Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca site, is the most popular tourist destination in Peru and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The site is thought to have been constructed in 1450 as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), and was abandoned about a century later during the Spanish Conquest. The site never became known to the Spanish during the conquest and therefore one of the most intact Inca ruins.
Although known locally the site came to prominence when American historian Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins in 1911. Bingham erroneously thought he had discovered the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ and thus, the title, is still to this day mistakenly used by tourists and tour operators.
Bingham had actually discovered the Lost City, Vilcabamba, earlier in his expedition but had thought it unimportant due to its size and state of preservation.
Since 1911, tourist activity to Machu Picchu has grown exponentially, reaching a peak of 400,000 visitors in 2000. Concerns about threats that tourism pose to Machu Picchu’s conservation has in recent years led the Peruvian government to impose stricter regulations on tourist access and activities.
Today the site is only open to 2,500 tourists a day, and permits to climb Huayna Picchu (within the citadel) is limited to 400 people per day.
The most popular route to the ruins, the Classic Inca Trail, has a limit of 500 permits per day (half of which go to guides and porters employed by trekkers). This means that booking onto a tour needs to happen early, particularly during the poplar seasons – May through September. In February the classic trail is closed due to the onset of rain. In fact in January 2010, heavy rain caused bad flooding that trapped over 2,000 tourists and local, who had to be air rescued.
Permit restrictions on the Classic Trail have led to alternative routes like the Salkantay and the Vilcabamba growing in popularity – despite being longer and tougher than the Classic trail.
These less travelled routes offer tourists quieter trails with equally good opportunities to view Inca sites and enjoy the incredible mountainous landscapes that characterise the Urubamba Province.