As one of the most photographed places on Earth, you likely recognize Machu Picchu. Attracting nearly one million visitors each year, Machu Picchu is one of the main attractions of Peru and South America at large.
While Machu Picchu was built hundreds of years ago, by the mysterious Inca civilization (mysterious because we know very little about them, despite our curiosity), it was only in 1911 that the landmark was rediscovered by US archaeologist Hiram Bingham who helped connect Machu Picchu with the world at large.
Altogether, Machu Picchu stretches across more than five miles of land, nestled in the mountainside near Cusco, Peru. The impressive five hundred year old structures are composed of more than 3,000 stones intricately places to withstand years of wear and tear as well as millions of touchy tourists.
Yet, for as many people who have visited Machu Picchu, there is still so much we don't know about one of the most visited sites in the world. Here are just a few of its mysteries.
20 We don't know why the Incas built Machu Picchu
The biggest mystery about Machu Picchu is why it exists. Like the pyramids in Giza, a lot of work and precision went into building Machu Picchu, but we have no idea why!
From what researchers have been able to discover, we know that Machu Picchu was built more than 500 years ago, and the strongest theories suggest it was either built in homage to the landscape it inhabits, as a celebration of the sun and Sacred River surrounding the mountain peaks, or as a representation of the Inca creation myth, symbolizing the trek their ancestors once took.
19 We don't know why the Incas left Machu Picchu
Just as puzzling as why Machu Picchu was created is why the Incas abandoned it.
We know that the Inca civilization was wiped out in the 16th century, both by the Spanish when they first appeared and conquered South America and by various plagues, including smallpox which killed 50% of the Incas! Get your smallpox vaccines, friends!
Once the Inca civilization disappeared, Machu Picchu became a ruin, and lay abandoned for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered by Yale professor, Bingham in 1911.
18 The stones fit together so perfectly, you can't even fit a blade between them
The same way the Egyptian pyramids baffle scientists and historians, the design and precision of the Machu Picchu structures are just as baffling.
For one, the stones are so perfectly aligned, and so tightly fitted together without the use of mortar to hold them together, you can't even fit a knife blade between the stones.
What's so remarkable about how perfectly fitted the stones are is that Machu Picchu was built with no animal power, no iron tools, and no wheels even to move or cut the stones.
17 At the equinoxes, the sun doesn't cast a shadow on the Intihuatana stone
We're still wondering why Machu Picchu was created, but we know that the Incas celebrated and prayed to the sun god, to which they believed they descended. One stone in Machu Picchu, the Intihuatana stone, which is the highest spot in the main ruins, is able to indicate the exact time and date of the two equinoxes (midday March 21 and September 21).
The stone aligns perfecting with the sun, and at the exact moment of the equinox, it looks as if the sun is standing right above the pillar poised atop the stone. This means the stone casts no shadow at all twice a year.
16 There are more than 100 sets of stone stairs
What's beautiful about Machu Picchu is that it's not just a structure to look at, it's something you can explore and discover at your own pace. Most visitors climb to the nearby mountain peak and take a picture of Machu Picchu in its entirety from above.
If you take the time to explore Machu Picchu from within, you'll realize there are more than a hundred flights of stairs composed of more than 3,000 steps! And what's even more exciting, is that most of the 3000+ steps were carved out of a single stone slab.
15 Machu Picchu is earthquake-proof
Despite being built in the 1400s, without modern tools or equipment, the Incas still managed to build a structure that can withstand the ages, not to mention earthquakes.
Machu Picchu is built atop two fault lines, which makes it the ideal spot for earthquakes. Not exactly the best place to be if you want your structure to last. Yet, thanks to some nifty craftsmanship, when there is an earthquake, the stones in Machu Picchu "dance" rather than crumble. The rocks jump around in place slightly, along with the quakes and tremors, and then simply fall back in place, leaving the site just as it was before, quake after quake.
14 Its peaks are perfectly aligned with the stars, namely the sun
Machu Picchu isn't just a few stones thrown together in a nice formation. What attracts millions of visitors each year is how incredibly detailed and thought-out the structure is.
