The village of Machu Picchu Pueblo, also known as Aguas Calientes, is tucked in a verdant canyon just below historical sanctuary of Machu Picchu. The village is only 70 miles from Cusco, but cut off from it by thick cloud forests and rippling mountains, and the only way to reach it is by rail—or on foot along the Inca Trail. The train journey is one of the most magnificent in the world, following the emerald Sacred Valley of the Inca between steep mountains. The lodge is set in lush forests at the edge of town, bordered by the Vilcanota River. Perched at 7,972 feet (2,430 meters), the citadel of Machu Picchu is a short bus ride up the mountainside.
Machu Picchu is tangible evidence of the urban Inca Empire at the peak of its power and achievement—a citadel of cut stone fit together without mortar so tightly that its cracks can’t be penetrated by a knife blade. The complex of palaces and plazas, temples and homes may have been built as a ceremonial site, a military stronghold, or a retreat for ruling elites—its dramatic location is well suited for any of those purposes. The ruins lie on a high ridge, surrounded on three sides by the winding, turbulent Urubamba River some 2,000 feet (610 meters) below.
Scholars are still striving to uncover clues to the mysteries hidden here high in the eastern slopes of the Andes. Machu Picchu appears to lie at the center of a network of related sites and trails—and many landmarks both man-made and mountainous appear to align with astronomical events like the solstice sunset. The Inca had no written language, so they left no record of why they built the site or how they used it before it was abandoned in the early 16th century.
The Andean cloud forests that surround Machu Picchu are rich with plant and animal life, from vibrant orchids and exotic bromeliads to colorful butterflies, monkeys, and myriad species of indigenous birds. Various endangered species can sometimes be seen, including the Andean cock-of-the-rock, Andean spectacled bear, river otter, and mountain lion. Birders should be on the lookout for the following species:
The largest group of indigenous people in Peru are the Quechua, who number in the millions and are spread across western South America. The Peruvian Quechua are thought to be direct descendants of the Inca, whose empire stretched from modern-day Colombia to Chile until Spanish colonization in the 16th century. Despite increased globalization, the rich cultural heritage of the Quechua people is still present today, visible, in part, in their colorful textile traditions and other time-honored crafts. The Quechua language is spoken widely and considered one of Peru’s official languages, along with Spanish.
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