30 Machu Picchu facts: the stories and secrets of the Andean gem

Join us as we journey through 30 Machu Picchu facts that promise to enrich your understanding and fuel your wanderlust.

Perched high amidst the cloud-kissed peaks of the Andes, the ancient city of Machu Picchu remains one of the world’s most enigmatic and awe-inspiring archaeological treasures.

A testament to the architectural and cultural brilliance of the Incan Empire, this iconic citadel captivates not just with its dramatic landscapes, but also with its myriad stories and curiosities.

While many are familiar with its historical significance and architectural grandeur, Machu Picchu also harbors a trove of lesser-known, delightful tidbits that add layers to its allure.

From intriguing construction mysteries to quirks of its modern-day rediscovery, there’s more to this city than meets the eye. Ready for a deep dive into this Incan wonder?

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1. Meaning of the name

Machu Picchu Facts

“Machu Picchu” is derived from the Quechua language, an indigenous language spoken by the Quechuan people of the Andes. In translation, the term means “Old Peak” or “Old Mountain.”

This naming is apt, given the site’s placement atop a mountain ridge and its historical significance as an ancient city.

The Quechua language and culture are deeply intertwined with the history of the Andean region, and the naming of this monumental site reflects the reverence for both the natural and ancestral world in Quechuan traditions.

2. Machu Picchu was discovered by an American

While Machu Picchu was known to local communities, it remained largely hidden from the broader world until 1911.

It was then that Hiram Bingham, an American historian and explorer sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society, rediscovered the site.

His expedition brought international attention to Machu Picchu, and it quickly gained recognition as an archaeological marvel of the Incan civilization.

3. When was Machu Picchu built?

Historical and archaeological evidence points to Machu Picchu being constructed in the 15th century, during the height of the Incan Empire.

Radiocarbon dating places its construction in the mid-1400s, making the city over half a millennium old.

The site, though relatively young when compared to ancient wonders in other parts of the world, holds immense importance due to its well-preserved nature and its representation of Incan urban architecture and planning.

4. Who built Machu Picchu?

The visionary behind Machu Picchu was none other than the Incan emperor, Pachacuti.

Often regarded as the most powerful ruler of the Incan Empire, Pachacuti embarked on grand expansion campaigns, and Machu Picchu stands testament to his ambitious visions. When you wander its pathways, marvel at its intricate stonework, and rest in its plazas, you’re essentially walking through Pachacuti’s dream realized. This city wasn’t just a random settlement; it was the brainchild of a leader who envisioned a harmonious blend of nature, spirituality, and architecture.

5. How was Machu Picchu built?

The construction methods employed at Machu Picchu reflect the advanced architectural and engineering skills of the Inca.

The site exemplifies dry-stone construction, where stones are cut with such precision that they fit together without the need for mortar.

Large stones were quarried and shaped using harder rocks and bronze tools. The transportation of these stones to the construction site, especially considering the mountainous terrain, remains a topic of research and fascination.

Techniques such as the use of inclined planes and levers were likely employed.

Furthermore, the city’s design demonstrates a deep understanding of its environmental context, as its terraces and drainage systems were meticulously crafted to prevent erosion and withstand the region’s heavy rainfall.

6. The Incas built this massive city without the use of the wheel

One of the most astounding facets of Incan engineering at Machu Picchu is that this expansive city was constructed without the utilization of the wheel—a tool that greatly revolutionized construction in other parts of the ancient world.

The Inca, instead, relied on human labor and ingenuity. Massive stones, some weighing tons, were hauled up the mountainside using manpower, ropes, and simple leveraging techniques.

The absence of the wheel did not hinder the Incas; instead, it highlights their adaptability, resourcefulness, and profound understanding of the landscape they inhabited.

7. Hiram Bingham was led there by a local farmer

In 1911, when Hiram Bingham sought out ancient Incan ruins, his journey to the rediscovery of Machu Picchu began with the guidance of a local farmer named Melchor Arteaga.

Bingham was tipped off by a local innkeeper about the ruins atop the mountain. It was Arteaga who led Bingham up the arduous path to the forgotten city.

This emphasizes the fact that while Machu Picchu might have been “lost” to the international community, its knowledge persisted among local communities.

8. Machu Picchu doesn’t have any bathrooms in its original structures

Despite its intricate architectural designs and advanced construction techniques, Machu Picchu does not have any indications of designated bathroom facilities within its original structures. This fact provides a glimpse into the daily life and sanitary practices of its inhabitants. It’s believed that the Incas used external facilities and natural methods for waste disposal, emphasizing a harmonious relationship with nature and the surrounding landscape.

9. Machu Picchu is home to many llamas

Llamas, native to South America, have been integral to Andean cultures for millennia. At Machu Picchu, these graceful animals can often be seen grazing on the terraced fields.

Historically, llamas were vital to the Incas, serving as beasts of burden and their wool used for clothing.

Their presence at Machu Picchu today adds to the authenticity of the site, offering visitors a tangible connection to the past and the living traditions of the Andes.

