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

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 been declared one of the New World Wonders 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 laborers 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 Picchu there are more than 100 staircases. Almost all of which are carved from a single piece of stone – I wonder how they got there?

Hiram Bingham bar car (Mapi Facts blog - courtesy of Belmond)

Arrive to Machu Picchu in 1920's Pullman luxury aboard the Hiram Bingham train. (Photo courtesy of Belmond)

6. Unless you’re determined to arrive on-foot (via either a five-day or one-day trek on the Inca Trail) you’ll arrive at Machu Picchu via rail -- the entrance gate is just a short drive from the station at Aguas Calientes (no fear – you’re paired with an expert private guide to ensure the smoothest connection!). Discuss the best train to travel on with your Destination Expert, noting that there are various levels of comfort. We will time your 3.5-hour journey from Cusco or 1.5-hour ride from Ollantaytambo just right to align with your desired Machu Picchu entrance ticket (there are numerous entrances with varying combinations of sites within the citadel, but once again, your Destination Expert will help you navigate the plethora of options with ease!).

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 gradually over 4-5 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 road

A little taste of the Inca Trail.

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’ between Aguas Calientes and the citadel. Your guide will be happy to incorporate this into your itinerary – just ask.

Machu Picchu has made a name for itself over the years, so much so that the Peruvian government has started limiting entrances to ensure the ruins remain excellently preserved. So don’t mull over your plans for too long. Get started with planning now!

Keen to see Machu Picchu for yourself? Check out our Machu Picchu & Peru itineraries here or speak to one of our  Destination Experts  about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.

Originally published November 2020.

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