Machu Picchu is incredible and one of the greatest attractions in the whole Western Hemisphere. For so many travelers, if asks the first thing to come to one's mind with Peru, they will answer Machu Picchu. But what is the story of Machu Picchu? Everyone knows it's from the Incas but from when? And why was it built and what for? Was it their ancient capital?

Finding out about the history of the sights that one visits help to bring the past back to life and gives so much more meaning to what one sees. Without understanding the history, often it just looks like a pile of rocks. Today it is arguably South America's most popular archeological UNESCO Listed site.

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About Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a 15th century Inca citadel located in the mountains. It is located some 80 kilometers or 50 miles northwest of the old Inca capital of Cuzco. Today it stands as a monument to the great Pre-Columbian civilizations and empires of the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of the Europeans.

As well as or perhaps instead of being a royal estate, Machu Picchu seems to have had important sacred religious significance to the Inca elite. It was "lost" to the outside world for hundreds of years (although peasants and farmers continued to live there throughout). The site stretches for an impressive 5 miles and boasts over 3,000 stone steps.

  • Height: 2,430 Meters or 7,970 Feet
  • 3,000: Number of Stone Steps
  • Built: Extensively Built Around 1450 (Probably Constructed As An Estate For the Emperor Pachacuti 1438-1472)
  • 80-100 Years: The Approximate Time It Was Built To When It Was Abandoned

It seems that Machu Picchu was used first as a royal retreat and construction may have started during the reigns of the great Inca Emperors Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438-1471) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472-1493).

This was when the Inca Empire was at its height and just before the arrival of the Spanish in 1532 (an event that would in quick succession doom the mighty and proud empire). Exactly when Machu Picchu was abandoned is not known but it is likely it was soon abandoned after the arrival of the Spanish. There is no evidence that the Spanish conquistadors ever attacked the citadel - or if they even ever reached it.

Speaking of reaching it, today one hikes the famous Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu. For tips on hiking this famous Inca Trail see here.

Related: A Travel Guide To Peru: 11 Things To Know While Planning Your Trip

Not The Lost City Of The Inca

One misconception and myth that has grown up is that it is the alpine lost city of the Inca. But the "Lost City" is actually the city known as Vilcabamba that was also discovered by Hiram Bingham III in 1911. Vilcabamba was the hidden capital that the Inca fled to having been drastically weakened by civil war, smallpox, and then the onslaught of the Spanish conquistadors. Vilcabamba is around 50 miles to the west of Machu Picchu through the jungle.

  • Lost City Of The Inca: Vilcabamba About 50 Miles To The West

Abandonment Of Machu Picchu

No one quite knows why the Machu Picchu was abandoned. It was probably linked to the collapse of the Inca Empire as the Spanish Conquests swept through other parts of the empire. Another possibility is that most of those living here died from the ravishes of smallpox that devastated the populations of the Americas. These two causes are also not mutually exclusive.

  • Reasons For Abandonment: Possibly The Collapse Of The Inca Empire Elsewhere And The Population Being Nearly Wiped Out By Smallpox

Life In Machu Picchu

During the days of Machu Picchu's bustling existence, it was likely home to around 750 people - most of whom would have been support staff. In the harsher seasons, it's likely the population would have dropped to around a hundred servant residents who would have just focused on maintenance - plus a contingent of religious specialists.

  • Population: Around 750 Mostly Workers In The Good Seasons

Related: Skip Machu Picchu And Consider Visiting The Ancient City Of Chan Chan, Instead

The people who lived here were from (for the time) far and wide with the immigrants coming from different backgrounds. That is according to studies of various skeletal remains. From these bones, scientists can determine their diets and various other information. E.g. more of the skeletons had lower levels of arthritis and bone fractures than those found at most places in the Inca Empire. They are associated with heavy physical labor or military service.

The story of Machu Picchu is fascinated and still, there is much to learn and excavations are ongoing. Undoubtedly more will be discovered as time goes on. But for now, it would seem that Machu Picchu was a fairly brief royal retreat or religious site high in the mountains.

Next: 20 Things Tourists Do At Machu Picchu (That Locals Can't Stand)