Nestled high in the slopes of the Andes, the ruins of Machu Picchu continue to reveal the mysteries of the Inca Empire. While the archaeological site draws scores of visitors to Peru annually, here are 10 lesser known secrets hidden beneath its layers of history.
It’s not actually the Lost City of the Inca.
When the explorer Hiram Bingham III encountered Machu Picchu in 1911, he was looking for a different city, known as Vilcabamba. This was a hidden capital to which the Inca had escaped after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532. Over time it became famous as the legendary Lost City of the Inca. Bingham spent most of his life arguing that Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba were one and the same, a theory that wasn’t proved wrong until after his death in 1956. (The real
Much of the most impressive stuff is invisible.
While the Inca are best remembered for their beautiful walls, their civil engineering projects were incredibly advanced as well. (Especially, as is often noted, for a culture that used no draft animals, iron tools, or wheels.) The site we see today had to be sculpted out of a notch between two small peaks by moving stone and earth to create a relatively flat space. The engineer Kenneth Wright has estimated that 60 percent of the construction done at Machu Picchu was underground. Much of that consists of deep building foundations and crushed rock used as drainage. (As anyone who’s visited in the wet season can tell you, Machu Picchu receives a lot of rain.)
It’s no stranger to earthquakes.
The stones in the most handsome buildings throughout the Inca Empire used no mortar. These stones were cut so precisely, and wedged so closely together, that a credit card cannot be inserted between them. Peru is a seismically unstable country—both Lima and Cusco have been leveled by earthquakes—and Machu Picchu itself was constructed atop two fault lines. When an earthquake occurs, the stones in an Inca building are said to “dance;” that is, they bounce through the tremors and then fall back into place. Without this building method, many of the best known buildings at Machu Picchu would have collapsed long ago.
There’s a secret temple.
Should you be one of the lucky early birds who snags a spot on the guest list to Huayna Picchu, don’t just climb the mountain, snap a few photos, and leave. Take the time to follow the hair-raising trail to the Temple of the Moon, located on the far side of Huayna Picchu. Here, a ceremonial shrine of sorts has been built into a cave lined with exquisite stonework and niches that were once probably used to hold mummies.
There are still things to be found.
Should you wander away from the central ruins at Machu Picchu, you’ll notice that occasionally side paths branch off into the thick foliage. Where do they go? Who knows. Because the cloud forest grows over quickly in the area surrounding Machu Picchu, there may be unknown trails and ruins yet to be found nearby. Several newly refurbished sets of terraces were made available to the public for the first time in 2011