The Mysterious Machu Picchu
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The Mysterious Machu Picchu

Cusco : Peru | Jun 08, 2011 at 8:49 AM PDT
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One hundred years after a Yale professor lifted himself over that ridge in Peru, the mystery and allure of the magic stone masonry of Machu Picchu (mash u - p shoe) continues to accumulate fact and fiction on the popular South America destination point that few know. In July 1911, Professor Hiram Bingham III, rubbed his eyes in wonderment when he first saw the vine-covered fortress deep in the Andes.

Since that time a number of facts – accumulated through years of research by hoards of scientists and archeologists – make this a bucket list favorite of millions from around the world. Here are some of those facts.

  1. Machu Picchu sits in the mountains in Peru. At 496,218 square miles, the western South American nation is about the size of three Californias. California, however, has about 8 million more residents than Peru.

  2. Peru borders five countries: Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia.

  3. The indigenous population of is Quechua, a South American Indian group. The group's native tongue is also called Quechua. A dialect of that language was spoken by the Incas.

  4. The Incas, who have been created with incredible architecture and political systems, had no known written system of language, although some scientists suggest khipu may also have served that function.

  5. Legend has it that Manco Capac, the son of the sun god, and Mama Ocllo, daughter of the moon, established the seat of what would become an empire at Cuzco in the 11th or 12th century. Cuzco, sometimes spelled Cusco, means "navel" or "center" of the Earth. It was the center of Inca civilization high in the Andes Mountains.

  6. At 11,150 feet, Cuzco requires acclimation. Some people develop altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, or AMS. Among the problems AMS can cause (if you're coming from sea-level California, be aware of this): headaches, shortness of breath, fatigue and/or nausea or vomiting. Consult a doctor before you go if you think you may have a problem. Symptoms usually disappear in four days, but in some cases, AMS may be fatal.

  7. Some hotels provide oxygen for visitors; others offer coca tea, and it's not unusual to find packets of coca leaves for sale. These can be chewed and are said to help relieve altitude issues. And yes, cocaine is produced from the leaves, but the amount of the alkaloid you'd ingest from the tea or chewing the leaves is small.

  8. Cuzco, with a population of about 300,000, is the gateway to Machu Picchu, but don't let the word "gateway" confuse you: Machu Picchu is 50 miles beyond Cuzco near the town of Aguas Calientes, far below the Incan ruins.

  9. The five days' journey from Cuzco to Machu Picchu can be done hiking on the IncanTrail, a three- to six-day trip that requires good stamina. For those less inclined to hike, you have three choices of train travel to Machu Picchu: the Expedition, or backpacker train (basic), the VistaDome train (which has lots of windows, but if it's warm outside, you may feel as though you are baking in a terrarium) and the Hiram Bingham, a luxury train operated by Orient Express.

  10. The train deposits you at Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu (which you'll see spelled as Machupijchu). Aguas Calientes offers accommodations, some basic and others more luxurious, and is the starting point for the ascent (by bus, if you wish) to the Incan citadel.

  11. Hiram Bingham may not have been the first European to find Machu Picchu. Some say it was a German named Augusto Berns who came upon it in 1867.

  12. Hiram Bingham thought he had found Vilcabamba, the true "Lost City of the Incas," which was said to be where the Incas took refuge from the Spaniards.

  13. The early explorers, led by Hiram Bingham, were unclear about the purpose of Machu Picchu. Remains found at the site allegedly were all women, leading some to believe it was the sanctuary of the Virgins of the Sun. The Virgins of the Sun were an elite group who took a vow of chastity. They were not of noble blood, but their leader, a high priestess, was.

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Machu Picchu
Some 8,000 feet up in the Andes of Peru
Nathaniel Hines is based in Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, Brazil, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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