10. A place for Royals

Historical evidence suggests that Machu Picchu served as a royal retreat, possibly built for Emperor Pachacuti as a luxurious estate.

The site’s intricate stonework, carefully planned urban and agricultural sections, and religious temples point to it being a place of significant importance.

Moreover, its remote location, away from the bustling Incan capital of Cusco, adds to the theory that Machu Picchu was a sanctuary for the elite, offering a serene backdrop for religious ceremonies, astronomical observations, and governance.

11. Intihuatana Stone

The Intihuatana Stone, found at Machu Picchu, stands as one of the most enigmatic and significant archaeological relics from the Inca period.

Its name translates to “Hitching Post of the Sun” in Quechua. Historians and archaeologists believe this carved rock, which points directly at the sun during the winter solstice, was used for astronomical and ritual purposes.

On certain days, the stone casts no shadow, making it a potent symbol of the Inca’s advanced astronomical knowledge and their deep spiritual connection to the cosmos.

12. Purpose of Machu Picchu

While the definitive purpose of Machu Picchu remains a topic of scholarly debate, it’s widely believed to have been a royal estate, possibly serving as a ceremonial and administrative center.

The complex encompasses religious, residential, and agricultural structures, hinting at its multifunctional role. Some theories suggest it was a retreat for the Incan elite or a pilgrimage site.

The presence of temples and ritualistic structures indicates its significance in spiritual and ceremonial activities.

13. Machu Picchu is self-sustained

Machu Picchu’s design showcases the Inca’s profound understanding of agriculture, urban planning, and sustainability.

The site’s terraced fields not only prevented soil erosion but also created microclimates, allowing diverse crops to be cultivated year-round.

Water was sourced from natural springs and channeled through a series of aqueducts, ensuring a steady supply for both inhabitants and crops.

This ingenious planning made Machu Picchu largely self-sustaining, able to support its population without relying heavily on external resources.

14. Site abandonment

Interestingly, Machu Picchu was abandoned a mere century after its construction. While the exact reasons remain elusive, theories range from Spanish conquest (though there’s no direct evidence the Spanish ever visited the site) to internal strife or disease.

The site’s subsequent “rediscovery” for the international community in the 20th century was due, in part, to its abandonment and isolation, which helped preserve its structures from post-Incan alterations and destruction.

15. Earthquake and natural disaster resistance

One of the marvels of Machu Picchu is its resilience. The Incas employed advanced masonry techniques, allowing the city to withstand the region’s frequent seismic activities.

Stones were cut precisely, fitting together without mortar, and walls were built slightly inclined inward, enhancing stability.

Moreover, the site’s drainage system was meticulously designed to handle the heavy Andean rainfalls, preventing landslides and flooding.

This architectural foresight ensured the longevity of Machu Picchu, allowing it to resist natural disasters for over half a millennium.

16. Google Maps Glitch

In an unexpected mishap by the tech giant, a Google Maps glitch once mistakenly directed tourists searching for Machu Picchu to a residential area named Santa Rita in Brazil, over 1,000 miles away from the actual iconic site in Peru.

This error became a temporary boon for the sleepy town of Santa Rita as bemused tourists arrived, looking for the famed Incan ruins.

While residents were left scratching their heads at the sudden influx of international visitors, the episode underscored the immense reliance on digital navigation tools in the modern age.

It also served as a reminder that even advanced technologies can falter, leading travelers astray.

Fortunately, the glitch was later rectified, but not before giving Santa Rita a brief moment in the global spotlight and an amusing anecdote for misled tourists.

17. Not the “Lost City”

Many mistakenly refer to Machu Picchu as the “Lost City of the Incas.” However, this title is a misnomer. The true “Lost City” was Vilcabamba, the last Incan stronghold during Spanish conquest.

Hiram Bingham, when he discovered Machu Picchu, initially believed he had found Vilcabamba.

However, subsequent explorations and studies revealed that Machu Picchu was a different site altogether, though its purpose and importance were no less significant.

18. Stellar Alignment

The Incas had a profound understanding of the cosmos. At Machu Picchu, certain architectural features align with celestial bodies.

On the June solstice, the Intihuatana Stone aligns directly with the sun. Similarly, the Room of the Three Windows in the sacred temple aligns with the Pleiades star cluster, a significant celestial body in Incan mythology.

These alignments highlight the importance of astronomy in Incan culture and its role in shaping their religious ceremonies and agricultural calendar.

19. A No-Fly Zone

To preserve the serenity and integrity of Machu Picchu, it’s designated as a no-fly zone.

This prohibition ensures that the site remains undisturbed by modern aircraft noises, allowing visitors to fully immerse themselves in its historic ambience.

This decision underscores the global importance of Machu Picchu and efforts made to maintain its authenticity and tranquility for future generations.

20. Guinea Pig Delicacy

While not specific to Machu Picchu, the guinea pig, or “cuy” in Quechua, holds cultural importance in the Andean region.

These animals, often associated with pets in the Western world, have been a staple in the Andean diet for centuries.

Archaeological excavations at Machu Picchu have even unearthed evidence of guinea pig consumption, suggesting that this delicacy was enjoyed by its ancient inhabitants.

