World Heritage and GIS: Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the most known cultural heritage sites in the world. The site’s fame is built upon its cultural and historical relevance, and it is in fact one of the most important economic engines of Peru.

The citadel of Machu Picchu is located in the province of Urubamba, in the Department of Cusco. It is located at an altitude of 2,430 meters above sea level. Its ruins are within the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, which is protected by the National System of Protected Natural Areas (SERNAP) of Peru. It has an overall area of 32,592 hectares in the basin of the river Vilcanota-Urubamba (Machu Picchu Facts, 2016).

Figure 1. Machu Picchu, May 2016.

Machu Picchu is not only a World Heritage site of Humanity (Sassa et al., 2005), but also one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Therefore, it had not only enormous relevance for the Inca empire in the past, but also for current societies. The following quote exposes a glance of its history:

Inca’s world heritage is located northwest of Cusco, Peru (Fig.1). It was declared a World Heritage of Humanity in terms of both cultural and natural property by UNESCO in 1983. It is also an ecological sanctuary because of its ecological richness. The present style of citadel was probably built by the Incas in the 15th century. It remained untouched after the collapse of the Inca empire in 1540 through the colonial period because of its isolated location on the top of a steep mountain. Machu Picchu became known to the world after its “scientific discovery” by Prof. Hiram Bingham in July 1911. (Sassa et al., 2005, p. 46).

However, not only its history but also its architectural complexity and geographic location, make this site significant as cultural and natural patrimony for humanity. All these aspects are taken into consideration while talking about world heritage and its relevance for society. Thus, Machu Picchu is an iconic site in terms of archaeological studies, historical research and architectural analysis.

Machu Picchu and its location in the world

In order to understand why this site is so important for world heritage, it is necessary to understand its geographical features and its demographic relationship. The GPS coordinates for Machu Picchu are 13.1633°S and 72.5456°W (Machu Picchu Facts,2016), being part of Andes Mountains.

Then, tools such as GIS have an important role in the way that world heritage sites and cultural material are recorded and interpreted. In this case, four maps were created using QGIS in order to Illustrate Machu Picchu relation with the environment and current settlements. The first map (Figure 2) shows the relation between the citadel and the main rivers around it, since rivers constitute a major asset or resources for every population. Particularly, the Amazonas being the main river in South America.

Figure 2. Rivers Map.

Software like GIS allows the possibility of analyzing spatial relationship between Machu Picchu and all the important elements from landscape. Either cultural elements such as cities and communities, or natural elements such as mountains, rivers, coasts; all of which can be identified and correlated to Machu Picchu’s geographic position.

Human settlements are a valuable evidence of landscape usage for a society, they show behavior patterns and interaction patterns between human beings and their environment. In that sense, it becomes relevant to observe the spatial distribution of current populated cities in comparison to the location of ancient architectural complexes like Machu Picchu (Figure 3). In order to understand how societies adapt and modify the landscape and its natural resources for their benefit.

Figure 3. Populated Cities Map.

Another important aspect is the topographic information of the area in which the citadel is located. For example, Kenneth Wright (2014) explains the necessity of understanding the landscape and its topography when the Inca society was planning their urban development. Elements such as mountains, elevations, hydrology, drainage and construction methods, were fundamental for the building process of Machu Picchu.

The following map (Figure 4) shows relief information regarding the area in which the Inca citadel is located. It is necessary to mention that the choice of building this architectural complex on the top of a mountain required strategic and planned thinking from the Incas, and this shows the control and knowledge they had over their environment.

Figure 4. Topographic Relief.

Finally, another type of information that can be exposed using GIS is the satellite Imagery. This image shows Machu Picchu’s location in current time, and can be accessed online at any time if one is looking to have current geographical information. It allows the possibility of having an updated view of Machu Picchu and its surroundings in real time (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Satellite Imagery of Machu Picchu.


This post exposes a brief example of how GIS can contribute to understand and interpret the importance of World Heritage Sites such as Machu Picchu. When it comes to cultural patrimony, knowing its location in the world and its relationship with the landscape in terms of natural and cultural resources, it is essential. GIS then, is a tool that helps researches in many disciplines to study and analyze the context in which World Heritage Sites were built and developed. Being also a useful approach while understanding human behavior and settlement patterns.

While it is true that Machu Picchu is one of the most worldwide known and studied archaeological sites, the information that was illustrated here in relation to the citadel and its geographical context, can also be applied to any other site or location around the world. Then, this shows a glance of the broad amount of possibilities and types of information that GIS can offer in terms of World Heritage sites.


QIS, 2016. [Online] Available at:

[Accessed on 7 Oct. 2016].

Machu Picchu Facts, 2016. [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 11 Oct. 2016].

Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado, 2016. [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 11 Oct. 2016].

Sassa, K., Fukuoka, H., Wang, F., Wang, G., Benavente, E., Ugarte, D., Astete, F., 2005. Landslide Investigation in Machu Picchu World Heritage, Cusco, Peru (C101–1). Landslides. Germany: Spring Berlin Heidelberg. Pp. 25–38.

Wright, K., 2014. Machu Picchu. Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Netherlands: Springer Netherlands. Pp. 1–11.