The lost city of the Incas

22 November 2010 | Fact sheet

Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, Peru

Background

Machu Picchu – "Old Mountain" - is a pre-Columbian 15th-century Inca site. Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", it is perhaps the most familiar icon of the Inca World. Since the site was never known to the Spanish during their conquest, it is a relatively intact cultural site. Machu Picchu stands 2,430 m above sea-level, in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. It was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height: its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Machu Picchu and its surrounding area was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Mixed Site in 1983. Mixed word heritage sites are sites that have both cultural and natural values. In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.

View images of the Sanctuary


Size and Location

It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, which is 80 kilometres northwest of Cusco. It covers an area of 325.92km2.

Flora and Fauna

Machu Picchu is located in a region that is part of the High Jungle. It is an area with great environmental richness that has a varied climate, and a high difference in altitude, with a change in altitiude from 1,725 m. to 6,271 m: from the low, dry mountain forest, to the level of the mountain summits. The species of fauna and flora that have been registered in the area are therefore highly diverse and represent a high proportion of those species present in Peru. Between 10 to 20% of them are endangered.

The area boasts more than 400 species of orchids, begonias, trees and bushes like the Qeuña, the Pisonay, or the Muña. In the forest, 400 registered species of birds have been seen such as the Cock of the Rock and a la pava de monte and many other rare and endangered species of birds breed that can be found near the rivers.

Other animals that abund in the area are bears with glasses, pumas, dwarfed deer, reptiles and insects.

History

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). The Incas started building the estate around AD 1400 but abandoned it as an official site for the Inca rulers a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. There is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city and the state of the ruins is remarkably good as they were not defaced by the conquistadors as in other locations. This has ensured that Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction.

Threats

Since its discovery in 1911, a growing number of tourists visit Machu Picchu, reaching 400,000 in 2003. As Peru's most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator, it is continually threatened by economic and commercial forces. During the 1980s a large rock from Machu Picchu's central plaza was moved out of its alignment to a different location to create a helicopter landing zone. Since the 1990s, a no-fly zone exists above the area.

In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car, a bridge and development of a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants. Many people protested against the plans, including members of the Peruvian public, international scientists, and academics, as they were worried that the greater numbers of visitors would pose tremendous physical burdens on the ruins.

Due to the environmental degradation of the site, the World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention has also discussed the possibility of including Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. In 2009, a group of independant evaluators visited Macchu Picchu to estimate the threats to the site. The site is now being monitored and certain measures have been put in place to ensure that Macchu Picchu remains a site of extraordinary historical and natural value.