Dubbed the "Lost City of the Incas" by an American historian, Machu Picchu--the name means "Old Peak" in the local dialect--was never really lost to the Indians living in the Peruvian mountains who regarded the site as sacred. Rediscovered by outsiders in the early 20th century, this stunning mountaintop ceremonial city has become one of the world's most visited ancient sites and images of its iconic structures amid the peaks and clouds are familiar to millions.
The name means "Old Peak" in Quechua, the indigenous language of the Andean region, and it is believed the site was sacred even before the city was built in the 15th century on the imposing mountainside, 7,000 feet above sea level and overlooking the Urabumba Valley. The structures are made of blocks of mountain granite and assembled without mortar.
Whether it was a ceremonial center or a base of power for a ruling family controlling trade through the region is debated by historians, however, the site does include several important religious buildings and monuments, including the Intihuatana Stone--the so-called "hitching post of the sun"--which points to the sun's position in the sky at the spring and fall equinoxes.
The city was abandoned for unknown reasons about the time Spanish explorers came to the region in the early 16th century. The Spanish arrived at nearby Cuzco in 1533 but never found the city, and local Indians continued to keep the site secret until the 20th century.
In 1911, Yale University historian Hiram Bingham was led to the site by local residents and he returned several times from 1912 to 1915 to continue explorations, removing many artifacts to the United States, a topic of diplomatic discussion even today as Peru seeks their return from Yale's Peabody Museum.
The first railroad connection to the area was completed in 1928 and a road to the site was opened in 1948. In 1983, UNESCO recognized Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site.
Impact of Tourism
It is estimated that 300,000 or more tourists visit the site each year, raising concerns about the environmental impact of so many visitors on the site and the trekking routes many take through the surrounding mountains. Alarm bells have been sounded throughout the past decade, but so far no limits have been put on the number of visitors.
Robin Thornley has been a successful writer for more than 25 years, penning articles for national magazines, newspapers and websites. She specializes in a variety of topics, including business, politics, lifestyle trends, travel and cuisine. She also is the author of two guidebooks.