What most people miss at Machu Picchu
Peru's Machu Picchu, discovered 100 years ago by Hiram Bingham III. (BBC)
On 24 July, 1911, Hiram Bingham III, a young history lecturer from Yale University, climbed a steep slope in the Peruvian Andes and, to his surprise, encountered the greatest archaeological find of the 20th Century: Machu Picchu.
- Related slide show: Mysteries of Machu Picchu
- Related blog post: Eco-scorecard to the world’s great attractions
More than a million people are expected to visit the site this anniversary year. Most of them will be day trippers who travel to Peru from the far reaches of the globe, who sit on three-and-a-half-hour train rides from Cusco and spend only a few hours at one of the world’s most spectacular ancient sites before starting their journeys home.
Machu Picchu is relatively compact, so it is possible to see the greatest hits of the Incas in a half a day: the elegant Sun Temple, the surreal Royal Mausoleum, the monolithic shrines of the Sacred Plaza and the mysteriously carved Intihuatana stone. But travellers who are willing to make a multi-day hike along the Inca Trail to arrive at dawn or add an extra day to their itineraries by spending a night in Aguas Calientes, the charmingly tacky tourist town that sits 2,000ft below the ruins, have enough time to explore some of the other wonders lurking in the hidden corners of the Lost City of the Incas.
While the day trippers are coming in by train and the most popular spots of Machu Picchu are deluged at rush hour (roughly 11 am to 3 pm), here are five remarkable but often overlooked sights that reward the most intrepid travellers.
Temple of the Moon
Early birds begin lining up before dawn in Aguas Calientes to catch the first buses up to Machu Picchu, and for a good reason. Only the first 400 people to sign in at the park’s entry gate are granted permission to climb Mt Huayna Picchu, the 679ft high green spike that appears in the background of most classic Machu Picchu photos. While the view from Huayna Picchu is impressive, few of those who climb the peak take advantage of their opportunity to see the even more impressive Templo de la Luna, or Temple of the Moon. Tucked into a complex of caves hidden from the main ruins is an otherworldly shrine — possibly a burial site — built directly into the mountain rock. The Temple of the Moon features some of the finest stonework in Machu Picchu: classic trapezoidal Inca niches and double-jamb doorways.
Mt Machu Picchu
The Machu Picchu citadel is bookended by two apus, or sacred peaks. Mt Huayna Picchu marks the north end of the site; to the south stands Mt Machu Picchu. Both offer spectacular views, but while Mt Huayna Picchu turns away would-be visitors, the summit of Mt Machu Picchu nearly always stands empty.
The reason may be the difference in height. At 1,640ft, Mt Machu Picchu is more than twice as tall as its sister peak. But the reward for the 90-minute climb up flights of ancient stone stairs is the most incredible view that can be achieved (short of a helicopter) of how Machu Picchu was carefully integrated into its natural surroundings. Distant, skyscraping Andean peaks tower in the distance while the winding Urubamba River nearly wraps itself around the main site like a python.
Almost from the moment Hiram Bingham stumbled, slackjawed, upon the main ruins of Machu Picchu 100 years ago, experts have struggled to figure out why the Incas chose such an uninviting — if gorgeous — setting to build in. Much recent scholarship has focused on how the buildings at Machu Picchu were designed specifically to interact with the sun, stars and surrounding landscape. The most famous example is the Sun Temple, or Torreon, where each year on the winter solstice (21 June in the southern hemisphere) a beam of light shines through a window, forming a mysterious rectangle atop a slab of granite.