The Famous Residents Of Machu Picchu
By Whitney Hall, ARCC Regional Director
Machu Picchu is perhaps known best as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The ancient city, which literally translates to Ancient Mountain in the Quechua language, has survived for centuries nestled within the Sacred Valley of the Andes and was a former home to at least a few hundred people during the height of the Inca Empire from the 1400s to 1500s. While there are no longer any human residents of Machu Picchu, it does still have some very hairy ones. They wander around eating most of the time, weaving in and out of the stone structures, walking single file or side by side and taking in the view. They’re friendly to visitors and they’ll even let you take their photo if you’re fast enough. They moonlight as lawnmowers, tourist liaisons, models, couriers, and assistants to farmers and weavers. So who are these eccentric multi-tasking residents?
If you guessed llamas, you’re correct! There are llamas everywhere in Machu Picchu. The Incas valued their furry friends, who they domesticated around 4,000 B.C. and used their poop as an organic fertilizer to grow maize (corn) up at high altitude. In recent years, a group of scientists from Peru and France studied the mud in and around Machu Picchu and found evidence of this ancient fertilizer source via the insects that were found buried deep in the ground, which also contributed to this fertilization process. As a result, it’s clear that llamas helped the Incas not just survive, but thrive with a healthy organic food source.
Both llamas and humans have lived cooperatively together in the Sacred Valley, supporting one another for centuries and modeling what a truly sustainable culture looks like for visitors. Llamas and alpacas were also a source of wool and therefore provided clothing and textiles, which continues on to present day in the Quechua culture. They provided meat, and served as pack animals contributing to the economy and trade.Their cuisine of choice is grass, and they eat it in a way that doesn’t destroy the roots, so the grass can continue to grow and effectively mow the lawn at the same time.
So how many llamas still reside in Machu Picchu? While it’s hard to find an exact number, there are roughly two dozen llamas in total and each has a name tag. Peru is home to about 90% of the alpacas in the world and 26% of llamas. Alpacas are also found in the Sacred Valley at the lower elevations and have a softer fur that is also used to produce textiles.
On our Peru: Sacred Valley Service Program, students have the rare chance to live and work with a Quechua community in the breathtaking and towering mountains of the Sacred Valley. Women in the community we visit carry on the traditions of their artisan ancestors, weaving llama and alpaca fur with wooden hand tools into cozy hats, bags, sweaters and soft toys. These handmade items are truly sustainably made in every sense of the word- from the material, to the natural dyes found in plants from within the valley and make a huge difference in supporting the local economy.
Along with this special time spent bonding with families in the community through our joint service project focused on food sustainability, a visit to Peru wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Ancient Mountain, where our students have the chance to see llamas in action strutting their stuff while we learn about this archaeological icon which stands at 7,970 ft above sea level. Every building and structure in Machu Picchu had a purpose, and it is truly fascinating to hear how this city was planned. Not even wheeled machinery was used to construct the city, which is made up of heavy rocks people pushed up the mountain side and placed them so close together that you can’t put a needle in between them. They even had an extensive water system and leveled off the sloping landslide in a way to prevent the city from eroding down the mountain. Though many years have passed since the height of the Inca Empire, these structures continue to stand out as a feat of engineering centuries later.
While not everyone is a fan of the llama (although how could you not be with that face), one thing’s for certain: the llamas are a big fan of Machu Picchu.
ARCC Programs has offered summer travel programs for teens for over 30 year. With travel programs for teens on six continents, there is something for everyone. Find a summer program on our website or request a catalog today.