Chris Peacock takes a tour of Peru’s Lost City of the Incas
When the US explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the densely jungle-covered ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911, he mistakenly believed he’d found Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the last Incan king, Manco Capac. But Machu Picchu turned out to be something far more enigmatic and unexpected — the largest Inca settlement never to have been discovered, and plundered, by the Spanish conquistadors.
The 15th-century ruins’ unearthing raised more questions about the Inca Empire than they answered, with historians still pondering its purpose today. Understandably, there’s no shortage of curious myths and theories, as I quickly discovered a few minutes into my long-awaited tour of the complex. My guide confounded things further revealing this landscaped city of ethereal temples, terraced gardens, aqueducts and intricate masonry was built, occupied and suddenly abandoned all within 100 years.
But whether a citadel, sacred sanctuary, aristocratic estate, astronomical observatory or educational retreat for the empire’s prized nustas (princess virgins) — three-quarters of the human remains excavated were female — there’s no denying the almost cosmic beauty of this ruined city, gracefully perched between two towering cerros (peaks) 4,000ft above the Urubamba River in Peru’s south-east.
Even Bingham himself came to realise the site’s ambivalent but compelling effect, writing 10 years after his findings: ‘Whoever they were, whatever name be finally assigned to this site by future historians, of this I feel sure that few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.’
My initial reaction, though, was resounding disappointment when confronted with scores of spluttering buses, tourists and hawkers near the site’s entrance, reducing the place to some kind of spurious Inca theme park. Yet once inside, the crowds quickly dispersed and after passing through a narrow rocky pass, the classic postcard image of Machu Pichhu far exceeded the years of expectation.
The sheer scale and ambition of the place was overwhelming, with clearly defined agricultural and urban sections — a long dry moat separating the two — with steep terraces, gardens, exquisite granite and limestone temples, winding staircases and aqueducts seemingly carved out of the hillside.
Whatever the Incas did here, it’s clear they were not only masters of landscaped art, with finely arranged walls and structures aesthetically echoing the shape of the mountains, but also civil engineering, with sophisticated irrigation and canal systems that are still functioning today. Such advanced systems provided the Incas with four times the crops needed for Machu Picchu’s 1,000-strong population.
After a long, awestruck pause absorbing the majesty of the view, our five-strong group headed into the main section of the ruins towards one of the most famous Inca constructions, the Temple of the Sun.
An example of Machu Picchu’s finest masonry with large granite stones seamlessly slotted together, this circular tower was highly significant for the Incas. Although entry is prohibited, our guide pointed to a window perfectly aligned for the June winter solstice, when the sun’s rays stream through at dawn, illuminating the stone at the temple’s centre; the building is thought to have functioned as an observatory for Inca astronomers seeking information for crop cycles.
After this, we ventured through the city’s numerous hallowed monuments, from the Royal Tomb and Temple of the Three Windows to the Sacred Plaza and Intihuatana stone, each coming with their own set of spiritual theories and staggering means of construction. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tonnes or more, yet are so precisely sculptured and arranged together you couldn’t even slide a sheet of paper between the mortarless joints.
Our guide was particularly keen on showing us the Intihuatana stone, known as the ‘hitching post of the sun’, bouncing up an elaborately carved stone stairway above the Sacred Plaza to reveal what appeared to be a ritualistic carved rock or sundial. On a rise overlooking the Urubamba River and sacred peak of Huayna Picchu, the towering stone’s shape appears to be in alignment with four mountainous peaks beyond the ruins.
Like every monument and monolith in Machu Picchu, its exact purpose is up for debate, but the rock almost certainly functioned as an astro-agricultural clock for tracking the movements of the stars. As the theory goes, the Incas believed the stone held the sun in its annual path in the sky, determining important agricultural and spiritual dates of the year based on the position and length of shadow cast.
The Intihuatana is also one of few such sacred Inca stones not to have been discovered and destroyed by pagan-fearing conquistadors, surviving in perfect form for nearly five centuries until 2001, when a reckless camera crew smuggled in a crane that subsequently fell and chipped off the stone’s top.
Such acts have understandably led to calls to limit access to the ruins, which attract some 1,800 visitors a day. And in recent years, concerns have been raised that Machu Picchu is suffering under the weight of its own success, literally — a geology report from Kyoto University’s Disaster Prevention Research Institute claims the earth beneath the city is moving one centimetre a month.
UNESCO declared the citadel a World Heritage Site in 1983, but in June 2010 decided against including it on an ‘endangered’ list. It suggested the site be subject to ‘enhanced surveillance’ amid concerns that increasing the number of visitors might compromise the stability of the mountain on which Machu Picchu resides. Hopefully Peru’s tourism officials will resist the urge to further exploit one of the world’s most treasured wonders, responsibly managing visitor volumes so this historic and architectural marvel can be treasured for years to come.
Sadly for us, although good for Machu Picchu, parts of the ruins had been roped off to protect the fragile structures, including the Temple of the Condor. By far the most interesting element of Machu Picchu’s lower section — which has residential rather than spiritual buildings — the temple was sculpted from a natural rock formation into the outspread wings of a condor in flight, with a pale rock below representing its head.
A small cave under the temple was closed off, but our guide told us all about the mummified body that was discovered inside by Bingham, fuelling speculation that the temple was either a complex of dungeons or a place of ceremonial offerings to the condor — a bird considered highly sacred by the Incas, revered for its ability to fly to the supernatural world in the heavens.
With dusk drawing near, we began our arduous climb to Intipunku (Sun Gate), the sacred Inca entrance to Machu Picchu and where hikers on the Inca Trail enter the ruins. Make no mistake, climbing stairs here is a tough slog with incredibly steep inclines, long stone staircases and the relentless effects of high altitude. But depleted lungs and fleeting dizzy spells were certainly worth it when turning back to survey the climbed land before me.
It’s during sunset and sunrise that Machu Picchu evokes a breathtaking air of grandeur and deep mystery, with dramatic shadows cast over the largely empty citadel. This is the time to explore this archaeological wonder away from the masses, as dusk sees the last buses leave for Aguas Calientes with the few remaining staying overnight at the adjacent Sanctuary Lodge. Guests here have early access to the ruins the following morning to witness a sublime sunrise before the buses unload their hoards.
Standing at Machu Picchu’s highest temple while gazing down to the panorama of canyon, forest and frosted peaks, with Huayna Picchu looming tall, it was reassuring to know this iconic vista has changed little from that the founding Incas enjoyed hundreds of years ago. They might have fallen to an invading band of ruthless desperados, brigands and gold seekers, but the Incas live on through their mastery of design and awe of nature.