The Inca city of Machu Picchu.
The Inca city of Machu Picchu. Photo: Getty.

High in the mountains of Peru lies the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. Facts abound across the internet about it. It’s a wonder of the modern world (“modern” is relative here). It’s an UNESCO world heritage site. It’s 2,430 m above sea level. The name Machu Picchu means Old Peak in the Incan language, Quechua. How big is Machu Picchu? Some 325 kilometres square. People believe it was the royal estate of an Incan king...

Okay, we think you could have got all that from two seconds of Googling. Trouble with the whole world using search engines is that new facts and ideas are hard to find. If you wanted to write an article of Machu Picchu facts, you could quite easily just syphon off the top page of search results into a list. Boring. We think we can do Much Better than that. This article is compiled from several books on Machu Picchu and archaeology, and a chat with a local guide.

We've picked out what we feel are the most unusual and interesting facts about Machu Picchu. If you already know these Machu Picchu facts, we’ll be pretty darn impressed. And never mind five facts about Machu Picchu: we'll give you ten.

Machu Picchu Facts

The dry stone walls of Sacsayhuamán.
The dry stone walls of Sacsayhuamán. Photo: Getty.

1. Machu Picchu Gets Earthquakes

Machu Picchu is built right in between two fault lines. It is believed that the Incas knew well about the risks of the location they’d chosen for Machu Picchu. You will notice that there is no mortar in any of the buildings. Each block of stone has been carefully crafted to fit next to another, a technique called ashlar. A bit like a perfectionist version of a dry stone wall. This means that, in an earthquake, the walls don’t crack. They shake and wobble, but then settle back in to place after the shaking stops. So basically, Machu Picchu rocks - all puns intended.

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If you look closely at the buildings at Machu Picchu, you can spot the effects of a large earthquake which scientists think happened during the construction of the city. (Machu Picchu was constructed in the middle of the 15th Century.) For example, in the Temple of the Sun, there are relatively large gaps between stones – very uncommon for the perfectionist Incas. After that level, you can see that the building method changed slightly – favouring trapezoidal shaped stones that would slot more securely together than small cubes. Pretty clever.

2. Chakana – the Inca Cross

The Chakana or Inca Cross can be found at many Incan sites, including Machu Picchu. It is a symmetric cross with stepped corners and a circle in the middle. According to current theories, it represents several important motifs of Incan life. For example, the higher world, the world we live in and the underworld are all represented on it.

There is a stone Chakana in the Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu, but only half of it is above the ground. The rest of the cross is formed by the stone’s shadow. Yeah, I know… either you’re thinking, “Those Incas were clever!” or you’re wondering about the creative licence of archaeologists and tour guides… We don’t know a lot about Inca civilisation, so consider this as an interesting theory, not necessarily a fact. Once you know the shape of the cross, you’ll start noticing the stepped pattern everywhere.

A waterfall near Machu Picchu.
A waterfall in the forest, near Machu Picchu

3. Machu Picchu is Reached via Cloud Forest

Sounds very Avatar doesn’t it! But despite sounding like science fiction, the forests you have to walk through to reach Machu Picchu are actually called cloud forests. Cloud forests are a bit like rainforests. They pretty much permanently in a layer of low cloud or fog. The cloud condenses on the leaves of the trees, which drops to the floor and feeds a rich undergrowth. As you can tell – it’s pretty damp!

Local guide, Roxner Cardenas Quispe says, “The ecology is extremely diverse and complex, including ten animal life zones, from the lower part of the dry forest – on the valley side – to the cusps of the mountain range… As a consequence of these variations, it really provides a wide variety of flora and fauna. The species of flora and fauna that have been recorded in this habitat represent a high percentage of all those species existing in Peru. It is estimated that between 10 and 20% of these species are in danger of extinction.”

To reach Machu Picchu, you have to hike though the cloud forest and up out of the cloud to reach the city. That makes for something pretty atmospheric. The cloud forest grows very quickly, so it’s quite possible that there are more Inca ruins and archaeology hidden in these dense trees. It explains why Machu Picchu remained unheard of for so long too.

