Located high above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, the Incan city of Machu Picchu is the most popular tourist attraction in the country. This ancient city dates back to the fifteenth century and was built on the order of the first ruler of the Incan empire, known as the Sapa Inca Pachacuti. The city was inhabited for over one hundred years until Peru was conquered by the Spanish in 1532. The city was then lost for several hundred years, and subsequently re-discovered by Western civilization in 1911, when an American historian named Hiram Bingham was shown the site by locals.
The exact function of the city is uncertain. The city is just five miles square and was inhabited by less than one thousand people. It is thought by some archeologists that the city may have been a kind of country retreat for Incan nobility. Others see the site as a base which was established as an "Ilacta" – a settlement from which the Sapa could maintain control over conquered regions. The city may have even fulfilled both functions – this particular Ilacta may have been built with the purpose of protecting the Incan aristocracy. The surrounding mountains and valleys provide natural defense from attack, and the city cannot be seen at all from the valley below. With natural springs providing water, and the surrounding plateaus providing food, the city would have been entirely self-sufficient, and well-protected.
Machu Picchu is located just 70 kilometers northwest of the city of Cusco, and there are several options for traveling to the site. The most common method of travel is via train from Cusco, which takes around three and a half hours. From the train station, the city of Machu Picchu is an eight-kilometer bus ride away. Alternatively, visitors can walk the Incan Trail, which involves a two-to-four day hike through the Andes from the Urubamba Valley to the gates of Machu Picchu, and requires a reasonable standard of physical fitness. The trail itself is of original Incan construction and passes by several Incan ruins. Due to concerns over the effects of overuse on the condition of the trails, the Peruvian government has limited the number of people who can use this trail per season – advance booking is a must if you want to walk the Incan Trail. Once in the area, hotel accommodation is available for visitors who wish to spend a day or two exploring the site. If you want to really enjoy your time visiting the city, it's best to spend at least one night close by, so that you have more than a few hours to spend in Machu Picchu itself.
The best times to visit the city are early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, because the site becomes very crowded during the hours between 11 am and around 3 pm. The first buses to Machu Picchu leave the valley at 6.30 am, and it is worth getting up early to get to the city in time to see the sunrise. Machu Picchu in the early morning has a certain feeling about it, of harmony and calm, which can make it a truly spiritual experience. This enigmatic city is well worth a visit – the quiet splendor of Machu Picchu is unforgettable.