Controversy, bloodshed, civil war, Spanish conquest, blood rituals, child sacrifices and mountain gods! With descriptive words such as these, it’s no wonder we decided that the very first ancient civilization we wanted to feature was naturally the Inca’s.
Where better to start our collection of ancient civilizations than with one of the most incredibly talked about, studied and yet still so misunderstood ruling empires.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this truly makes our very first Ancient civilization landmark a true man-made wonder of the ancient world!
The Inca first appeared in the Andes region during the 12th century A.D. and gradually built a massive kingdom through the military strength of their emperors. Known as Tawantinsuyu, the Inca state spanned the distance of northern Ecuador to central Chile and consisted of 12 million inhabitants from more than 100 different ethnic groups at its peak. Well-devised agricultural and roadway systems, along with a centralized religion and language, helped maintain a cohesive state. Despite their power, the Inca were quickly overwhelmed by the diseases and superior weaponry of Spanish invaders, the last bastion of their immense empire overtaken in 1572.
The Inca first appeared in what is today southeastern Peru during the 12th century A.D. According to some versions of their origin myths, they were created by the sun god, Inti, who sent his son Manco Capac to Earth through the middle of three caves in the village of Paccari Tampu. After killing his brothers, Manco Capac led his sisters and their followers through the wilderness before settling in the fertile valley near Cusco circa 1200.
The Inca began expanding their land holdings by the reign of their fourth emperor, Mayta Capac. However, they did not truly become an expansive power until the eighth emperor, Viracocha Inca, took control in the early 15th century. Bolstered by the military capabilities of two uncles, Viracocha Inca defeated the Ayarmaca kingdom to the south and took over the Urubamba Valley. He also established the Inca practice of leaving military garrisons to maintain peace in conquered lands.
When the rival Chancas attacked circa 1438, Viracocha Inca retreated to a military outpost while his son, Cusi Inca Yupanqui, successfully defended Cusco. Taking the title of Pachacuti, Inca Yupanqui became one of the Inca’s most influential rulers. His military campaigns extended the kingdom to the southern end of the Titicaca Basin, and hundreds of miles north to subject the Cajamarca and Chimu kingdoms.
The expanding reach of the Inca state, Tawantinsuyu, prompted strategic logistical considerations. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui is believed to have been the first Inca emperor to order forced resettlement to squash the possibility of an uprising from one ethnic group. In addition, he established the practice in which rulers were prevented from inheriting the possessions of their predecessors, thereby ensuring that successive leaders would conquer new lands and accumulate new wealth.
Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui also focused his efforts on strengthening Cusco, the center of the empire. He expanded Sacsahuaman, the massive fortress that guarded the city, and embarked on an expansive irrigation project by channeling rivers and creating intricate agricultural terraces.
Although Tawantinsuyu was comprised of more than 100 distinct ethnic groups among its 12 million inhabitants, a well-developed societal structure kept the empire running smoothly. There was no written language, but a form of Quechua became the primary dialect, and knotted cords known as quipu were used to keep track of historical and accounting records. Most subjects were self-sufficient farmers who tended to corn, potatoes, squash, llamas, alpacas and dogs, and paid taxes through public labor. A system of roadways adding up to approximately 15,000 miles crisscrossed the kingdom, with relay runners capable of advancing messages at the rate of 150 miles per day.
The Inca religion centered on a pantheon of gods that included Inti; a creator god named Viracocha; and Apu Illapu, the rain god. Impressive shrines were built throughout the kingdom, including a massive Sun Temple in Cusco that measured more than 1,200 feet in circumference. Powerful priests depended on divination to diagnose illness, solve crimes and predict the outcomes of warfare, in many cases requiring animal sacrifice. The mummified remains of previous emperors were also treated as sacred figures and paraded around at ceremonies with their stores of gold and silver.
Upon ascending to the throne in 1471, Topa Inca Yupanqui pushed the southern border of the empire to the Maule River in modern-day Chile, and instituted a tribute system in which each province provided women to serve as temple maidens or brides for celebrated soldiers. His successor, Huayna Capac, embarked on successful northern campaigns that carried to the Ancasmayo River, the current boundary between Ecuador and Colombia.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Spanish explorers had already triggered the collapse of the state. The Spanish carried such alien diseases as smallpox, which wiped out a huge chunk of the population before killing Huayna Capac and his chosen successor around 1525. That sparked a civil war as would-be emperors battled for power, with Atahualpa eventually outlasting his half-brother, Huascar, to grab the throne.
