Machu Picchu © David Stanley

Machu Picchu is one of the world’s best-known archaeological sites, a wonder of pre-Columbian architecture that has been closely studied for decades and a tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. 

Machu Picchu was brought to the world’s attention, when in 1911 the American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham travelled to the region looking for the old Inca capital. What Hiram encountered was a 15th century Inca estate, situated high up on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley in the Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru. Machu Picchu was constructed around 1450, but was abandoned just a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest. 

More than 110 years after Bingham’s first visit to the site, a new academic paper argues that since its rediscovery more than a century ago, the site has been known by the wrong name. A Peruvian historian and a leading US archaeologist reviewed Bingham’s original field notes, early 20th century maps of the region, and centuries-old land documents from different archives. In their paper, published by Ñawpa Pacha, Journal of Andean Archaeology, the researchers conclude that the UNESCO World Heritage site was known by its Inca inhabitants as Huayna Picchu – the name of a peak overlooking the ruins – or simply Picchu. 

The researchers found that the ruins of an Inca town called Huayna Picchu is mentioned in a 1904 atlas that was published seven years before Bingham arrived in Peru. Additionally, they detail that Bingham was told in 1911 of ruins called Huayna Picchu along the Urubamba River before he left Cusco to search for the remains. A landowner’s son later told Bingham in 1912 that the ruins were called Huayna Picchu. According to the researchers, the most definitive connections to the original name of the Inca city are preserved within accounts written by Spaniards relatively soon after the region came under their control in the late 16th century, when the indigenous people of the region were considering returning to reoccupy the site which they called Huayna Picchu. 

Interesting facts about Machu Picchu 

Machu Picchu is incredibly well preserved. The Spanish first arrived in Peru in the 15th century. During their conquests, they destroyed many Inca sacred sites, typically replacing them with Catholic churches. One of the reasons that we can visit Machu Picchu today is because the Spanish never discovered this citadel. The preservation of Machu Picchu can be credited to the site’s remote location, but there is also evidence that suggests that the Incas themselves may have burned pathways leading to the site. 

When Hiram Bingham conducted his expeditions, he found Machu Picchu covered in forest vegetation which was then removed to reveal the exquisite ruins we know today. While there have been some restorations to the citadel, Machu Picchu remains one of the best-preserved archaeological sites of its time, and is around 75% original. Today, visitors can only see an estimated 40% of the site, the remaining 60% of the ruins remain covered by vegetation. To preserve the site and keep tourism sustainable, there is a no-fly zone above Machu Picchu, a daily limit of 2,500 visitors per day, and a one-way walking system to reduce foot traffic. 

Machu Picchu is located deep in the jungle. The site is surrounded by lush, green flora. A large variety of plants, insects and animals can be encountered here, including over 300 species of orchids. Typically, plenty of llamas can be found roaming around the site, though these domesticated animals are not normally found in the wild. Lucky visitors may catch a rare glimpse of the Andean bear, the only bear species found in South America. 

Much of the construction was done without the use of mortar. The Incas are known for their incredibly advanced construction and stonework techniques, and when you visit Machu Picchu you will be able to witness just how impressive their constructions were. One of the techniques the Incas used in their most sacred structures is known as ashlar. In this technique, workers perfectly polished and carved large granite stones, meticulously shaping them to fit together without the use of mortar or clay. This stonework was so precise that you could not even fit a blade in between the stones. 

This type of construction is incredibly earthquake resistant, as it allows for the stones to move slightly and resettle without any walls collapsing. There is evidence that the Incas were aware that Machu Picchu was built upon several fractures and tectonic fault lines, and expertly avoided building directly over these small fissures. 

Temple of the Three Windows, Machu Picchu 

Machu Picchu was used for astronomical observation. Incredibly, the Incas had plenty of knowledge about the position of the sun, the moon and the stars. Twice a year, during the equinoxes, the sun sits directly above the sacred Intihuantana stone at Machu Picchu, so there is no shadow. At dawn on June 21, when the first sunlight rises above the mountains, the light shines perfectly through one of the windows of the Temple of the Sun, illuminating a ceremonial stone inside. 

Explore the fascinating site of Machu Picchu on Special Travel International’s upcoming tour: