Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. Its construction appears to date to the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest. Machu Picchu is situated above a bow of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, with cliffs dropping vertically for 450 meters (1,480 ft) to the river at their base. The area is subject to morning mists rising from the river. The location of the city was a military secret, and its deep precipices and steep mountains provided excellent natural defenses. The Inca Bridge, an Inca grass rope bridge, across the Urubamba River in the Pongo de Mainique, provided a secret entrance for the Inca army. The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. To say Machu Picchu was an impregnable fortress in addition to a sanctuary is to overstate the obvious.
Machu Picchu was built in the middle of the 15th century at the command of Pachacutec, ninth ruler of the Tahuantinsuyo and the one responsible for expanding it into what we call the Incan Empire. He was just twenty years old when he ascended the throne of his father, Viracocha, after he led the Incan armies in their defeat of the warlike Chancas. Wearing a colorful headdress, Pachacutec began his long reign that transformed the Andean world and built Cusco into the amazing city that left the Spanish Conquistadores stupefied. Seen in isolation from Europe or North America, it seems to be a marvelous anomaly, a city built on top of a mountain in a remote cloud forest, for unknown and possibly mysterious reasons. To accomplish this amazing feat, the builders had to remove massive quantities of stone and dirt and to construct enormous terraces, canals, foundations that were several meters deep, and monolithic walls of remarkable polished stones. It is believed that the city may have been used as a hiding place when the Spanish invaded, and despite the efforts made to locate it, Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spaniards. Still, it is believed that the reason the city fell was due to the smallpox brought over by the Spanish, and that in trade with Cusco, the disease was transmitted. Less than a hundred years after being built it was abandoned.
The Spanish took many products from the Americas and introduced them to the world where they had a huge impact. The history of the world, for example, would be very different had it not been for the Andean potato, which allowed populations to boom in many places. But for some reason, almost no Andean condiment made that transition, and yet they are still used today in the foods of Cuzco. In the Cuzco markets you can buy bunches of herbs called asnapa that are classic for Cuzco cuisine. The asnapa generally includes oregano, rue (a plant that is almost never used for food in Anglo North America), cilantro, yerba buena (“good herb” or a sweet mint that can often be a form of muña), parsley, muña, huacatay, and paiko. Although the asnapa contains some European imports: oregano, rue, cilantro, and parsley, and even these are not always so clearly foreign as in “oregano” and “yerba buena”, nevertheless the core flavors come straight from the Incas and before. I got to see some unusual herbs in Aguas Calietes and some plants used for food, like the Arrowleaf Elephant Ear that I thought I would share in this post.
Machu Picchu is such a pregnant ecosystem, that it is difficult to include or categorize the many beautiful plants that you encounter. I have decided to arbitrarily divide descriptions of the plants into several posts; orchids, flowers, plants and herbs. The combination of the humid tropical greenery with the towering peaks of the eastern mountain ranges gives Mach Picchu a unique and remarkable quality. As one travels by train from Ollantaytambo to the Ecological Reserve of Machu Picchu, the Andean landscape transforms into a deep canyon festooned by a dense tropical jungle that seems impossible to penetrate through its soaring slopes. The valuable 32,592-hectare Reserve has an enormous ecological variety. That is why there is such scientific interest in their original genetic diversity. The primary forest ecosystem has an incredibly diverse flora with a lush forest vegetation (such as cedar, romerillo, laurel, among others), shrubs, ferns and ancient tall palm trees. In the higher parts, endemic mountain species can be found such as the beautiful queñual tree or Polylepis. It is pretty much impossible to describe it all but I hope these posts will form a helpful beginning.
When we visited Machu Picchu, we stayed at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. The hotel has 372 different native orchid species in their natural habitat, the world record according to the American Orchid Society. Many things are said about orchids. They are extremely diverse, have colorful and fragrant blooms, are the most widespread family of flowering plant, and some have evolved bizarre ways to cross pollinate. There are between 21,950 to 26,049 currently accepted species including Vanilla (the genus of the vanilla plant). This is more than twice the number of bird species, and about four times the number of mammal species. The Andean cloud forest is a habitat which is home to a large diversity of orchids. Among the most significant sites from which to appreciate these stunning flowers is undoubtedly the Machu Picchu Natural Reserve, with a wide variety of native species and genus. Some of the most remarkable assembled at Inkaterra Machu Picchu are: the minuscule Lepanthes, Trichosalpinx and Stelis; some of the largest, like Phramipedium caudatum and Sobralia aff. setigera; and the fragrant Anguola virginalis, Lindley Ida locusta and Lycastemacorphylla.