Today, travelers to the region can partake in this culinary tradition, tasting a dish that connects them to the deep-rooted food culture of the Incas.

21. The Machu Picchu Passport Stamp

While not an official immigration stamp, the Machu Picchu visitor center offers a unique souvenir for travelers: a Machu Picchu stamp for passports.

Tourists often line up after their visit to get this emblematic seal, a memento of their journey to one of the most iconic places on Earth.

While it carries no legal weight, it certainly adds a touch of adventure to one’s travel document.

22. Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1983, Machu Picchu was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing its universal cultural and historical significance.

This status not only underscores its importance to the collective history of humanity but also ensures that efforts are made on an international scale to preserve the site for future generations.

23. New Seven Wonders of the World

Machu Picchu isn’t just historically significant—it’s also globally revered. In 2007, after a worldwide poll, it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

This contemporary list celebrates human-made marvels, with Machu Picchu standing proudly alongside other illustrious landmarks like the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.

24. Machu Picchu is Peru’s most visited site

Machu Picchu is Peru’s most visited site, drawing well over a million tourists annually. Its breathtaking beauty and historical allure make it a bucket-list destination for travelers worldwide.

The influx of tourism has significantly boosted the Peruvian economy but has also raised concerns about the site’s preservation and environmental sustainability.

25. Room of the Three Windows

Situated within the Sacred Plaza of Machu Picchu is the intriguing “Room of the Three Windows.” These trapezoidal windows, a hallmark of Incan architecture, offer a panoramic view of the landscape.

Historians believe that the room held astronomical or religious significance, with the windows aligning with certain celestial events or serving ritualistic purposes.

26. Machu Picchu Altitude

Machu Picchu sits at an altitude of approximately 2,430 meters (7,970 feet) above sea level. This high-altitude location, combined with its mountainous terrain, provides visitors with breathtaking vistas but can also lead to altitude sickness for those unacclimated.

It’s often recommended that visitors spend time in Cusco or another high-altitude city before ascending to Machu Picchu to acclimatize.

27. Preservation Efforts

Given its global importance and the pressures of increasing tourism, significant efforts are in place to preserve Machu Picchu.

These include restricting the number of daily visitors, regulating trekking routes, and implementing maintenance work to prevent erosion and structural degradation.

Collaborative initiatives between the Peruvian government, international organizations, and local communities aim to ensure that this ancient marvel endures for centuries to come.

28. Machu Picchu’s remote location contributed to its preservation

Machu Picchu, often referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas,” sits nestled atop a steep ridge, flanked by the Urubamba River on three sides.

This remote location, over 2,400 meters above sea level and shrouded by the surrounding Andean mountain range, played a crucial role in its preservation.

The site’s inaccessibility made it difficult for outsiders, including Spanish conquerors, to reach it.

Unlike other major Incan cities that were discovered, looted, and often destroyed by the Spanish, Machu Picchu remained untouched and forgotten to the outside world for centuries. Its isolation preserved not just the stone structures but also invaluable insights into Incan architecture, urban planning, and culture.

29. Temples and sanctuaries dedicated to Incan deities

At the heart of Machu Picchu are various temples and sanctuaries that reflect the Incan reverence for nature and their deities.

The most notable is the Temple of the Sun, a semi-circular structure built around a large rock, where rituals were likely performed during solstices, given its alignment with the sun.

Nearby is the Room of the Three Windows, which faces the sunrise and might have had astronomical significance.

The Intihuatana stone, another prominent feature, is believed to have been used for ritualistic and astronomical purposes.

The Principal Temple, a three-sided building, showcases the finesse of Incan masonry with its perfectly aligned stones.

These sacred spaces emphasize the religious and ceremonial importance of Machu Picchu and provide insights into the spiritual practices and beliefs of the Inca civilization, where nature, cosmos, and deities were deeply intertwined.

30. Incan engineering and understanding of agriculture

Machu Picchu stands as a testament to the Incas’ advanced engineering and agricultural knowledge.

The terraced fields that cascade down its slopes are not merely ornamental; they are marvels of agricultural engineering.

These terraces prevented soil erosion, promoted drainage, and created microclimates, allowing diverse crops to thrive in the challenging mountainous environment.

The Incas cultivated maize, potatoes, and other crops here, ensuring the city’s sustenance. These terraces, coupled with an intricate irrigation system, showcase the Incas’ ability to adapt and harness the landscape for agriculture.

Their techniques were so advanced that they are studied and admired even today. Moreover, the city’s construction on two fault lines required innovative architectural solutions to make buildings earthquake-resistant.

The trapezoidal doors, windows, and niches, as well as the dry-stone construction method, contributed to the stability and longevity of these structures.

Trisha Velarmino (43)

Trisha Velarmino is the Global Editor-in-Chief of the Insider Media Group operating in Europe, Asia, and North America. She lived in Peru for 1.5 years and has helped thousands of expats, digital nomads, and solo travelers easily visit Peru. Trisha has traveled Peru extensively from North to South.

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