Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu1 is the remains of a city built and abandoned by the Inca. It is located in Peru, about 70km northwest of the former Inca capital Cuzco, and is regarded by many as being one of the most spectacular ruins in the world. Its remote mountaintop location and the mystery surrounding its original purpose and subsequent abandonment add to its mystique, making it one of the biggest tourist draws in South America and an inspiration to poets.
The 'Discovery' of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was revealed to the wider world by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. As many have pointed out, use of the word 'discovery' is somewhat eccentric, since he was guided there by local resident Melchor Arteaga and discovered two families living among the ruins and the names of French and Italian explorers carved into a wall. However, it was Bingham's book, Lost City of the Incas2, that propelled Machu Picchu to international repute as the best-preserved ancient city in South America.
In 1911, Bingham was actually searching for Vilcabamba, the jungle base from which the last Inca, Tupac Amaru, launched attacks against the Spanish. Bingham incorrectly believed that Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba, which is now identified with another site at Espiritu Santo.
Hiram Bingham III (1875 - 1956) was an academic, explorer and politician, whose name has become almost synonymous with Machu Picchu. Born to missionaries in Hawaii, he became independently wealthy by marrying Alfreda Mitchell, heiress to the jewellers Tiffany and Co.
Raised to become a missionary, he instead went into academia, gaining a PhD from Harvard in 1905 and rising to become Professor of Latin American History at Yale. It was during this period that he made his expeditions to Peru, one of which resulted in his rediscovery of Machu Picchu.
Bingham later successfully campaigned as a Republican for the governorship of Connecticut. Immediately following his election, a senatorial seat in the same state became available, and Bingham began campaigning even before taking up the governorship. The result was that he was simultaneously Governor-elect and Senator-elect, serving as Governor for just two days before resigning to take up his senatorial duties. He served two terms as Senator (1924 - 1932) before being defeated in an election and retiring from politics to write Lost City of the Incas. He was later divorced and married his second wife, Suzanne Carroll Hill, in 1937.
In addition to archaeology and politics, Bingham had a successful military career, attaining the rank of captain in the state National Guard and lieutenant-colonel in the US Army Signal Corps. In later life, he was a board member of various financial institutions and a member of both the Royal Geographical Society and the National Geographical Society. After his death, Bingham was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Inca Trail
The traditional approach to the ruins is a three-day trek along the Inca Trail, a network of restored Inca roads. Even today, there is no vehicle road network linking Machu Picchu to the rest of Peru, although there is a rail link between Cuzco and Aguas Calientes3, the nearby town which does have a road link to the ruins.
Although the term 'Inca Trail' - Camino del Inca or Camino Real in Spanish - is used in the singular, there are a variety of trails that can be followed leading to Machu Picchu, since the city seems to have been a nexus of the Inca road system. The Peruvian government designated much of the area surrounding Machu Picchu a Historical Sanctuary in 1981, and consequently several Inca roads passing through it have been restored.
The 'classic' trail involves joining the path where it is crossed by the rail line at km 88 (a stop for the train to Aguas Calientes). The first day's walk is fairly gentle, if you don't count the early start to catch the train in Cuzco, with only an hour or two of walking, mostly on level ground. The second day contains the bulk of the trek and is relentlessly uphill for around six hours to Warmiwañusca - the aptly named Dead Woman's Pass - at 4,200m above sea level. Given the starting altitude, many gringos find this section of the trail to be extremely physically demanding, and it is strongly recommended that anyone attempting it allow themselves a few days in Cuzco to adjust to the thinner air first. Some find that chewing coca leaves4 helps to deal with the altitude. It is necessary to take constant breaks to stare in wonder and alarm as Peruvian bearers jog past with five or more backpacks strapped onto themselves. The final section is downhill, but can still be very hard on the knees.
The third day is shorter, but is traditionally done early in the day to reach the Intipunku - Gate of the Sun - before the sun clears the mountaintops. On a clear day, this allows hikers to watch the shadows recede over the ruins, one of the most striking sights they are likely to see. From the Intipunku, there is around an hour's walk to the edge of the city, and it is possible to arrive before the earliest tour buses from Cuzco. The Intipunku marks the official end of the trail, which is one-way only: it is not permitted to pass along it in the direction away from Machu Picchu.
