At the end of the 15th century, the secluded Inca citadel of Machu Picchu was a vibrant city still being carved into the Andean peaks flanking the Urubamba River canyon. Over 200 buildings already provided housing, temples and storage facilities for the city's 1,200 residents. Vast tracts of land had been terraced for farming. Within just 27 years, more than half of Machu Picchu’s Incan population became infected with small pox and died. The citadel fell into disuse, and, quickly enveloped in dense vegetation, became motionless, frozen in time.
Luckily, this religious center was not discovered by the Spaniards, so was spared the pillaging that befell so many other of its conquests. Machu Picchu’s remote location – at the end of an insignificant road cut through treacherous mountainous terrain, high above the Urubamba River canyon - helped guarantee that it would have no significant commercial, military, or administrative use. The site remained largely untouched for more than four centuries until 1912, when it was discovered by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham.
Machu Picchu drapes across the top, and spills down the sides of a vast mountain area strung between two distinct Andean peaks: the now famous Inca Trail begins high on the mountain’s south side at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, and Huayna Picchu soars above the site’s northernmost extremity like a silent guardian. If you can muster the strength, a hike to the top of either should not be missed as it provides an outstanding view of the ruins and surrounding valley.
The site itself can be broken down into agricultural and residential areas. From both the trail entrance and the main ticket gate you enter through the agricultural zone. The contours of these slopes are hugged tightly by layers of stone walls several feet high, built to reduce erosion and increase the square footage available for agriculture. The Inca employed advanced terracing and irrigation methods to assure a high yield of the maize and potatoes they grew.
We were fortunate enough to visit with an excellent guide two hours before the general public was admitted, and strolled quietly along the dormant settlement’s streets. As we walked toward the center of the complex, the most important temples and structures revealed the Incans’ incredible craftsmanship. Enormous granite blocks had been cut by hand with bronze or stone tools, then smoothed with sand. The mortarless blocks still rest so solidly together it is impossible to insert a knife blade or even a credit card between them – we tried.
Many of the structures were also built to utilize existing stone formations. A few temples clutch the edge of steep precipices, displaying a oneness with nature. What is now known as Machu Picchu’s astrological center was built upon the outcropping of an existing megalith. On both the summer and winter solstices, the sun's first rays shine through its windows as they peek slowly over the adjacent mountain.
Another of Machu Picchu’s important structures is the Intihuatana, a stone column rising defiantly from a box-shaped slate platform. Intihuatana literally translates to “for tying the sun” but normally is translated as “hitching post of the sun.” As the winter solstice approached and the sun began to shine fewer hours each day, a priest would hold a ceremony to tether the sun to the stone, to prevent it from vanishing entirely. Technically known as gnomons, such columns existed at many other Incan sites but were almost always destroyed by the Spanish. Thankfully, this one remains, illustrating the meaning and significance surrounding its conception.