Machu Picchu Ruins

by jptanabe

Machu Picchu is known as the "Lost City of the Incas." The ruins stand high in the Andes Mountains, uninhabited and forgotten for hundreds of years.

The ruined Inca city of Machu Picchu is located on two peaks in the Andes Mountains: Machu Picchu ("Old Peak") and Huayna Picchu ("Young Peak"). Known as the "Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu was uninhabited and forgotten for hundreds of years after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and of course a popular tourist attraction.

Why the Incas built this city up there on the top of the mountains in Peru is not known (or at least not agreed upon). Its buildings and monuments, including the Intihuatana or "hitching post of the sun," have led to suggestions of many interesting possibilities, such as a training place for Inca sun virgins. On the other hand, it has been suggested that it was a kind of country retreat for the wealthy! So, Machu Picchu rates right up there as one of the most mysterious and amazing places built in human history.

Rediscovery of the "Lost City"

The altitude of Machu Picchu is approximately eight thousand feet above sea level, pretty high! Below, surrounding the site on three sides, is the Urubamba River. So, given that the Spaniards did not find Machu Picchu, and they successfully destroyed the Inca empire, it is not surprising that this city was somewhat "lost" for centuries.

But then, in 1911, Hiram Bingham III, an American archaeologist from Yale University, "rediscovered" this city. He was searching for a different city (that seems to be how the story goes with archaeologists!), in the area around the ancient Inca capital of Cusco. A local farmer's son led him to the ruined city up on the mountains.

Of course Bingham realized this was a great discovery, and funded by National Geographic and Yale University, Bingham and his team made several more trips to the city over the next few years. They excavated the site, photographed of the ruins, and controversially took lots of artifacts back to Yale. Bingham became world famous for his work, publishing books and articles on Machu Picchu. And the "Lost City of the Incas" became known to the whole world. Now a World Heritage Site, it is really one of the most amazing and mysterious places in the world.

Why Did the Incas Build a City up There?

Archaeologists date the city of Machu Picchu to around the middle of the fifteenth century, and believe it to have been built by Pachacuti, who was the ninth Sapa Inca (1438-1471/1472) of the Kingdom of Cusco and also the first Imperial Ruler of the Inca. It appears that the city was inhabited for only about a hundred years, and was abandoned around the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in Peru. However, it is not clear at all that the Spaniards actually found Machu Picchu, as there is no evidence that they destroyed it, particularly the Intihuacana stone, which they did to other Inca temples and sites of ritual sun worship. Since the Incas left no written records, it is unclear both why they built the city and why they left it.

Based on his initial research showing that there were many more female than male skeletons, Bingham suggested that the site was used for training Inca Sun Virgins. That hypothesis fit with the fact that the Incas were certainly into worshiping the sun, which they viewed as a deity. Also, Machu Picchu has a number of features, such as the semicircular structure known as the Temple of the Sun, that suggest it was well used for such purposes.

Later studies, however, showed that the ratio of men to women was more equal, and that there were many children as well as elderly people there. So, the purpose of Machu Picchu remains unclear.

Archaeological evidence has led to estimates that there were as many as 1,200 people in Machu Picchu when the emperor was in residence. Probably only several hundred lived in the town at other times. Skeletal and other remains indicate a variety of artisans, such as metal workers and potters. Thus, another theory is that Machu Picchu may have been a "country retreat" for Inca nobility.

It is also possible that Machu Picchu was a spiritual retreat or site of sacred rituals. At least by those who accept the existence and significance of such a realm, it is noted that there is a high spiritual energy at Machu Picchu. Its location up there in the clouds certainly makes it seem to be in another world.

The Ruined City of Machu Picchu

So what is Machu Picchu like today? Well, Machu Picchu has been abandoned for centuries, so of course it's just a ruin. But a spectacular one!

First off, it has the most amazing location. High up in the Andes, it seems just perched up there, almost carved into the rock of the mountain itself.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

And then we have the structures themselves. With numerous carefully constructed walls remaining from the buildings, as well as impressive stairs constructed or carved into rocks, not to mention huge slabs of stone that may have been altars or used for some kind of rituals, even astronomical purposes, Machu Picchu has lots to look at.

Machu Picchu buildings
Machu Picchu buildings
Temple of the Three Windows

Among the many temples of Machu Picchu is one called the "Temple of the Three Windows," which gets its name from its three windows. These windows are rather distinctive, in that they are trapezoidal. This shape, and the fact that they tilt inward from bottom to top, are features that help protect the buildings from collapsing during earthquakes.

Temple of the Three Windows
Temple of the Three Windows

The Intihuatana

The "Hitching Post of the Sun"

The Intihuatana or "Hitching post of the sun," is one of the famous and amazing features of Machu Picchu. The Incas are known to have worshiped the sun, and to have constructed many altars or stones in alignment with the sun. However, when the Spaniards came they destroyed these stones as part of their attack on the native religious beliefs. Since they did not find Machu Picchu, the Intihuatana stone remained undisturbed.

Intihuatana, the Hitching Post of the Sun
Intihuatana, the Hitching Post of the Sun

The sculpted rock stands six feet high, resting on a series of steps also carved out of the immense rock. It is reached by climbing a set of stairs behind the Main Temple.

It is believed that the Intihuatana served as a calendar as well as having a religious purpose. At midday on March 21 and September 21, the equinoxes, the sun is directly above above the pillar-casting no shadow. It appears that the Incas held ceremonies here at Machu Picchu on those occasions, "tying the sun to the rock" as it sat on top of the pillar.

Temple of the Sun
Temple of the Sun
Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun, also known as the "Torreon," consists of a semi-circular structure which surrounds a crypt carved out of rock. It is believed that this is the area where Pachacuti was entombed.

The Temple of the Sun was used for religious rituals worshiping the sun. At the solstice, the sun shines directly through the temple's circular window landing on the a large ceremonial stone within.

Amazing Architecture

Those Incas were not sloppy in their building construction!
Machu Picchu doorways and walls
Machu Picchu doorways and walls

Many of the walls at Machu Picchu are still standing, despite having been built and abandoned so long ago. The Inca were experts at fitting stones together perfectly without the use of mortar; a construction technique known as "ashlar." This dry stone construction allows the stones to move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing during earthquakes.

The trapezoidal design of windows and doors also shows their concern about earthquakes. Amazing that today we have so many buildings that collapse during earthquakes but these Inca architects from so long ago built structures to withstand them!

Water fountains
Water fountain
Water fountain

The Incas also were pretty advanced in their dealing with water, both in constructing drainage systems and in bringing fresh drinking water in to the city. Buildings and terraces were built with drainage systems that prevented water from damaging the foundations of the buildings. This is one reason that the ruins of Machu Picchu still contain many walls and recognizable buildings.

There is a natural spring that provides water to the city. The Incas built a clever collection system to maximize the water supply, and a series of fountains that brought the water to all different areas of the city.

Visiting Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also, inevitably, very popular with tourists. So any visit to Machu Picchu will involve dealing with lots of other people like yourself!

The lost city in its centennial of discovery, 2011.
The lost city in its centennial of discovery, 2011.


There are so many pictures of llamas at Machu Picchu, they seem to be almost a part of the site, like the tourists!

Llamas are indeed common at Machu Picchu. It seems like the "Lost City" was never lost to the llamas. The one in this picture certainly seems to look like he belongs at Machu Picchu, doing guard duty!

Llama overlooking Machu Picchu
Llama overlooking Machu Picchu

The llama, a member of the camel family, is native to the Andes Mountains. Llamas have been domesticated since the time of the Incas, used as pack animals as well as for their wool, dung (used as fuel and fertilizer), leather hides, and meat.

Today, however, llamas are no longer found in the wild. Gregarious and very social animals, llamas are maintained in herds of usually about 20 animals - a male and several breeding females with their offspring. Llamas are knows to spit, and they do this as part of their method of maintaining their social hierarchy. Fortunately, though, they don't spit at humans! Since llamas are curious and friendly, if young llamas are over-socialized with people, they may treat them like llamas, which means they might spit, kick, neck wrestle, and chest butt you!

The Train to Machu Picchu

Never fear, you don't have to hike the Inca Trail for four days to get to Machu Picchu! Today, you can take a train and arrive in less than four hours. Here it is.

Train to Machu Picchu
Train to Machu Picchu

Many people have noted the spiritual power of Machu Picchu. Situated between the high peaks of the Andes Mountains, with the rushing waters of the Urubamba River below, it seems that the Incas built their city in this location not just for physical reasons. A connection to the mystical realms seems entirely probably in this remote, almost inaccessible, location that is often shrouded in misty clouds.

Even if you don't believe in or experience the spiritual power of Machu Picchu, it certainly rates as a mysterious and amazing place. And don't you think any of the inconveniences involved in getting there must all be worth it just for this view?

Sunrise over Machu Picchu

Cool video showing the sun rise over Machu Picchu - 45 minutes of real time sunrise condensed into less than a minute. It flickers a bit at the beginning but it's worth watching!

More about Machu Picchu

  • Machu Picchu - New World Encyclopedia
    Article on Machu Picchu at New World Encyclopedia.
  • Machu Picchu
    Places of Peace and Power at, featuring the photographs of anthropologist and National Geographic photographer Martin Gray, who spent 25 years as a wandering pilgrim to study and artistically photograph nearly 1000 sacred sites
Updated: 07/30/2016, jptanabe
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Have You Been to Machu Picchu?

Veronica on 10/15/2015

MY niece spent some time working at a charity in Peru . She loved it there and loved the people.

Your description and photos are just sumptuous. Well done

frankbeswick on 10/15/2015

This was a first class article that I greatly enjoyed and from which I learned something.

candy47 on 10/14/2015

No, I've never been to Machu Picchu, but I feel like I have since reading this article. Thanks for the tour!

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