The ancient Incan sanctuary of Machu Picchu is considered one of humanity's greatest architectural achievements and is on almost everyone's bucket list of places to see. Needless to say a visit here is a "once in a lifetime" thing for me. Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town) it seemed to be a mad dash off the train to the bus station. There are buses that travel to the Sanctuary from Machu Picchu town, leaving every 15 minutes from 05:30 am onwards. You are herded like cattle into the bus for the 30 minute nail-biting drive via numerous hairpin bends to the entrance gate.
I have to say that having a knowledgeable guide made our visit so much more interesting so for those travelling independently I highly recommend you organise a guide (at times this is a mandatory requirements to enter the sanctuary).
- Machu Picchu is believed to have been built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s.
- The whole city was hidden (and thus saved) from marauding conquistadores for centuries.
- The city was re-discovered in July 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American explorer who arrived at Machu Picchu after a local farmer told him about some ruins on top of a mountain. It had been abandoned for 400 years, with the exception of a few indigenous families living and farming in the area.
- It stands at 2,400 metres above sea level and its precise stone construction is spread along a narrow and uneven mountain, tucked up against a 400 metre sheer cliff, overlooking the Urubamba Valley and River.
- In Quechua Machu Picchu means Old Mountain. Huayna Picchu means Young Mountain.
- You can get your passport stamped at the entrance of Machu Picchu for an original souvenir. You must carry your passport with you to visit the site.
- The building technique that the Inca's are so famous for is called ashlar. Stones are cut in such a way that they fit perfectly together without having to put mortar between them.
- Inca architecture is most known for its polygonal stones used in many religious buildings. One stone found in a temple wall in Machu Picchu is estimated to have at least 33 corners.
- When inhabited, historians' estimate that Machu Picchu's population ranged from 300 to 1,000 Incas, all of them part of the elite.
- More than 150 buildings make up Machu Picchu. These buildings range from temples and sanctuaries to baths and houses.
- The complex contains more than 100 separate flights of stairs. Most of the individual staircases were carved from one slab of stone.
- Many different theories exist about Machu Picchu's purpose—a royal estate, spiritual centre and a secret ceremonial centre among them.
- Machu Picchu also served as an astronomical observatory. The sacred Intihuatana stone indicates the two equinoxes and twice per year, the sun sits directly over the stone creating no shadow.
Machu Picchu is divided into two sectors, the urban sector and the agricultural sector. These sectors were constructed on a natural division due to a geological fault. The agricultural sector was located on the side of a mountain and its terrain was adapted to grow crops. They built more than 700 terraces (called andenes) by cutting part of the mountain vertically to make a flat horizontal terrain suited for agriculture and to prevent soil erosion. They also created a water management system for irrigation. Its buildings and structures blend with the granite mountains surrounding it. The Urban Sector contains the most magnificent buildings and an example of knowledge and detail of Inca architecture. The buildings are made of polygonal granite stone each of them individually shaped to fit together. Granite was obtained from the nearby ridge but it is its transportation that leaves everyone puzzled. Some of the stones are HUGE (see my photos!)
Some of the specific areas that were highlighted or we noted were;
The Intihuatana stone or "Hitching Post of the Sun" (or sacred sundial) was used by the Incas to measure the angle of the sun and shows when the solstice and equinoxes occur. At mid day on March 21st and September 21st the sun stands directly above the pillar forming no shadow at all. At these moments the Incas held a ceremony tying the sun to the rock therefore the name "Hitching Post of the Sun". It is a carved rock pillar with construction planned to orient towards the four cardinal points. As accomplished astronomers the Inca used the angles of the pillar to accurately predict the solstices. The sun was an integral part of the Inca way of life and greatly influenced agriculture, which supported the life of the whole community. The Inca considered the sun the supreme natural god and during the winter solstice on June 21, it is said that the high priest would rope a golden disc to the Intihuatana, to symbolically catch the sun, returning it back to earth, thus ensuring another bountiful season of crops.
The Sun Gate (Inti Punku)- Considered to be one of the most important features of Machu Picchu, the stairs leading up to the Sun Gate are believed to have been used as a control port for people entering and exiting the city. The site is a favourite among tourists as the sunrise from the Sun Gate is simply spectacular.
The Inca Bridge - Built as a secret entrance for the Incan army, the bridge is carved into a cliff face on the west route out of Machu Picchu. There is actually no bridge, instead a stone path is carved out of the cliff rock. Where there should be a bridge, there is instead a 20 foot drop to deter unwanted guests. The gap can be bridged with several tree trunks.
Watchman's Hut - After entering the city you'll see the Watchman's Hut. It's believed this location was the place where Inca nobility were mummified, and like many places chosen for overseers to rest, the vantage point from the hut offers a dramatic view over the whole complex. This is the perfect place to get a fantastic view over the whole city and should not be missed!
Temple of the Sun (also known as the Torreon)- One of the best places to visit. Located next to the main fountain, the Temple of the Sun demonstrates some of Machu Picchu's finest stone work. The temple was possibly used as an astronomical observatory and there are several niches in the temple where offerings would have been placed. The Temple of the Sun is a semi-circular building that sits above the Inti Mach'ay, and was built into the natural environment with a large stone forming the foundation of the structure. It is thought that the Temple of the Sun was used as a solar observatory, with the two windows in the structure related to the Summer and Winter solstice.
Inti Mach'ay is a cave that is situated below the Temple of the Sun. It is believed to have been designed and constructed to celebrate the Royal Feast of the Sun, an Inca festival celebrated by the nobility during the December solstice. The Inti Mach'ay is one of Machu Picchu's most impressive architectural structures. Inside the cave tunnel is a window unlike any constructed by the Inca's, which is strategically aligned to only allow sunlight into the structure during a few days of the December Solstice.
