Machu Picchu is Peru’s most popular tourist attraction and one of the world’s most famous archeological sites.
In this extensive Machu Picchu facts article we have tried to distill the most interesting and fun facts about this famous city ruin, the people who built it and the region at large.
We encourage you to use the quicklinks below to help you navigate to the Machu Picchu facts that are most interesting to you.
Please note: if you are planning of visiting or trekking to Machu Picchu and want to read some excellent books about the city and Incas, we recommend Hugh Thomson’s seminal book called The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland or Mark Adam’s entertaining book that retraces his journey to Machu Picchu, called Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time.
If you looking for something a little more rigourous you should definitely check out Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas.
Machu Picchu Facts
Geographic Position and Altitude
Machu Picchu is located in the Cusco region of Peru, within the Urabamba Province. The site is 80km North-west of Cusco City. It’s exact geographic coordinates are 13.1633° S, 72.5456° W.
The Citadel sits in the saddle of two mountain peaks. Huayna Picchu (Young Peak) in the North and Machu Picchu Mountain (Old Peak) in the South. The outer sides of these mountains mark the location of two fault lines, which make Machu Picchu susceptible to earthquakes and landslides.
To counter these risks the Incas built elaborate terraces and internal structures that are earthquake-proof (more on this below)
The ruins sit at 2,430m (7,970 feet) above sea level.
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Origin and Architecture
Machu Picchu was built in the mid 15th century (1450s), during the reign of Incan emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472).
The exact purpose of the site is still unknown, but it is thought to have either been a site of great spiritual importance, or served as a country estate for the emperor.
Most academics fall into the second school of thought, although sites along the Inca Trail suggest that it may have also served as a spiritual retreat to honour nature.
The site was abandoned approximately 120 years after it was built, most likely due to the outbreak of smallpox, a disease that was introduced to the local population with the arrival of the Spanish.
It is often incorrectly referred to as the Lost City of the Incas (more on this below). Although it is not the Lost City, it is definitely the most iconic and recognisable Inca ruin.
The name Machu Picchu means Old Peak in Quechua.
Most of Machu Picchu was constructed in the Classical Inca style with dry polished walls. The Incas were masters of the construction technique called ashlar, in which stones are cut and moulded to fit together perfectly, without the use of mortar.
Some stone features in Machu Picchu are so perfect that it is difficult to even insert a blade of grass between them.
The stones that were used to build the 200 or so buildings at Machu Picchu were created from a quarry nearby the city. The ashlar technique was a critical design feature that provided additional building strength for the city which was built in an earthquake-prone area.
Chips for the ashlar stones were used to build the vast array of terraces that surround Machu Picchu, and provide an efficient drainage system that reduces the risk of landslides. There are over 700 agricultural terraces in and around Machu Picchu.
The terraces are incredible efficient at drainage, which any engineer or golf designer will tell you is key to stability in a landscape.
The structures within Machu Picchu were also constructed in a style that would protect the integrity of the building in the event of an earthquake. Doors and windows are trapezoidal in shape, tilting inwards for strength.
It is believed that the Incas never used wheels or pack animals to move and place stones as the steep gradient of the city would have rendered these techniques useless.
The exact way that the Incas managed to move and place stones is still unknown, although it is very likely they used manpower to push and lever stones using wooden structures and ropes tied around stony knobs that were fashioned on the stones.
Some of these knobs can still be seen on certain stone structures within the building, although most were filed flat.
Machu Picchu is divided into an urban and agricultural sector, and an upper and lower town. The upper town on the Western section was the religious area, and the lower town on the eastern section the residential area.
It is thought that around 1,000 people lived at Machu Picchu, the vast network of agricultural terraces would have easily been able to support as many people.
The primary archaeological sites are the Inti Watana (aka Intihuatana), the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows – all dedicated to their greatest deity, the Sun God.
Inti Watana (Intihuatana)
Inti Watana (aka as the ‘The Hitching Post of the Sun’) is a stone placed within Machu Picchu’s Citadel that points directly at the sun during the winter solstice. It is believed that the Inca’s thought the Inti Watana kept the sun on it’s path as it travelled through sky during the year.
On November 11th and January 31st, the sun stands directly above the stone at midday, and casts no shadow. On the 21st June the stone casts the longest shadow to it’s northern side at midday, and a lesser shadow on it’s southern side on the 21st December.
Archeologists and anthropologists believe the Inti Watana served as a astronomic clock or calendar.
The Temple of the Sun
The Temple of the Sun is a semi-circular building that sits above the Inti Mach’ay, and was built into the natural environment with a large stone forming the foundation of the structure.
It is thought that the Temple of the Sun was used as a solar observatory, with the two windows in the structure related to the Summer and Winter solstice.
Inti Mach’ay is a cave that is situated below the Temple of the Sun. It is believed to have been designed and constructed to celebrate the Royal Feast of the Sun, a Inca festival celebrated by the nobility during the December solstice.
The Inti Mach’ay is one of Machu Picchu’s most impressive architectural structures. Inside the cave tunnel is a window unlike any constructed by the Inca’s, which is strategically aligned to only allow sunlight into the structure during a few days of the December Solstice.
The Room or Temple or Three Windows
The Temple of Three Windows is a beautiful structure fashioned from large polished stones that are artfully placed to create three windows that over look the lower city at Machu Picchu, and frame the mountainous landscape. The windows are situated in the Royal sector of Machu Picchu.
There exact purpose is unknown, although it is clear that there were originally five windows. When Bingham saw the windows he surmised that they represented three mythological caves from which the Ayar brothers, children of the sun, stepped into the world.
It has also been suggested that the windows represent the underground, the heavens and the earth.
The weather in and around Machu Picchu is characterised by two distinct seasons – a dry season which runs from late April through to early October, and a wet season which starts mid October and ends mid April.
Temperatures throughout the year are consistently warm during the day and cold at night and in the mornings.
The charts below show historical weather patterns in Machu Picchu.
Discovery and Hiram Bingham
Machu Picchu was abandoned by the Incas in the year 1572. The exact reason is still unknown but it is thought that the Inca’s either left the site due to increased encroachment from Spanish Conquistadors or due to an outbreak of smallpox.
Interestingly the Spanish never discovered Machu Picchu, which is just as well, as it is likely that the city would have been largely destroyed if they did find it.
After it was abandoned, the city fell into disrepair and became covered in overgrowth. Although known to locals, Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside world until a Yale professor, Hiram Bingham, rediscovered it in 1911.
Bingham’s discovery brought Machu Picchu to the attention of the world, but it is likely that other Westerners knew of the site and had perhaps visited before Bingham’s discovery in 1911.
A german called Agusto Berns bought land opposite the site in 1864 and is thought to have plundered some artefacts from the ruins.
A map dating back to 1874 shows the site of Machu Picchu, and a year later a French traveller, Charles Weiner, published an account of an impressive Inca ruin called ‘Huainapicchu’ and ‘Matchopicchu’.
Read more about Hiram Bingham and his search for the Lost City of the Inca’s here.
Artefacts and Disputes Between Yale and Peruvian Authorities
During Bingham’s visits to Machu Picchu in 1912, 1914 and 1915, many artefacts – including silver statues, bones, mummies and ceramics – were removed from the city ruins for further study at Yale.
The artefacts were meant to be returned after 18 months, but were only officially returned in their entirety in 2012. Yale claimed the delay in returning the artefacts was on account of Peru’s poor infrastructure and resources to properly take care of them.
In 2006 some of the artefacts were returned to Peru, and in 2007 an agreement was reached which included sponsorship, a travelling exhibition and the construction of a museum and research centre in Cusco to house a shared collection of artefacts.
However, only a portion of the artefacts were included in this joint partnership.
In 2010 it was agreed that Yale would return the final collection of artefacts to Peru, all of which were delivered in November 2012.
Today, one can go see all these artefacts at La Casa Concha (The Shell House) in Cusco
Recognition and Accolades
In 1981 the Peruvian government made Machu Picchu a Historical Sanctuary. UNESCO followed suit shortly after and declared Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site in 1983.
There are over 1,200 World Heritage Sites across the globe, 11 of which are in Peru. Machu Picchu is by far the most popular. Cusco City is also a World Heritage Site.
In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted a New Seven Wonder of the World. The other six sites are: The Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza (Mexico), Petra (Jordan), Christ the Redeemer (Brazil), Colosseum (Italy) and Taj Majal (India). The Great Pyramid of Giza was later included as an honorary candidate.
Popularity and Visitors
Machu Picchu is Peru’s most popular tourist attraction. Just short of 1.2 million people visited Machu Picchu in 2013, a 700% increase from the early 1980s where the annual average number of visitors was 100,000.
