After a 7-day trek across 46 miles (74 km) of jaw-dropping Andean landscape, we arrived at the Sun Gate and descended about 1,000 feet to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu. As we wound around the hillside, our vantage point of the ruins was continually evolving, and I think this was when we really began to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the site. On the back side of the settlement, giant terraces were balanced on vertical cliff faces, revealing just how precarious it must have been to construct the complex. Atop the layers of terraces, dozens of stone structures surrounded a large, grassy courtyard. Just beyond the stone walls, Huayna Picchu (Quechua for “young peak”) towered above the ancient city, creating a dramatic backdrop.
Since Hiram Bingham’s unintentional rediscovery of the site in 1911 (the Yale professor and explorer was actually searching for Vitcos, the last capital of the Incas), the ruins have mystified and fascinated archeologists and historians around the globe. While countless hypotheses have been proposed by experts, many of the ruins’ meanings remain shrouded in secrecy, as no written records detailing the settlement have yet been uncovered.
It is thought that Machu Picchu was built in the mid-1400s as an estate for Pachacuti (Pachacutec), the 9th emperor of the Inca civilization. A single dwelling neighboring the Sun Temple and central square was likely his royal residence, as it’s the only location to contain a private bath, and is also nearest fountain number one, the spring with the cleanest drinking water.
Comprised of roughly 3,000 steps and more than 200 structures, the city was likely used for residential, agricultural, religious, and astronomical purposes. Just outside the city gate, nearly half the site’s area is comprised of a massive collection of agricultural terraces, carved delicately into the steep mountainside. Within the city walls, buildings are grouped into several distinct areas. One corner, considered to be primarily industrial, includes the Temple of the Condor. The temple has almost a three-dimensional design; the walls are carved in an undulating pattern to signify the condor’s wings, while the head of the condor is represented by a large, sculpted rock on the ground. Directly behind this structure is a prison complex, and it is believed that the rock symbolizing the condor’s head could have been used as a sacrificial altar.
Situated at the northern tip of the complex, stands the Sacred Rock. The mountains were deeply sacred to the Inca civilization, and many of the rocks were shaped to emulate the surrounding peaks. High atop Machu Picchu, the colossal Sacred Rock appears to mirror the distant slopes of Mount Yanantin.
The settlement also contained two important temples: the Temple of the Sun, the most holy site, and the Temple of Three Windows (the Principal Temple). Both were likely restricted to ceremonial use, while the former could also have been used as a solar observatory. Beneath the Temple of the Sun sits a small cave thought to be the Royal Tomb, the possible final resting place of some of the Inca’s most prominent leaders. Adjacent to the Principal Temple, and positioned at the highest point of Machu Picchu’s main ruins, sits Intihuatana. Quechua for “hitching post of the sun,” it is speculated that Intihuatana served as a solar clock, as the Inca were keen astronomers in addition to being masterful engineers.
Their engineering prowess is easily seen in many of the central structures at Machu Picchu, in addition to the numerous other Inca sites. The Inca tribespeople not only managed to move gargantuan granite blocks across vast distances, but they also fit the stones so perfectly together (without mortar) that not even a slip of paper could fit between the seams. Incredibly, they did this without the use of wheels, iron tools, or draft animals. Moreover, the Inca carefully built their structures to withstand the region’s frequent earthquakes and landslides. By creating angled walls and trapezoidal doors and windows, the Inca shrewdly constructed buildings that could endure centuries of geological activity. While this incredible masonry is typically their most revered achievement, the Inca were also meticulous planners and surveyors, creating impeccable drainage systems and deep foundations before starting construction. These unseen, less discussed marvels were truly indispensable to the longevity of these Inca sites:
Ultimately, the city of Machu Picchu was abruptly abandoned in the mid-1500s, only 100 years after its elaborate construction. As there has been no evidence of conquest by invading Spaniards, it is theorized that ancient city could have been deserted because of an epidemic such as smallpox. Today, the staggering ruins remain – suspended high in the Andes, 8,000 feet above mean sea level, constructed without modern tools or written account. It is quite possible, therefore, that one of the greatest manmade wonders of the world could also remain one of the most intriguing mysteries of the world.