Royal Tomb - Palace of the Princess - Located right next to the Temple of the Sun is the Royal tomb or Palace of the Princess. Like the Sun Temple, there are tall niches for offerings and the base of the building has a sort of cave like structure which is why Bingham referred to the site as a 'tomb' - no bodies have ever been found though. This cave-esque area of Machu Picchu is decorated with ceremonial niches and adjacent to the Temple of the Sun is a carefully carved Inca cross. The cross design resembles steps, and represents the three levels of existence in the Inca world. The first step, symbolised by the snake, is representative of the underworld or of death. The second step represents the present, or human life, symbolised by the jaguar. The highest step represents the celestial or spiritual plane of the gods, and is symbolised by the condor.
This revered site has been the focus of numerous mummy excavations. Over 100 skeletal remains have been discovered here, 80% of which were women. For this and several other factual reasons, historians surmised that the area was inhabited primarily by Inca high priests and an elite selection of chosen women.
The Temple of Three Windows is a beautiful structure fashioned from large polished stones that are artfully placed to create three windows that overlook the lower city at Machu Picchu, and frame the mountainous landscape. Their exact purpose is unknown, although it is clear that there were originally five windows. When Bingham saw the windows he surmised that they represented three mythological caves from which the Ayar brothers, children of the sun, stepped into the world. It has also been suggested that the windows represent the underground, the heavens and the earth.
The Principal Temple - so named because of its large size. The building is a three sided edifice with beautifully cut stone and enormous foundation blocks. A kite shaped stone is embedded in the temple which is thought to represent the Southern-Cross star formation.
House of Ornaments (Sacristy) Considered by many to be the finest building in Machu Picchu. The Sacristy was a room used to store ornaments as can be seen by the many niches dotted around the room. More impressively though are the two large rocks flanking the entrance. Each colossal stone has at least 30 angles carved into it!
Central Plaza - This is the large grassy area that separates the residential buildings from the functional buildings. You'll often spot the odd llama or two grazing here. Generally, authorities will not allow people on the grass. The Central Plaza of Machu Picchu is laid out with rows of many roofless stone structures embedded among steep terraces, facing outward for a grand view of Huayna Picchu. The lush green grass colour in the middle of the plaza can be likened to an island sitting amongst the rest of the Inca stone buildings that make up Machu Picchu. It's an enticing and inviting spot amongst the buildings for llamas and other grazing animals to frequent for a tasty meal. The Central Plaza's grassy field also provides separation from the Sacred Plaza and Intiwatana to the residential areas on the farther side of the complex.
The Sacred Stone - This giant and intriguing stone takes the shape of Putucusi mountain that sits directly behind it. Researchers are unsure what the rock was used for but one theory is that poetry and musical recitals took place in front of the stone. The Sacred Rock is a powerful symbol in Machu Picchu, and is recognised as being a spiritual area for meditation and absorbing positive energies
The Mortar/Industrial Section - Although not as interesting or intricate as the rest of the site, the industrial area is by far the largest section within Machu Picchu and is where the average Inca Person would have lived.
The Prison Group - A complex set of rooms and passages make up the area where prisoners would have been kept. Inca prisoners were kept both above and underground, sometimes in deep holes with cell doors. The prison comprised of many human-sized niches and an underground maze of dark dingy dungeons. Right in the centre of this group of structures, we find the Temple of the Condor, some visitors and locals call this the main attraction because of its attention seeking condor carved in stone right above a rock pile. Behind this striking carved condor head, is a doorway leading to a tiny underground cell. Be sure to take a look at the marvellous carving of the condor!
Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu has to be one of the highlights (although you will find it difficult to choose one) of your exploration of these Inca ruins. It is an exquisite example of Inca stonemasonry. The Inca took a natural rock formation shaped by the elements millions of years ago, and skilfully shaped it into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. The condor represented spirit and higher levels of consciousness, so the Inca considered the condor to be of elevated importance in the animal, and spirit kingdom.
On the floor of the Condor Temple you can see a rock carved in the shape of the condor's head and neck feathers, this section of the rock makes up the figure of a three-dimensional bird. Historians speculate that the Inca used the head of the condor here as a sacrificial altar. Underneath this is a small cave that used to contain a mummy, the hierarchal importance of which perplexed archaeologists like many other mummified remains found in this area.
The big little mountain that everyone forgets, Huayna Picchu is like a jewel in the crown of Machu Picchu. Standing at 2,720 metres , it towers above and behind the citadel of Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna each day and you are required to buy a separate ticket for this.
I marvelled at the site and felt incredibly honoured to have been able to visit Machu Picchu but at the same time I am left with a sense of unease. This amazing site was clearly never meant to host thousands of people at a time and yet that is what occurs. More than 1.5 million tourists visited Machu Picchu in 2018, which is almost double the limit recommended by UNESCO. Tickets are supposedly limited to 2500 per day but this would appear to be too many to be sustainable. There is a long queue to gain access to the site and then you need to wait patiently to try and take photos. That same photo that everyone takes at the top of the site - you are not alone, you are surrounded by people, many of them with selfie sticks and putting on the Insta pouts!! We were constantly queuing across the site or cramped in narrow corridors and at times it appeared that some visitors had little or no respect for what they were seeing. The Sacred Stone is now surrounded by rope to try to stop people putting their hands on it and guides tell you not to touch it BUT while standing in the area for about 10 minutes and I saw multiple people lean over the rope to touch the stone. Seriously where is the respect???
The sense of unease has not left me and I am left to wonder what we will be leaving for future generations................
NB: The photos that go with this blog are in the album called "Machu Picchu" and are not those that attach themselves to this blogpost - cannot seem to change it on this website!!