Tag Archives: Machu Picchu

Discovering Machu Picchu’s Secrets

We have previously written about the Inca's reverance for nature and their clever use of solstice lines in town planning. In this post we are going to delve a bit deeper and reveal a few secrets about the design of Machu Picchu and it's exciting features.

Top: Mark puzzles over clues. Bottom: A wall with the three windows. Scholars are still undecided on it's purpose.

The Gates of Machu Picchu

Pachacutec and his architects aimed to amaze with Machu Picchu. This is demonstrated with the sites superiority in overall design but it also becomes evident in the detail. For example, the placement of the Sun Gate, the point where 'The Inca Trail' ends, on the ridge south of the ruins was deliberate. The gate there has been placed to create a grand impression of the town and it's vista. Even today it inspires awe, an effect the Incas wanted visitors to experience.

Machu Picchu. Still impressive.

Further into the site one will find the Main Gate. This marked the formal boundary for the city (the exterior mostly consists of agricultural terracing and guard houses). This gate was placed to frame a view of Huana Picchu and Machu Picchu as one passes through. Again, the intention here is to impress.

The Main Gate.

Of course throughtout the ruins one will find many clever designs. It's easy to spend a full day exploring the site!

Left: A window looks out into a courtyard. Right: Saskia stands in a doorway, an excellent example of Inca stonework.

Imitating Landforms

The Incas had a special reverance for mountains, which they considered to be sacred. Possibly because of this reverence for 'Apus' the Incas carved out small rock models of the nearby peaks.

The clearest example is on the left. The rock on the left in the foreground has been carved to resemble Huayna Picchu, which is in the background.

We didn't use a guide but we needed help finding these stones. If you opt not to use a guide try trailing one of the groups and you will find them fairly easily.

The Southern Cross Stone

In the temple complex there is a courtyard where you can look out to Llactapata. In this courtyard the Incas carved a kite shape into the rock. At first this seems a little pointless but a compass reading shows that the top and bottom points run South to North. It is possible that the shape mimics the Southern Cross constellation and for this reason the rock has been named the Southern Cross.

Never leave home without a conpass.

As an side, the Cusco Planetarium is worth a visit to learn more about the Inca's knowledge of astrology. For example, they had named their own constellations, including black patches of sky where there are no stars. After a visit one can easily find the condor and the black llama!

The Intihuatana Stone

Machu Picchu has the best remaining example of an intihuatana stone. Placed with a commanding view of the valley, the stone sits within the Sun Temple, the highest point in the ruins complex. We were able to see people standing on the edge from the train station's intihuatana stone below.

The stone features many different flat planes carved on it's sides. If you look at the above picture, in the bottom left corner, there is a step at the base of the stone. The top edge of this step runs along a north south alignment (we checked this ourselves). Furthermore, it is possible to trace an invisible line between the peaks of Mounts Machu Picchu (south) and Huayna Picchu (north) along this edge.

The gnomon.

We are not sure whether the other flat planes are also aligned to other points of reference. It is possible that there are connections to other mountains and cities but we haven't looked into this. If you are curious have a quick read of this Wikipedia article for more info.

The Condor

This one requires a bit of imagination but on the eastern side there's a patch of cleared earth with a triangle of rock. This has the outline of a condor head carved into it. Looking up, two rock outcrops stretch away from each other. They are the condor's wings.

Pachacutec's Tomb

There are several notable buildings within the ruins of Machu Picchu. We have already mentioned the Sun Temple and the Main Gate on the western side. On the eastern side, where the residential buildings are placed, the Incas built a squat tower called the Torreón.

The eastern side of the Torreón.

The purpose of the Torreón has long caused debate amongst Machu Picchu enthusiasts. This enigmatic tower faces due east and contains a doorway on its western side. Inside the tower are possible scorch marks around a rock slab. The tower also features a courtyard with trapezoid insets (which often designates a temple) and there is a cave with carved rock underneath.

As recently as 2011 an enthusiast put forward the theory that Pachacutec was buried at Machu Picchu. The Peruvian Government undertook an excavation in the courtyard behind the tower and a chamber was discovered. As Mark Adams reports, this may have been the tomb of Pachacutec.

Looking down onto the structure. The excavation sight is on the right, covered by plastic roofing.

Looking into the chamber.

An alcove where possessions would have been stored.

