Photograph by Mike Theiss, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Soak up the breathtaking view of Machu Picchu.

Photograph by Mike Theiss, Nat Geo Image Collection

Discover the Mysteries of Machu Picchu

Thousands of years of history await in Peru's Lost City of the Incas.

Here’s a cool fact to share with children visiting Machu Picchu in Peru—the place probably would never have been discovered without the help of a kid just like them.

You see, after two years of research to pinpoint the location of the “Lost City of the Incas” and raise money for his expedition, intrepid American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham set off into the Peruvian jungle in 1911 with a fedora planted firmly on his head and nothing more than an educated guess as to where it might be. He eventually only found the spot with the aid of an 11-year-old Quechua Indian boy.

“It fairly took my breath away,” Bingham wrote of his first encounter with the ruins in 1911 high in the Andes. “What could this place be?”

A century later we’re still not exactly sure why this place was constructed on a spot that practically touches the sky—a mystery kids will surely find compelling. Nobody is quite sure when Machu Picchu was first built—educated guesses put it at around 1450—or why it was abandoned a century later. Researchers still aren’t sure what its original function might have been: a place of worship, a royal estate, an astronomical observatory? And nobody can say with any certainty what became of its original inhabitants.

That’s why Machu Picchu is “one of those places that overdelivers,” says National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Barton Lewis, who has been visiting there since the 1960s. “No matter what your expectations are, it’s more than you imagined. The Inca were the end result of 5,000 years of civilization that started at the same time as Egypt and Mesopotamia. Because of conquest and disease, however, they were only around for 100 years. But they left behind this undisturbed site that is just incredible.”

About a third of the ruins have been reconstructed and it’s easy to imagine how the city must have looked in Inca times, clinging to the top of an emerald green ridge in the rain forest. A main plaza flanked by stone homes, temples, workshops, bathing areas, and a royal palace, surrounded in turn by stone terraces where maize and other crops were grown. Estimates put the population at no more than 1,000 at any given time. Although the reconstructed temples are the most impressive buildings, Machu Picchu’s most important structure is the Intihuatana or “hitching post of the sun,” a mysterious abstract stone construction that ancient priests may have used to study the heavens and make astrological predictions.

At the Temple of the Condor, show kids how the large stone in the middle of the structure has been carved to resemble the head and neck feathers of a huge Andean bird, and how the rocks behind are shaped into outspread condor wings. And gazing down on the Temple of the Sun, point out the Serpent Window, which according to legend was used to admit snakes to the shrine.

Part of the fun of Machu Picchu is getting there. Nearly everyone takes the narrow-gauge railway from Cusco to the Urubamba Valley below the ruins. You can hop off the train at the 82‑kilometer mark and walk the Inca Trail (26 miles)—the most celebrated hiking route in all of South America—or continue up to the town of Aguas Calientes, where buses shuttle you up a series of steep switchbacks to the mountaintop.

If your kids aren’t quite up to the full Inca Trail, an alternative is disembarking at the 104‑kilometer spot and hiking the last four to five hours of the route (8.75 miles).

“That is the single best way to be introduced to Machu Picchu,” says Lewis. “You come up really steep steps, almost climbing with your hands. At the crest there’s a stone arch. You look down and see the citadel below and it’s astounding.”

Due to its high and remote location, Machu Picchu requires some preparation, especially when visiting with children. If time permits, take a few days to acclimatize to the trail’s altitude that ranges between 6,700 and 12,000 feet above sea level.

“When one sees Machu Picchu for the first time you have to stop and try to gather it in,” says Lewis. “Even without knowing the background, cosmology, or history, it’s incredibly impressive. The more you observe and see, the more you wonder about it. How did these people do this? And to what purpose?”

Know Before You Go

Fast Facts:

  • Machu Picchu was built on two fault lines so it is no stranger to earthquakes. When one occurs, the stones bounce like they are dancing and then fall back into place. It is because of this engineering feat that the site still stands today.
  • More than a hundred skeletons were found at the site. Today, we now know that they were close to evenly split between women and men.
  • Hiram Bingham thought that he had discovered the Lost City of Vilcabamba, even though we now know it was Machu Picchu. Unbeknownst to him, he had also traveled through Vilcabamba in 1911.

Insider Tip: The entrance to Machu Picchu charges a flat rate no matter what time you arrive at the site. Be sure to get there early to get the most exploring in for your money.

Excerpt from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life , by Keith Bellows