Trek the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu | Much Better Adventures
Join a locally-guided adventure in Peru to trek to Machu Picchu via the stunning Salkantay route, the younger, cooler sister of the over-crowded Inca Trail.

4. You can get your passport stamped

To get into Machu Picchu, you need to present some ID along with your ticket. But, the plus side is if you’re using your passport as ID, you can get a passport stamp! Not that Machu Picchu is a country in its own right or anything. It’s just a souvenir, but a pretty cool one. Particularly if your poor passport is empty. Getting a stamp makes you feel like a real traveller somehow. To get your stamp, visit the desk by the entrance to the city.

5. Unusual Machu Picchu Fact: You can’t wear a kilt

This is a bit of an odd one, as facts about Machu Picchu go. There are, as we’ve alluded to already, quite a lot of rules and regulations surrounding Machu Picchu. You can understand it: it’s a really popular site and the Peru wants to protect its history and heritage as much as possible. You can read the full list of prohibited activities at Machu Picchu but we’ve picked out some of the more unusual ones.

It is prohibited to “do obscene acts inappropriate in a public place and that threaten morals and good manners such as undressing, disguising, lying down or running”. That includes things like arriving in your country’s traditional dress – like kilts or lederhosen.

You can kind of see where this comes from. Machu Picchu is a sacred site of the Incas. The people of Peru would like you to treat it with reverence and respect, not go crazy trying to get the best picture in a funny costume with your mates. Oh, but you can’t use a selfie stick to get your photo either, because they’re banned too.

Intihuatana Stone at Machu Picchu
Intihuatana Stone at Machu Picchu | iStock: andyKRAKOVSKI

6. It Has An Undamaged Intihuatana Stone

Many, if not all, Inca cities that have been discovered have an Intihuatana. It’s believed to be a type of altar crossed with a sundial: the word Inti is Quechua for Sun. Back in the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadores and their clergy went around destroying or damaging all the Intihuatana they could. They believed that it was blasphemous and generally bad for these stones to exist. People did that sort of thing back then. At around about the same time, people were cutting the faces off all the statues in churches in the UK.

Anyway, what’s interesting about this is that the Intihuatana at Machu Picchu hadn’t been damaged, when it was found in the 1900s. That means that the Spanish never found Machu Picchu and were therefore never able to break the stone. So maybe Machu Picchu was the lost city of the Incas after all… The archaeologist who discovered it, Hiram Bingham, certainly believed so – and spent a lot of his life trying to prove it.

Ironically, in 2000, the only surviving Intihuatana was also damaged. Not by the Spanish though – by a film crew doing a shoot for a beer commercial. The arm of a crane fell on it, damaging the southern part of the stone. The rules about filming and use of Machu Picchu have been cracked down ever since.

7. Condor, Puma, Snake are Sacred

The three sacred animals of the Incas are the condor, the puma and the snake. These represent the higher world, life on earth and the underworld respectively. Most people know about the Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu. If you look at a certain angle, you can see the shape of a condor has been left in the construction, using the natural rock of the mountain.

What most people don’t know is that the Incas built these animals into all of their cities. These guys put a lot of thought and craftsmanship into the things they built! One of the ways to spot a true Inca city is that you can see the outlines of these animals if you look down at the city from above. It’s the sort of thing archaeologists would look for to decide if a newly found settlement in the jungle was Inca or not. So, if you get a chance to climb up above Machu Picchu (for example to the Temple of the Moon on Huayna Picchu) see if you can spot the outlines.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu | iStock: Erlantz Pérez Rodríguez

8. The Lost City El Dorado Might Be Machu Picchu

Ever since the Spanish conquistadores came to Peru, people have been looking for El Dorado: the lost city of gold. El Dorado has featured in many fantastical stories and movies, but the idea came from real history. Whilst the Spanish were “discovering” the Incan Empire, they heard about a city deep in the mountains that was full of gold.

There was actually a lot of gold around in the Incan Empire. They used it a bit like we use steel! Because it was so readily available as a metal, they prized it for its practical qualities, like ease of working, not monetary value. In fact, the Incas used a currency based on cocoa leaves. So the Spanish arrived, saw gold everywhere and wanted more. The conquistadores did a lot of conquering and exploiting of the rich natural resources in South America – as did the increasing number of fortune seekers from America and Europe, hoping to make their millions in the New World.

