Machu Picchu Peru for Two Days
Machu Picchu is located on the east side of the Andes mountain chain, on the Urubamba River which flows from the southeast of Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, and then northeast to the Machu Picchu mountains. At Machu Picchu the Urubamba River flows around the east, north, and west sides before turning back north to the Ucayali River, where it joins the Amazon River, and then flows east through the Amazon Jungle, and out to the Atlantic Ocean at the equator. Early travelers to the Andes Mountains around Machu Picchu came from the east on this river route, and so early heredity, culture, tools, and building techniques can be traced back from the Andes Mountains along the west coast, to the east coast of South America.
Machu Picchu is believed to have been built in 1450, by the Inca Emperor, Pachacuti, as a citadel and retreat for the royal families, and then completed later by the next ruler, Túpac Inca Yupanqui. First inhabitants of the area date back to 1420, and then by 1572 it appears to have been abandoned. This was likely due to the Spanish invasions in other parts of the empire, and their spread of small pox to the native populations.
Machu Picchu was not discovered by the Spaniards, and only recently rediscovered by outside explorers in the 19th century. There are no written records, so as a result, everything we know about Machu Picchu is from archeological research. Overall it is considered one of the greatest finds representative of Inca architecture and culture.
Huayna Picchu is the taller peak just north of the city, which may have been the original name for the citadel, since that is the common name used by many locals. It is thought that the site was plundered when re-discovered by westerners in 1867. By 1874 there were maps of the site listing it as Machu Picchu, and by 1904 an atlas listing it as Huayna Picchu.
A plan of the city shows a wall dividing the complex in half, with an Agricultural Sector on the left, south side, and an Urban Sector on the right, north side, accessible through a City Gate. At the far end of the agricultural terraces are a few houses known as Guardian Houses.
The Urban Sector has about 200 buildings divided into two halves on each side of the Main Square with open stepped levels through the middle. To the left, west side of the Square, is the Royal Palace and a Temple Complex that includes a stepped pyramid, and to the right, east side of the Square, are permanent residents and industries.
The Royal Palace includes, the Sun Temple, living quarters for the royal families, a Royal Tomb, and the Ritual Fountains. The Sun Temple is the semicircular shaped building that stands out in this grouping. The Temple is within a lower section of the Royal Palace that opens out onto an open square below. Several windows within the Temple have significance as they are aligned with the solstice at sunrise, and several significant constellations as they rise in the night sky.
In addition to the Sun Temple in the Royal Palace, there is a Temple Complex that includes the Main Temple, the Three Windows Temple, and a stepped pyramid leading up to the Intihuatana stone.
The Intihuatana stone is carved from the solid rock at the top of the pyramids peak. It is an astronomical clock and sundial, counting off the time of day, seasons, and years as the earth rotates, and orbits the sun. At midday on the equinox, November 11 and January 30, the sun stands above the pillar, casting no shadow. At midday on the solstice, June 21 and December 21, the sun casts its longest shadows on the south and north faces respectively.
The Main Temple sits at the base of the pyramid on a plaza with the Three Windows Temple next to it facing east. That plaza also includes an Andean Chakana, that can be seen with its shadow forming the stepped cross shape with the rising sun, and a flat stone in the center of the plaza that may have been used for sacrifices to the Inca gods.
Across the Main Plaza on the east side is the Sacred Rock, a flat vertical stone which takes on the form of a part of the background mountains where there were observation posts looking to the east. The tops of many peaks in the region have Inca outposts used to watch the land and report on inhabitants and intruders.
The royal families used Machu Picchu as a retreat, so they were there at their leisure for only part of the year. The permanent residents made up the remainder of the Urban Sector on the east side, which included the Noble Houses, Factory Houses, an Industrial Zone, and a Prison Area.
Also included in this area is an Astronomical Observatory used for teaching and observations of the sky above. It uses water mirrors sculpted into the floor which provide reflections of the constellations as they moved across the night sky.
Housing at Machu Picchu provided for about 750 permanent residents, including staff for the royal family, and workers to maintain the facilities, agriculture, and livestock. The climate is relatively comfortable year-round, so protection from the rain during the rainy season is the main concern. A few of the buildings have been completely restored with thatched roofs in a way that is believed to have been used by the Inca.
Among the buildings that have been restored are the Guardian Houses that watch over the agricultural terraces at the opposite end from the Urban Sector. They include living quarters, storage buildings, and guard stations of sorts where the fields can be watched to make sure no livestock or other animals can get in and damage the crops. The storage buildings are two or more floors in height, so grain can be poured in at the top level, and doors can be opened at the bottom level to remove the grain as needed for food distribution.
The Agricultural Sector provided for farming of maize, potatoes, grains, and legumes on the terraces, and the Urubamba River below provided for fish. Livestock, like the alpaca and llama, grazed some of the levels, and provided meat, and pelts for clothing.
At the top of the terraces is a single Guard House with an open plaza above and below, and a semi-circular set of terraces that form an amphitheater. Here, open fields at the top provide space for livestock, llamas and alpacas primarily. On the upper side at the top of the amphitheater shaped terraces is a Cemetery and Funerary Rock probably used for ceremonies and special events.
Beyond the Agricultural Sector to the south is the Inca Trail, connecting Machu Picchu to the Sacred Valley and Cusco. Many tourist take this hike on the Inca Trail over multiple days from the Sacred Valley along the Urubamba River and up into the Machu Picchu Mountains.
