A Walking Tour of Machu Picchu, Peru

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Machu Picchu: A Walking Tour of Pachacuti's Castle

Machu Picchu HDR
The Power of Forever Photography/ Vetta/ Getty Images

Three thousand feet above the Urubamba Valley of Peru, stretch two mountains, Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) and Huayna (also spelled Wayna and Wina) Picchu (Young Mountain). On a cloud-draped ridge connecting the two peaks lies the magnificent site of Machu Picchu, one of the architectural wonders of the world. Machu Picchu was a part of the estate of the unifying king of the Inca civilization, Pachacuti (also spelled Pachakuteq). Pachacuti lived from AD 1438-1471, and in addition to being the first king of the Inca empire, he and his architects are responsible for the architectural style commonly identified with the Inca civilization. The architecture here and in Cuzco has withstood over 500 years of El Nino storms.

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A Forest of Clouds

Machu Picchu in a forest of clouds
Machu Picchu in a forest of clouds. Photograph by Gina Carey

Although no-one ever asked Pachacuti why he put his residential palace up so far into the Andes, we can guess that it was only partly for the beauty of his surroundings. Pachacuti came to power in the traditional Incan way: by warfare. The Inca empire had its foundations around 1200 AD. It remained small, one of several competing regional polities, until late in the reign of the eighth Inca king, Viracocha, about 1438 AD. At that time, the Inca capital at Cuzco was attacked by the Chancas, a powerful group who lived to the north. Viracocha fled, but his son, Inca Yupanqui, refused to cede and fought his way to victory.

After his victory, Inca Yupanqui took the name Pachacuti (which means "cataclysm"), and began the empire building for which the Inca are renowned.

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Terraces and Diplomacy

Machu Picchu: view looking down the mountain from inside the ruins.
Machu Picchu: view looking down the mountain from inside the ruins. Photograph by Gina Carey

Pachacuti's campaign of conquest and diplomacy extended Inca control out over the Central and Southern Highlands of Peru. Over the next 55 years, Pachacuti and his son Topa Inca conquered major portions of the southern coast of Peru, the northern half of Chile, northwest Argentina, and eastern Bolivia. It was Pachacuti who began the fabulous white granite constructions in Cuzco itself as well as at Machu Picchu that are known as Inca architecture.

This view of Machu Picchu looks down along the steep mountain slope, which has been girdled with stone terraces built to stop soil erosion and allow the raising of crops, including potatoes and cotton.

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Inca Architecture at Machu Picchu

Fine Inca masonry work, at Machu Picchu
Fine Inca masonry work, at Machu Picchu. Photograph by Gina Carey

Inca architecture was among the finest prehistoric architecture in the world. Examples can be seen in Cuzco and Ollantaytambo, and of course here at Machu Picchu. The building style is characterized by exquisitely cut masonry, placed together completely without mortar. The raw material was granite, worked by stone and sand into irregular shapes that fit together like a gigantic puzzle. Some stones have as many as thirty facets worked into the surface, and as a result, the faces of the stone fit together so tightly that a needle won't fit between them.

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Rooms Constructed out of Bedrock and Cut Granite

Interior rooms, Machu Picchu, Peru
Interior rooms, Machu Picchu, Peru. Photograph by Gina Carey

The room blocks at Machu Picchu are separated into discrete groups, separated by narrow alleyways. In many cases the finely cut stone architecture abuts steps and other architectural elements cut into the native bedrock. Most of the buildings have single width walls and had steeply pitched thatch roofs; the largest and most important had as many as three walls to protect the inhabitants.

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Interior Hallway and Rooms

Interior hallway and rooms, Machu Picchu
Interior hallway and rooms, Machu Picchu. Photograph by Gina Carey

There are nearly 200 rooms at Machu Picchu, including residences, temples, storage buildings, altars, and observatories. There were also several shrines for the practice of ancestor worship of the Inca, a religious cult in which centuries-old mummies of ancestors were kept and tended. Doorways and walls were not necessarily rectangular in outline or plan, but all fit together tightly.

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Unreconstructed Room Block at Machu Picchu

Unreconstructed room block at Machu Picchu, Peru
Unreconstructed room block at Machu Picchu, Peru. Photograph by Gina Carey

Many of the rooms at Machu Picchu have been reconstructed. When the American explorer and diplomat Hiram Bingham was first was brought to the site by local residents in 1911, the ruins were in fairly good shape; but an earthquake in 1950 did additional damage. Excavation and conservation of some of the buildings was conducted by various governmental bodies in association with the Departmental Archaeological Foundation of Cuzco beginning in the late 1950s. The lower room blocks in this photo are unreconstructed.

Archaeologists believe Machu Picchu was abandoned between about 1534 and 1570. Only a very few historic Spanish artifacts have been found at Machu Picchu. But, evidence of several fires at Machu Picchu has been identified, particularly in the area known as the Torreon, which was thought to have held the mummy of Pachacuti himself. The fires were likely the work of the Spanish, who attempted to obliterate the old Incan religion.

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Llamas on a Terrace at Machu Picchu

Llamas on the terrace at Machu Picchu
Llamas on the terrace at Machu Picchu. Photograph by Gina Carey

The Inca herded domesticated llama and alpaca, and there is little doubt that the assistance of these delicate and sturdy beasts of burden was required during the construction processes. Certainly the llama and alpaca provided wool, milk, and meat to the inhabitants of Pachacuti's palace. You could say they've earned their right to wander the ruins today. In the background of this photograph can be seen the Palace of the Three Portals.

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Temple of the Moon, Huayna Picchu

Temple of the Moon on Huayna Picchu
Temple of the Moon on Huayna Picchu. Photograph by Gina Carey

Half-way down the Inca Road from Machu Picchu on the mountain called Huayna Picchu lies the Temple of the Moon. The Temple covers the entire landscape of the slopes of Huayna Picchu and consists of a set of architecturally enhanced caves, most likely used to hold mummies of important Inca ancestors and provide places for their worship. More fine stonework embellishes the walls of these caves, some of which are decorated with niches and altars carved into the native rock.

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The Edge of the World

Machu Picchu at the edge of the world
Machu Picchu at the edge of the world. Photograph by Gina Carey

The Inca residential complex of Machu Picchu was, and is, an incredible feat of architecture, sited three thousand feet above the valley floor of the Urubamba River. The mountain Huayna Picchu looks close enough to touch, yet odd enough to be a backdrop on a movie set.

If you enjoyed this Walking Tour of Machu Picchu, you should try the other Walking Tours and Photo Essays at About Archaeology.

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