Ten Fascinating Facts About the Legendary City of Machu Picchu

There are bucket-list destinations. And then there’s Machu Picchu. And while it may be known around the world as one of our planet’s most mysterious archaeological sites, there’s actually quite a lot that we do know – or think we know – about Machu Picchu, how it was built, why it was built, and all that stuff. So! We thought we’d put together a quick list of some of those fascinating facts and share them with y’all here. Check ’em out:

Constructed at the height of the Inca empire around the year 1450, archaeologists and historians believe that Machu Picchu was most likely built to be a royal estate for Inca nobility, quite possibly for an Inca emperor named Pachacuti. In its heyday it’s believed that only around 750 people actually lived in the citadel, and were mostly support staff consisting of religious figures, workers and farmers.

The name Machu Picchu means “old peak” or “old mountain” in the Quechua Indian language.

Its construction alone is just crazy crazy. Machu Picchu consists of more than 150 buildings of differing sizes and functions, and more than 100 separate flights of stairs, many of which were carved from a single slab of stone. And it’s believed that the massive stones used in its construction were actually pushed up the steep mountainside by hundreds upon hundreds of workers. One they got the stones up there, they were actually cut by hand and fit together so well that no absolutely mortar was used. Told you. Crazy.

The city was abandoned a relatively short time after its construction, right around a hundred years later in the year 1550. Again, archaeologists and historians are guessing that the Inca fled Machu Picchu because of the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in many parts of the empire, even though the Spanish never actually made their way to Machu Picchu. Over the next few hundred years the site was taken completely over by the surrounding jungle and its existence was known only to the few local residents living in the area.

Machu Picchu was only “discovered” once again by the outside world when an American named Hiram Bingham – an explorer and lecturer at Yale University – was led to the site by local residents while on a expedition to Peru in 1911. Knowing he’d stumbled on something remarkable, he returned to Machu Picchu the next year and with the help of local laborers spent four months clearing the site of all the overgrown vegetation, and revealing the magnificent and relatively undisturbed ruins beneath.

Machu Picchu lies at an elevation of roughly 7,970 feet above sea level, and sits in the middle of a saddle between two higher mountains: Huayna Picchu, and Machu Picchu Mountain (which is the mountain we climbed at the end of the episode).

The city lies at the base of Machu Picchu Mountain (left).

Several people have in fact died over the years at Machu Picchu, including a German tourist who fell to his death from a ledge atop Machu Picchu mountain while posing for one of those “mid-jump” photos in 2016. The unfortunate list also includes an American woman who fell to her death from Huayna Picchu in 1997, a Russian tourist who died after getting struck by lightning on the same peak, and several other tourists from around the world who either fell, where crushed by rocks, or who had heart attacks at the site. So, yeah. Be careful up there!

The view from atop Machu Picchu Mountain.

Machu Picchu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the Modern World by a popular vote in 2007, along with the Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt), the Great Wall of China (China), the ancient city of Petra (Jordan), the Colosseum in Rome (Italy), Chichen Itza (Mexico), the Taj Mahal (India) and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

It is the most popular tourist destination in Peru and one of the most popular in all of Latin America. The number of people visiting Machu Picchu has grown every year since its rediscovery in 1911, and the latest estimates say that more than 1.4 million people visited the site in 2017 alone! And that explosive tourism has created a number of serious problems for the site and the Peruvian government. In an attempt to better protect the site by controlling the number of visitors, the government in 2011 decided to cap the daily entrance limit at Machu Picchu at just 2,500 people. But our contacts and guides there tell us that number is rarely actually enforced, leading conservation experts calling for stricter measures and better enforcement.

While the vast majority of visitors arrive to Machu Picchu by train (and then to the site itself by bus), every year thousands of people choose to hike to the site along what’s called the Inca Trail. They’ll typically start in the cities of Cusco or Ollantaytambo and walk anywhere from one to five days to reach a spectacular place called the Sun Gate, which welcomes them into Machu Picchu itself. But even that’s become so popular that the government has limited the number of trekkers on the trail to 200 people. So if you go, book early. And get lots of exercise.

Ever been to Machu PIcchu? What did you think? Got some good stories you can share? Leave ’em in the comments below. We’d love to hear ’em!

Cheers guys! And as always, safe travels!

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