Machu Picchu (sometimes called “the Lost City of the Inca”) is a well preserved Pre-Columbian town located on a high mountain ridge (at an elevation of about 6,750 feet) above the Urubamba valley in modern-day Peru. The name Machu Picchu literally means “old peak”. It is thought the city was built by the Inca Pachacuti starting in about 1440 and was inhabited until the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532. Archeological evidence (together with recent work on early colonial documents) shows that it was not a conventional city; rather it was a sort of country retreat town for the Inca and other nobility. The site has a large palace and temples around a courtyard, with other dwellings for the support staff. It is estimated that a maximum of only about 750 people resided in Machu Picchu at any one time, and probably only a small fraction of that number during the rainy season and when no nobles were visiting.
It is thought that the site was chosen for its unique location and geological features. It is said that the silhouette of the mountain range behind Machu Picchu represents the face of the Inca looking upward towards the sky, with the largest peak, Waynapicchu, representing his nose. The Inca believed that the solid rock of the Earth should not be cut and so built this city from rock quarried from loose boulders found in the area. Some of the stone architecture uses no mortar, but rather relied on extremely precise cutting of blocks that results in walls with cracks between stones through which a credit card will not pass.
The city became re-introduced to larger society by Yale historian, Hiram Bingham, who first visited it on July 24, 1911. Bingham was exploring old Inca roads in the area. Bingham was led to Macchu Picchu by Quechuans or Incans who were living in Macchu Picchu in the original Incan infrastructure. Bingham made several more trips and conducted excavations on the site through 1915. He wrote a number of books and articles about Machu Picchu; his popular account Lost City of the Incas became a best-seller.
In 1913 the site received a significant amount of publicity after the National Geographic Society devoted their entire April 1913 issue to Machu Picchu.
The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist attraction. In 2003, some 400,000 people visited Machu Picchu, and UNESCO has expressed concern about the damage this volume of tourism is causing to the site. Peruvian authorities insist that there is no problem, and that the remoteness of the site will impose natural limits on tourism.
One of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s best-known works is “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”, inspired by the city.