Machu Picchu - Peru - Inca City in the Sky
No visit to Peru is complete without a visit to Machu Picchu. Located high in the Andean Mountains not visible from the valley below, this city has been re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. Besides the fascinating Inca architecture and scale of this site, Machu Picchu owns much of its glory to the unique location. Every time you enter the city, you cannot help it but have to gasp. Sometimes called the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu is not Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Incas, the city Bingham was looking for. Nor is it Paititi, the City of Gold or El Dorado. In fact most of the history of Machu Picchu is unknown, even though there are many books on the subject, a lot of their content is pure speculation. Ironically, Bingham had already found Vilcabamba without realizing it.
Enough of the superlatives, once you have seen Machu Picchu you will understand why I am so fascinated.
The big unknown history
As I mentioned before, not a whole lot is known about Machu Picchu. There is a lot of speculation, why the city has been "lost" for such a long time. Many colliding theories exist. In fact, there are still a whole bunch of lost cities in the area. For a long time adventurers have been looking for Paititi, which keeps eluding scientists, archeologists and treasure hunters.
What purpose did the city serve? Again there is a lot of speculation, but little hard evidence. Some believe that it was a holiday retreat for the royalty of Cusco others believe that the city had mainly religious purposes and others again believe that it was some sort of science station. There is evidence for either of the theories. The location and the presence of royal temples support the first theory. Sacrilegious remains lead to speculation of human sacrifices. Solar calendars and star observatories support the second and the third theory.
When you imagine the incredible power of the Inca Empire that spread over 4000 miles (north to south) in such a short time and produced such marvelous engineering wonders, it is not hard to see why people are drawn here. The Empire lasted less than 100 years until the Spaniards came; yet the Inca are one of the most mysterious civilizations that ever existed. Their powers can only bee explained by supernatural forces right?
Tour of the City
If you arrive by Bus from Aquas Calientes, you will enter the city through the agricultural sector. Those who choose to take on the Inca Trail will enter the city from the highest vintage point. Machu Picchu will lie to their feet as a reward for their long and stressful journey. No matter how they enter the city, most people suddenly stop and try to digest what their optic nerve transmits to their brains. Yes, all of us had seen many pictures before but nothing can quite prepare one for the real experience. The city hugs the mountain, behind it towers the mystic Huayna Picchu with some Inca Structures on top.
The little map below has numbers on it. You will find the corresponding numbers in the text below. Click on the map to open it in a seperate browser window.
Assuming that you arrived comfortably by bus from Aquas Calientes, you will enter the city through the main entrance (1) and walk past the Guard Houses (2). From here you will already have a fantastic view. The terraces were built for farming and vary in size with the varying slope of the mountain. Some believe that the terraces may have had other purposes, like securing the mountains from seismic activity.
If those were farming terraces, they would have made the city completely self-sufficient.
Caretakers Hut, a good overview
If you are still fit enough, you could climb up towards the Caretakers Hut (4) for an overview of the site. From up here, you can see every place in the city and plan your attack. It is also a wonderful photo opportunity.
On the farming terraces and up here is the best place to spot Llamas.
At first we were quite fond of those creatures, until a little incident made us completely avoid them. While I was busy backing up photos on my portable Image Tank, a herd of them decided to check us out. At first I did not mind, until I was amidst them and the still came closer and closer, almost pushing me over. With them came a giant swarm of big and ugly bugs that engulfed us. The whole incident was a terrible experience.
Behind the Caretakers Hut you can find the Funeral Rock. It probably was used as some sort of morticians slab, where people were put, after their organs had been removed, to be mummified by the dry mountain sun and the cold nights.
Upper Building Complex (5)
After resting and enjoying the view from the Caretakers Hut for a while, it is time to explore the city. When you step down from the Caretakers Hut towards the Upper Building Complex, you will see the Entrance Gate (6) straight ahead. On the inside one can see the parts of the locking mechanism, suggesting that the gate had some sort of wooden door.
Temple of the Sun and Royal Tomb (7)
The Temple of the Sun is a round tapered tower. The stonework of this temple is some of the finest in the city, outlining its importance. In the center of the temple is a carved rock with a straight edge. During the Summer solstice, this edge will precisely align with the light falling through the only window of the temple.
Below the Sun Temple one can find the Royal Tomb, where it is said that Bingham found the remains of some important people. Unfortunately you cannot enter the Tomb, but you can have a peek inside.
Next to the Temple of the Sun stands a two-story building that got named Princess Palace. The stonework of this building with slightly inclining walls is better than that of most ordinary houses. This fact and the fact that it is bigger than most other housing structures suggest that someone important lived here (maybe even a Princess, who knows).
