The Natural Environment of Machu Picchu

The Machu Picchu Sanctuary was established in 1981 to protect this group of archaeological sites nestled in the Andes. Strategically situated on the Eastern slope of the Andes and on both banks of the Urubamba River, this protected area rests at 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level. Many people learn about the history and facts of the ruins themselves, but what’s especially impressive about the site is the striking natural landscape and ecosystems that it is home to.

Few know the richness of the flora and fauna found within these borders of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, but it’s essential that we do so we can protect these unique environment.

From above, you can see the borders of the territory of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary are all relevant natural boundaries. The Urubamba River runs through the center, with two mountain ranges standing on both sides of the deep valley. On each riverside we see two of the most important sub-basins of the region: the Urubamba mountain range to the North, and the Vilcabamba to the South. Towering above them are the most important peaks: the Wekey Willka or Veronica and the majestic Salcantay. The limits of the sanctuary are complete by the valley of Cushichaca to the East and the valley of Aobamba to the West.

The Flora & Fauna of Machu Picchu

There are up to ten zones of life and two well differentiated eco-regions registered within the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, but the most important of these is the terrain represented by the cloud forests and mountains (which includes the high Andean grasslands, elfin forests and the high jungle). The variety of ecological floors created by this terrain allows for the existence of an amazing diversity of species that have adapted perfectly to the very specific conditions of the environment.

This is the territory of the Andean condor, the largest bird in the region, and the taruka, the largest and most elusive deer in the Andes; of the playful vizcachas (typical rodents of the highlands) and of the puma or Andean lion.

If we continue in an imaginary descent, we arrive to the environmental zone where the cold winds from the mountain peaks join the warm currents that rise from the jungle to form a strange middle ground. This is the dwarf forest, where you’ll see the scenery of crooked trees where nature seems to have mixed dimensions. Here, the trees are small and mosses giant. It is the land of bromeliads and the most rare flowers, and home of the Andean bear (ucumari) and a highland toucan.

A bit lower, where humidity reigns all year round and rains are more frequent that in other parts of the country, every now and then cloud forests appear from within the mysterious veil of the mist that covers them, to reveal a magical and wondrous vision. This is one of the most prolific and unknown natural environments; a reign of cascades and mysterious beings where trees grow almost hanging from cliffs, taking advantage of the scarce fertile soil they produce, and clasping to the great granite rocks that appear on the mountains.

This is the home of the colorful cock-of-the-rocks, Peru’s national bird; of flocks of multicolored tangaras and highland quetzals; of emerald toucans, and bromeliads and orchids that add up to more than 300 species, among which it is possible to find the spectacular wakanki and wiñay wayna, whose flowers have served to give name to some of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the Inca Trail.

Read more:Quechua, the official language of the Incas

Finally, deep in the valley and under the thermal effect of the water that runs through it, the mountain forests provide the ideal conditions for an enormous variety of crops: coca, achiote, corn, cacao, coffee and fruits. This area could be referred to as the Inca’s pantry, as they turned to it to find the most precious fruits. Indeed, the inhabitants of the region still benefit from the richness of the area. A land of bamboo forests that flourish every decade only to perish altogether, as if following a mysterious and strange mandate; a territory where valleys widen and river calm their fury and give way to clear courses that lick the nutrient-rich limo from the mountains. This is the prelude of the great Amazonian forests.

Conservation & Threats

The unique ecosystem surrounding Machu Picchu needs to be preserved though- If these forests disappear, many unique species of flora and fauna would be lost.

The biggest threat right now is from the pressures of tourism, and the restrictions on daily tour numbers are vital to minimizing impact. However, there are always changes within the land that we need to be cognizant of.

Some geologists worry that the impacts on the land because of the years of tourism could lead to a potential landslide, which could send the ruins tumbling down into the Urubamba River below.

It’s vital for everyone, tourists and locals alike, to understand the value of the ecosystems within the Machu Picchu sanctuary, and the home it provides to a wide variety of wildlife around the site. The threat of any harm to this unique ecological environment is one we all need to be aware of: So we can visit, appreciate and admire the incredible wildlife and geography for many more years to come.