The “Lost City of the Inca” is one of the most spectacular archeological sites in the world. Perched high on a saddle between two peaks, surrounded by thick jungle and often shrouded in cloud, it is almost invisible from below. A compact site of just 5 sq miles (13 sq km), it was built in 1460 by the Incan ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. Although frequently referred to as a city, it was more of a royal retreat for the Inca aristocracy. About 1,000 people inhabited the area and they were completely self-sufficient, being surrounded by agricultural terraces and watered by natural springs. Even at the time, few people outside the closed Inca community were aware of Machu Picchu’s existence.
The people who built Machu Picchu possessed incredibly advanced construction skills. Some of the building blocks weigh more than 50 tons, yet they are meticulously designed and fit together so exactly that the thinnest knife cannot be inserted between the mortarless joints. The ruins are roughly divided into two areas: the agricultural sector, consisting of terraces for cultivation; and the urban sector, with structures of varying size, canals, and steps. The design of the site reveals the creativity of the builders. The enormous walls, delicate terracing, and steep ramps could almost have been sculpted out of the rock by the elements.
The discovery of this major Incan site in 1911 was one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century. American explorer Hiram Bingham had set out to find Vilcabamba, the legendary last refuge of the defeated Inca empire, but instead he came across Machu Picchu. It took Bingham and his team several years to clear the thick vegetation that had covered the ruins. Underneath were houses, temples, canals, and thousands of steps and terraces. What made the discovery so exciting was the fact that the Spanish conquistadors had not found and plundered the site, and that it was also untouched by treasure hunters.
The Inca founded their capital, Cusco, in the 13th century and began a period of conquest. By the early 16th century, the Inca empire reached from Chile to Colombia and controlled around 12 million people. This well-organized civilization had a sophisticated economy and a road network of 20,000 miles (32,200 km). They ruled with fierce military might and had a strict social hierarchy, yet they also learned from the cultures they conquered. The Inca worshiped the natural world, seeing the Sun as the ultimate giver of life and their leader as its direct descendant. Mountain peaks, home of the spirits, were used for human sacrifice. Celestial events were monitored so they knew when to plant and harvest crops, and when to hold religious ceremonies.
With huge windows, the Temple of the Three Windows adjoins the Sacred Plaza, along with the Main Temple, which contains an almost flawlessly constructed wall.
Llama at Machu Picchu
The Inca used llamas as pack animals and they were also a source of wool, leather hides, and meat.
This sundial, the size of a grand piano, was extremely sacred and one of the most important features of the whole site. Winter solstice festivals took place here.
This large rock is believed to have been used by the Inca for their sacrificial rituals.
Preserved Brick Work
The Inca are admired today for their stone constructions, although it is not known how they man aged to make the blocks fit so closely together.
Comprising the residential and industrial areas, this is located in the lower section of the site.
Temple of the Sun
The only circular building on the site, this temple contains two windows positioned precisely to catch the first rays of the winter and summer solstices.
View of Machu Picchu
Made up of around 200 buildings and connected by more than 100 stairways, the ruined palaces, temples, and residences were built around large central squares.
TRAINS TO MACHU PICCHU
There are regular trains from Poroy and Ollantaytambo, near Cusco, to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. The scenic journey takes 3 hours. From Aguas Calientes, a local bus zigzags up a steep, narrow dirt track to the Inca site.
THE INCA TRAIL
The legendary Inca Trail climbs and descends a number of steep valleys and crosses three mountain passes of more than 12,000 ft (3,658 m). The breathtaking scenery includes snow-capped mountains, dense cloud forest, and delicate flowers. Cobblestones laid by the Inca, as well as the tunnel s that th ey constructed, can still be seen. It takes about f our or five days be fore hikers are rewarded with the unforgettable sight of Machu Picchu through the Sun gate (lntipunku).
c. 1200: The Inca found their capital at Cusco, Peru, and begin their far-reaching expansion.
1460: Machu Picchu is built, 7,970 ft (2,430 m) above sea level.
Mid-1500s: Machu Picchu is abandoned, possibly due to evil war over succession.
1911: The site is uncovered by US explorer Hiram Bingham.
1983: Machu Picchu is declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.