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Visiting Machu Picchu

This mystical mountaintop complex tucked into the Peruvian cloud forest is one of the most visited sites in the world. With incredible stonework that merges seamlessly with the surrounding jungle, it's also one of the most photographed. But Machu Picchu's significance goes far beyond the picturesque, and its historical and anthropological richness give it an importance far more compelling than a line item on a bucket list. Shrouded in mystery, with beauty, meaning, and history still to be discovered, Machu Picchu is a place for exploration, education, contemplation, and appreciation -- an Inca citadel that is truly a treasure of the world.

It is estimated that the Incas built Machu Picchu in 1450, at the peak of their empire. Just 50 miles from the capital city of Cuzco, and tucked between sharp ridges and steep mountains, historians have theorized that it had been an estate for the elite, a place of worship, and a city. After the Spanish conquest, the Incas quietly abandoned the site, allowing it to be reclaimed by nature without a peep to their conquerors. Though local indigenous communities knew of the site, they kept it off the radar until Hiram Bingham, an American from Yale University, arrived in search of ruins in 1911. A farming family tipped him off to the existence of the ruins, and their 11 year-old son, Pablito, took him on a hike up to the citadel -- which had become overgrown and thus hidden from view. Bingham was struck by how well preserved the site was, particularly in comparison to the many other Inca structures that the Spanish had plundered during their conquest. He reported his findings back home, returned a year later with the help of Yale and the National Geographic Society, and Machu Picchu went from local secret to international destination over the course of the next fifty years.

So important is Machu Picchu to modern day Peru, that the country is constantly working to best manage and preserve it. Peru has constructed an elegant rail system that makes arriving at the nearby town of Aguas Calientes easy, and restrictions on the number of visitors and the times of visits help to limit human impact to the site. Despite its popularity, a visit to Machu Picchu still feels intimate and full of personal discovery. Peruvian guides, often from neighboring communities that trace their heritage back to the Inca and before, interpret intricate stonework, careful architecture, and a system of construction that fuses human impact with the local vegetation, the sun, and the stars. The Inti Watana stone points directly to the sun during the Winter Solstice, the Inti Mach’ay cave has unique tunnel windows that only allow light into the dark enclosure during the Royal Feast of the Sun in December, and water mirrors etched into the sun temple are said to reflect the splendor of the constellations. Alpaca graze on the grass, condors soar overhead, and winding hiking trails lead visitors up to incredible vistas of the mountain complex and beyond. Even on the busiest of days, Machu Picchu transforms the visitor to a different time and a different way of seeing the world.