Machu Picchu – The Lost Incan City
Was it a citadel, a summer get-away for the Inca Emperors or was it a fortress protecting something stunningly valuable? While archaeologists and historians search for answers, millions of tourists flock to the mystical paradise of Machu Picchu to soak in the mysteries, explore the engineering feats of the Incas and glide (metaphorically) over breath-taking panoramas atop the mountains!
Located at about 2,800m atop the Machu Picchu mountain, there are many
sectors in the citadel, including the temples, streets, plazas and agricultural terraces (Read details here). The structural features and genius engineering concepts put to work half a century ago, coupled with the mysteries and myths of the purpose of the architecture qualifies it to be one of the new wonders of the world. UNESCO rightfully has recognized it as one of the Heritage Sites, and is constantly working on ensuring the sustainability around it.
A Brief History of Machu Picchu and the Incas
Classic civilizations from pre-historic era have always spurred up close to water bodies, such as the Egyptian civilization by the mighty river Nile, Indus valley civilization by river Sindh, to name a few. Aztec and Mayan civilizations of central and south America, also flourished near water bodies. A relatively new Inca civilization, dating back to the fifteenth century, thrived in the Andean highlands, before Spanish conquests in the 1530’s. The Inca empire stretched from present day Argentina to southern Colombia, but did only managed to reign for less than a century.
How the Inca developed cutting edge engineering, architectural and agricultural feats, without use of wheels, iron works, draft animals and currency, gives rise to a plethora of questions. Researchers did not even find an established writing system, which spawns the mysticism around the Inca empire and its achievements.
While present day Cusco (Qosco in ancient Incan tongue) was the capital of the empire, Machu Picchu remains to be the most iconic Inca archaeological site. Even though no concrete evidence of the actual purpose of the site is available till date, the intricate designs of the roads, irrigation systems, structures, temples and agricultural areas at such a remote location, suggest it was built for something worthy of protection.
Since no evidence of iron-works can be found in the site, we have to assume that the Inca mastered the art of stone masonry. Large blocks of uneven stones cut and placed to hold large structures in place without mortars, in an earthquake prone region, make modern day engineers envious.
How to get to Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is located at a remote location atop the enormous Machu Picchu mountain. The iconic site is extremely controlled to traffic, and is only accessible in a couple of different ways, albeit some variations can be made available. Train, bus, hikes or a combination of the three, depending on time and effort, are required to get to the Machu Picchu ruins. See details of transportation options below.
What is in Machu Picchu?
As the most recognizable symbol of the classic Inca empire, Machu Picchu holds a number of mysteries that have yet to be answered. Surrounded by the hill of Huyana Picchu, the massive mountain of Machu Picchu and the rushing Urubamba river, the ruins contain clues to unearth the reasons for its mere existence and glimpses of the civilization.
Notable structures and sectors:
- Agricultural Sector: Built in the southern slopes of the complex up to the Intipuncu (sun gate), the incredible series of terraces facing the rising sun were used for agriculture around the year. Scientists have found clues that the soil and the architecture helped the Inca sow a variety of seasonal produce to secure food for the inhabitants. The construction likely had another purpose that establishes the engineering genius of the Inca – to stabilize the complex in an earthquake prone zone.
- Urban Sector: The central plaza separates the upper and lower sections of the urban sector. The configuration of these areas, surrounded by the drainage channel (or the moat) and access gate highlights the differences in both the inhabitants of these two regions and the purpose. The Sun Gate (Intipuncu) acts as the regal gate controlling the access to the plaza from the classic Inca Highway (now known as the Inca Trail). Although there are still variations among the archaeologists about the purpose of this plaza, ranging from being a religious center to a fortress, there are clues in the small rooms with tiny holes indicating that these may have been used to hold prisoners.
- Various structures are apparent in either section of the urban sector. Storehouses located at the right after passing the entrance gate, having small (12’x12′) rooms with tiny holes likely to allow sunlight, may have been used for storing grain or as workshops. Royal palace can be seen from afar that is unique in its fine stonework and arrangement of chambers around a beautiful private patio with a view of the central plaza.
- Walking up the stairs from the central plaza, is the Sacred Plaza, where the Temple of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Altar can be found. The trapezoidal windows facing the rising sun, and the facade facing the central plaza where the public ceremonies were held.
- The Intihuatana: It is the pyramidal structure at the top of the elevated ground, and is shaped like a truncated pyramid. This can potentially be used as an observatory, and may have been used like a sundial. Precise function of this structure, as of the others, remain a mystery, but the elevated location can also mean a way to locate enemies coming from afar through the river valley.
- Temple of the Condor: Located at the lowest sector of the site, this has a unique feature that calls for a bit of explanation. V shaped rock was carved to appear like a flying condor. The grandeur design with intricate rock carvings to display the widespread wingspan and the collar around the bird’s neck makes an incredible view. Artifacts discovered around it suggest it may be used for worshiping the magnificent Andean Condor, and the surrounding cells used for keeping the most important mummies.
- Temple of the Mortars: An iconic feature of the site is the Mortars sector, which can be entered through a double jamb doorway implying the significance of the area. Surrounding this area, are the storehouses with tiny windows facing the east side. Food grains and other essentials were likely stored here, depicted by the clear chambers and duct-like systems for airflow.