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Machu Picchu

by Dominik Blasenbauer

General information

Everybody knows Machu Picchu. This is not surprising, as it is probably one of the most famous sights of South America. But does everybody know something ABOUT Machu Picchu? It is an former town, now assemblage of ruins, built by the Incan people. This is something most people who heard about Machu Picchu probably know as well. But when was it built? Why was it built? Where is it even? And why is this place so special? Let us try to explore these questions in more detail.

You can zoom into the scene by clicking on the title image.


Pachacutec, the fictitous Inca warrior who has travelled in time to the 21st Century, is sitting on top of Montaña Machu Picchu and looks down to the old citadel, located at 2430 m asl. in a depression between his lofty outlook at 3050 m asl. and the Huayna Pichu (2700 m asl.) with its sheer cliffs, but still hundreds of metres above the meandering Urubamba River. He remembers the old times, when hundreds of servants brought life to this majestic place, and the excitement when the Inca rulers came from time to time. Some loud tourists around direct his thoughts back to present - down at Machu Picchu there are thousands of them. Sighing, he remembers that Machu Picchu was once almost invisible and only reachable through a path today known as the Inca Trail. Now, people can easily reach the place by a comfortable train and a bus, if they can afford. Pachautec decides to leave this place and proceed to Cusco, the former capital of the Inca 75 km southeast from here. He will not take the train, but walk along the Inca Trail, which is part of an ancient road network.

By clicking on the warrior symbol you can obtain more information on the road network of the Inca.

The montane cloud forest of Machu Picchu

As can be seen from the title images, the area around Machu Picchu looks much greener than many other areas of the Peruvian Andes. The steep slopes of the Urubamba Valley are occupied by very special ecosystems depending on the availability of plenty of water. These forest ecosystems at the eastern slopes of the Andes are also known as yungas. They can be nicely observed also in Bolivia and in the Quebrada de Los Sosa in northwestern Argentina.

Start the video and Florentina will tell you more about the montane cloud forest.

Speaker: Florentina Freiberger | Camera: Peter Mathis | Interview: Martin Mergili

Machu Picchu and the benefits of its geological situation

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Explore the key geological features of the area by clicking on one of the arrows or into the graphics.

We can now go a bit more into detail with regard to the site itself and its geological features. We have already learned that the citadel was built on a ridge connecting two peaks. That ridge s located several hundred meters lower than the surrounding peaks and several hundred meters higher than the Urubamba Valley. The photograph shows the view from the Montaña Machu Picchu hiking trail to the citadel of Machu Picchu (A), the Huyna Picchu peak (B), and the Urubamba Valley with the meandering river (C).


Machu Picchu then and now

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Travel through time by clicking on one of the arrows or into the image.

This area was a perfect place to live independently from the rest of the Inca realm. But why was it built, and what was the purpose of this city? Machu Picchu was built in the mid fifteenth century under the reign of Inca Pachacuti as a royal estate. The town was permanently populated by servants, referred to as yanacona and/or mixed yanacona and acllacona immigrants. Yanacona were people who left the traditional form of a community in the Andes and served the Inca or the religious establishment, whereas acllaconas were young girls who were trained by older women to cook, spin, weave fine textiles, and brew beer.


The growing number of visitors becomes a problem. About 1.3 million people visited the ancient site in 2017, which has been declared World Heritage by the UNESCO back in 1983. It is feared that the high number of visitors endangers this unique place. Hence, the UNESCO wants to limit the daily number of visitors to maximum 800 persons. The Peruvian Government has introduced regulations to limit the numbers to some thousands per day.

What else besides mass tourism, do you think, could threaten the preservation of this ancient site?

References and links

Alconini, S., Covey, R.A. (2018). The Oxford Handbook of the Incas, Oxford University Press [Access source]

Bingham, H. (1948). Lost City of the Incas

Turner, B.L., Kamenov G., Kingston, J., Armelagos, G. (2009). Insights into immigration and social class at Machu Picchu, Peru based on oxygen, strontium, and lead isotopic analysis

Larson, L.R., Poudyal, N.C. (2012). Developing sustainable tourism through adaptive resource management: a case study of Machu Picchu, Peru. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 20: 917-938 [Access source]

Sassa, K., Fukuoka, H., Shuzui H. (2000). Field investigation of the slope instability at Inca's world heritage, in Machupicchu, Peru. Landslide News

VilĂ­ímek, V., Zvelebil, J., Klimeš, J., Patzelt, Z., Astete, F., Kachlík, V., Hartvich, F. (2007). Geomorphological research of large-scale slope instability at Machu Picchu, Peru. Geomorphology 89: 241-257 [Access source]

Wright, K.R., Witt, G.D., Zegarra, A.V. (2005). Hydrogeology and Paleohydrology of Ancient Machu Picchu. Groundwater 35: 660-666 [Access source]

Adios Adventure Travel (2018). The Truth About Overcrowding and the New Rules for Machu Picchu Entry Tickets [Access source]

Wikipedia article on the Yanakuna [Access source]


Movie The Andes give, the Andes take with sequence on Machu Picchu [Access movie]

This contribution was revised and extended by Martin Mergili. The fictitous character of Pachacutec is an idea of Simon Schmidthaler.