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Llamas grazing among the Machu Picchu ruins Known as The Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu is Peru's most popular tourist attraction and one of South America's most important archaeological sites. Built by the Incas in the 15th century on a secluded mountain ridge 50 miles northwest of Cuzco, it is an awe-inspiring masterpiece of urban architecture that was so well-hidden it was spared destruction and plunder at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. For centuries the citadel remained abandoned and almost entirely unknown until the American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911, placing it in the international spotlight. Subsequently designated a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu is now a cherished cultural icon and sacred place for many.
Built by the emperor Pachacuti on a practically impregnable site flanked by the steep Urubamba river valley and treacherous mountain slopes, Machu Picchu boasts prime examples of classic Inca architecture. The Incas were among the world's most accomplished stonemasons and the junctions in many of their mortarless ashlar structures are so perfect that not even a blade of grass will fit between them. The Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Three Windows, two of the site's most famous structures, provide beautiful examples of this. Sun rituals were held at the former, which was built on top of a huge rock with a cave inside it used as a mausoleum, and the second is unique in that its three-window design rarely features in Inca architecture. Another of the citadel's best-known structures is the Intihuatana, a ritual stone known as The Hitching Post of the Sun. The stone was designed to hitch the sun at the time of the two equinoxes, at which time the sun shines directly over its pillar and creates no shadow. Along with palaces, dwellings and storehouses, these structures are located in Machu Picchu's urban sector, which is surrounded by the terraced fields of the agricultural sector. The Incas built terraces in order to flatten the land and conserve the thin soil to make it suitable for cultivating maize, coca, fruit and root vegetables like yucca and sweet potatoes.
Machu Picchu, window in stone wall The ridge upon which this ancient settlement was built sits like a saddle between two mountain peaks, Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. The former is a sharp peak, leading the Incas to name it young peak in Quechua, while the latter was given the name of old peak for its hunchbacked appearance. The citadel itself was originally known simply as peak or Picchu. Huayna Picchu forms the backdrop for most panoramic photos of the site and there is a trail leading to the summit, where the high priest and local virgins are said to have lived. Clinging to the slopes of this mountain are other archaeological sites of interest and visitors brave enough to hike to the top are rewarded with stunning views of the ruins below and the sacred snowy peak of Salcantay in the distance. Even the murmur of the Urubamba River rushing through the canyon far below can be heard from these heights as it meanders its way to the Amazon.
The ruins straddle the humid but temperate highland jungle and yunga zones of the Andean plateau and afford spectacular views of the surrounding rugged mountains draped in lush tropical vegetation. During the wet season, October through April, it receives abundant rain and it is thought that most of the Incas who resided there only remained during the drier winter months. The sanctuary boasts high species diversity, including numerous species of orchids and over 400 bird species, and is prime habitat for the endangered spectacled bear.
In the time of Pachacuti, Machu Picchu was linked to the rest of the Inca Empire by a series of roads or trails. Centuries later visitors can walk along these same trails to reach some nearby sites of interest. To the west there is a path to Intipata and another leads to the river and San Miguel Mountain. The best-known trail, however, is the one to the south that tens of thousands of tourists traverse each year: the Inca Trail. This trail was the principal access route to Machu Picchu towards the end of the 15th century and is a two- to four-day hike that commences in the Urubamba Valley and passes a number of Inca ruins on its way. The closest town to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, is less than four miles away in the valley and there is one hotel located right next to the ruins, called the Sanctuary Lodge.
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