(December 11) On the train to Machu Picchu. Remnants of the Inca trail from Cusco can be seen through the window.
The site is on a mountaintop overlooking the Urubamba River.
Machu Picchu was not by any means the most important of the Inca cities. It is now believed to have been a dry-season retreat for the Emperor and his top officials. During the months of June through August the old Inca capital of Cusco can be unpleasantly cold. Machu Picchu, at a lower elevation, a few thousand feet above the Amazon jungle, is much more pleasant at that time of year.
What’s significant about Machu Picchu is that it was the only major settlement that the Spanish never found. If they had found it they would have taken everything made of gold or silver and done their best to destroy anything that looked like a pagan temple. Then they would probably have built houses on top of the ruins.
In places like Ollantaytambo only about 15% of of the original Inca construction survives. In Machu Picchu it’s more like 85%.
During their stay the Emperor and his court would have engaged in hunting, athletic contests and religious rituals.
There were a few hundred permanent inhabitants. Analysis of grave sites indicates that they were prosperous people, unused to hard labor. They would have included servants, priests and craftsmen, particularly weavers and metalsmiths.
They would have been ill-suited to keep the place running once the empire fell and they were cut off from outside supplies. Even if they had wanted to farm the terraces there were not enough to feed the population. Soon the site was abandoned and eventually it was overgrown by the jungle. The farmers in the valley below still knew about it though.
In 1911 Yale historian Hiram Bingham organized an expedition to search for lost Inca antiquities. Traveling through the valley he noticed that local farmers had a surprising number of ancient artifacts. When he asked where they had come from they told him about the site, and he hired a local boy to guide his party to it.
This is considered the “discovery” of Machu Picchu though there is speculation that some Europeans may have visited the site earlier, stolen some artifacts, and not told anyone about it.
Originally most of these structures were covered by thatched roofs.
There are several working fountains fed by underground pipes. The site has a fairly elaborate underground drainage system that has protected it from erosion for centuries.
The “Temple of the Sun” with its distinctive curved walls probably served as some sort of solar observatory.
The “imperial style” of Inca construction was used for their most important buildings. Large stones carved into perfect rectangles with polished faces fit together perfectly without mortar.
The Temple of the Sun seen from above. The men are working to protect it by removing plants and lichen.
The quarry where the builders got much of their raw material.
Examples of some of the high-altitude crops that were planted here.
The builders tried to put up a new temple here but they were forced to give up when the ground shifted due to a hidden fault.
The highest point.
Bingham named this the “Hitching Post of the Sun.” It’s probably some sort of sundial but it’s not clear exactly how it worked.
A central open area suitable for large outdoor ceremonies.
Bingham thought that these were mortars for grinding corn. It is now believed that they were filled with water to reflect the sky overhead. When certain constellations appeared in the reflecting pools the priests would know that it was time to perform appropriate ceremonies.
“The Temple of the Condor.” The rock at the base is carved to represent the head and body of a condor while the natural rocks behind it suggest its wings.
(December 12) The town of Machupicchu Pueblo is located in the valley below the historical site and is mostly devoted to catering to tourists. It was formerly know as Aguas Calientes because of its hot springs.
This sculpture includes the ancient Andean symbolism of a condor (representing the sky), a puma (representing the earth) and a snake (representing the underworld.)
The monument in the town square depicts an Inca ruler presiding over a harvest ceremony.