We won't go into the details in a big way but it is also believed that the Torreón housed a gold statue of Pachacutec. This statue was described in Spanish chronicles as part of the empire wide ransom payment to the Spaniards when Atahualpa was captured. It is possible that the statue was fixed here atop a platform, which the Incas burned in order to remove it.

Mark Adams also established that during the winter solstice the sun shines directly through the east facing window, in a perfect line that may have lit up the statue of Pachacutec, if indeed this was where the statue was stored…As we noted above, such design features are unlikely to be coincidences. Perhaps with time there will be consensus but we at least believe the theory that this was the resting place of the Inca empire's greatest Sapa Inca.

Statue in Aguas Calientes. Note the use of the condor, jaguar and snake.

Hope you enjoyed the post. Machu Picchu was great fun to explore and we highly recommend doing the research before paying a visit. That said, it is still a great time regardless and a good guide can share much, if not all, of what we have covered here.

This is our second-to-last post on the Incas. The last post will share our plans to visit the last city of the Incas, Espiritu Pampa, and the sister site to Machu Picchu, Choquequirao.

Stay tuned,

Mark and Saskia

 

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Machu Picchu

Llama photo bomb!

Machu Picchu. You have seen it all before. But don’t be put off by the touristy cliché, it is amazing, and it is one of the world’s top tourist destinations for a reason!

Seeing the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu was something we had been looking forward to for years and we were really excited about it, despite aforementioned food poisoning. Everyone at our hostel seemed keen to get up at 5am to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. However, we had read that the mountains are usually covered in a morning mist that blocks out the sun, so we decided to sleep in to a more respectable time.

Arriving at the top of the mountain, looking down to the Urubumba River.

It is possible to hike to the entrance from Aguas Calientes but as we weren’t feeling well we decided to just catch a bus up. This was cheap and easy and got us to the entrance to Machu Picchu at around 9am.

When we arrived it felt like we were lining up to enter a theme park, but the lines moved quickly despite the hundreds of people pouring off buses all at the same time. After a quick bag check we had our passports stamped and we were on our way!

First glimpse of Inca Ruins at Machu Picchu.

This was actually a perfect time to arrive, as the mist was lifting and the ruins were starting to show us their full glory. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect. After having seen thousands of images of Machu Picchu over the years, we were worried that we might be underwhelmed. However, this was definitely not the case as the sheer scale and location of the ruins were breathtaking!

We wandered around for a while, took a few photos, and pinched ourselves. Hikers started to appear covered in mud from multi-day treks, and even though that would have been an incredible way to arrive, we were just stoked that we made it at all!

Machu Picchu: morning and afternoon.

Unfortunately we didn’t book our tickets in time to hike up Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the ruins – numbers are limited to 400 people per day and they sell out quickly). We were however able to get tickets to hike up the higher peak, Mount Machu Picchu, which overlooks the postcard view. The mountain is ridiculously steep, and combined with altitude and remnants of food poisoning, pretty tough! The last part was more like rock climbing than hiking but the views over the valley were spectacular and gave us a good idea of the layout of the ruins as well.

The steep climb up Mount Machu Picchu.

Looking down over the ruins from Mount Machu Picchu.

Mount Machu Picchu.

We brought our own food and had lunch on a grassy terrace overlooking the ruins. The mist had slowly cleared and we had perfect views of the whole valley. We spent the afternoon wandering through the ruins with our guidebook in hand, feeling like explorers. Every now and then we latched on to a tour group to hear their explanation of certain sites, but it was pretty easy to get around and by 3pm most people had left. One of the best tips we had was to stay two nights in Aguas Calientes so that we didn’t have to rush off to catch a train back to Cusco. That was great because it meant that we had access to the ruins without being surrounded by hundreds of people, and it was easy to just catch a bus back down the hill when everything shut at 5pm.

Machu Picchu in the afternoon, minus hoards of tourists.

Just before we left we went on another walk to see the Inca Bridge, which is precariously placed on the side of a cliff. It is no longer possible to get too close (a tourist died trying) but it's still interesting to see how they would have controlled these access points as a security mechanism.

Inca Bridge at one of the entrances to Machu Picchu.

After a long day we headed back to the hostel, quickly got changed, and wandered up to the thermal springs to soak our tired bodies in warm pools. The complex was really nice and it was the perfect way to finish off the day!

 


Llactapata to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a big deal. The feature piece of Inca architecture, it was designed with strong connections to nature. We will talk about this in our next post, but one major point we picked up is that the Inca's beliefs strongly influenced not only the design of their cities, but the relationships between the cities.

