Excerpts from the Lonely Planet – Peru:
For many visitors to Peru and even South America, a visit to the Inca city of Machu Picchu is the sweet cherry on the top of their trip. With its spectacular location, it’s the best- known archaeological site on the continent. This awe-inspiring ancient city was never revealed to the conquering Spaniards and was virtually forgotten until the early part of the 20th century. In the high season, from late May until early September 2,500 people arrive daily. Despite this great tourist influx, the site manages to retain its air of grandeur and mystery, and is a must for all visitors to Peru.
Machu Picchu is not mentioned in any of the chronicles of the Spanish conquistadors. Apart from a couple of German adventurers in the 1860s, who apparently looted the site with the Peruvian government’s permission, nobody apart from local Quechua people knew of Machu Picchu’s existence until American historian Hiram Bingham was guided to it by locals in 1911.
Bingham’s search was for the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Incas, and he thought he had found it at Machu Picchu. We now know that the re- mote ruins at Espíritu Pampa, much deeper in the jungle, are actually the remains of Vilcabamba.
The Machu Picchu site was initially overgrown with thick vegetation, forcing Bingham’s team to be content with roughly mapping the site. Bingham returned in 1912 and 1915 to carry out the difficult task of clearing the thick forest, when he also discovered some of the ruins on the so-called Inca Trail. (Over the course of his various journeys, Bingham took thousands of artifacts back to the USA with him; see p56 to learn about the fight for their re- turn to Peru.) Peruvian archaeologist Luis E Valcárcel undertook further studies in 1934, as did a Peruvian-American expedition under Paul Fejos in 1940–41.
Despite scores of more recent studies, knowledge of Machu Picchu remains sketchy. Even today archaeologists are forced to rely heavily on speculation and educated guesswork as to its function. Some believe the citadel was founded in the waning years of the last Incas as an attempt to preserve Inca culture or rekindle their predominance, while others think that it may have already become an uninhabited, forgotten city at the time of the conquest.
A more recent theory suggests that the site was a royal retreat or country palace abandoned at the time of the Spanish invasion. The site’s director believes that it was a city, a political, religious and administrative center. Its location, and the fact that at least eight access routes have been discovered, suggests that it was a trade nexus between Amazonia and the highlands.
It seems clear from the exceptionally high quality of the stonework and the abundance of ornamental work that Machu Picchu was once vitally important as a ceremonial center. Indeed, to some extent, it still is: Alejandro Toledo, the country’s first indigenous Andean president, impressively staged his inauguration here in 2001.
Inside The Ruins
Unless you arrive via the Inca Trail, you’ll officially enter the ruins through a ticket gate on the south side of Machu Picchu. About 100m of footpath brings you to the mazelike main entrance of Machu Picchu proper, where the ruins lie stretched out before you, roughly divided into two areas separated by a series of plazas.
To get a visual fix of the whole site and snap the classic postcard photograph, climb the zigzagging staircase on the left immediately after entering the complex, which leads to a hut. Known as the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock, it is one of a few buildings that has been restored with a thatched roof, making it a good shelter in the case of rain. The Inca Trail enters the city just below this hut. The carved rock behind the hut may have been used to mummify the nobility, hence the hut’s name.
If you continue straight into the ruins instead of climbing to the hut, you pass through extensive terracing to a beautiful series of 16 connected ceremonial baths that cascade across the ruins, accompanied by a flight of stairs. Just above and to the left of the baths is Machu Picchu’s only round building, the Temple of the Sun, a curved and tapering tower that contains some of the site’s finest stone-work.
It appears to have been used for astronomical purposes. Inside are an altar and a curiously drilled trapezoidal window that looks onto the site. The Temple of the Sun is cordoned off to visitors, but you can see into it from above, which is how you’ll be approaching it if you take the stairs leading down and to the left from the caretaker’s hut.
Below the temple is an almost hidden, natural rock cave that has been carefully carved, with a step-like altar and sacred niches, by the Inca stonemasons. It is known as the Royal Tomb, though no mummies were actually ever found here.
Climbing the stairs above the ceremonial baths, you reach a flat area of jumbled rocks, once used as a quarry. Turn right at the top of the stairs and walk across the quarry on a short path leading to the four-sided Sacred Plaza. The far side contains a small viewing platform with a curved wall, which offers a view of the snowy Cordillera Vilcabamba in the far distance and the Río Urubamba below.
Important buildings flank the remaining three sides of the Sacred Plaza. The Temple of the Three Windows commands an impressive view of the plaza below through the huge trapezoidal windows that give the building its name. With this temple behind you, the Principal Temple is to your right. Its name derives from the massive solidity and perfection of its construction. The damage to the rear right corner of the temple is the result of the ground settling below this corner rather than any inherent weakness in the masonry itself.
Opposite the Principal Temple is what is known as the House of the High Priest. Behind and connected to the Principal Temple lies a famous small building called the Sacristy. It has many well-carved niches, perhaps used for the storage of ceremonial objects, as well as a carved stone bench. The Sacristy is especially known for the two rocks flanking its entrance; each is said to contain 32 angles, but it’s easy to come up with a different number whenever you count them.
A staircase behind the Sacristy climbs a small hill to the major shrine in Machu Picchu, the Intihuatana. This Quechua word loosely translates as the ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’ and refers to the carved rock pillar, often mistakenly called a sundial, which stands at the top of the Intihuatana hill. The Inca astronomers were able to predict the solstices using the angles of this pillar. Thus, they were able to claim control over the return of the lengthening summer days.
Exactly how the pillar was used for these astronomical purposes remains unclear, but its elegant simplicity and high craftwork make it a highlight of the complex. It is recorded that there were several of these intihuatanas in various important Inca sites, but the Spaniards smashed most in an attempt to wipe out the pagan blasphemy of sun worship.
At the back of the Intihuatana is another staircase. It descends to the Central Plaza, which separates the ceremonial sector of Machu Picchu from the more mundane residential and industrial sectors, which were not as well constructed. At the lower end of this latter area is the Prison Group, a labyrinthine complex of cells, niches and passageways, positioned both under and above the ground.
The centerpiece of the group is the Temple of the Condor, which contains a carving of the head of a condor, with the natural rocks behind it resembling the Andean bird’s outstretched wings. Behind the condor is a well-like hole and, at the bottom of this, the door to a tiny underground cell that can only be entered by bending double.
The Inca Trail ends after its final descent from the notch in the horizon called Intipunku (Sun Gate). Looking at the hill behind you as you enter the ruins, you can see both the trail and Intipunku. This hill, called Machu Picchu (Old Peak) gives the site its name.
Wayna Picchu is the small, steep mountain at the back of the ruins. Wayna Picchu is normally translated as ‘Young Peak,’ but the word picchu, with the correct glottal pronunciation, refers to the wad in the cheek of a coca-leaf chewer.
At first glance, it would appear that Wayna Picchu is a difficult climb but, although the ascent is steep, it’s not technically difficult. Access to Wayna Picchu is limited to 400 people per day. The 45- to 90-minute scramble up a steep footpath takes you through a short section of Inca tunnel.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD