In the midst of a tropical mountain forest covering the eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes, lays one of the world’s most important archaeological sites: mystical Machu Picchu. This ancient Inca city, whose name means “old peak” in Quechua, is found just a little northwest of Cusco, Peru’s most visited city. The mountain peak Machu Picchu sits upon, seems to disappear into the clouds, leaving the city completely invisible from the Urubamba River (referred to by the Inca as the “Sacred River”) that flows 610 meter below. With the sacred peak of Wayna Picchu at its back, the city sits between two mountain peaks – Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.
This UNESCO listed treasure is accessible either by undertaking the multi-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, or by hopping on a morning train from Cusco. Although the former is infinitely more rewarding for its challenge alone, both are marvellous ways of visiting what is often referred to, as South America’s most impressive, important and certainly most visited landmark. Travel to the continent and leave without visiting Machu Picchu and, some would say, you may as well not come at all.
This ancient architectural masterpiece covers an area of 13 km and is comprised of more than 200 buildings, from bath houses and temples, to an entire neighbourhood and royal district. It was built around the year 1450 A.D. at the height of the Inca Empire (Wikipedia Article) which dominated Western South America in the 15th and 16th centuries. Most historians believe that the city was either built as an estate for the Inca Emperor, Pachacuti, or that it was meant to be a sacred ceremonial city due to its proximity to the mountains, which the Inca held sacred.
The Inca chose this particular place in the Andes to build their hidden city for a multitude of strategic reasons. The site of Machu Picchu supplied a natural granite quarry where stones weighing up to 50 tons could be harvested, and painstakingly carved into building blocks. The city was built in the classical Inca style of polished dry-stone walls, joined without mortar using the “ashlar” technique, developed by the Inca to accommodate seismic activity in the region and heavy rainfall. You can see examples of this puzzle style in Cusco, all along the original Inca walls which run up north off the eastern side of the Plaza de Armas. To accomplish this feat, each stone was precisely sculpted and fitted together, so that no even the thinnest blade could be inserted between them. It is still a mystery how the Inca managed to move such large rocks without any modern technology. This aspect is believed to be responsible for Machu Picchu’s optimum preservation.
Strangely enough, although the Inca gem was well known to locals, it was never discovered by the Spanish conquistadores during their reign over the land, and was only discovered at the turn of the 20th century.
Aside from rendering it invisible to anyone who didn’t know exactly where to look, the steep mountains, deep precipices, and high altitude of the site, also provided Machu Picchu with excellent natural defences. The location of the city was a military secret with only two points of access – one through the Gate of the Sun (Wikipedia Article) and another by way of the Inca Bridge that crossed the Urubamba River and provided a secret entrance for the Inca Army. The hillsides surrounding the city were terraced to provide more farmland, and to steepen the slopes to deter ascending invaders. The city walls, terraces, stairways and ramps were built to blend seamlessly into the landscape.
The location chosen by the Inca also allowed their city to thrive while being completely self-contained. Watered by natural springs and surrounded by irrigated fields that produced enough crops to sustain a city with four times the population of Machu Picchu, the engineering prowess of the Inca allowed them to create an independent and sustainable community. The city was divided into two zones – one for agriculture and the other to accommodate urban life. The urban sector included an upper town called Hanan and a lower town called Urin, both separated by the Main Plaza. The buildings of most significance in the Hanan sector included the Royal Palace and Mausoleum, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, the Main Temple and the Intihuatana Stone. Meanwhile, the Urin sector was home to a small cluster of dwellings, the Palace of the Three Portals, the Mausoleum of the East, and the Crypt of the Condor. Little is known about the individual purposes most of these structures served, aside from their obvious religious importance.
The Intihuatana Stone, also known as “The Hitching Post of the Sun”, was supremely sacred to the Inca. They dedicated the sculpted, six foot tall piece of granite to Inti (Wikipedia Article), their Sun God and greatest deity, and believed that the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky. ThesStone likely served as a calendar of sorts with some astronomical purpose. Shamanic legends tell that when a sensitive person touches their forehead to the stone it opens their visions to the spirit world and the Inca believed that if the Stone was broken, the deities it served would either die or depart. The Spaniards systematically searched for and destroyed many of these Stones, but they never found Machu Picchu, so its Intihuatana Stone remains intact.
Machu Picchu thrived for a century until it was deserted for reasons still unknown. As there is no evidence that the Spanish ever found or attacked the city, most historians agree that its inhabitants were wiped out due to a smallpox epidemic spread by travellers prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. In 1911, Hiram Bingham rediscovered the ruins while searching for Vilcabamba, known as “The Lost City of the Incas”. He believed that Machu Picchu was the city he’d been searching for, although he was later revealed to be mistaken.
When to Visit
The best time to visit is during the April – October interval. It is best to avoid the June – August period due to overcrowding.