Machu Picchu in Peru - Ruins of Inca Empire city and Huaynapicchu Mountain in Sacred Valley, Cusco

Why was Machu Picchu built on that high ridge? And why abandoned so soon after?

Sep 19, 2023
Reading time: 7 minutes

We know you've seen the sublime photos of the ruins of Machu Picchu perched on a high ridge with a dramatic drop to the river below and thought: holy smokes! WOW. But why was it even built in such a place? And why was it abandoned after just 100 years?

Machu Picchu was inhabited for only about a century. While scholars debate when exactly in the 1400s it was completed, they generally agree that by the mid 1500s it was abandoned.

We can easily appreciate that it must've taken a gargantuan effort to build the settlement on such a high ridge. The feat becomes even more impressive when you learn that the Incas didn't have steel or iron tools, and they didn't have the wheel!

Moreover, the craftsmanship on display in the religious buildings of Machu Picchu reveals that here we have have some of the finest work of anywhere in the Inca Empire.

Machu Picchu early sunlight, Peru

Machu Picchu sits on a saddle ridge between the peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

So why did the Incas go to such exceptional effort at this particular site?

Why was Machu Picchu built there?

The Incas didn't have a written language, which is why we don't have a clear record of why Machu Picchu was built, and when.

That said, they did have a method of numeric record-keeping, which involved tying knots into pieces of differently coloured string (quipus). And they were diligent about taking regular censuses of the empire.

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Machu Picchu had homes of differing size and quality

Historians estimate that only around 800 to 1,000 people lived at Machu Picchu at any one time. It was, therefore, a small settlement by Inca standards. So what was its purpose?

Various theories have been put forward as to why Machu Picchu was created:

  • It was a spiritual centre and pilgrimage site. It's been argued that the placement of the settlement above the sacred Urubamba River on a ridge that offers morning and afternoon sun (the Incas worshipped the sun god Inti) as well as clear views of the moon and stars was no accident. There are also excellently carved ceremonial buildings, which lend credence to this theory. But if this theory is correct, why was it then neglected?
  • It was a military station. The precipitous location of Machu Picchu would certainly have made it an excellent lookout spot and a site that's easy to defend. Yet some of the buildings are too finely constructed to suggest a mere militaristic site. (For this same reason, among others, most also rule out the idea that it was simply an administrative centre.)
  • It was a royal retreat. There are a few reasons that make this a very plausible theory, like the fact that Machu Picchu was relatively small, had a mixture of grand homes but also smaller ones (presumably for retainers), had ceremonial buildings, and is located in such a glorious spot. No matter the epoch, people with means seek out beautiful places for getaways!

Why was Machu Picchu abandoned?

One of the truly fascinating aspects about Machu Picchu – one that feeds into the romance of the site – is that we don't know why exactly it was abandoned. Yes, the Spanish were trying to demolish the Inca Empire, but the former didn't know about the existence of Machu Picchu!

Clouds and mist surrounding Machu Picchu ruins, Peru

The mists that cloak Machu Picchu most mornings are an apt symbol for the mystery that shrouds the ruins' history.

By contrast, we have detailed records (thanks to the written records of the Spanish conquistadores) of what led to the demise of other nearby Inca sites – like those of the Sacred Valley further up the Urubamba River. And we know that these attacks, along with Old World diseases introduced into the Americas, led to the Inca Empire's eventual destruction.

Spanish colonial church in Cusco, Peru

The Spanish conquered the Inca Empire, and took over their capital city of Cusco

Yet the Spanish never laid eyes on Machu Picchu. As far as we know, they weren't actually aware it existed.

The retreating Inca didn't, however, seek refuge at Machu Picchu, but instead fled into the jungle further to the north. Here they established the city of Vilcabamba as their new capital.

Was Machu Picchu deemed too small to serve as a refuge? Too close to the invading army? With no written record, it's unlikely we'll ever know.

Was Machu Picchu actually forgotten?

So we mentioned the city of Vilcabamba. This was the last capital the Incas built in the remote jungle to hide from from the invading Spaniards.

Well, it was only a few while before Vilcabamba was also abandoned – in 1572.

With the passage of time, the location of Vilcabamba became obscured and the city was eventually given the moniker the 'Lost City of the Incas'. (Stick with us, this does indeed relate to Machu Picchu ...)

In the early twentieth century, the young historian Hiram Bingham III and others from Yale University were using local Quechua guides to help them find this so-called Lost City of the Incas. But instead of arriving at Vilcabamba, on the morning of 24 July 1911 Bingham's guide led him up a gruelling path to the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Hiram Bingham by tent in Peru, 1912

Hiram Bingham the year after he found Machu Picchu

Others already knew about Machu Picchu

Bingham is often spoken of as the man who rediscovered Machu Picchu. Yet this is plainly untrue. There's no indication it was ever forgotten by locals.

In fact, at the time Bingham first visited Machu Picchu, two locals were using some of the terraces to farm maize and other crops.

Steep terraces of Machu Picchu

Locals continued to farm on the ruins' terraces even while the site was unknown to the wider world

Furthermore, we have every reason to believe (through testimony and graffiti) that a handful of other outsiders had already stumbled across the ruins earlier that century.

The important thing that Bingham did, however, was to reintroduce the ruins of Machu Picchu to the world at large.

Making Machu Picchu known to the world

So if you're a gobsmacked Hiram Bingham staring at the marvellous ruins poking through the dense vegetation, how do you alert everyone else to what it is you've uncovered? Can you be sure you'll be believed, or able to adequately convey the importance of the discovery?

Fortunately for Bingham, he'd already struck up a relationship with the cofounder of Kodak, and the latter had given him the equipment necessary to take panoramic photographs. Interestingly, such technology wasn't to be made available to the public for another decade!

This gift from Kodak meant Bingham was able to take photographs of the jungle-clad ruins to help others believe – and appreciate – the magnitude of what he'd uncovered.

Thanks to his friendship with the cofounder of Kodak, Bingham's snaps of Machu Picchu are among the world's first-ever panoramic photographs.

And the rest of the story is history, so to speak. Because we all know that Bingham bringing Machu Picchu to the world's attention has had a profound impact on both scholarship into the Incas as well as tourism into the Cusco region.

For better or worse, there's no turning back – Machu Picchu has settled itself into the global consciousness!

The best way to approach Machu Picchu

Nowadays the ruins of Machu Picchu receive roughly a million visitors a year.

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Visitors exploring the ruins

The beautifully carved granite buildings and the glorious view down to the river and across to snowy peaks continue to capture hearts and imaginations just the same as it must've done with visitors in the fifteenth century.

Yet most who visit Machu Picchu do so via a pretty train ride to Machu Picchu Town after which they catch a bus ride or hike up to the ruins. If, however, you'd like to approach the ruins in the same way that the Incas did, you need to trek the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail is an up-and-down foot highway that takes you along the route carved and used by the Incas to reach Machu Picchu.

Importantly, it gifts you with the same first sight of the citadel that everyone visiting it hundreds of years ago would've also enjoyed: a glorious view down over the entire complex from Inti Punku (the 'Gateway to the Sun').

Machu Picchu citadel through clouds in the morning, seen from Sun Gate Inti Punku entrance from Inca Trail, Urubamba, Peru

Your first view of Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail from Inti Punku

Viewing Machu Picchu for the first time after all of the hard legwork required to climb up and down through the Andes for the better part of a week is an incomparable experience. We invite you to join us on one of our group Inca Trail treks and witness the splendour of the setting and the historic ruins for yourself!

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