District of the Sun (8)
Here you will find the main bath. Water had a great importance among the Inca too and ritual baths were common among the royals. Water was worshipped among the Inca.
Above the fountains stands a 3-walled building that supposedly was used by the priests to perform rituals of water worship. If you ask me it was a massage studio or a sauna.
Quarry (9) and Royal Sector (10)
The quarry is where the Inca got their building material. Obviously they were not finished with Machu Picchu when they suddenly deserted it. Here you can find an interesting stone, where you can see how they used to split the stones.
Temple of the Three Windows, Sacred Plaza, Principal Temple, Sacristy (11)
You really cannot miss the Sacred Plaza, because this is where the hordes of guided tours will stand around and hand the plaza over to one another. One tour leaves another one arrives. When you are up near the Caretakers Hut, simply look for the largest crowd and you will be looking toward this Plaza or towards Intihuatana (right behind).
The Temple of the Three Windows (what an ingenious name) is a three-walled structure constructed of some of the largest stones carved and smoothed with precision. Its windows face the rising sun. Part of the eastern wall is cut from a very large stone the temple rests on.
Intihuatana means "Hitching Post of the Sun". Every major Inca Center had one of these. Until today the meaning of this Stone has not been completely understood. It was most likely some sort of solar observatory or astronomical calendar. During the Winter Solstice, a strange triangular beam of light is said to be formed by this structure. This beam only shows up during that day and only for a few minutes.
Intihuatana rests on top of an irregular natural pyramid, towering above the Principal Plaza. A large building with two entrances (one facing the stone) also stands up here.
Sacred Rock, Entrance to Huayna Picchu (Wayna Picchu) and to the Temple of the Moon (13)
You will find the Sacred Rock at the northern end of Machu Picchu. The Sacred Rock and two huayranas (buildings with 3 walls and a straw roof) surround the plaza from three sides. The sacred rock rests on a pedestal and is said to have the same shape as the mountains behind it.
Three Doorways and Industrial Sector
Northeast of the main square (Principal Plaza) lies the district of the Three Doorways (14).
The Industrial Sector or Industrial District (15) is named after the two mortars that were most likely being used by ceramists. Remains of Clay from Ollantaytambo have been found here. All of this suggests some kind of pottery workshop.
Temple of the Condor and Prison (16)
The Temple of the Condor is a construction that resembles a condor with stretched wings. Its head and beak are located at a plaza and could have served as some sort of altar. This place was obviously for worshipping the Apu Kuntur (Condor god). An entrance to an underground labyrinth could have been used as some sort of prison, where people may have been put into some sort of poisonous snake pit. The surrounding walls include some sort of seats with arm restraints, which may have been used for some other punishment. The Inca usually did not imprison their convicts but punished them according to their crime. This may involve cruel death.
Inca Drawbridge (17)
The Inca Drawbridge is a 40 minute round trip hike from Machu Picchu. It is a very pleasant hike with almost no steep inclines, through the mountain scenery. You will get some glimpses of the Andean mountains and the water power plant down in the valley.
There is exactly one Hotel/Restaurant right at the entrance to Machu Picchu, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. After seeing the price on Expedia (starting at around $500/night) I was convinced that I should rather do a whole bunch of other interesting things with that kind of money.
There are also plenty of restaurants along the main road / train tracks, each of them competing for your attention.
The train from Cusco arrives at around 10am and leaves at around 3pm (don't hold me to the time, they are from what I recollect). Anyways, you will be able to see most of the city during this time. If you want the city to yourself, you will have to stay over night and either come back with the first bus (at around 5am if memory serves me right) or stay as long as you can and wait for the whistle blowers to throw you out. Tourists overrun the ruins. Between 11am and 3pm it is hard to get a good photo of the whole site, because it will be crawling with people.
I don't know about winter but when we were here in summer (December), it was raining a lot. You can either buy some raincoat in your home country (as we did) or buy a cheap one in Cusco (for about $1). The cheap ones are not very long and very thin, so they may rip. Either way, research the weather you can expect!
Tons of tourists used to trample around the city. Although we came during Christmas, the season does not start until May. On Dec. 25th a large crowd spread all across the city like a big octopus spreading out its tentacles. If you click on the picture below, you can see hundreds of people all over the ruins.
During the heavy rains we encountered here we got a really good look at the rainwater drainage systems that seemed to work perfectly to evacuate the waters from the city. This canalization is so old and remarkably still works as it did back then.