Machu Picchu ruins

For centuries Machu Picchu was buried in jungle, until Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in July 1911. It was then explored by an archaeological expedition sent
by Yale University. Machu Picchu was a stunning find. The only major Inca site to escape 400 years of looting and destruction, it was remarkably well preserved. And it was no ordinary Inca settlement. It sat in an inaccessible location above the Urubamba Gorge, and contained so many fine buildings that people have puzzled over its meaning ever since.

Once you have passed through the ticket gate you follow a path to a small complex of buildings that now acts as the
main entrance
 to the ruins. It is set at the eastern end of the extensive
terracing
 that must have supplied the crops for the city. Above this point, turning back on yourself, is the final stretch of the Inca Trail leading down from
Intipunku
(Sun Gate). From a promontory here, on which stands the building called the
Watchman's Hut, you get the perfect view of the city (the one you've seen on all the postcards), laid out before you with Huayna Picchu rising above the furthest extremity. Go round the promontory and head south for the
Intipata
(Inca bridge) . The main path into the ruins comes to a
dry moat
 that cuts right across the site. At the moat you can either climb the long staircase that goes to the upper reaches of the city, or you can enter the city by the baths and Temple of the Sun.

The more strenuous way into the city is by the former route, which takes you past quarries on your left as you look down to the Urubamba on the west flank of the mountain. To your right are roofless buildings where you can see in close up the general construction methods used in the city. Proceeding along this level, above the main plazas, you reach the
Temple of the Three Windows
 and the
Principal Temple
, which has a smaller building called the
Sacristy
. The two main buildings are three-sided and were clearly of great importance, given the fine stonework involved. The wall with the three windows is built onto a single rock, one of the many instances in the city where the architects did not merely put their construction on a convenient piece of land. They used and fashioned its features to suit their concept of how the city should be tied to the mountain, its forces and the alignment of its stones to the surrounding peaks. In the Principal Temple, a diamond-shaped stone in the floor is said to depict the constellation of the Southern Cross.

Continue on the path behind the Sacristy to reach the
Intihuatana
, the 'hitching-post of the sun'. The name comes from the theory that such carved rocks (
gnomons
), found at all major Inca sites, were the point to which the sun was symbolically 'tied' at the winter solstice, before being freed to rise again on its annual ascent towards the summer solstice. The steps, angles and planes of this sculpted block appear to indicate a purpose beyond simple decoration, and researchers have sought the trajectory of each alignment. Whatever the motivation behind this magnificent carving, it is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Machu Picchu.

Climb down from the Intihuatana's mound to the
Main Plaza
. Beyond its northern end is a small plaza with open-sided buildings on two sides and on the third, the
Sacred Rock
. The outline of this gigantic, flat stone echoes that of the mountains behind it. From here you can proceed to the entrance to the trail to Huayna Picchu . Returning to the Main Plaza and heading southeast you pass, on your left, several groups of closely packed buildings that have been taken to be living quarters
 and Workshops
,
Mortar Buildings
(look for the house with two discs let into the floor) and the
Prison Group
, one of whose constructions is known as the
Condor Temple
. Also in this area is a cave called
Intimachay
.

A short distance from the Condor Temple is the lower end of a series of
ceremonial baths
 or fountains. They were probably used for ritual bathing and the water still flows down them today. The uppermost,
Principal Bath
, is the most elaborate. Next to it is the
Temple of the Sun
, or Torreón. This singular building has one straight wall from which another wall curves around and back to meet the straight one, but for the doorway. From above it looks like an incomplete letter P. It is another example of the architecture being at one with its environment as the interior is taken up by the partly worked summit of the outcrop onto which the building is placed. All indications are that this temple was used for astronomical purposes. Underneath the Torreón a cave-like opening has been formed by an oblique gash in the rock. Fine masonry has been added to the opposing wall, making a second side of a triangle, which contrasts with the rough edge of the split rock. But the blocks of masonry appear to have been slotted behind another sculpted piece of natural stone, which has been cut into a four-stepped buttress. Immediately behind this is a two-stepped buttress. This strange combination of the natural and the man-made has been called the Tomb or Palace of the Princess. Across the stairway from the complex which includes the Torreón is the group of buildings known as the
Royal Sector
.

The famous Inca bridge -
Intipata
- is about 30 minutes along a well-marked trail south of the Royal Sector. The bridge, which is actually a couple of logs, is spectacularly sited, carved into a vertiginous cliff-face. The walk is well worth it for the fine views, but the bridge itself is closed to visitors. Not only is it in a poor state of repair, but the path before it has collapsed.

Note


Camping is not allowed at Intipunku, or anywhere else at the site; guards may confiscate your tent. However, there's a free campsite down beside the rail tracks at Puente Ruinas station.

Huayna Picchu

Synonymous with the ruins themselves is Huayna Picchu, the verdant mountain overlooking the site. There are also ruins on the mountain itself, and steps to the top for a superlative view of the whole magnificent scene, but this is not for those with vertigo. The climb takes up to 90 minutes but the steps are dangerous after bad weather and you shouldn't leave the path. You must register at a hut at the beginning of the trail. The other trail to Huayna Picchu, down near the Urubamba, is via the Temple of the Moon: two caves, one above the other, with superb Inca niches inside, sadly blemished by graffiti. To reach the
Temple of the Moon
from the path to Huayna Picchu, take the marked trail to the left; it is in good shape. It descends further than you think it should. After the Temple you may proceed to Huayna Picchu, but this path is overgrown, slippery when wet and has a crooked ladder on an exposed part about 10 minutes before the top (not for the faint-hearted). It is safer to return to the main trail to Huayna Picchu, but this adds about 30 minutes to the climb. The round trip takes about four hours.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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