For starters, the Incas were pretty big into astronomy (not astrology, I'm sure they didn't give a hoot if they were Taurus or Leo). They lined their most important buildings up with the stars, and made sure the important building peaks aligned with the setting and rising sun at significant times of the year.
13 Machu Picchu was built in the 1400s, with the help of aliens?!
So the buildings line up with stars, the peaks line up with the setting and rising sun, and the rock at one of the highest points of Machu Picchu perfectly marks the equinox, and I can barely line my picture frames up correctly on my wall. Something's fishy!
If you're a fan of the TV program Ancient Aliens, you'll realize the answer is simple. Aliens came to Earth and helped the Incas make this out of this world structure for some other-worldly reason.
Hold on and give this theory its time of day. The citadel is made up of massive stones, that are said to have come from as far as 20 miles away weighing up to 300 tons, not to mention the Tetris like placement and carving. We know there were no wheels involved in the making of Machu Picchu, so the theory suggests the Incas just pushed them up the mountainous countryside. But I'm not buying it! There had to be something else going on.
Even if you don't buy into the whole Ancient Aliens thing, it's still fun to learn about these popular sites from a not so scholarly source. There's always something new to learn about the site's many mysteries.
12 You may get light headed at Machu Picchu's high altitude of 8000 feet
You probably look at these Machu Picchu pictures and think, yeah I can do that, it looks easy. But what some of those smiling faces are hiding are their throbbing headaches, because 8000 feet above sea level isn't always easy.
Starting at 8000 feet, you're susceptible to altitude sickness. This happens because the air is thinner, meaning you intake less oxygen with each breath. As a result you start to breathe faster which can cause you to experience dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing. But generally, Machu Picchu is not the issue. Cusco, the city where flights and buses to Machu Picchu land, is 11,152 feet above sea level. It's in Cuzco when you first arrive that you may feel the effects of altitude sickness.
11 No jumping for photos, it's forbidden!
One thing they don't tell you before you go is that jumping for photos in front of Machu Picchu is forbidden. Likely because you're high up a mountain, and if you're too close to the edge and you jump, well, it could spell disaster. Unfortunately, this was the case for several tourists back in 2016, who crossed the barrier (meant to keep tourists away from the cliff's edge) and jumped for photos.
There are quite a few rules when it comes to Machu Picchu, which include: no food, no drink, no musical instruments, no leaning, no running, no lying down, no clapping, whistling or singing and finally, staying fully clothed.
10 Watch out for llamas, they're notorious photobombers
If you're like me and you'd love a good llama photobomb on your phone, then Machu Picchu is the place to get it.
5000 years ago, aka way before Machu Picchu was around, the ancient people in modern-day Peru tamed the llamas, and used the animals for transportation, food and clothing. Today, llamas are still central to Machu Picchu and all visitors will have the added bonus of getting up close with some extra friendly llamas.
9 Machu Picchu means ‘Old Mountain’
Machu Picchu means "Old Mountain" or "Old Peak" in the native language of Quechua. It's highly possible that if you visit Machu Picchu and repeat the name of the citadel over and over, you'd have no idea what you're actually saying or what that name means.
The reason being, there are no signs around Machu Picchu, and no helpful little tourist boards with history and information about the site. While it's one of the most visited man-made wonders of the world, to preserve the authenticity of the site, no signs were erected. Instead you'll have to learn from your guide, or from travel articles like this one.
8 Get your passport stamped at the entrance, it's an awesome souvenir!
Sing it Drake, "running outta pages in your passport" has always been one of my dreams, and if that's ever going to happen I need some nice big stamps from beautiful places.
Luckily Machu Picchu can help me out my quest (but only if I ask). Most guests aren't even aware these stamps are available unless their guide tells them. So listen up, bring your passport and after passing through the gate, head left near the mountain. It's a novelty stamp, so you won't get it at the airport when you land in Peru. But it's one of the nicest and most sought-after stamps in the world, so you secure definite bragging rights after you get one.
7 Machu Picchu is not the Lost City of the Inca, that's a common mix-up
Machu Picchu is referred to as the "Lost City" in countless travel mags thanks to our old friend Bingham who re-discovered the citadel in 1911. But Bingham was actually looking for another city, Vilcabamba, known as the Lost City of the Inca, when he mixed up the two. Vilcabamba was known as the Lost City because it's where the escaped Incas lived after the Spanish arrived, and became the hidden capital. But none of this history belongs to Machu Picchu.
There are those who say, okay well, Machu Picchu was still lost for hundreds of year before it was found again by Bingham. Wrong again! Local farming families have known about the site for generations, even some even lived there before the Yale professor came along. All Bingham did was propel Machu Picchu to international stardom.
6 You can explore Machu Picchu a variety of ways
There are so many ways to travel around and visit Machu Picchu it's almost as mind-boggling as the site itself (okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but there are a lot of options).
If you're one to explore all aspects of the area and get up close and personal with nature for a week, there are 7 day treks you can take in and around Machu Picchu. If you want to take a bus up to the classic photo spot, that's an option too. If you want to hike and visit the citadel at your leisure, and fit it all into one day, that's possible too. The world is your oyster!
5 All the cool stuff is hidden underground
In order to build Machu Picchu between two mountain peaks, a lot of engineering went into the project's design beforehand. Part of this planning, we assume, involved creating a flat enough plot of land to construct atop of, which involved smoothing out the land to a certain extent.
In order to make this happen, according to National Geographic, engineer Kenneth Wright guessed that up to 60% of the construction of Machu Picchu took place underground to make way for what your camera snaps from above.
As mentioned, Machu Picchu is earthquake proof, and on top of that, there's excellent drainage despite extra damp and rainy conditions. All this is behind the scenes - or in this case underground - magic that makes Machu Picchu what it is.
4 There's a hidden museum 30 minutes away
30 minutes away from all the action and photo snapping of Machu Picchu, there's a museum available that shows tourists a very different side of the world wonder. There aren't any signs around the historic site giving tourists information, that's up to the guides. If you're hungry for more history, the museum may be enlightening.
The small museum houses more than 250 collected items from when Machu Picchu was first rediscovered, which include stone tools, metals, ceramics, bones and others cool things found in and around Machu Picchu.
3 There are two peaks to climb, for double Instagram angels
Most people who "hike Machu Picchu" are technically hiking up Huayna Picchu to get to Machu Picchu and they're not actually hiking up Machu Picchu Mountain. Was that confusing enough for you?
Huayna Picchu is the more popular of the two mountains as far as quick hikes (less than two hours), maybe because it's a lower peak and more manageable for most people at such altitudes. There are only 400 permits per day (200 at 7am and 200 at 10 am) for Huayna and places fill up way in advance, so book early. Machu Picchu Mountain is usually always available on the other hand.
If you're in it for the long haul, and partaking in the popular four-day Inca Trail route, you'll be climbing Machu Picchu mountain.
2 There’s a secret temple inside a cave called the Temple of the Moon
It's easy to see why the temple is often overlooked in most tours, technically it's not part of Machu Picchu, but rather it's part of the general Cusco area (near the tourist hotspot but out of the way for most visitors).
To get there you need to climb Huayna Picchu, on an especially steep and narrow path, and you can only climb if you're one of the tourists who managed to get their name on the limited guest list.
If you manage to get there, the Temple of the Moon has some of the most mind-boggling stonework in all of Machu Picchu, as the cave was built right in the mountain's side, with a door and windows perfectly chiseled out of stone. No one is sure why the temple exists. Some say it houses mummies!
1 There are still more things to discover
I like a little mystery in my travel, and I think that's one thing that keeps visitors coming back to Machu Picchu. (That and the unmatched, beautiful views). As more people visit, more historians and explorers will continue to unravel the mysteries that still surround the citadel.
You can do your part too. You may not be solving world-wide mysteries about why the Incas build the site or left, but you can learn more and see more of the ruins every time you visit.
references: World Wild Life, National Geographic, Intrepid Travel