There is a reason why the city of Machu Picchu remained “lost” for as many centuries as it did. The site is located in a highly inaccessible post of the upper rainforest region, at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. It is part of the Urubamba province, one of the lower areas of the southern Department of Cusco, and it only eighty miles away from Cusco city.
Machu Picchu’s Location
A past to present account
The site is actually located on two mountains – Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu – that belong to the larger Vilcabamba batholith, a chain of high mountains that form part of the South Central Andes. These mountains are crossed by the Urubamba river creating a valley that carries the same name, but was formerly known as the Picchu brook. The ruins are located somewhere in between the bottom of the valley and the peak of the mountains, at approximately 1,500 feet above the river level. The total of the area covered by the ruins are around one million square feet, which includes almost two hundred main buildings within.
The site itself is part of a larger sanctuary that carries the same name, and it is one of the several places protected by the National System of Natural Areas Protected by the State (SINANPE, by its initials in Spanish). The Sanctuary of Machu Picchu has a total extent of nearly 33,000 hectares and is a natural reserve for multiple species of flora and fauna – including Peru’s national bird, the Gallito de las Rocas– as well as numerous Incan sites.
Get there by train or on foot, Aguas Calientes will definitely be on your Machu Picchu travel itinerary.
Photo by ohocheese/Flickr
Given the remoteness of the site, the access routes to Machu Picchu are somewhat limited, although it favors the protection of the site from erosion due to excessive transit. When going to Machu Picchu you will basically face two main options, both of which will take you to the town of Aguas Calientes, a small town that serves as Machu Picchu’s entrance gate: you can either walk to the ruins or take the train. The trekking route, better known as the Inca Trail, covers a total of 20 miles along an ancient Inca road. The train leaves from Cusco city, and takes approximately three hours across an area known as the Sacred Valley to get to Aguas Calientes. In both cases, you will need to take a twenty minutes bus ride along the Hiram Bingham highway to get to the ruins.
The location of the ruins are intimately linked with the original purpose of the construction. Without advancing important questions about the history of Machu Picchu, it could be asserted that Machu Picchu was built by Pachacútec around 1450 A.D. as an urban center for religious, political, and agricultural purposes. In that sense, Machu Picchu was far from isolated, and belonged to a larger network of sites and outposts that linked production from different altitudinal layers and maximized the economic prevalence of Pachacútec and his family. Its position in between Cusco city, the inner core of the Inca state, and the lower rainforest valley turned Machu Picchu into a pivotal settlement for Incan interests in an age of imperial expansion. As such, the place had to be safeguarded from both rivaling populations and other competing Incan families. Machu Picchu was also an impassable garrison with very deep precipices that serve as a natural barrier against possible attacks. However, after the death of Pachacútec and the rise of new Incas and their families or panacas, Machu Picchu lost its predominance due to the mounting importance of new possessions and settlements.
By the times of the Spanish conquest, Machu Picchu’s remaining nobles abandoned the city seeking for shelter under the command of Manco Inca. This is probably the origin of the “lost city” narrative. On the other hand, the site stayed inhabited by settlers and became part of the Spanish domain under the control of Hernando Pizarro, encomendero of Ollantaytambo. There are a few accounts about early colonial life in Machu Picchu, such as Spanish soldier Baltasar de Ocampo’s narration of a “majestic city on top of the hill” in the last years of Inca resistance (1570), as well as Titu Cusi Yupanqui’s call to the Augustine frays to evangelize the “Piocho” region.
Contemporary visitors will observe that two main sections compose the site: the urban and the agricultural. Likewise, the urban area is split into two parts: the lower town and the upper town. Most worshipping structures are located in the upper western section while the lower eastern area is almost exclusively devoted to housing facilities. There is one central square surrounded by multiple terraces, upon which all of the buildings were erected. Other terraces are used for agriculture, though these differ in size and present hydraulic structures that allow agriculture to flourish.
All in all, Machu Picchu is a magnificent triumph of Inca architecture and urbanism. While many mysteries surround the site, every day we learn more about its history, its significance, and its contemporary relevance for both tourism and the history of Peru at large.
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Satellite View of Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu
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Former guide with Peru for Less and now professor of Latin American and Latino/a Studies at a college in the United States, Javier contributes his endless knowledge of Peru’s past and present.