The ruins of Llactapata provide a classic example of this. Situated on an opposing ridge, Llactapata has been designed to have structures that align with both the solstice line and key buildings in Machu Pichu.

The reasons behind the alignment with the solstice line are speculation, but the solstice would likely have been a major event for people that worshiped the sun. At this time of year the sun is closest to the earth and the Incas probably staged major rituals in their sun temples and around their intihuatana stones.

Looking out over the train lines and power station. Llactapata is located on top of the ridge in the background. The intihuatana stone is at the bottom of the valley. This photo was taken from the western edge of Machu Picchu.

Several clues suggest that this is the case. In Llactapata a stone corridor has been built in alignment with the solstice line. Mark Adams notes that when the sun rises during the solstice it's light runs straight down the corridor. In Machu Picchu, Mark was the first to establish that during the solstice light shone directly through a window in a major building, the Torreon (also known as the Room with Three Windows and other variations), and is thought to have lit up a golden statue of Pachacutec inside.

The last clue is the placement of the intihuatana stone near the hydroelectric train station. This can be found about 10-15 minutes walk uphill in the direction of Machu Picchu. The word intihuatana literally translates in Quechua as 'hitching post for the sun'. It is thought that the Incas wished to stall the suns passage, possibly to ensure a good harvest. Such stones are present in Pisac and Machu Picchu, however there were many more before the Spanish destroyed them.

Mark and the intihuatana stone. You can see the remains of the broken gnomon to the left of Mark.

Armed with this knowledge we decided to try a different way of getting to Machu Picchu. We had already been put off by the cost of the traditional hike and there was also the issue of not knowing when we would be passing through Peru (our haste to get to Brazil in time for Lollapalooza had put us off booking events too far in advance). So, with the help of the kind folk at the South American Explorer's Club and the handy Trail Blazing Guide (which contains a map of Llactapata), we decided to go the back route…

This consisted of catching a local bus to Santa Teresa, which lies north west of Machu Picchu. From here it is possible to catch a taxi south to the western side of the ridge where Llactapata is situated. We intended to stay a night in Santa Teresa and then tackle Llactapata in the morning. The plan was to then walk down the eastern side of the ridge to the train station, where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes (you can also walk along the train line if you can be bothered, but we wanted to squeeze in more beer drinking time).

All this was well and good until we were struck with food poising during our night in Santa Teresa. Terrible timing! We were guttered as we had been looking forward to this for months. Our main worry was missing Machu Picchu, so we hedged our bets and bailed on Llactapata. This, fortunately, was the only compromise we needed to make for this leg of the trip. We still visited the intihuatana stone (which we had to ourselves) and despite feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves, there were no 'incidents' on the train.

We highly recommend this approach to getting to Machu Picchu. The trip on the local bus was very scenic, amazing views. We would however recommend taking a tour to Santa Teresa if the budget affords – the van will travel at a reasonable speed and you won't be packed in like sardines. Our driver was an asshole with a death wish. Several passengers were car sick (literally throwing up in plastic bags on their laps and he refused to stop or slow down) and we had several close calls on the windy mountain roads. The worst stint we've had, and we've had some bad trips.

That aside, the trip is great, as is the section through to Aguas Calientes. You can actually see Machu Picchu from the train and the intihuatana stone, which gave us goose bumps. The landscape is lush with tropical forest and you'll have to resist the temptation to jump into the Urubamba.

Machu Picchu from the intihuatana stone at the hydroelectric power station.

Getting to the Intihuatana Stone

We found our books to be a bit vague on the stone's location so perhaps our advice may make it easier. To get there walk about 10 minutes in the direction of Machu Picchu. Keep an eye on your right hand side for an unmarked dirt path that runs up the hill. Follow this path to a little house (ignore the carved rocks), where the path hooks left beside the house. Carry on as the path hooks right again and takes you to another railway line. Head along the tracks towards Machu Picchu and you should see a path to your left. There may be a sign but don't count on it. Head downhill and within seconds you will see the stone.

We found the scrappy remains of 'Caution Do Not Enter' tape around the ruins so it may be that the Government doesn't want people visiting. If you do go please don't climb on the intihuatana stone and do your best to leave it as you found it. It was really interesting and worth a look if you have the time!

Cheers,

Mark and Saskia