Ever since its discovery in 1911, Machu Picchu has drawn the attention and wonder of the world, from archaeologists and historians to hikers and tourists eager to explore this magnificent remnant of an ancient civilization. Nestled 7,000 feet above sea level and the Urubamba Valley, it is known as the “Lost City of the Incas”, thought to have once been home to around 1,200 people. An alternate theory is that the majestic city was a retreat for Inca rulers, and its remoteness from the surrounding country would have required extensive travel simply to reach the nearest village. Machu Picchu is no less a marvel for its isolation, however, and coming upon the famous city inspires the same feeling of discovery shared by early explorers.
The structures of Machu Picchu are arranged into three areas - argricultural, urban, and religious in a design that harmonizes form and functionality. Agricultural terracing and aqueducts took advantage of the natural slopes while buildings in the lower area were populated by farmers and teachers; the most important religious areas are located at the crest of the hill, presenting the ancient Incas with a splendid view of the lush Urubamba Valley thousands of feet below.
From the Funerary Rock Hut, you can look out at temples, terraces and baths that speak to a bygone era and a prosperous community now lost to the pages of history. Traversing the Inca Trail is akin to journeying backwards in time, taking visitors through a seamless and elegant green paradise highlighted by the buildings of Machu Picchu that seem to blend into the hillside itself - a trip to Peru would not be complete without a visit to this city that stands as a testament to the Inca legacy.
One of the most photogenic spots at Machu Picchu can be experienced by hiking to the Funerary Rock Hut. Believed to be the place where Incan nobility were mummified, this vantage point offers a dramatic view of the whole complex. At the end of the day a small herd of llamas and alpacas enter Machu Picchu from the terraces near the Funerary Rock Hut and graze on the grass, keeping it efficiently mowed. From here you can also see the start of the Inca Trail, a well developed road that connects Cusco with Machu Picchu. The hike up the long rigid stairs that lead to the Funerary Rock Hut is tiresome but well worth the effort. Many people choose to hike this arduous trail to the hut and are rewarded by spectacular views that will not soon be forgotten.
This cave-like area of Machu Picchu contains ceremonial niches and an Inca cross carved from one wall and is adjacent to the Temple of the Sun. The cross resembles a series of steps, and represents the three levels of existence in the world of the Inca. The first step, symbolized by the snake, represents the underworld or death. The second step represents the present, human life, and is symbolized by the jaguar. The highest step represents the celestial/spiritual plane of the gods, and is symbolized by the condor.
Inside the Royal Tomb has been the site of numerous mummy excavations. Of more than 100 skeletal remains discovered here, 80% were women. This fact, among others, leads many historians to surmise that the area was inhabited primarily by high priests and chosen women. The true purpose of Machu Picchu has never been conclusively determined. To the left of the royal tomb lies a series of 16 ceremonial baths, joined by one linked aqueduct system. At the top of this system is the watershed hut.
The view from Machu Picchu's Sacred Plaza makes one appreciate the superb craftmenship of the Inca. Surrounding the plaza are the most important buildings of the city. The Principal Temple is an example of excellent Inca stonemasonry, with its large stone blocks polished smooth and joined perfectly. The jumbling of the stones in one corner is due to the settling of the earth over the years, and not to any defect in construction. The Inca used no mortar to hold their walls in place; they relied upon precisely cut stones, geometry, and female and male joints in the corners and foundations. Their best-built structures withstand the passing of centuries, and even multiple earthquakes, without suffering.
Across the Central Plaza and at the far end of Machu Picchu is the Sacred Rock, an object common to most every Inca village. Before a village could be erected, a sacred stone must be dedicated to the site. The Sacred Stone of Machu Picchu sits at the base of Huayna Picchu (little peak), from where you can take a one-hour climb to the top for another excellent view of the entire valley. Hikers can sign in at the Gatekeeper’s shack as proof they tackled the steep climb up Huayna Picchu.
The Central Plaza of Machu Picchu is surrounded by roofless stone structures and steep terraces, with a lovely view of Huayna Picchu. The plaza is the green island amid the Inca stone buildings that make up Machu Picchu, and travelers will often see llamas roaming through the grass and grazing. The Central Plaza’s grassy field separates the Sacred Plaza and Intiwatana from the residential areas on the far side of the complex. The Temple of the Three Windows on the Sacred Plaza offers a beautiful view of the green expanse, and a flight of stairs at the back of the Sacred Plaza descends to the Central Plaza. At the lower end of the Central Plaza is Prison Group, a labyrinthine set of cells, passageways, and niches extending both underground and above it. The central attraction of the group is the Temple of the Condor, which has a carving of the head of a condor above a rock pile; behind the bird is a door to a tiny underground cell.
The Intiwatana at Machu Picchu, known as the "hitching post of the sun" is a carved rock pillar whose four corners are oriented toward the four cardinal points. The Inca were accomplished astronomers, and used the angles of the pillar to predict the solstices. The sun exerted a crucial influence on the agriculture, and therefore the well-being of the whole society. It was considered the supreme natural god (a ceramic corn god gives evidence to the spiritual devotion of the natural world that was common to all pre-Inca cultures). At the winter solstice on June 21, the high priest would rope a golden disc to the Intiwatana, to symbolically catch the sun and bring it back toward earth for another year's cycle of seasons. The Intiwatana is the only one of its kind not lopped off by the Spanish conquerors, who made a point of destroying all implements of Inca religion. Many people today feel that Machu Picchu is one of the Earth's magnetic focal points, and carries an inherent spiritual or metaphysical power. Indeed, it is difficult to sit at the edge of the Sacred Plaza overlooking the Urubamba River below, the stone temples and plazas to the front, and the mountain peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu to the left and right, and not feel the magic.
The Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu is a breathtaking example of Inca stonemasonry. A natural rock formation began to take shape millions of years ago and the Inca skillfully shaped the rock into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. On the floor of the temple is a rock carved in the shape of the condor's head and neck feathers, completing the figure of a three-dimensional bird. Historians speculate that the head of the condor was used as a sacrificial altar. Under the temple is a small cave that contained a mummy. A prison complex stands directly behind the temple, and is comprised of human-sized niches and an underground maze of dungeons. According to historical chronicles that documented similar Inca prison sites, an accused citizen would be shackled into the niches for up to 3 days to await the deliberation of his fate. He could be put to death for such sins as laziness, lust, or theft.