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  Peru : Articles: Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu:
The Eternal Mystery

Machu Picchu

Since it was discovered on the 24 of July, 1911 by the North American Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu has been considered, by its astonishing magnificence and harmonious construction, as one of the most important architectural and archeological monuments of the planet.

Located 2400 meters above sea level in the province of Urubamba, district of Cusco, Machu Picchu (which means Greater Summit) is surprising for the form in which the constructions in rock are revealed over a narrow and uneven small hillock, in which borders has a cliff that is 400 meters deep- that forms the canyon that arrives to the Urubamba River.

Citadel surrounded by mystery, because until now archeologists have not been able to decipher the history and the function of this stony city that is almost a kilometer in extension, erected by the Incas in a magic geographical zone, where the Andean and the Amazonian come together.

The tourists that visit this natural relic are convinced that perhaps the mystery will never be absolutely revealed because until now, hypotheses and conjectures only exist. For some, it was a post to advance in the Incan expansive projections; others believe that it was a monastery, where the girls (acllas) formed to serve the Inca and Willac Uno (High priest). This is presumed because of the 135 bodies found in the investigations, 109 were of women.

The surprising perfection and beauty of the walls of Machu Picchu -constructed uniting stone on stone, without cement neither sticking them together- have raised myths about its construction.

The oral tradition counts with a bird called Kak`aqllu, which knew the formula to soften the stones, but by order perhaps from the old Incan gods, they tore off its tongue.  Also it is said that there exists a magical plant that dissolved the stone and could compact it.

But beyond the myths, the true charm of  Machu Picchu (declared Cultural Patrimony of Humanity by Unesco in 1983) is in its plazas, in its aqueducts and vigilance towers, in its observatories and in its Solar Clock, evidence of the knowledge and techniques of the Andean constructors.

Nevertheless, in these last years they have insisted that the visitors be careful while visiting this place, in fact, the majority of the tour guides agree that precautionary measures that take place are strategies to avoid the early collapse of the zone.

The concern is also shared with environmentalist and anthropologist of Cusco National University, alarmed at the excess of visitors that provoke movements in the stones of the sacred city, hardly discovered in 1911

It is necessary to know that in the year 2000, almost 100 thousand people visited this archeological complex of 32 thousand hectares that is, in addition, the possessor of an extraordinary biodiversity, this is because Machu Picchu and all of the Cusco zone are found on the geological plate of Tambomachay.

The entire park has an extension of 325,92 square kilometers and is located 112 kilometers form the Cusco-Quillabamba railroad; the train station is known as the "Ruins Bridge" and is 2 thousand meters high in altitude. This is the area from where the majority of the buses leave to realize tours to this Archeological Center.

The climate of this sector has some characteristics there are only two well defined and distinguished seasons: the rainy season between September and April and the dry season from May to August.

In spite of, Machu Picchu, it is found in the brow of the Amazonian forest, and the rains are latent in any month of the year.  On the hottest days it is possible for temperatures to reach approximately 26° Celsius, the coldest mornings are en June and July where the temperature can drop to -2° C. The annual average temperature is 16°C. You can clearly differentiate two seasons in the year: the rainy period (from November to March), recommending the visitors to travel with appropriate clothing during the strong sunny period (from April to October), with a notable increase in the temperature.

There is an average of rainfall that fluctuates between one thousand five hundred and two thousand eight hundred cubic meter, this is the reason why the monthly relative humidity is in direct relation with the rains, by which the average humidity is 77% during the dry months and 91% in the rainy months.

One of the more relevant architectural characteristics is that Machu Picchu is found on a grand orogenic structure of baptized granite like the "Vilcapampa".

This is because the white-gray granite is an igneous stone mainly composed of an average of 60% feldspar and 30% quartz, and 10% mica; that has given it a unique resistance for six centuries to this construction. 
From the Incan language it is translated to Machu Picchu like "Old Mountain" in all of its Andean entirety, although it highlights the famous mountain that is seen in front of photographs, and appears in the majority of classic views of the site it is called Waynapicchu (Young Mountain).

A bit of history

Machu Picchu

It turns out relative to indicate the time of the first settlement of these territories, because we can't talk about foundations but occupations.  Many explorers before Hiram Binghman tried to discover this Historic Sanctuary, since they had heard of it; nevertheless, men like Antonio Raymondi the Sartiges Count and Charles Wiener never reached the success that the North American did.  It is known that the Santander brothers had been at the base of the Temple of the Sun in July 1909, due to inscription that appears in this place.

The 14 of July 1911, Hiram Binghman arrived with specialists from Yale University in topography, biography, geology, engineering and osteology.  They were lead to the place by Melchor Arteaga, an inhabitant of the zone that gave them methods or means of how to arrive, until today it is considered the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Later, in 1914, Binghman returns to Machu Picchu with economic and logistic support from the proper university and the Geographic Society of United States in front of a specialized team and with a publication that was already circulating around the world: "The Lost City of the Incas".

In the original plan, Binghman divided Machu Picchu into sectors according to the cardinal orientation.  Some names conserve there originality, but after various decades of discovery, the scientific studies fulfilled by the patronage of archaeology of the National Institute of Culture have reached valuable conclusions about the use and the functions of the buildings on the basis of excavations and architectural relation with similar buildings from the ample Incan state.

Routes and attractions

There are three known ways to arrive to Machu Picchu that exist. The first of them is the traditional (or on train), with a three hour duration; the second is for those that like adventure tourism there is the "Camino del Inca" route, hiking that requires a great effort during 4 days.  And the newest way of arriving to the Aguas Calientes town is by helicopter.  All of these tours can be contracted in Cusco and have an average value of 60 dollars.

When traveling by train, it is necessary to know that 112 kilometers of distance between the city of Cusco and the Puente Ruinas (Ruins Bridge) station or Machu Picchu exist, by railroad; the trip initiates in the San Pedro station in Cusco, crossing the Picchu mountain, by the zigzagging route until reaching the highest pinnacle named "El Arco" (the arc) in the northeastern part of the city.

Continuing, you will descend through towns like Pory, Cachimatyo and Izcuchaca until the Pampa de Anta, ample livestock ranching zone and an undisputed geographic pulchritude.  Roaming through the narrow Pomatales Gorge, one creeps through the Sacred Valley of the Incas through the Pachar station. Crossing the Urubamba River to the left margin to arrive at the Ollantaytambo station and then proceeding to Puente Ruinas, final destination.

Those who have crossed the Sacred Valley by highway and do not desire to waste time returning to Cusco, can also take the train to Machu Picchu in the Ollantaytambo station.

Two services exist: a tourism train and train ferry, which leave on the first hour and return in the afternoon.

Those who find themselves in good physical state can take the Camino del Inca route to Machu Picchu that is known as the most famous trekking route in South America by the conjunction of different elements that are offered to the visitors.  One begins 88 kilometers from the railway line to the Convention Valley in the place named Q'oriwayrachina, featuring a total distance of 39.6 kilometers towards the sanctuary.

In order to initiate the long walk you cross the Kusichaca bridge, that was constructed in the Incan epoch, in a suspension bridge manner, with steel cables over the Urubamba River.  After crossing a eucalyptus forest, almost immediately after you will have contact with the archaeological groups of Q'ente, Pulpituyoc, Kusichaca and Patallaca, when we arrive after various hours of walking to Wayllabamba, where camping is recommended.

The second day is more difficult because you have to climb to 4200 meters above sea level until lowering down to the valley of the Pakamayu River, where you should say overnight. 

While we continue with the long hike, on the third day observe impressive archeological remains like Runkuraqay, the Yanacocha and Phuyupatamarca Lagoons, very close to the visitors’ center of Wiñayhuayna, where you can camp.

The fourth and final day of the adventure, it is recommended to depart at 8 am in the morning, to arrive at Machu Picchu after three hours of crossing the brow of the forest and bordering precipices.

During the days of trekking you will witness and impressive flora and fauna that includes animals in extinction like the spectacled bear, pumas, Andean foxes, river nutrias, mountain cats and others.

We recommend you take a sleeping bag, backpack, multiuse knife, and tablets against motion sickness and antiofidic polyvalent serum.

Machu Picchu

In the case of taking the route by helicopter, there is solely one company that offers a daily flight at 8:45 a.m. from the Cusco, airport, "Velasco Astete", the flight lasts 25 minutes until the Aguas Calientes town. A few meters away you take the bus to the citadel arriving in 30 minutes. In total the journey from Cusco is completed in 55 minutes. From high up you can appreciate the impressive panoramic view of Cusco city and the Sacred Valley, but you do not approach the archaeological zones, for this reason we recommend you take the ground routes to get to know the zone better. 

Surroundings with grace

Although visits to the area where prohibited in the final decade of the 90's, The Temple of the Sun can now be visited once again.  This semi-circular construction is seated on a massive rock. In this building you will find two trapezoidal windows and according to the chroniclers, in the epoch that it was inhabited, it had incrustations of precious stone and gold.

Another attraction included in the tours is the Intihuatana. It is located on a hill conformed by various terraces and platforms, where you arrive after climbing 78 staircases finely carved.  The Intihuatana served two functions: measuring time (solstice and equinoctial) by the effect of light and shade and as a rock altar.

Also there is Huayna Picchu, which as we explained at the beginning of the report, is located in the top of the young mountain with a difficult route and with small temples. This is the point where you can obtain the best vista of the citadel.  Other attractions are the Group of the Sacred Rock, The Doorways, The Fountains and the Mausoleum or Tomb.

In addition, only 800 meters from the town of Aguas Calientes, in the eastern direction, fountains of thermal sulfur waters exist in different degrees of temperature that emerge from the rocky subsoil. The dregs or conditioned pools in this place present the basic infrastructure for it use as thermal baths. The average temperature of these waters is between 38 and 46 degrees Celsius. Vestibules, hygienic services and a small snack bar exist.

Basic recommendations

As much in the territory as in the companies that organize the tours recommends that everyone that enters the Historical Sanctuary of Machu Picchu and makes use of the authorized routes for trekking should avoid environmental contamination and should have basic norms for the preservation of the zone by not throwing away waste, igniting bonfires, depredation, and acquisition of any species of flora or fauna of the area.

In fact you can only camp in indicated places for camping in specific form.

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