Enamored by the stories of Inca wealth, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro lured Atahualpa to meeting for a supposed dinner in his honor and kidnapped the emperor in November 1532. Atahualpa was executed the following summer, and although the Spanish were far outnumbered by the locals, they easily sacked Cusco in late 1533 with their superior weaponry.
Attempting to keep the peace, the Spanish installed a young prince named Manco Inca Yupanqui as a puppet king, a move that backfired during a spirited rebellion in 1536. However, Manco Inca Yupanqui and his men were eventually forced to retreat to the jungle village of Vilcabamba, which remained the last stronghold of the empire until 1572.
As the only written accounts of the Inca were composed by outsiders, its mythology and culture passed to successive generations by trained storytellers. Traces of its existence were mainly found in the ruins of cities and temples, but in 1911 archaeologist Hiram Bingham discovered the intact 15th century mountaintop citadel of Machu Picchu, its magnificent stone structures reflecting the power and capabilities of this massive Pre-Colombian state.
Machu Picchu is undoubtedly 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 still 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 certainly well suited for any of those purposes. The ruins lie on a high ridge, surrounded on three sides by the windy, 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, covered with tropical forests of the upper Amazon Basin. 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 Inca’s achievements and skills are all the more impressive in light of the knowledge they lacked. When Machu Picchu was built some 500 years ago the Inca had no iron, no steel, and no wheels. Their tremendous effort apparently benefited relatively few people—some experts maintain that fewer than a thousand individuals lived here.
In 1911 a Peruvian guide led Yale professor Hiram Bingham up a steep mountainside and into the history books as the first Western scholar to lay eyes on the “lost city” of Machu Picchu. While indigenous peoples knew of the site, Peru’s Spanish conquerors never did—a fact which aided Machu Picchu’s isolation, and preservation, over the centuries.
Today Machu Picchu is far from isolated. In fact it’s a must-see for any visitor to Peru and the draw that compels many to travel to that nation. Machu Picchu’s management challenge is preservation of the site while making it accessible to all those who hope to experience an incredible part of Inca history.
How to Get There
On his first trip to the site Hiram Bingham walked for six days. Today many choose to follow in his footsteps by hiking to the ruins on the legendary Inca Trail. It’s an experience like no other, but one no longer necessary. Train trips from Cusco take only a few hours.
When to Visit
With some caveats (see below), we believe that the best season is from April to October.
Keep in mind that Peru is a large country with diverse geographies, including beaches, desert, mountains, and rainforest – each with its own climate, flora, fauna, and weather conditions. This makes it difficult to determine a good time to travel to Peru if you are visiting several places during your trip. Our best advice is to check weather conditions in each of your destinations — or ask your friendly Travel Advisor for some tips! — and pack your bags accordingly.
Scroll down for more tips about:
Peak season at Machu Picchu
Rainy season versus dry season
Weather conditions around the year
Machu Picchu is open 7 days a week, every day of the year, including holidays.
Best time to visit
If you want to an opportunity to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World the way it looks in classic photographs — clear blue skies as a backdrop to sun-lit stone ruins nestled amid jungle covered granite peaks — your best chance in during the dry season between May and October. Note however, that even during the dry season, there may be morning and afternoons with heavy mists that can obscure the views.
For a tour to Machu Picchu, the warmest weather is from November to March. BUT this also corresponds to the rainy season. In other words, higher temperatures do not correlate to great weather at Machu Picchu.
Busiest time is from June to August
Peak travel season for tourists from around the world and from across Peru flocking to Machu Picchu is from June to August. During this time, large crowds can make it a little hard to move around some parts of the Sanctuary and long lines at the ruins entrance are common.
June to August is also a popular time for travelers who choose the hardest, most exciting way to get to Machu Picchu by the Inca Trail hike.
Rainy season is from November to March
>Rain — anything from light drizzle to heavy downpours — occur almost daily from November until March. The heaviest rain is in February, which is also when the Inca Trail path is closed for maintenance.
Orchids love the rain — blooming season begins in October/November and continues until March.
Overall, we think the best time to visit Machu Picchu is from April to October. Again, rain and fog is possible at any time of year because Machu Picchu is located on the edge of the rainforest. But during the “dry season,” you have the best possibility to appreciate the full beauty of the ruins.
How to Visit
For the fit there is simply no substitute for traveling to Machu Picchu the way the Inca themselves did—on foot. Today the Inca Trail winds through the mountains and along the path of the ancient royal highway. More than 75,000 people make the trip each year and along the way experience some of the associated sites that were part of the Inca network in this area.
It’s no longer possible to do the trek independently. Due to heavy use (and subsequent environmental impact) the trail has become heavily regulated. Visitors must sign up with an organized group to tackle either the classic four-day route or a recently added two-day option.