At the time the Spanish invaded, millions of people lived under the rule of the Inca Empire. Many thousands died in battle (Inca armies didn’t surrender); many died in outbreaks of smallpox and flu that swept across the country. Incas has no immunity to foreign diseases. Some surviving Inca people naturalised to the new Spanish dominion. But many many thousands of people escaped into the jungle and… disappeared.

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It’s possible that they could have lived on quietly in the jungle of Peru and Bolivia. Much of it was (and still is) inaccessible to non-natives. It’s also possible that the city of gold was a ploy to get the invaders to keep moving on in search of further riches and leave other Inca cities alone. But, many people believe that there is an Inca city that still hasn’t been discovered yet, that was a hideaway for the fleeing Incas. Whether or not it is paved with gold is another matter.

Archaeologists refer to this missing city (without any connotations of gold) as Vilcabamba – the lost city. When Hiram Bingham found Machu Picchu, he speculated that it could be this lost city. In fact he spent a lot of his life trying to prove that Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba. However, more recently, the ruins of another ancient city (called Espiritu Pampa) was discovered quite some way from Machu Picchu. Current thinking is that this is Vilcabamba, but excavations are not complete.

9. Tickets are Limited

You might have guessed by now that Machu Picchu is a highly regulated archaeological site. In order to protect it from its own popularity, the number of people who can enter the site each day are strictly managed. The same goes for the trek up to Huayna Picchu, the mountain above Machu Picchu, which holds the Temple of the Moon. At the time of writing, tickets to Machu Picchu are limited to 2500 people per day, but only 200 people can get access to Huayna Picchu.

The other thing you should know is that these tickets entitle you to a full guided tour of Machu Picchu. Plus a guide who will take you up the mountain and back. This is a great way to learn more about the Inca civilisation and give some meaning to the pile of rocks you’re looking at! There are a now 3 official circuits that each tour must take. Apparently there used to be really bad bottle-necks and people-jams that the circuit system has ironed out. Your options are:

  • Circuit 1: The classic Machu Picchu tour that follows a large circular route covering the majority of the site.
  • Circuit 2: Similar to Circuit 1 but slightly shorter. It is worth noting you will not climb up as high when you first enter the site which may reduce the “post card” view (aka Instagram) opportunities during the tour.
  • Circuit 3: A shorter more accessible route that primarily visits the lower parts of the site and doesn’t involve as much walking as the other options. This is a better option for anyone concerned about accessibility or looking to avoid a more strenuous tour.

You can only visit with a guide now, so no freestyling!

10. Sunrise isn’t the Best Time to Visit

Yes I know, I know. Loads of people want to make the hike up to Machu Picchu for the moment the sun peeks over the mountains and illuminates the lost city. Sounds kind of magical. Sounds like it’s on everyone’s Instagram bucket list… It might be magical and fair play if that’s what you want to do. But there are better ways to maximise your single entry to Machu Picchu. The new schedule system means you’re not allowed re-entry once you’ve left.

First up, if you can get a ticket to hike Huayna Picchu then that extends the length of time you’re allowed in the site. As of 2019, there is a strict schedule of entry times hourly from 6 am until 2 pm. Each of these allow you 4 hours to look around with your certified tour guide. Oh and don’t go in the 2 pm group because the site shuts at 5:30 pm, so you get half an hour less than everyone else. If you get a ticket that includes Huayna Picchu then you get an extra 2 hours to play with. You do, of course, also have to get yourself up and down that mountain!

“The 10 am group is better than the 7 am group,” says local guide Roxner. “Doing Huayna Picchu at 10 am after the guided tour of Machu Picchu gives you more flexibility to enjoy Machu Picchu and you are not forced to be rushed.” You could go in an earlier group, he continues, but doing it this way maximises your stay at Machu Picchu, even if you don’t get a sunrise. It’s your choice!

Inspired to go and explore this incredible mountain city yourself? Trek the Salkantay Route to Machu Picchu with us.