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Machu Picchu

10 things you probably didn’t know about Machu Picchu, Peru

Published December 01, 2014 by Nick Dall

Machu Picchu, near Cusco, is the most well-known tourist destination in South America and it’s right up there on the world stage too. But most people don’t know much more about it than the fact that it’s in Peru and it was built by the Incas. Read this blog to ensure that you’ll be able to ask your guide intelligent questions when you visit Machu Picchu with SA Expeditions.
1. Machu Picchu means ‘old peak’ or ‘old mountain’ in the local Quechua tongue. Machu has one 'c' and Picchu has two. Get it right!
2. Almost all known Inca settlements, cities and sites were at least partially destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors: one need only visit Cusco to see what they were capable of. Machu Picchu’s location saved it: because it isn't visible from below, the Spanish never found it.
3. Although Hiram Bingham is credited as the first westerner to discover the ruins (in 1911), it’s highly likely that others had been before him – perhaps as many as 40 years earlier. Bingham was definitely the first academic to discover them, and his book Lost City of the Incas caused quite a storm in the US and Europe. Ironically, Machu Picchu probably isn’t the lost city Bingham was looking for: he was intent on finding Vilcabamba, which is believed to be about 50 miles west of Machu Picchu.

Bingham on expedition.

4. The Incas are probably the greatest stone-masons ever to have walked the earth. For all its magnificence, the construction of Machu Picchu did not require a single ounce of mortar: instead the Incas cut their stone blocks so precisely that they were able to wedge them together so tightly that the blade of a knife cannot fit between them. Not only is this an amazing feat of engineering but it’s also very useful in an area prone to earthquakes: during a quake or tremor the stones ‘dance’ but the walls do not crack or fall. Cusco’s quakes of 1650 and 1950 were clear proof of the superiority of Inca construction over Spanish – Spanish churches crumbled but their Inca foundations stood firm.
5. Not only was Inca stone-masonry exceptional, but their labourers are thought to have carried the 50 pound stones to the site by hand. Incas did not have wheeled vehicles, and they did not use animals to lug or carry heavy items. Throughout Machu Pichu there are more than 100 staircases. Almost all of which are carved from a single piece of stone – I wonder how they got there?

MP Train Aguas Calient Gerry Zambonini
The train at Aguas Calientes (Picture: Gerry Zambonini)

6. Unless you’re fit enough to do the (absolutely incredible) Inca Trail, you’ll arrive at Machu Picchu via rail (and a short drive from the station at Aguas Calientes). There are two options: a 3.5 hour journey from Cusco or a 1.5 hour ride from Ollantaytambo. The fact that there are no roads to Machu Picchu has allowed the Peruvian government to control the number of visitors, in the process ensuring that the ruins are excellently preserved.
7. If you hike the Inca Trail you’ll probably notice that the porters sleep on top of a small piece of mirror or reflective metal, face down on the earth. They do this to protect themselves from being whisked away by evil spirits which live within the earth
8. Although the Inca trail is a challenge for most people when completed over four days, there is now an annual Inca trail marathon where runners compete the course in under 12 hours. The record stands at just under four hours!

Inca Trail Ed Porras
Day two of the trail. (Picture: Ed Porras)

9. Like all tourist attractions, Machu Picchu has rules of entry. Most of them are pretty standard, but one is very quirky indeed as it forbids you to enter the ruins in the traditional dress of another country. Best you leave the kilt at home then…
10. One of the peculiarities of Machu Picchu is that there is hardly any information about the ruins on site. There is, however, a very good ‘museo del sitio’ a few miles from Aguas Calientes. Your guide will be happy to incorporate this into your itinerary – just ask.