alternative examples.
The “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham
In the summer of 1911, American archaeologist Hiram Bingham arrived in Peru with a small team of explorers hoping to find Vilcabamba, the last Inca fortress fallen to the Spanish. Traveling on foot and by mule, Bingham and his team entered the Urubamba Valley, where a local farmer told them of some ruins perched on top of a nearby mountain.
The peasant named the mountain Machu Picchu, which in Quechua means “old peak or mountain.” On July 24, after a tough climb up the ridge in cold, drizzly weather, Bingham came across a small group of peasants who showed him the rest of the way. Guided by an 11-year-old boy, Bingham got his first glimpse of the intricate network of stone terraces that mark the entrance to Machu Picchu.
Bingham, enthusiastic, wrote in a book all the discoveries he had about this place in the Andes, which was a bestseller, “The Lost City of the Incas”, with which large numbers of tourists desperate to see it flocked to it. to Peru to follow in his footsteps along the previously obscure Inca Trail. He also excavated artifacts from the Inca culture at Machu Picchu and brought them to Yale University for analysis and study, sparking a custody dispute that lasted nearly 100 years. It wasn’t until the Peruvian government filed a large lawsuit and pressured President Barack Obama to return the objects that Yale agreed to complete their repatriation.
Although he is credited with making the citadel of Machu Picchu known to the world – moreover, the road used by the tourist buses to reach it bears his name – it is not a fact that Bingham was the first outsider to visit it. .
There are plenty of indications that missionaries and other explorers arrived at the site during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but they were simply less explicit or accepting of what they found there.
The site of Machu Picchu
In the middle of an Andean tropical forest or locally known as ceja de selva, introduced to the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes, the walls, terraces, stairs and ramps of Machu Picchu integrate perfectly into its natural environment, naturally protruding within the mountain. on which
it stands. The fine stonework of the site, the terraced fields and the sophisticated irrigation system are testament to the architectural, agricultural and engineering prowess that the Inca civilization possessed and one of the reasons why their empire spread so strongly to throughout the South
American continent. Its central buildings are excellent examples of an Inca-dominated masonry technique in which stones were cut to fit without adhesive between them, a practice known as ashlar.
Archaeologists have identified several differentiated sectors that make up the city: an agricultural area, a residential neighborhood, a royal district, and a sacred area. Among the most distinctive and famous structures of Machu Picchu are the Temple of the Sun and the Intihuatana stone, a sculpted granite rock that is believed to have functioned as a clock or solar calendar and determined the apparent solstice with great accuracy.
Machu Picchu today
The citadel was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and designated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the Modern World in 2007, Machu Picchu is the most visited attraction in Peru and the most famous ruins in South America, it welcomes hundreds of thousands of people a year. The increase in tourism, the development of nearby cities and environmental degradation continue to take their toll on the site, which
should also be noted as a refuge for many species of flora and fauna that are in danger of extinction.
To avoid this, the Peruvian government had to put great restrictions on the visit and conservation of the archaeological remains during the last years.
I am founder and content creator of Lorenzo Expeditions, since 2006 I started with the Inca Jungle tour, guiding and serving thousands of tourists in a personal way to get to know Machu Picchu in a unique and authentic way.