Nestled in the Andes Mountains at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, the Inca refuge of Machu Picchu has fascinated travelers from around the globe. From its cloud forests to its remarkable design, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is a site woven with mystery and wonder.
If you’re embarking on an adventure to Machu Picchu, you’ll want to be well versed in the astounding destination you’re about to experience. Here, we’ll explore the history and architecture of Machu Picchu, plus current initiatives to help protect this iconic site and its surrounding ecosystems.
The Role of Machu Picchu in the Inca Empire is Still a Mystery
Though Machu Picchu was built centuries ago, its existence was made known to the world in the early 1900s. Historians date the construction of Machu Picchu to the 15th or 16th century. The site is made up of structures that would serve various purposes, including temples, dwellings, and structures that appear to function as ancient clocks or calendars.
Because of this, there are still multiple theories as to the purpose of Machu Picchu’s creation and its role in Inca society. Some scholars have hypothesized Machu Picchu could have been a center of trade, or a coronation site for kings. Most modern-day archeologists now believe it was either a religious site or a royal estate.
There still remains much to be discovered, and new clues continue to piece together the story of this historic sanctuary. Just this year, researchers published new data revealing Machu Picchu may be decades older than once believed. While timelines up until recently were pieced together by historical accounts, radiocarbon dating now shows Machu Picchu’s origins may go back to 1420, or even earlier. Indeed, the mystery continues to unfold!
Machu Picchu Reflects Innovative Design
In Quechua, Machu Picchu means “Old Peak” or “Old Mountain.” Machu Picchu’s design seems to naturally extend from and integrate with the environment, creating an awe-inspiring sight amongst the clouds. Throughout this historic sanctuary, you’ll find terraces, monuments, and water fountains. And what is unseen is just as impressive: excavations have discovered an intricate underground drainage system that helps provide stability to the site’s foundation.
Some of the most famous sights at Machu Picchu include the Temple of the Sun, the Intihuatna Stone (believed to be an astronomical tool), and the Temple of the Condor. Look closely at the stones, and you’ll be amazed at their cut and precision. The Incas used a masonry technique called ashlar to build Machu Picchu, and stones are cut to fit without mortar.
Machu Picchu was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983. The Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu was awarded this honor for both its environmental and archeological treasures. Its World Heritage designation covers over 30,000 hectares surrounding the site.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a Journey Through History
Visiting Machu Picchu is a travel dream for those fascinated by history and nature, and it also draws thousands of trekking enthusiasts each year. The Inca Trail – an ancient route navigated by the Incas from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu – is considered one of the most famous hikes in South America.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is just one part of an extensive trail system that weaves throughout Peru and surrounding regions. These trails were essential to the Inca Empire in transporting goods and maintaining communication between the Inca’s various territories.
Today, the Inca Trail typically takes several days to complete. Along the way, trekkers experience an immersive journey through Peru’s jungles and great heights, capping each evening under canopies of stars. The trail courses through rugged mountain terrain, brilliant rainforest, and passes several other archeological sites before arriving at Inti Punku – Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate. For those who embark on the adventure, this 24-mile trail is both challenging and incredibly rewarding. Experience the Inca Trail with our 7 Day Peru & Machu Picchu tour.
Machu Picchu is Surrounded by Abundant Ecosystems
Machu Picchu is not only a historical sanctuary, but a home for an abundance of flora and fauna. Its proximity to the mountains, rainforest, and Urubamba River provides a nourishing environment for nature to thrive.
Hundreds of species of birds and butterflies live in the region, along with spectacled bears, alpacas, and vizcachas. Many of the species in the region are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Peru. And along with verdant terrain, you’ll also find an exquisite array of orchids in the area. Peru is home to about 10% of the world’s orchid species, and over 300 species have been identified in Machu Picchu alone.
The architecture of Machu Picchu also beautifully compliments the surrounding environment. The main gate, for example, frames the peak of Huayna Picchu, while windows throughout the site offer picturesque views of the Urubamba River. And though Machu Picchu’s fountains provided the practical functions of water supply, their design also suggests an Inca appreciation for the sight and sound of flowing water.
Machu Picchu is Leading the Way in Sustainability
Machu Picchu is a pillar of design and innovation, and today, Peru is going to great lengths to preserve its beauty for future generations. A number of efforts are currently underway to ensure the longevity of the site and align with Peru’s Paris Agreement goals.
For example, entrance to Machu Picchu via hiking trails or railroad provides low-carbon transportation, while single-use plastics are forbidden. A biodiesel plant transforms cooking oil from neighboring restaurants and hotels into eco-friendly fuel (and keeps it from spilling into the Vilcanota River). Also, a reforestation project is in motion, with the goal of planting one million trees around the ancient site. Among its many accolades, Machu Picchu was recently awarded another very exciting one: the world’s first carbon neutral certified tourist destination. As Peru aims to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, this certification reflects Machu Picchu’s climate commitments and initiatives.