The trail also passes several other ruins en route. Although these are not as impressive as Machu Picchu, each is unique in its own way. Some consist of little more than terraces that can be seen on the mountainside above the trail; others are fortress-like cities, hunting lodges or waystations.
Several agencies in Cuzco organise guided tours along the Inca Trail, but the cost-conscious should be aware that most of these 'pool together', so that people who book with separate agencies may end up in the same group. The Peruvian government is concerned by environmental damage caused by overuse of the trail, and periodically proposes plans to restrict the number of hikers per year. To date, nothing has come of this.
The main structure lies in a natural saddle in the mountains. On one side, the cliff drops away almost vertically to the Vilcanota river below. Terraced fields, some of which have been restored, cover the opposite flank of the mountain, and a modern road zigzags down to the town of Aguas Calientes below. There are large peaks at each end of the city which can be climbed. The nearer and steeper of these is known as Waynu Picchu; the other is the terminus of the Inca Trail. Although Waynu Picchu gives superb views over the city, it should be stressed that it is a climb, not a hike, and is more physically demanding than any part of the Inca Trail.
Despite Waynu Picchu's inaccessibility, there are small terraced fields at the top. It is hard to see that such small fields could have justified the effort involved in reaching them. Some have therefore hypothesised that they may have been used to acclimatise plants to the altitude, by growing a small population at this higher altitude before bringing it down to grow in the terraces around the city. An alternative theory is that these higher terraces had a religious significance, perhaps being used to grow crops 'nearer to the gods'.
There are three visibly distinct styles of stonework, as at other Inca sites. The majority of buildings are made of rough dry stonework. These would probably have housed the middle or upper classes; the lower castes would have had wooden houses outside the city precincts. Some of the more important buildings, including the terraces, are made of larger blocks, carefully and individually carved so that they fit together in a random pattern. Finally, the temples are made of the finest blocks, each carved to the same size and fitting together in a neat 'brickwork' pattern. Buildings of each of these styles are grouped together, so the city is usually divided into three zones.
In the centre of the site is a quarry, where the traces of Inca carving methods can still be seen. Rather than carve each block by hand, it appears that they used fire and water to crack them where they wished.
A large stone monolith, now fallen, would have stood at the centre of a large open area that must have been the main town square.
Notable buildings include the Temple of the Sun, with its distinctive curved walls, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the Intihuatana. Since the site was never discovered by the Conquistadores, who systematically destroyed the 'heathen' indigenous religions, it has one of the two known intact Intihuatanas. These were stones of sacred significance to the Inca people, used in midwinter religious rituals. Guides will gleefully point out another - apparently natural - formation that appears to reflect the local mountains in miniature.
Reasons for Abandonment
From the archaeological style of the ruins, and from the fact that we know from historical records that it was not in existence when the Spanish arrived in the region, it is clear that the entire lifespan of Machu Picchu was less than a century. The currently favoured theory among archaeologists5 is that Pachacuti Inca built Machu Picchu as a royal estate and religious retreat around 1460 - 70. This is based on the 'Late Imperial Inca' style of the buildings. Machu Picchu may have had several purposes, including glorifying Pachacuti's defeat of the Chanca in 1438 as well as providing a centre for the administration, both temporal and spiritual, of the surrounding region. Building work appears to have continued up until close to the arrival of the Spaniards.
Machu Picchu could also have served as a look-out post guarding the route to Cuzco from the Antisuyo or Amazon Basin, or as a protected source of coca. Given the Inca ideal of multiple functionality6, it is likely that several of these explanations are correct.
As many theories have been put forward as to why Machu Picchu might have been abandoned as to why it was built in the first place. One of the more prosaic suggests that the hilltop location was difficult to supply with water. Another suggests that it was deliberately abandoned during the Spanish conquest to conceal the route towards Vilcabamba. If it was indeed the palatial complex of an Inca, it may have been deserted after his death as his successor built himself a new capital. As throughout the Americas, the arrival of European settlers and conquerors was preceded by the arrival of European diseases which decimated the native peoples. Roughly 50 percent of the population died of smallpox sometime around 1527, including the Inca Huayna Capac, five years before the Spanish arrived in Cuzco. Any combination of these may have led to the abandonment of Machu Picchu, though it is likely that smallpox was the dominant factor.
Whatever the reasons for the rise and fall of this citadel, it has left a unique and inspiring insight into one of the most advanced stone-age peoples known.
Our thanks to Tav's Dad for the photograph.