South America

A Brief Guide to the Mysterious Wonders of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, the famous “Lost City of the Incas” is a worthy travel destination for anyone who journeys to the heart of South America.  Perched high in the peaks of the Andes, this Seven Wonders of the World monument is amazing in its scenic splendor and its mysterious historical ramifications.

Machu Picchu

Amazingly, this now famous mountaintop aerie was unknown to the modern world until the early 1900s when famed explorer and Yale Professor Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it.  This rather late “discovery” was due to its hidden nature, high on a ridge, surrounded by dense rainforest, and completely obscured from the ground below.

Today the ruins are a must-see item for anyone that fancies themselves a sophisticated world traveler.

Most people get to Machu Picchu by flying to Lima, Peru and then on to Cusco. There are plenty to do in both locations. If you’re only in Lima for a day, check this post about how to best spend one day in Lima over at Vickiviaja.

Thought to mean “Old Peak” in the old Quechua language, Machu Picchu is an amalgamation of more than 100 ancient structures, once home to a vibrant and advanced society.  Today the compound boasts wonders galore, and thousands of stairs that give travelers a workout as they marvel at how the each of these enormous stone slabs managed to be brought to the top of the peak.

One of the interesting things about Machu Picchu is that its isolated location is the only reason it survived the centuries.  This sacred ceremonial center – which also doubled as an astronomical observatory in which the sun is completely blocked during the equinoxes – was preserved during the Spanish conquest because it couldn’t be found, unlike the untold hundreds of Incan cities that were destroyed by Pizarro and his men.

Machu Picchu

Today the tourist Mecca of Machu Picchu is explored in a number of different ways:

  • For the true and hearty traveler, the classic Inca Trail is the way to go, as you traverse the Andes, exploring along the way.  After a long and arduous journey, you will finally emerge above the clouds and through Inipunku (“Gate of the Sun”), harkening your arrival at Machu Picchu.
  • A less-traveled (though less grueling) path, the trails of Cordiellera Vilcabamba affords you the opportunity to reach Machu Picchu via an assemblage of incredibly varied ecosystems.
  • There is also a “backdoor” route for travelers that want to avoid the crowds, the Inca Jungle Trail.  This route takes you through a number of villages and farms.

Once on site, you’ll be blown away by these prominent features and attractions:

  • The remarkable stonework on the famed Temple of the Sun, which was constructed using incredibly advanced masonry techniques.  The stones in the Temple of the Sun were fit together perfectly, requiring absolutely no adhesive to keep them in place for hundreds and hundreds of years.  To this day, you can’t even stick a letter opener in between these mammoth rocks, they are so secure!
  • On the south end of Machu Picchu you will see the Wayna Picchu, a steep mountain that hearty hikers are free to scale if they so choose.  The hike can be a bit treacherous, but the views from the top are extraordinary.
  • And if your mind is as sturdy as your heart and lungs, you might take some interest in the Temple of the Condor, which will at first appear to be another shrine of some sort.  But a closer look will reveal that these chambered grooves in the elevated stage were likely used as a public torture arena, no doubt designed to thwart and deter wrongdoers from going against the mores of society.

There is far more to Machu Picchu than I could describe in this brief article – and there is more to a Peru travel experience than simply Machu Picchu – but this pithy primer should give you an overview of what to look for as you prepare to cross this wonder of the world off your travel “bucket list”.

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