More than two thirds of the visitors to Machu Picchu are foreigners as opposed to Peruvians who account for just under one third of visitors.
The World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on their 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world due to the impact of tourism on the city ruins and the development and encroachment of the town of Aguas Calientes in the valley below Machu Picchu.
UNESCO have also threatened to placed Machu Picchu on their endangered list of World Heritage sites.
Concern over degradation to the site has led the Peruvian government to restrict the total number of entrance tickets per day to 2,500 permits.
Treks to Machu Picchu
Treks to Machu Picchu are very popular, with the Classic Inca Trail featuring as the most popular hiking route in Peru.
The Classic Inca Trail is a 4-day trek that follows a path of original Inca trails from the Sacred Valley all the way to Inti Punku (the Sun Gate), the entrance into Machu Picchu.
There are two variations on the Classic Inca Trail, a short version which involves one-day trekking, and a longer version which begins at the starting point of the Salkantay trek, Mollepata, and joins the Classic Inca Trail at Wayllabamba.
For conservation reasons the Inca Trail is limited to 500 permits a day, 300 of which are earmarked for support crew (guides and porters). No pack animals are allowed on the trail and walking poles with metal ends are forbidden. The trail is closed every February for maintenance reasons.
There are a number of alternative treks to Machu Picchu. These treks vary in length and difficulty, but each offer very unique trekking experiences.
All alternative trails to Machu Picchu end at Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu.
Weird Machu Picchu Facts
A group who call themselves the New Age Andean Cosmologists believe that aliens once inhabited the Cusco region and built Machu Picchu.
They claim the Incas could not have had the technological and architectural know-how to have built Machu Picchu.
Unsurprisingly these views are refuted by all respected research bodies.
Human sacrifice was a part of Incan culture, but there is little information to suggest that sacrificial killings, of the human kind, happened at Machu Picchu.
The one caveat here is retainer human sacrificial killings. Evidence suggest that these types of sacrifices occurred at Machu Picchu, in which an individual is killed after the death of a noble in order to accompany that person in the afterlife.
Much more common in the Inca culture is the sacrificial killing of animals, particularly the llama. Other forms of offerings include water, dirt and plants, especially coca leaves.
In recent years, there have been a few cases of tourists posing nude and streaking at Machu Picchu. In some cases tourists caught in the act have been detained and fined.
The Peruvian authorities have started taking ‘Naked tourism’ very seriously and have introduced significant fines for those caught trying to pose for pictures in the nude.
Landslides in the Cusco region are common during the rainy season.
In January 2010, heavy rain in the Sacred Valley resulted in flooding with roads and railway tracks connecting Machu Picchu to Cusco being washed away. Over 2,000 tourists and 2,000 locals were trapped at Machu Picchu and needed to be arilifted to safety. The Citadel was closed for nearly three months.
In the 1980s, Peruvian authorities removed a large stone from Machu Picchu’s central plaza to make room for a helicopter landing zone. In the 1990s the authorities however changed their policy and forbid any helicopter landings at Machu Picchu.
In 2006, a company in Cusco called Helicusco applied and received a licence to fly helicopter tours over Machu Picchu. The decision to allow the company to fly tours over the city was however quickly overturned. Today, Machu Picchu is a no-fly zone.
Machu Picchu has appeared in popular culture, especially films and documentaries, since the 1950s.
In 1954 a Paramount Pictures film called Secret of the Incas was filmed on site in Cusco and Machu Picchu, the first time a Hollywood studio filmed within the Citadel.
In 1972, Machu Picchu featured again in a film called Aguirre, the Wrath of God which has sequences filmed from the trail on Huayna Picchu.
The 2004 production of The Motorcycle Diaries, which tells the story of Marxist revolutionary, Che Guerva’s youthful travels, features Machu Picchu.
National Geographic, Discovery Channel, History Channel and NOTV have all produced fascinating documentaries on Machu Picchu.
In 2005 and 2009, the University of Arkansas made fascinating 3D scans of the entire Machu Picchu complex.
Peter Olson from Sydney Australia turned these 3D images into this awesome video model of Machu Picchu.
We are constantly adding Machu Picchu facts to this list. If you would to make any additions, or indeed suggest factual corrections, please feel free to contact us.
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References: (1) Mark Adams: Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, (2) Hugh Thomson: The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland, (3) Kim MacQuarrie: The Last Days of the Incas, (4) Wikipedia, (4) UNESCO’s World Heritage Page for Machu Picchu