Along this last stretch of the trail into Machu Picchu is the Sun Gate at the upper left where it goes over the mountain. It was an observation post watching over the trail and providing protection and control for access to the city. In fact, this was the only practical way in to the city, because as mentioned the Urubamba River wraps around the other three sides with steep cliff walls reaching up both sides. Invaders from the river or the other side of the river would have virtually no chance of reaching Machu Picchu.
Design and Construction
The terraces, so prominent in the Agricultural Sector, actually provide the basis for the design of the entire city. They were put in first to conform to the topography and control erosion all around the entire complex. They became the formwork for the entire city, so that all buildings are built on and align with the terraces.
The terrace structures were engineered to not only protect from erosion, but also provide drainage that still held adequate moisture for the crops. The 71 inches of rainfall per year is more than enough for crops, so drainage was provided through layering the backfill with large rocks behind the base of the terrace walls, and progressively smaller stones, sand, and finally topsoil, as the planting medium for the top layer.
The walls of the terraces and all buildings are of a similar construction, with large foundations reaching down to rock or rock fill, and walls with stones cut to interlock and fit tight together. There is no mortar between the stones, they were cut to fit. In addition the walls are designed leaning inward along the terraces, and inward on all four sides of the buildings. Even the door and window openings were built in a trapezoidal shape. This was done to protect the buildings from earthquakes, a frequent geological problem in Peru since there are fault lines throughout the Andes mountains. During an earthquake the wall construction is designed to vibrate, with all the stones in the walls vibrating individually, and then falling back into place when the earthquake subsides. A truly amazing architectural and engineering feat.
Just outside the Urban Sector, above the terraces, is a quarry where many large rocks and boulders are still visible from the original construction. Here they were shaped to fit tight together as illustrated by one of the city gates. On the city side, there is an example of a roller stone, providing a means for moving large rocks, as well as another way to protect the construction above from earthquakes.
The stone buildings were designed for wood beam and thatch roof construction, providing a comfortable and dry interior. Both gable and hip roofs can be found, but here the gable roofs show inserts in the stone for a wooden beam, or header, over the opening under the roof eave, and round stone extensions along the gable end wall providing a way to tie the wood roof beams in place.
Travel Notes Part 4
This journey took us by car from the Monasterio Hotel to the Belmond Hiram Bingham train station in Cusco, where we boarded the Hiram Bingham Train bound for the Machu Picchu station at the town of Aguas Calientes. From there we crossed a foot bridge over the Urubamba River to a bus stop on the other side, where we took a winding road with numerous switchbacks up the mountain to Machu Picchu, and to our hotel at the Sanctuary Lodge. There are less costly accommodations on Peru Rail and other hotels in Aguas Calientes, but for Machu Picchu we booked first class accommodations for this once in a lifetime adventure, and loved every minute.
Our route from Cusco had taken us from about 12,000 feet, down to Aguas Calientes, about 6,700 feet, and then back up to Machu Picchu, at about 8,000 feet altitude. By the time we left Cusco we were use to the higher altitudes and handled the changes with no issues. You can travel by road from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, but after that, the roads begin to diminish from paved, to gravel, to trails, so that the only way in or out of Machu Picchu is by rail along the Urubamba River valley, or emergency airlift. Failures along the railway have resulted in closure and airlift evacuations on several occasions in recent history.
The Hiram Bingham train is named in honor of Hiram Bingham, the American historian and explorer, who in 1911 published his findings on the site he called Machu Picchu. The publications gave it international attention and support for proper exploration, and restoration, and so the name stuck and has been in common use since that time.
Upon arrival at the station we were greeted by beautiful music and a dance performance from a local group, in which several of us were persuaded to participate.
The Hiram Bingham Train is a luxury train with first class accommodations, including lunch on the way up, dinner the next day on our return, a lounge, bar, and observation car.
The observation car included another live band, where we both laughed and sang along when they played “Sweet Home Alabama”, but not just for us. As it turns out this song and many other popular favorites from the United States, are also quite popular in Peru. As we met others onboard we learned there were travelers with us from all over the world.
The Journey to Machu Picchu eventually took us along and across the Urubamba River, past farms, some still using the old Inca terraces, and into the steep canyon where hotels for mountain climbers could be seen high above us.
Caution, if you are prone to motion sickness then heed the warnings and pack Dramamine or whatever works for you. The train is beautiful but the tracks are old, so the train moves slowly with a lot of side motion, and takes about three an a half hours from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, plus the bus ride up and down the steep mountain with numerous switchbacks.
At the Machu Picchu station in Aguas Calientes we discovered a mountain town surrounded by tropical vegetation on steep mountain slopes nestled tight along the Urubamba River. The town is a tourist destination with numerous shops, restaurants, and hotel accommodations.
From there our journey took us by bus up to the Sanctuary Lodge where we checked in and met up with Gustavo, our tour guide. He gave us an afternoon tour of Machu Picchu, and then the next day we were free to explore on our own.
Like Lima Peru, Cusco, and the Sacred Valley, I could have easily spent another day exploring Machu Picchu and the mysteries of this beautiful city. Our tour guide, Gustavo, made the trip especially delightful and informative. Thank you Gustavo!
The following day we journeyed by bus, train and automobile back to Cusco, and the next day, flights back to Lima Peru, a redeye flight to Houston, and then home to Huntsville Alabama. Tired, mesmerized, and delighted with the entire experience.
Notes and References
Story by David Smitherman, and photographs by the author and his wife, Ana Mari Cadilla, from site visits made in June 2023.
Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Translate, iMaps, iPhoto.