The sacred city of Machu Picchu
(in Quechua: old mountain) is the greatest Inca masterpiece. Incredibly
daring and inventive, it was built on the most difficult, wild and
inaccessible mountain area available.
It is known world-wide not only for its impressive and unique ruins, but also for its unusual location on the edge of an abyss, from which one can appreciate the vigorous waters of the Urubamba river.
How the Incas were able to carry the huge blocks of stone to the
top of the mountain and build such a spectacular exponent of their
wisdom and culture remains a mystery to this day.
Architectural structure of Machu Picchu
Of religious and military origin, the sacred city of Machu Picchu
was enclosed by a 6-meter high by 1.8 wide wall. According to the
archaeologist Alfredo Valencia, Machu Picchu can be divided into
two major sections: the urban and the agricultural. Each part encloses
two sub-sections - the western and eastern - which are defined in
relation to their topographic location.
The agricultural sector
The agricultural section is divided into higher and lower ground.
The high ground consists of five premises, the shrine (pile of stones
marking a holy site) and over 40 platforms. The low ground, meanwhile,
comprises seven premises, four "canchones" (open areas) and approximately
Some of the numerous agricultural terraces, which
are placed in succession, are connected by stone stairways fitted
in the walls, while others are linked by various set of stone steps
forming corridors. The layout of the terraces and platforms is in
perfect harmony with the mountains surrounding the site. Thus, the
hillsides seem to be sculpted to harmonize with nature.
The urban sector
This sector, which is clearly separated from the former by a perimeter
wall, was only approachable through an imposing double jamb facade.
This architectural detail was typical of the building style of the
Incas. The Inca Trail, which ends in this sector, links the city
of Cusco with Machu Picchu. The urban section is composed of 172
premises of the most diverse shapes and size, connected by 109 stairways
which allowed Incas to walk over the uneven surface of Machu Picchu.
The premises were organized in "neighborhoods", each with its specific
functions as determined by their formal characteristics and the
cultural clues found during excavations, such as the area used as
a storehouse for corn or coca, which were grown on the terraces.
A different area stands out because of the large number of mortars
there (16), which were probably used to make chicha (an alcoholic
drink made from fermented maize), this still being a popular drink
in Andean religious festivities. A third sector includes the residences
used by local people to carry out specialized productive activities,
religious worship or the administration of agricultural products.
Some premises are remarkable for the exquisite and delicately worked
finish of the walls, comparable to the fine buildings existing in
the Cusco, such as the Coricancha or the Acllahuasi. These were,
possibly, the most important buildings in the area.
The "Gran Plaza" (main square) and Sacramental Areas
The premises encircle two minor squares and a big public square
in the middle of the urban sector. There also are several buildings
which evidently served a ceremonial function. Among the most outstanding
sites we can mention the "Templo de las Tres Ventanas" (Three-windowed
Temple) and the Intihuatana (5), a stone carved specifically to
carry out astronomic observations. We can also observe here a complex
of sanitary and fountain systems. It is undeniable that the harmony
projected by Machu Picchu through its holy spaces and landscapes
symbolizes the Inca principles and way of life.
A unique site
It is evident that Machu Picchu was a carefully planned construction,
meticulously designed to match the natural environment. It is the
result of a mixture of unique experiences, where the work of human
beings marvelously blends with the work of nature. The uneven topography
was cleverly transformed into terraces with agricultural and urban
functions. The landscape embraces at least two dozen rocky outcrops,
forming a big "mock-up", representing the surrounding landscape.
Explanations about the purpose of Machu Picchu
The real purpose of the Machu Picchu is not very clear, although
it can be considered a holy place to which only a few people had
All existing research states that the city must have been inhabited
from the end of the 15th till the middle of the 16th century. Some
historians believe the place was part of the Inca Pachacútec's country
abode and that several palaces from which some carved stones still
remain must have been destined as his court.
It is also assumed that the Incas built the fortress to protect
themselves from the Spaniards, and it was a "barracks" used by Manco
Capac II. Others explain its function as a city of vestal virgins,
since most of the human remains found were female.
Whatever the explanation, there must have been some good reason
to justify such a laborious construction, involving the transporting
of huge blocks of stone up the mountain, as well as a good reason
for its sudden desertion.
Judging by the number of rooms, the city must have been inhabited
by at least hundreds of people, and there is no clue to the reason
why the site was abandoned only ninety years after its founding.
Machu Picchu is said to possess unbelievable qualities as an energy
center and, thus, esoteric groups visit the ruins. Moreover, hundreds
of thousands of tourists visit the site every year, understandably
alarming those who seek to preserve these archaeological remains.
The sacred city of Machu Picchu was not legally protected by the
State until 1929, the year in which the "Patronato Departamental
de Arqueología del Cusco" (Departmental Council of Archaeology of
Cusco) was created. Nowadays, the Nature Sanctuary and the archaeological
site including at least ten major ruins, both of incalculable value,
cover an area of around 37,000 hectares and are areas of Peruvian
sovereignty, legally protected by the "Instituto Nacional de Cultura"
(National Institute of Culture).