Built at an elevation of 8000 feet on a mountain peak, the citadel at Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. No visit to Peru is complete without a trip to Machu Picchu, which lies in the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Cuzco region. Founded by the great Inca emperor Pachacuti around 1450 CE and abandoned in 100 years later, Machu Picchu is one of the few sites the Spanish never discovered and therefore was left intact without the plunder and destruction by the Spanish Conquistadors. It provides a glimpse into the great Inca civilization that prospered around the Andes mountains before the Spanish conquest.
Machu Picchu – which means “old peak” in Quechua – was discovered in 1912 by Hiram Bingham, an American explorer from Yale University. He was looking for Vilcabamba, the lost city of the Incas, and believed until his death Machu Picchu was the lost city of the Incas.
Once discovered, it was excavated and restored to its present form. The site was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. The site has lately become unstable, and the Government of Peru has been restricting the number of visitors to this site.
Machu Picchu is located about 50 miles north-east of the Inca capital Cuzco. The nearest town is Aguas Calientes, which is in the valley below the Machu Picchu site. Aguas Calientes is also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.
Visiting Machu Picchu
The Machu Picchu site is on a mountain peak. You can visit it by foot using the Inca trail or take the bus to the site from Aguas Calientes.
Peru Rail provides several daily train services from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The train ride takes about 1 hour 45 minutes. You can then take a bus to reach the site. The bus ride takes about 25 minutes. Ollantaytambo is about 50 miles from the city of Cuzco, so if you are staying in Cuzco, you need to take a bus to Ollantaytambo.
History and Purpose
The Inca emperor Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438 –71) was the founder of Machu Picchu and the next emperor Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472 – 93) continued to expand it.
Nobody is sure why Machu Picchu was built and how it was used. There are many theories, but one thing is certain, women were the majority of the population. Some experts believe it was built to safeguard the Inca civilization from the Spanish Conquistadors. If this was the aim, they certainly succeeded in doing that.
The population of Machu Picchu was thought to have succumbed to the diseases, including dreaded smallpox, which the Spanish brought from Europe. The site appeared abandoned after its population perished. However, the natives knew the existence of the site. When Hiram Bingham arrived at the site, he found a few families living there. Hiram Bingham only rediscovered it for the rest of the world.
Machu Picchu was a self-contained city in which the Inca people lived for about 100 years. This city had agricultural terraces (andenes), underground and overground drainage systems, temples, royal tomb, astronomic observatories, and residential quarters for the nobility and common people.
Many of the structures we see today in Machu Picchu were restored to make them appear the way they looked in their original form. The workmanship of the restored structures is poor compared to the original structures. The difference in workmanship is striking when you look at the structures that are intact.
The structures that still have the original carving and stone masonry are Sun Temple, Principal Temple, and Inti Watana.
Views of Machu Picchu
The Central Plaza is equivalent to the central square of a modern city. This is where the residents of the city gathered for celebrations and other occasions. The view from this place is very scenic as it overlooks the Huayna Picchu peak.
The Sacred Plaza is above the Central Plaza, and both the plazas are connected through steps. Below the Central Plaza, there are the ruins of the prisons and residential quarters of the common people.
Machu Picchu central plaza
The Sacred Plaza contains many religious structures, including Principal Temple, Temple with Three Windows, and the Inti Watana stone placed on a pyramid-like structure. This is where important religious ceremonies were held.
Temples were an important part of Inca life. Even though Sun was the main god, the Inca built temples for many other gods as well.
Principal Temple is located on the Sacred Plaza. It has three walls, two lateral and one rear and a total of trapezoidal 17 niches on these walls. Like in other Inca temples, the niches were used to keep the haucas (sacred objects). Above the niches of the rear wall, there are six stone pegs which might have used to hang decoration during festivities.
It is believed that the Inca supreme god Viracocha was worshiped in this temple. As in the case of other Inca temples, Principal Temple likely housed royal mummies because the Inca considered them as deities and worshiped them as well.
The image above shows the ruins of Principal Temple. Notice the defect on the right side of the rear wall. Experts believe that this defect was caused by settling of the earth that occurred as a result of earthquakes that struck the site after it was built.
Temple of the Three Windows
The three windows in the temple represent the three realms of the Inca religion: Hannan Pacha (upper world or heavens), Kaya Pacha (middle world or earth) and Uku Pacha (underworld or hell).
Built on a natural rock, the Sun Temple is a semi-circular tower with the original Inca stone masonry. Even though there is some resemblance to the Sun Temple at Qorikancha in Cuzco, the one in Machu Picchu is a lot smaller. Just like in the Qorikancha Temple, there are trapezoidal windows and niches in the Machu Picchu temple.
Under one of the windows of this temple, there is a stone on which the sun rays fall, and the Inca measured the movement of the Sun by tracking the sun rays on the rock. Some experts believe that this rock served as a sacrificial altar on which sacrifices were made during the summer and winter equinoxes and many important religious ceremonies.
The Andean condor is revered by the indigenous cultures of South America. It played an important role in the Inca culture and religion as it symbolizes the upper world realm, Hanan Pacha.
The Condor Temple was built on a natural rock that is believed to represent the wing of a condor. A beautifully carved condor beak lies in front of this structure. The carved condor beak and the natural rock behind it make up the Condor Temple.
The Condor Temple
Inti Watana (Intihuatana)
The Inti Watana stone is one of the enigmatic structures in Machu Picchu. Inti Watana (Intihuatana) in Quechua means “hitching post for the sun.”
While nobody is sure of its actual use, many experts believe that it was used as an astronomic clock or a calendar. It casts the longest shadow on the summer solstice (June 21) and shortest shadow on the winter solstice (December 21).
Many Inca sacred sites had Inti Watana stones and the Inca people considered them as sacred objects. According to a legend, people used to touch their foreheads to the stone and experience spiritual vision. The Spanish considered this as the pagan worship and systematically destroyed them. The Inti Watana stone at Machu Picchu was the only one that was found intact.
The Inca royal tomb is located next to the Sun Temple and contains the ceremonial niches and three steps representing the three realms of the Inca religion: underworld (snake), the middle world (jaguar) and the upper world (condor).
As much as 100 skeletal remains were discovered inside the royal tomb and a vast majority of them belonged to women leading experts to believe that the majority of the Machu Picchu residents were women.
Below the Sun Temple, there are two round structures filled with water. It was believed that the Inca used these for observing the stars. Just like the Mayans, the Incas were keen observers of the sky. They filled them with water and observed the images of the stars in the water.
Nobody is certain how the Sacred Rock was used by the Inca. Because it resembles the shape of a guinea pig, some experts believe it represents the guinea pig while others believe it represents the mountains behind it because its shape matches the profile of those mountains.
Llamas and alpacas freely roam around the Machu Picchu site.
Llamas and Alpacas freely roaming in Machu Picchu
When you are in the Machu Picchu site, where ever you go you feel the presence of this beautiful and magnificent peek next to it.